The Architectural Influence of Arte Povera

Updated: Mar 6, 2019

Arte Povera, literally poor art, is defined most concisely by its use of mundane materials formulated in a way which challenges us on an intellectual and philosophical level.[1] While Arte Povera is an artistic movement, architectural forms often emerge from the rubbish, asking us to interact with them. Architecture was always on the forefront of the Povera practice, Still, this connection is not always apparent from first glance. Among the many ideas they address, it is not uncommon for one to read over this inevitable truth. This essay will explore the connections of Povera practice and the architectural pedagogy it gave birth too.


The architectural origins of Arte Povera can be traced to one of its first (and most famous) exhibitions, Arte Povera + Azioni Povera. While the work exhibited also holds some key insight, the museum itself is an equally telling element of the story. The Donnaregina MADRE Museum of Contemporary Art was selected for the exhibition site. The building has a rich architectural history, beginning with the Swabian founding and a Hungarian rebuilding in 1325 by Queen Maria of Hungary.[2] There are fewer examples that so concisely summarize the psyche of Arte Povera. The key point here are the historical roots of the space, which relates to Povera’s exploration of cultural history (which we note to be at odds with the Futurist aesthetic of the time). However, the work itself does not so much incorporate the space as it takes advantage of it. Never do we see the architecture of the work coinciding with the architecture of the space, either from some deep set distrust of the history, inspired by Marinetti[3], or from the design of the art itself. Regardless, an understanding of the space in which Povera existed is key to comprehending its technique.


Beginning this argument, it is logical to evaluate the architectural qualities of the early Povera artists. Specifically, the work of Mario Merz comes to mind. His occupation within the Povera mindset is one of the more fascinating of Povera artists. Again, referencing architectural influence, but in this instance a different kind of architecture. Merz was confined to prison during Mussolini run Italy after a series of anti-fascist protests.[4] While confined by that architecture, Merz invented a new style of artmaking… one that was forced upon him by the materials made available. He began forming compositions with the materials at hand, relating them to each other, and formulating the early prototypes of his later Arte Povera works. It was not until 1968, when Merz adopted the igloo, when his practice really took on an architectural manifesto. Treating the Inuit nomadic structure as an implied form, Merz creates these prison-like structures within the gallery space. At times they feel welcoming, warm… close to the concept the original from. Other times they are enclosed in Plexiglas, sealed from our touch, cold, distant. Similar to a prison. In this way, Merz explores architecture within architecture, creating nomadic structures within the sedentary space of the gallery.


Another artist who comes to mind from some of the early Povera work is Jannis Kounellis. In particular his work Untitled(Cavalli). What relates between the work of Kounellis and Merz, is the absurdification of architecture that underscores Arte Povera. The installation, for those unaware, is of twelve horses stationed around a gallery space. It is pure Povera, the horses relating to the strong sense of nationalism Italy needed following World War II, and the exhibition of them relating to the comedic and poignant conversation that Povera seeks to curate. Most art historians relate the piece to the ready-mades of Marcel Duchamp, as seen in the evaluation of the piece by Phaidon[5]; however, they are missing the point. While, yes, the horses are an example of readymade similar to the work of Duchamp, they are entirely unlike the industrial materials that Duchamp favors (e.g. urinals, bikes, chairs). Given Kounellis’s Greek heritage and Arte Povera’s obsession with rewriting the past (as in the arte povera + azioni povere exhibition space), they should read as a reference to Augean stables.[6] This is made clear by the number of labors performed by Heracles, twelve, and the number of horses, twelve. In this context, we read Untitled(Cavalli) as a reference to the legendary Augean Stables. The architecture of the gallery becomes the architecture of the stable, which relates very closely to the actions of Merz and his igloos. This is functioning in the piece to question the architecture of the gallery, perhaps even relating the housing of art within the white cube to the stabling of animals. Again, consider the arte povera + axioni povere exhibition, the housing of the works specifically. Untitled(Cavalli) is underlining this same dichotomy of art/space. Detaching the architecture of the art (the cavalli) from that of the space (the gallery).


Another key figure in the architecture meets art world of Arte Povera is Germano Celant. For those unaware, Celant literally wrote the book on Arte Povera. Having also published records on Lucio Fontana, Frank Gehry, the Melotti school, among other architectural and interior designers; Celant gives credence to the argument on the architectural qualities of Arte Povera. This should come as no surprise considering his background, studying art history under Eugenio Battisti and working as assistant editor for Marcatre.[7] There he wrote on architecture, art, design, fashion, and pretty much any creative endeavor happening in Italy at the time. Four years later, he published the manifesto Arte Povera, Notes for a Guerilla. In it he calls for a rebellion of art: a combination of nature and industry, a dissection of sign and symbol, and a continuation of the Futurist exploration of dynamism.[8] Like the Futurists before him, the citation of dynamism can also be extended to architectural practice as in the work of Futurist architect Antonio Sant’Elia.[9] In architecture, dynamism manifests itself in the repetition of forms. Often emulating the aesthetics of industry, with soaring columns, voluminous smokestacks, all brought to life on a grandiose scale. In Povera, dynamism presents itself on a smaller scale. Small scale installation and repeated motif become akin to architectural studies. Marisa Merz’s Untitled is a key example of this idea.[10] In the piece the repetition of hair tied to a wireframe resembles the repeated motif of dynamism. While not literally an example of architectural work, considering Celant’s affinity for the subject and the prevalence of his ideas in the artists he worked with, we can see the architectural influence within Povera.


At this point, the correlation between Arte Povera and architectural practice should become clear, however, thus far the conclusions have been drawn exclusively by discussing the art movement’s architectural attributes… thus far there has been no example of architects relating to Povera. This is where Marcos Novak comes in. Architect, artist, composer, theorist, there are few words not used to describe the visionary. In a lecture at the University in Cincinnati detailing his essay, Liquid Architectures in Cyberspace, Novak discusses his proclivity to draw from Arte Povera research. He discussed the correlation between the literal and philosophical architectures of Arte Povera and his own, theoretical architecture within the cyberspace. Again, returning to the ideas of non-literal architecture. Novak also makes reference to the mythology of Greece and Rome in his work, from some of the molecular architecture studies he creates. Similar to Kounellis, Novak’s reference to these principles is to build a precedent for his work, to reference antiquity while praising modernity. In these ways, Novak is very much a Povera artist… though he would likely not label himself as one.


While Novak is one of the only contemporary examples of Arte Povera ideas in practice, there are many other designers and architects who owe povera for much of their practice. Catharine Rossi, a design historian, summarizes many of these in her essay Playing with the Povera: Connections between Art, Architecture, and Design in 1970’s Italy.[11] In it she writes, “There are clear affinities and influences between the spaces and strategies, ideas and individuals that were appropriated by a range of practitioners in a period of highly politicized and experimental creativity.” Rossi evaluates Povera (in particular the work of Piero Gilardi) as a design integrated practice, referencing Germano Celant’s writings on Radical Design. She uses the ideas of Celant to explore the correlation between the design/architecture of Italy at the time with the artistic practices of Arte Povera. One of the most notable examples of this is a piece by Cini Boeri, entitled Serpentone Sofa. In this example, Boeri is using industrial materials in a similar way to the Povera artists. Treating them, not as trash, but as design elements. Boeri is using the Povera ideas in an almost utilitarian way, like onto Merz, where the ‘trash,’ the ‘Povera,’ becomes art though the manipulation of the artist. But unlike Merz, who uses the materials in an almost maximalist way, Boeri is assuming a more tempered approach. His style is minimal, in the example of the Serpentone Sofa, there are only two parts. Not only that, he is also making no concerted effort to manipulate the materials, simply placing them in a way such that they are given a new purpose, as is the Povera way. It is a form of recycling, and it strongly relates to design practice.


In closing, the relation of Arte Povera and architecture is established though the works of Mario Merz and Jannis Kounellis, and though the rich history of architecture to the spaces they chose to show in. The writings of Germano Celant also lend credence to this argument, considering his architectural pedigree and his reference to the Futurist school of design, which laid the framework for Povera. This is further strengthened by the writings of Catharine Rossi and the theoretical architecture of Marcos Novak. Hopefully now that this way of viewing Arte Povera is established, one will take a step back and appreciate the architectures it establishes as well as appreciate the influence it had over architecture/design all throughout Italy continuing to the present day.


Bibliography:

"Arte Povera's Radical Simplicity." The Economist. October 03, 2017. Accessed December 09, 2018. https://www.economist.com/prospero/2017/10/03/arte-poveras-radical-simplicity.

Casa Rotonda a Stabio, Svizzera. Progetto Di Mario Botta. Accessed December 09, 2018. http://www.archimagazine.com/rpovemadre.htm.

Apollonio, Umbro, ed. Futurist manifestos. London: Thames and Hudson, 1973.

Guggenheim. Accessed December 09, 2018. https://www.guggenheim.org/artwork/artist/mario-merz.

"When Jannis Kounellis Painted with Horses | Art | Agenda." Phaidon. Accessed December 09, 2018. https://www.phaidon.com/agenda/art/articles/2018/october/09/when-jannis-kounellis-painted-with-horses/.

Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, Α α,. Accessed December 09, 2018. http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/Herakles/stables.html.

R. Barilli, Rodolfo Vitone, Trent’anni di ricercar e creativita. DeFerrari, Genoa, 1997 p. 47

Celant, Germano, and Arte Povera. "Appunti per una guerriglia." Flash art 5, no. 1 (1967).

Walter de Gruyter. “International Futurism in Arts and Literature.” Gunter Berghaus. (2000) p. 364

Artspace Editors. "What Was Arte Povera? Hair, Horses, Cabbage, and Italian Artists' Response to the War." Artspace. January 28, 2017. Accessed December 10, 2018. https://www.artspace.com/magazine/art_101/book_report/what-was-arte-povera-italian-artists-response-to-the-war-hair-horses-and-cabbage-54552.

Rosi, Catharine. "Playing with the Povera: Connections between Art, Architecture and Design in 1970s Italy." Nottingham Contemporary. Accessed December 10, 2018. http://www.nottinghamcontemporary.org/writing/rossi.

[1] "Arte Povera's Radical Simplicity." The Economist. October 03, 2017. Accessed December 09, 2018. https://www.economist.com/prospero/2017/10/03/arte-poveras-radical-simplicity.


[2] Casa Rotonda a Stabio, Svizzera. Progetto Di Mario Botta. Accessed December 09, 2018. http://www.archimagazine.com/rpovemadre.htm.


[3] Apollonio, Umbro, ed. Futurist manifestos. London: Thames and Hudson, 1973.


[4] Guggenheim. Accessed December 09, 2018. https://www.guggenheim.org/artwork/artist/mario-merz.


[5] "When Jannis Kounellis Painted with Horses | Art | Agenda." Phaidon. Accessed December 09, 2018. https://www.phaidon.com/agenda/art/articles/2018/october/09/when-jannis-kounellis-painted-with-horses/.


[6] Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, Α α,. Accessed December 09, 2018. http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/Herakles/stables.html.


[7] R. Barilli, Rodolfo Vitone, Trent’anni di ricercar e creativita. DeFerrari, Genoa, 1997 p. 47


[8] Celant, Germano, and Arte Povera. "Appunti per una guerriglia." Flash art 5, no. 1 (1967).


[9] Walter de Gruyter. “International Futurism in Arts and Literature.” Gunter Berghaus. (2000) p. 364


[10] Artspace Editors. "What Was Arte Povera? Hair, Horses, Cabbage, and Italian Artists' Response to the War." Artspace. January 28, 2017. Accessed December 10, 2018. https://www.artspace.com/magazine/art_101/book_report/what-was-arte-povera-italian-artists-response-to-the-war-hair-horses-and-cabbage-54552.


[11] Rosi, Catharine. "Playing with the Povera: Connections between Art, Architecture and Design in 1970s Italy." Nottingham Contemporary. Accessed December 10, 2018. http://www.nottinghamcontemporary.org/writing/rossi.

MMXIX Penelope Shell