“In the late 1960s a number of Italian artists working primarily in Turin and Rome, as well as Genoa, Milan and Bologna, began to show their work together. Resolutely avoiding a signature style and encouraging incoherence as a positive value, these artists produced work spanning sculpture, photography, installation and performance /…/
In 1970 the Swiss curator Jean-Christophe Ammann offered a definition of Arte Povera that is particulary relevant:
‘Arte Povera designates a kind of art which, in contrast to the technologized world around it, seeks to achieve a poetic statement with the simplest of means /…/’
In post-war Milan, the work of Luciano Fontana determined a shift away from the autonomous art object towards an exploration of art as a total environment. His research into ‘Spatialism’, together with his charismatic presence in Milan, were determinant in encouraging the rise of Arte Povera in Italy. In 1949, by piercing the canvas itself, Fontana opened up the pictorial surface of modernist abstract painting to real space and light, creating an optimistic sense of continuity between nature and culture, light, space and thought.
According to Adorno, ever since Hegel, modern aesthetics has been characterized by a denial of ‘artificial beauty’ in favour of ‘artistic beauty’, which is reached only by the autonomous subject, by the ‘spirit’. Rejecting the idealistic, self-referential view of art, Arte Povera reached back through materialism and empiricism towards an idea of ‘natural beauty’, a ‘determined indeterminacy’. The strong, controlling and rational subject breaks down in favour of a ‘multi-dimensional’ self, willing to follow the natural or chance direction of the materials themselves.
Particulary important to the development of Arte Povera were experiments in the relationship between art and life and between art and authenticity in contemporary theatre. /…/ Arte Povera treated the exhibition space like a stage where fact and fiction are join in a ‘theatrical’ suspension of judgement. One of the most important figures of post-war experimental theatre, Jerzy Grotowsky, settled in 1970 in central Italy, where many of his early performances were held in the 1960s. It was he who first introduced the use of the word ‘poor’ [i.e. ‘poor theatre’] into cultural discourse of the 1960s. /…/ As he put it in 1965:
‘Theatre must admit its limits. If it cannot be richer than film, then let it be poorer. If it cannot be as lavish as television, then let it be ascetic. If it cannot create an attraction on a technical level, then let it give up all artificial technique. All that is then left is a ”holy” actor in a poor theatre.‘
The term ‘Arte Povera’ initially referred not to the use of ‘poor’ materials, nor to a sociological critique of consumer society, but to the concept of ‘impoverishing’ each person’s experience of the world; /…/ a new form of subjectivity drawing on the notion of phenomenology, far from the transcendental subjectivity of nineteenth-century philosophical metaphysics, was posited.
The founder of phenomenological thought, Edmund Husserl, has claimed that knowledge is gained by ‘putting the world in parentheses’ and suspending disbelief. /…/ However, it is French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty, whose book Phenomenology of Perception, 1945, who allows a closer parallel with some of the principles underlying Arte Povera. /…/
The Italian art-scene of the 1960s was also influenced by the early twentieth-century American pragmatist John Dewey. /…/ Nature, for Dewey, is not composed of substances but rather events and processes. /…/
These notions are reflected in Arte Povera’s time-based works and its use of fluid, living materials to capture the flow of natural energy in matter.
Arte Povera was also at variance with contemporary tendencies, particulary Conceptual Art and Minimalism, in its complete and deliberate heterogeneity and apparent lack of rigour. Its principles had more in common with Robert Smithson’s critique of rational techniques and his concern with the primordial condition of materials. /…/
Unlike most Land Art, however, Arte Povera was never monumental or thematic.
Arte Povera was not identified as a tendency until 1967 /…/
Celant’s book Arte Povera, published in 1969 in English, Italian and German, marks the year in which the movement achieved international acclaim and significance. /…/
Except for the inclusion of Arte Povera artists in Documenta 5, 1972, however, group exhibitions of their work decreased rapidly after 1971, when attention in the international art world shifted to more dematerialized art based on social critical theory. While earlier Arte Povera work of 1968-69 were sometimes action- or performance-based, many poveristi had shifted away from this type of art /…/
However, the more one considers the diverse works of Arte Povera, the more one becomes aware of its specific characteristics: a reference to domesticity, community and habitat; a human scale; a layering of diverse cultural references; a rejection of coherent style, unitary authorship, the distinctions between literal and metaphoric, natural and artificial, through the transformation of the installation into a ‘poor theatre’ where culture and nature coincide.”
Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, introduktionsessä till Arte Povera: Themes and movements