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Through September 22, 2002 at Museum of Contemporary Art, Geffen Contemporary, Downtown

by Anne Martens

Zero to Infinity: Arte Povera 1962-1972 makes a strong case for the Italian movement’s profound influence on contemporary art, especially in Europe. It also makes the surprising point that it has rarely been seen in any unified force--representing its dozen or so founding artists--in the United States, especially considering that 30 years have now passed.

Organized by the Walker Art Center, Zero to Infinity represents 14 Italian artists who attempted to resist the influence of earlier art movements, and ended up being influential in their own right.

In 1967 Italian art critic Germano Celant coined the phrase "Arte Povera" to describe the artists’ experimental approach, spare aesthetic and often-humble materials. Artists associated with earlier movements like Fluxus in Europe or Gutai in Japan experimented with diverse materials, processes and performance. But the Italian artists--nurtured by Italian galleries and critics--seemed especially keen on disrupting boundaries.

Arte Povera's inherent resistance to definition makes it especially difficult to talk about. Fortunately, looking at it is easier. After so much art that has come since, the work is still lively. In this show explanatory text is kept to a minimum and curatorial choices are mostly strong.

In the front exhibition space a large, caged ball of compressed newspapers, Palla di Giornali, stands at the center. Michelangelo Pistoletto rolled it through the streets of Turin before encasing it in the globelike pen. Film footage of Arte Povera openings demonstrates the extent to which these artists engaged with their work--performance was often included. In one scene, artists goof around in front of their art; in another, horses are stabled in the gallery.

In a room-sized installation comprised of giant talon-shaped sculptures (Piede) by Luciano Fabro, the legs are made of raw silk, and extend upward, like the columns of an ancient Roman structure. The claws are made of glass, bronze and marble--materials that suggest the permanence and craftsmanship of ancient Italy. They also reference the familiar boot shape of the Italian penninsula.

Michelangelo Pistoletto, “Palla di Giornali
(Mappamondo) (Ball of Newspapers [Globe]),”
1966-68, compressed newspaper and iron,
70 7/8 x 70 7/8 x 70 7/8".

Mario Merz, “Igloo," 1971, steel tubing/neon
tubing/wire mesh/transformer/c-clamps.
Photo: Barbara Gladstone Gallery.

Luciano Fabro, “Italia d'oro (Golden Italy)," 1971,
gilt bronze, steel cable, 29 1/2 x 17 11/16 x 1 1/2.
Photo: © 2001 Giorgio Colombo, Milan.

Giuseppe Penone, “Rovesciare gli aocchi (To
turn one's eyes inside out)", 1970, b&w
photograph on canvas, 21 1/2 x 18 1/2 x 2".
Photo: Paolo Mussat Sartor.

Giovanni Anselmo, “Senza titolo, (Untitled)," 1968,
granite, copper, wire, lettuce 28 x 13 1/16 x 9 1/16.
Photo: Paolo Mussat Sartor.
Like many Arte Povera artists, Fabro was a fervent nationalist. Another piece by him, Italia d’oro (Golden Italy) conjures up a dark event in that nation’s modern history. A gilt bronze cast of Italy--again referencing the boot--is hung upside down by a metal noose, casting an ominous shadow. The image recalls Benito Mussolini’s body after his execution, which was hung upside down by the feet from a street lamp in Milan. In another room, Alighiero Boetti’s striking world maps, Planisfero Politico and Mappa, also express Italian nationalism.

The reliance on surprisingly beautiful, yet disarmingly banal, materials is evident throughout the show. Jannis Kounellis' wall of stones inserted into the gallery wall, and his vibrantly blue-dyed wool strung over a wooden frame both exemplify how such simple, but careful choices can create visual and associative richness. Other artists, such as Pier Paolo Calzelari, tried more then complex and unconventional media, such as neon and refrigeration. Artists have since used such media extensively. Light works by Felix Gonzalez-Torres, to name a single example, recall Calzelari’s bare light-bulb sculptures.

The show’s title touches on the conceptual origins of Arte Povera. Zero means art without preconception; infinity means art without the limitation of ideology. It’s a bit farfetched to think that Arte Povera artists actually managed to create their art without such influences. But there is no doubt that the experiments that resulted continue to generate excitement.