WITH ALL THE HOOPLA OVER ANDY WARHOL, it's easy to overlook the concurrent show at MOCA's Geffen Contemporary facility, “Zero to Infinity: Arte Povera 19621972.” At least as important from an art historical perspective, and covering the same period as Warhol's glory years, the exhibition surveys an Italian anti-movement little known in this country outside of academic art circles, whose influence on American artists was nevertheless immediate and profound, and continues to grow. Patently Yankee artists like Eva Hesse (whose final retrospective at SFMOMA was one of the highlights of the spring season), Chris Burden and Nancy Rubins, Gordon Matta-Clark, Richard Serra, Bruce Nauman and innumerable others would slot more or less neatly into the parameters of this exhibition. Which, come to think of it, isn't saying much.
In spite of its survival as a bona fide curatorial name brand, Arte Povera is among the most inconsistent and internally contested “movements” of 20th-century art. Historically allied with movements as wide-ranging themselves as performance, conceptual and land art, Arte Povera ran the gamut of these categories while incorporating an occasionally grudging affection for traditional painterly and sculptural media, a love of skanky ephemera inherited from proto-Pop artists Bruce Conner and Robert Rauschenberg, and the violence-tinged, destabilizing humor of the international FLUXUS artists and their European antecedents Yves Klein and Piero Manzoni.
Small wonder that a 10-year historical survey of the 14 artists most closely associated with Arte Povera should be all over the map. Alighiero Boetti's world maps from 1969 and 1971 are arguably the most famous images of the A.P. canon. Filling in the linear territories of the planet's nations with the colors and patterns of their respective flags, then having the whole shebang embroidered by women in Afghanistan, Boetti layers contemporaneous feminist and colonialist readings atop the more obvious crafty and cartographic political meanings, all in the sweetest form of eye candy. Mario Merz's glass, stone, metal and neon igloos make up one of the few plausible cases for art about architecture in the last century, while his introduction of the Fibonacci sequence (0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21 . . .) into art-world discourse has surely spawned more pretentious derivative pseudo-conceptualist tripe than any other single gesture in art history. Way to go, Mario.
Merz's wife Marisa's massive, hanging accumulation of spiraling aluminum sheeting looks completely contemporary, as if informed by both the slacker sculptural tendencies and SFX sci-fi cinema of the 1990s. Piero Gilardi's sections of “nature carpet” — hyperrealist foam replicas of forest floors and riverbeds originally sold by the square foot from a roll — remain one of the funniest, most concise and aesthetically seductive investigations of the ever-popular nature/culture dichotomy. Giulio Paolini's perceptual mind-fuck photographic diptych Diaframma 8/D867 is the kind of virtuosic endgame move that should seal off a particular artistic avenue forever. Greek expatriate Jannis Kounellis mines the same archetypal formal province as Joseph Beuys, but with an added, distinctly pronounced fuck-you bite.
ARTE POVERA IS RIDDLED WITH FUCK-YOU'S, and while this is the very reason the current exhibit remains a vital and exciting art experience, it also defines its limitations. These fuck-you's weren't limited to the objects and events that were produced during the period, but formed a continuous cultural matrix with the social and political upheavals sweeping the world at the time, and extended not only to the military, governmental and economic hierarchies of Italian and global culture, but to the art world and the very process of categorization and canonization by which we now remember them.
This strain of nihilistic utopianism has been a part of the fine arts since Dada, and reached a peak of bourgeois acceptance at a point I would place shortly before Chris Burden's self-penetrating 1971 sculptural performance Shoot, after which the art world began backpedaling wildly into the postmodern future — kicked off, incidentally, by the market-friendly post-Povera iffy-except-Clemente generation of Transavanguardia Italian painters, with their pastel pillars and Twombly goo. Sanity restored, the cleanup began as scholars and institutions began absorbing and translating the leavings of these evanescent insurgencies, fixing them in history and hanging them out to dry. It is testimony to their initial energy that many of these clinically displayed artifacts still seem “before their time.”
Giuseppe Penone whittled the rings from a tree to leave a monstrous hybrid of naked fetal inner shrubbery emerging from a rectilinear 4-by-8 plank. Giovanni Anselmo wedged a head of lettuce between a pair of polished granite blocks in such a way that the sculpture collapses if it isn't constantly fed fresh vegetation. Pier Paolo Calzolari spelled out cryptic, solipsistic phrases in neon across mattresses and other domestic castoffs, then rigged a mechanism to chill the sculpture to sub-zero temperatures. Michelangelo Pistoletto rolled a giant ball of newspapers around Turin over a two-year period, then sealed it in a cage and re-titled it Mappamondo. This last piece, included in the show both in its desiccated archival state and in flickering black-and-white 1967 footage of the gleeful artist tumbling the tumorous wad through plazas and over cars at an intersection, seems to predict and indict its own bloodless institutionalization 35 years before the fact.
A CONCURRENT AND MUCH SMALLER EXHIBItion at the Istituto Italiano di Cultura (a stone's throw from the Hammer Museum) belies the picture of these artists as unwilling victims of their co-option. “Arte Povera: Multiples” is worth a visit if just for Pistoletto's 1969 Euro-freak silk-screen self-portrait on polished steel and Boetti's oddly Sesame Streetesque finger-counting print from 1980. What is most clear is that, even in the early 1970s, as critic Germano Celant was trying in vain to derail the movement he christened, the artists themselves were churning out traditional editions — archivally produced silk-screens and lithographs with just a smidgen of iron, putty, feathers or dehydrated lettuce to telegraph their fashionable frisson of rebelliousness. Rare is the artist who, having made his or her stand about the transitory context-dependent nature of the creative act, is unwilling to participate in its compromise. Only Emilio Prini — absent from the “Multiples” show, and represented in “Zero to Infinity” by a gray cardboard square marking his fall from a ladder in 1968, and the message “He confirms his participation in the exhibition” — manages to prolong his fuck-you into the new millennium. Which doesn't leave us with much to look at, but at least leaves room for art to be something other than illustrations of academic word games or decorations for the rich.
ZERO TO INFINITY: ARTE POVERA 19621972 | MOCA at the Geffen Contemporary, 152 N. Central Ave., downtown | Through September 22
ARTE POVERA: MULTIPLES | Istituto Italiano di Cultura, 1023 Hilgard Ave., Westwood | Through August 2