In 1971, Giovanni Anselmo put his camera on slow shutter and charged into the landscape. In the resulting photograph, Entrare Nell'Opera (To Enter the Work), his running figure makes a humble but heroic imprint on the vast canvas of nature. It was an appropriate gesture. Anselmo and his fellow Italian artists, after all, were doing creative field work-a "clearing of the ground," as his contemporary Luciano Fabro put it, to plant new artistic seeds. What sprang up was Arte Povera, a movement rooted to the earth but lofty in intent-just like Giuseppe Penone's series of sculpted Alberi (Trees) where, painstakingly, the artist pared back sawmilled planks of spruce to reveal the miraculous growths of the saplings within.
Three decades on, Arte Povera is getting the same reverential treatment in two museum shows spanning the Pacific. Now at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles (having visited London's Tate Modern last year), "Zero to Infinity: Arte Povera 1962-1972" strips the movement back to its beginnings in Turin, Genoa and Rome, when it appeared with the same elemental force as Pino Pascali's Un Metro Cubo di Terra (One Cubic Meter of Earth), 1967. Meanwhile, "Arte Povera: Art from Italy 1967-2002," which opened at Sydney's Museum of Contemporary Art last week, shows what a robust tree the movement has grown into. "Right at the beginning, everybody was thinking that it was just a moment," says Ida Gianelli, director of Turin's Castello di Rivoli Museo d'Arte Contemporanea, which curated the Sydney show with the MCA. "After 35 years, it's there. You cannot say that it doesn't exist."
Translating literally as "poor art," Arte Povera is hardly impoverished. Nor were its affluent beginnings. Home to the country's largest industrial complex-Fiat's Mirafiori automobile plant-the northern city of Turin had become a hub of Italy's postwar economic miracolo. Yet, as artist Gilberto Zorio noted in 1972, it was "a one-way city, a city with leaden skies, a city without sky, an intransigent city which does not allow its inhabitants to smile too often or to enjoy themselves too much." Against this bleak backdrop, and faced with the coolness and consumerism of Minimalism and Pop art, the poveristi sought an almost Franciscan return to life and nature. With Arte Povera, "we must think of it more as an approach towards a purity or an essence and a simplicity of creation," says the MCA's Judith Blackall, co-curator of the Sydney show.
Christened by critic Germano Celant in his 1967 essay "Arte Povera: Notes for a Guerrilla War," the movement didn't so much fight against artistic tradition as against the attitudes that constrained it. Arte Povera began first by liberating the art space. Exhibiting a dozen live horses at Rome's Galleria L'Attico in 1969, Jannis Kounellis' Senza Titolo (12 Cavalli) referred to Renaissance painters like Paolo Uccello, but its presentation in an underground parking garage was radically different. Kounellis' horses became props in a primal new artistic theater, with the performance completed by the viewer.
Where the Italian Futurists of the early 20th century had fetishized velocity, the poveristi were interested in a more spiritual movement: capturing the anima within everyday objects. "I think all inanimate things desire contact with the beings that are normally considered living," Penone has said. With Respirare L'Ombra (Breathing Shadow), 1999, he seeks nature's pulse, wallpapering a gallery room with laurel leaves, some of which he has cast in bronze to form the shape of a pair of lungs. Also breathing life into the inanimate, Anselmo's sculptural assemblages make manifest the laws of gravity, with slipknots holding granite slabs in precarious balance around the gallery's ceiling and walls. Nearby, a projector casts a beam of light that projects the word "invisibile" onto passers-by-making the invisible visible.
The poveristi produced works of intense sensory impact, from Zorio's retina-burning installation Pugno Fosforescente, 1971, now in Los Angeles, where a green wax fist strobes in a darkened room, to the fragrance of Penone's laurel leaves and the glittering chill of Pier Paolo Calzolari's iced installations. Bringing Arte Povera into sublime synthesis in Sydney is the latter's La Casa Ideale (The Ideal Home), 1968. Here visitors can pad around a white-felt-floored room, with furniture frozen by a refrigeration unit, watched by a live albino boxer dog - "a home where I can live," the artist has said, "elemental and inventive."
In a country that faced a lack of affordable housing and rent strikes through the '60s, works like this and Mario Merz's series of igloos were not without their politics. But Arte Povera was more interested in poetry than polemics, skirting around social issues with the deftness of the Vietcong slogan, "If the enemy masses his forces he loses ground, if he scatters he loses strength," quoted on Merz's Igloo di Giap, 1968, seen at the Tate. And irony gives levity to Fabro's hanging sculpture, Italia D'Oro, 1971, which shows a country turned upside down by the weight of its new-found prosperity.
The most nomadic of this group, Alighiero Boetti (1940-1994) attempted to project Arte Povera's vision onto the rest of the world-quite literally with Mappa (Map), 1971-1973, embroidered in Afghanistan. Here the intent is as Franciscan as in Penone's Alberi, but on a global scale, reducing the colored flags of culture to the geography of nature.
Yet Arte Povera was perhaps too idiosyncratic a school for the rest of the world to join. And through the '80s and '90s, the movement had to duck and weave around postmodernism and the return to figurative painting. Not that that diminished the monk-like devotion of the 11 artists represented in the Sydney show, all of whom (bar Boetti) continue to live and work around Turin and Rome. Fueled, says Blackall, by a new interest in "art as being vital and exciting and about life-a kind of antidote to the '90s," a new generation of poveristi has already taken root. In 2000, young art star Maurizio Cattelan finally realized Boetti's dream for a monument to agriculture by planting a massively gnarled olive tree on a cube of earth in the atrium of the Centre Pompidou in Paris. Ageing beautifully, Arte Povera continues to nourish and grow.