Arte Povera
Definition, Characteristics, History of Junk Art Movement.

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Venus of the Rags
(Venere degli Stracci)
(1967) Tate Modern, London.
By Michelangelo Pistoletto.

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Arte Povera (c.1966-71)


Definition, Characteristics
Origins, History, Influences, Materials
Leading Arte Povera Artists
Collections of Works

Definition & Characteristics

In its general sense, 'Arte Povera' (an Italian term meaning poor/impoverished art, allegedly derived from the 'poor theatre' of the Polish film director Jerzy Grotowski) describes a type of avant-garde art made from "found objects" including worthless materials, like soil, bits of wood, rags, scraps of newspaper. More specifically, it refers to a group of avant-garde painters and sculptors based in Turin, Milan, Genoa and Rome from the mid-1960s onwards who produced a provocative fusion of Conceptual Art, Assemblage, Minimalism and Performance Art. The group was promoted and publicized by the Turin dealer Enzo Sperone and, notably, by the art critic and curator Germano Celant (b.1940). The latter coined the name 'Arte Povera' and curated the movement's first exhibition in 1967, in Genoa. Later the same year he published a manifesto for the movement in Flash Art. These and other pioneering texts and shows, plus his influential 1969 book, created a collective identity for Arte Povera, which was promoted as a revolutionary genre, liberated from convention and the market place. Other names for Arte Povera are "Actual Art", "Raw Materialist Art" and "Anti-Form." Leading members of the group included: Mario Merz (1925-2003), Pino Pascali (1935-68), Michelangelo Pistoletto (b.1933), Jannis Kounellis (b.1936), Luciano Fabro (b.1936), Gilberto Zorio (b.1944) and Giuseppe Penone (b.1947). See also: Top Contemporary Artists.


Origins, History, Influences, Materials

Arte Povera was a style of contemporary art inspired by the unconventional artworks of Piero Manzoni (1933-63), as well as earlier movements such as the Dau al Set (The Seven-Spotted-Dice association of Barcelona, c.1948-53), and the Spatialism (Spazialismo) of Lucio Fontana (1899-1968), in Milan (c.1947-60). It was also closely linked to the political radicalism emerging across Europe, which eventually culminated in the street protests of 1968.

The very first Arte Povera exhibition took place at the Galleria La Bertesca, Genoa, in 1967. It was followed in 1968 by shows at the Galleria De'Foscherari in Bologna and the Arsenale in Amalfi. According to Celant (Flash Art, 1967), Arte Povera aimed to break down the barrier between art and life, mainly through the creation of performance and assemblage art made out of everyday materials. It is best seen not as a specific style but more as a process of continuous experimentation, concerned above all with the physical qualities of the medium and the mutability of the materials.

Dadaist Tendencies

In its anti-formal stance and its disregard for convention, Arte Povera echoed the Neo-Dada art of American artists like Robert Rauschenberg (1925-2008), as well as the Process Art of Robert Morris (b.1931). Closer to home, it imitated the junk art elements of the French New Realism (Nouveau Realisme). However, Arte Povera artists strove to endow their art with greater intellectual and emotive treatment, taking full advantage of contemporary forms like Happenings and Installation Art. According to Celant, the idiom is subtle, cerebral but also elusive.


Artists employed a vast array of raw materials, such as rags, hessian sacks, coal, sand, soil, wood, seeds and vegetables, as well as manufactured items such as glass and metal. These materials were hung, framed or applied to walls, metal sheets, or various surfaces. Artists typically made no attempt to change the natural colours of the materials. However, the 'poor' or 'worthless' nature of these materials should not be overestimated. Many works used very expensive items, and were displayed in some of the finest venues.

Leading Arte Povera Artists

Although Celant included numerous non-Italian artists with the movement - such as the German conceptualist Joseph Beuys (1921-86), the American minimalist Carl Andre (b.1935), the German-American exponent of 'eccentric abstraction' Eva Hesse (1936-70) and the young English land artist Richard Long (b.1945) - the core of the group featured Merz, Pascali, Pistoletto, Kounellis, Fabro, Zorio and Penone. Other members included Giovanni Anselmo (b.1934), Alighiero Boetti (1940-94), Giulio Paolini (b.1940), Piero Gilardi (b.1942), and Pier Paolo Calzolari.

Mario Merz (1925-2003)
Painter, sculptor, installation artist, his work revolved around the concept of organic creation. His trademark structure was the igloo.

Michelangelo Pistoletto (b.1933)
A conceptual and Performance artist best known for his use of mirrors, arranged so that the spectator keeps on seeing his own reflection. Fascinating but hardly profound.

Jannis Kounellis (b.1936)
Greek-born assemblage and installation artist, active in Rome, noted for his strange objects and constructions, made from mattresses, sacks, blankets and blood, and designed to highlight social and spiritual deprivation.

Alighiero Boetti (1940-94)
Sculptor and conceptual artist, he specialized in coloured-wood creations, tapestry art, embroidery and other assemblages, which the spectator is supposed to decode.

Luciano Fabro (b.1936)
Sculptor noted for his mixed-media works in which vegetable, mineral and other organic items are juxtaposed. Later returned to creating marble sculpture, using traditional carving techniques.

Pino Pascali (1935-68)
culptor, painter, graphic designer, influenced by Rauschenberg and Pop-Art, before becoming associated with Arte Povera. Known for his series of Ficticious Sculptures (1966), and his set of Water Pieces (1967). Died in a motorbike crash.

Giuseppe Penone (b.1947)
Sculptor best known for his use of natural materials.

Gilberto Zorio (b.1944)
Painter and sculptor, noted for his innovative use of materials (incandescent electric light tubes, steel, pitch), motifs (star, javelin) and processes (evaporation, oxidation). Also creates precarious installations using fragile materials.


Although few Arte Povera artists succeeded in establishing lasting reputations for themselves outside of the avant-garde, the movement caught the imagination of museum curators and commercial galleries throughout the West. Like Dada, Arte Povera became part of cutting edge postmodernist art, and its exponents received retrospectives in numerous prestigious venues. Today, works by Arte Povera artists can be seen in some of the best art museums in America and Europe, including the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art; Museum of Modern Art, New York; Samuel R Guggenheim Museum, New York; Gagosian Gallery, New York; Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto; Courtauld Institute, London; Castello di Rivoli Museum of Contemporary Art, Turin; and the Kunstmuseum, Liechtenstein.

For details of European collections containing works illustrating the Arte Povera movement, see: Art Museums in Europe.

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