Every historical moment seems to produce a movement that speaks to the needs of those disenfranchised by the status quo. I have been thinking that in this moment Arte Povera and its message of humanism provides a framework for art as a way forward. Arte Povera was, in part, a reaction against American Minimalism, and in the late 1960’s a group of young Italian artists began producing and exhibiting three-dimensional environments and sculptures made from simple materials like cloth, mud, twigs, and found objects. Arte Povera, translated literally as “Poor Art,” linked nature and culture in a reflection of contemporary life and denounced the values of the established institutions of government and industry. The artists of Arte Povera were alchemists, intent on mining metaphysical and metaphoric truths from the most basic materials; seeking a passionate and sensate kind of art that spoke empathetically about culture.

The term (Arte Povera) was introduced by the Italian art critic and curator, Germano Celant, in 1967. When referring to Arte Povera, Celant alluded to a kind of art that was outside of traditional practices and materials, an art that was aligned with the poor theatre of the Polish director Jerzy Grotowski. It was also closely linked to the political radicalism emerging across Europe at the time, which eventually culminated in the street protests of 1968. Most notably in France as a general strike spread across the country, shutting down air transport, newspaper distribution, and railroads. Millions of workers went on strike, and France reeled from battles between the police and students which left some 400 people hospitalized. That year saw many more protests around the world and an escalation of tensions surrounding social conditions and military conflicts.

Matthew Gale, of the Tate Museum noted:

What was interesting about Arte Povera was that there was an international network of artists immediately speaking to each other, who could understand that in the turmoil of the late 60s the ways in which art-making could be transformed was something that they shared and were united in questioning.

Arte Povera, in general, was concerned with humanism and the transformative powers of impoverished materials at the service of social awareness, and was practiced by artists such as Marisa Merz, Michelangelo Pistoletto, Jannis Kounellis, and Mario Merz. The resonance of Arte Povera can be seen in the work of artists such as Christian Boltanski, Annette Messager and Felix Gonzalez-Torres. What unites all these artists are the methodologies of Arte Povera, facing current climate issues of humanness, empathy, and social awareness in a time of great distress; and the belief that art can dislodge the status quo or at least make us think about alternatives to a present, dystopic reality.

Douglas Rosenberg
Chair of Art