The '60s Art Movement That's Still Happening
Michelangelo Pistoletto's reboot of a '60s performance piece in an upstate New York village was part of a timely resurgence of interest in Arte Povera.
Drive-by: Michelangelo Pistoletto arrives in Cold Spring for his Walking Sculpture performance. Photo by Alexa Hoyer
On a recent Saturday, a crowd gathered at a gazebo by the Hudson in the village of Cold Spring, New York, to watch the arrival of a red Fiat convertible. In the car was Michelangelo Pistoletto, and on the trunk was a large sphere of newspaper, the center of Pistoletto’s participatory Walking Sculpture, first performed in Turin in 1967. Walking Sculpture’s upstate re-enactment drew the praise of the mayor, as well as the district’s congressman: “Thank you for bringing some beauty into the world," said Representative Sean Patrick Maloney told the artist, "where there is so much darkness.”
It’s hard to distinguish whether recent renewed attention to Arte Povera stems from the Italian art movement’s 50th anniversary or the sociopolitical conditions that make 2017 feel very late-1960s. In the New York area, the opening of postwar and contemporary Italian art space Magazzino Italian Art (which brought Walking Sculpture to the Hudson Valley) has certainly boosted the movement’s profile. But observers that frame its resurgence as countercultural nostalgia, or a resurgent derision for the political establishment, miss the intricacies of Pistoletto’s still-evolving political philosophy.
“Arte Povera is the last movement of the 20th century,” Pistoletto assured a crowd from Magazzino's library, clutching his writings in his hands. “My work is totally political.” In 2003, Pistoletto wrote his manifesto Third Paradise, which begins with the declaration, “This is my last manifesto,” and ends 22 pages later with the concession, “This ‘last manifesto’ of mine does not end here.” What Pistoletto’s serious countenance doesn’t betray is that he delivers his absolutes with a metaphysical wink. (After all, it takes a playful soul to conceive of Walking Sculpture in the first place.) Pistoletto’s version of counterculture isn’t merely anti-establishment, but Hegelian. Which is to say, the artist’s rational interpretation of history is a world overwriting itself in patterns of three.
“We have a tradition of considering democracy as an evolution of society,” Pistoletto continued, but concluded that this ignored the possibility of nonlinear construction and deconstruction. The initial development of democracy was subsumed by the dominance of capitalism after the fall of the USSR. Hence, the world needs a (third) corrective. In Pistoletto’s Third Paradise, he writes of replacing democracy or, “the concept of power, i.e. -kratos, with that of practice, i.e. -praxis, so that we will be able to speak of demopraxis. So the work that needs to be done is the development of good practices.”
And what of that ball of newspaper that the kids of Cold Spring rolled so gleefully along the waterfront? “The sphere is a point of attraction. We need something to put us together,” Pistoletto said. In fact, as the crowd moves along the street, only a few touching the sculpture at a time, the sphere became invisible to the people further back. In these moments, only the ‘attraction’ itself is visible. “When we find a common responsibility we start a political strategy,” the artist announced. Per his manifesto: “It is necessary for democracy to dissociate itself from the destructive model of exponential consumption and turn back to the principle of sharing.”
This month, Pistoletto is also showing recent mirror works at Luhring Augustine in New York depicting silkscreened shelves illustrating the accoutrements—from insecticide to bed linens to plastic crates—of individual trades. Scaffali harks back to the humble materiality of Arte Povera, but also the collaborative society of Pistoletto’s political convictions, which relies on the fair distribution of industrial wealth. “Arte povera is essential in the materials. In the activity that the material can create by itself,” the artist told me. In the case of Walking Sculpture, one can literally feel the inertia of the materials; for Scaffali, the primary activity is to see one’s reflection in them. Unlike minimalism, suggested Pistoletto, his Arte Povera works embody “essentialism.” They are “not pretending to express an individual emotion” but a collective one.
Also this month, at New York’s Lévy Gorvy, Pistoletto’s earlier mirror paintings are included in a group show curated by Germano Celant that highlights the collection of Arte Povera patron Ileana Sonnabend. Celant, who coined the term Arte Povera, was also in attendance at the latest iteration of Walking Sculpture. At the age of 84, Michelangelo Pistoletto isn’t slowing down, he’s doubling down.
Michelangelo Pistoletto’s Walking Sculpture was staged in Cold Spring, New York, on November 4. The event was sponsored by Magazzino Italian Art. Michaelangelo Pistoletto, Scaffali, is on view at Luhring Augustine, New York, though December 22; Ileana Sonnabend and Arte Povera, curated by Germano Celant, is on view at Lévy Gorvy, New York, through December 23.