September 2008

Nature and Nurture
By James Panero

Fresh from success in Venice, Arte Povera sculptor Giuseppe Penone is poised to gain wider recognition.

You would never expect a movement called Arte Povera to produce rich art. But Giuseppe Penone, a standardbearer of the “poor” Italian school that came of age in the 1960s, has always thrived on contradiction. This soft-spoken, unassuming sculptor has become one of Italy’s best living artists by producing sensuous work that explores the relationship between nature and man. Arte Povera has already achieved recognition in its native country as one of the great modernist movements, with a sensibility that cuts against the Futurism of the prewar years. Now it’s time for the art world beyond Italy, and particularly in the United States, to turn its attention to this artist and the enduring movement he represents.

In the opening lines of the Georgics, the Roman poet Virgil wondered, “What makes the cornfields smile?” Penone has been asking the same question since he first manipulated the trees and vines around his home into his earliest work. Born in 1947 on a farm in Garessio Borgo Ponte—an ancient village in the Vall’ Organa region, near Turin in the Ligurian Alps—Penone has systematically transformed his agricultural inheritance into an artistic legacy. His farm, which was purchased by his family in 1881 and began as a vineyard with potatoes and wheat sown between rows of grape vines, was his primary inspiration.

Penone’s principles and dedication to his materials have only deepened over 40 years of work. At the 2007 Venice Biennale, his installations in Italy’s new national pavilion came as a revelation to those who made the pilgrimage to the show on the far reaches of the Arsenale. Penone’s sculptures stood out as the most visceral objects in the sprawling international exhibition. He molded cowhide into the texture of tree bark and suspended the results from the walls. He applied marble to the floors and carved the stone in such a way that the veins showed in high relief. He took milled beams and chipped away at the wood grain, revealing the former trees and branches contained within. He carved out a trough from the oldest growth of a wood block and filled the void with sap, the pool of liquid giving the entire room an aromatic fragrance. “I think people were really surprised by Venice,” says New York dealer Marian Goodman, who is mounting an exhibition by Penone at her gallery this month. “He got an enormous response. They had never seen a really big piece of Penone’s before.”

“Leather is like skin,” Penone says from his home in San Raffaele Cimena, a town outside Turin, explaining one aspect of the Venice installation. “The tree becomes like an animal when it is covered by the leather. In a way, the work suggests there is no reality that is completely definite— human, mineral and vegetal. But human can become vegetal, vegetal can become mineral, mineral can become human.” According to Goodman, the artist “always has this idea that things in nature exist in many forms.”

Penone’s understanding of natural materials is informed by rural Italian life. “Perhaps 40 years ago they produced wine,” he says of the village where he lives and works. “Now it is wild because people leave the land to work in the city. It is quite interesting to live there because we are in contact with nature, but it is also very close to the town.”

His practice of reviving the natural properties of processed materials— the grain of a tree from milled wood or the veins of marble from dressed stone— expresses the anti-industrial bent of Arte Povera. In the “Italian miracle” of the 1950s and early 1960s, the northern part of the country witnessed a rapid industrialization that contrasted sharply with its traditional land-based culture. A recession during the mid-1960s cast these differences in sharper relief. In 1967, writer Germano Celant coined the term “Arte Povera” to describe the young artists who were starting to look back to Italy’s preindustrial past. Feeling impoverished by science and progress, they took up poor materials. In her recent survey Arte Povera (Phaidon Press, 2005), curator Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev attributes the movement’s “references to a preindustrial agrarian civilization and a harmonious, Arcadian world of craft-based economy” to “the contradictions of a perhaps too rapid postwar industrialization.”

During the same time period in the United States, Earth artists, conceptualists and minimalists found themselves responding to similar cultural and economic circumstances, but they developed a more dystopian vision underscored by their use of industrial materials. The Italian Povera artists—notably Giovanni Anselmo, Alighiero Boetti, Luciano Fabro, Jannis Kounellis and Mario and Marisa Merz—shared Penone’s desire to work directly with nature. Mario Merz created sculptures by using the branches of a tree as a mold for wax; Pino Pascali’s Canali di irrigazione, a sculpture made of earth and water, made reference to primitive agricultural constructions.

“Arte Povera is one of the most enduring groups of sculptures of the last half of the 20th century,” says Goodman. “American museums have been slow to give credit to bodies of work that come from other countries, and Americans are very partial to painting. It’s our loss that sculpture isn’t perceived on the same level.” American museums should take notice. Beginning in 2001, an exhibition of early Arte Povera, originating at Tate Modern in London, traveled to Minneapolis, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., but the last major New York exhibition took place more than 20 years ago, at P.S.1. Rumors have circulated ever since that the Museum of Modern Art would organize a retrospective show. As the work of its most energetic artist ripens to perfection, the achievements of Arte Povera should not be allowed to wither on the vine.