- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 2, 2002

In the 1960s, 14 pioneers of the "arte povera" conceptual art "group" produced the 140 radical and extraordinarily beautiful works now at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. The artists worked in different northern Italian cities and never formed a coherent movement, but they had rebelled against traditional artistic practices, used unconventional materials, and expressed hatred for the American-flavored commercialism of post-World War II Italy. The exhibit's title "Xero to Infinity: Arte Povera 1962-1972" implies that the innovators wished to wipe clean the slate of the past. They wanted to express new ideas and employ such unconventional and common materials as metal tubing, cotton, coffee, live plants and neon. (Genovese curator Germano Celant coined the term "arte povera" in 1967 long after the new works appeared.)
Arte povera plays with new ways of perceiving the world, much like the exploration in the "Deceptions and Illusions: Five Centuries of Trompe l'Oeil Painting" exhibit at the National Gallery of Art. Humans consider visual perception as one of their most precious abilities. Both exhibits demonstrate its importance for artists over many years.
Exhibit co-curator Richard Flood says the artists believed "zero" was the starting point that directed them, as he puts it, to an "infinity of possibilities."
In the first exhibit gallery, he juxtaposed 30 brilliantly lit neon circles by Pier Palo Calzolari that stand for "zero" and Michelangelo Pistoletto's endlessly reflecting six mirrors representing "infinity." Mr. Flood, who is chief curator at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, says "in effect, that the sky was the limit" for these innovators.
Artists such as Mr. Pistoletto, Mario Merz and Giovanni Anselmo passionately explored art practice and theory, industrialization, consumerism, urban culture, nationhood and destruction of nature.
Mr. Flood decided to organize the 140-piece exhibit of sculpture and large installations by themes as well as artists, as he did with previous displays of the show at the Tate Modern in London, the Walker Art Center and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles.
"Xero to Infinity" would have been far more understandable and effective as a series of one-person shows. Fortunately, the poetry and power of the works at the Hirshhorn circumvent the problems of the exhibit's approach. It is these strengths that overcome the curator's confused, and confusing, organization of the exhibit.
Artists have always rebelled against previous art movements, and those of arte povera were no exception. Giuseppe Penone photographed himself wearing mirrored contact lenses for "Rovesciare gli occhi (To turn one's eyes inside out)." The portrait emphasizes his efforts to see in new, and ambiguous, ways.
Another artist involved in experimenting with new kinds of perceptions was Pino Pascali, who pulled painters' canvas onto a 3-D frame in "La decapitazione della scultura (The decapitation of sculpture)." He wanted to show that painting, represented by the canvas, and sculpture, symbolized by the frame, could be so much more than their traditional roles allowed.
In demonstrating this assumption, Mr. Pascali also created what turned out to be a kind of ambiguous, haunted metaphorical beast. Possibly, it had been "beheaded." The "Decapitation" is one of the exhibit's best works in combining didactics and imagination.
Overall, arte povera artists were most successful in showing the destruction of nature in their country. Perhaps this was because larger cities such as Genoa, Milan and Turin had become so dirty and polluted.
Greek-born Jannis Kounellis expressed the beauty of nature in three untitled works: iron troughs that held and still hold rich, black soil, cacti, cotton wool, ceramic bowls and a parrot perch. When Mr. Kounellis first showed the three works in a 1967 installation, he deliberately contrasted the geometric forms with the purity of natural materials.
The artist originally showed the installation with a live parrot tethered to its perch. For this exhibit, the Hirshhorn had to pass on including the bird. Legal prohibitions restrict the museum from including live animals in exhibits.
In another work, Mr. Kounellis arranged an irregular row of burlap bags on the gallery floor. They hold basic foodstuffs such as lentils, beans, coffee, rice, potatoes and peas. The artist juxtaposed a coffee weighing scale at left that holds ground coffee. Here, again, Mr. Kounellis contrasts pure organic materials with industrialized geometric forms.
He also is one of the most sensual of sculptors. His doorway of rough, irregularly shaped and colored stones is piled together without concrete. Gravity holds them together.
Sculptor Giovanni Anselmo also worked with the impact of natural forces. He tied a small stone to a larger rock with copper wire, then lodged a head of lettuce between them to hold the stones in place. If the lettuce is allowed to wilt, the smaller stone will fall. The lettuce must be continually replaced to maintain the structure.
By contrast, Piero Gilardi simulated stones and leaves in his "Tappetto natura (Nature carpet)." Factories produced them as standard floor coverings and sold them by the square meter. Rural workers, who migrated to northern Italian cities to work in factories, must have felt the distance from their roots with these simulated stones and leaves they helped produce.
Mario Merz's "igloos" derive from functional, temporary structures used as homes by nomads. He made them deceptively simple looking but used industrial materials such as steel tubing, wire mesh, transformer and C-clamps. The sculptor used neon to show the flow of energy in and around the objects and the Earth.
Mr. Merz also showed a sophisticated knowledge of nature's processes when he wrote the equation "1+1=2" the beginning of the "Fibonacci sequence of numbers" in neon on one of his igloos. The Fibonacci sequence in which each element is the sum of the two preceding ones (1,1,2,3,5,8,13) appears often in architecture, mathematics, music, art and nature. The sequence is often used to measure the growth of plants.
Marissa Merz, Mario's wife and the only woman in the exhibit, made huge, organically shaped aluminum works suspended from ceilings in 1966. She also knitted nylon and copper threads that spelled out "Bea," her daughter's name. Not all works in the Hirshhorn exhibit come across with this force and sensitivity.
Patriotic "maps" of Italy by artists such as Alighiero Boetti generally fell flat as an expression of 1960s domestic unrest there and elsewhere.
When the first anti-Vietnam War demonstrations began in 1965, Pino Pascali made life-size imitations of weapons from scraps and spare parts. Titled "Armi (Weapons)" and used satirically, they now seem offensive and dated.
It is about time that a show of arte povera, an important but little-known Italian postwar art movement, comes to the United States.
The exhibit's many fine works overcome the flaws of Mr. Flood's disconcerting installation. It is a challenging show well worth a visit.

WHAT: "Xero to Infinity: Arte Povera 1962-1972"
WHERE: Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Independence Avenue at Seventh Street SW
WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily through Jan. 20. Closed Dec. 25.
PHONE: 202/357-2700

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