Collecting Guide: Arte Povera

Specialist Mariolina Bassetti discusses the provocative Sixties movement which championed the idea that art could be made from anything — including horses

Arte Povera — translated as ‘poor art’ — describes the work of a group of young Italian artists active during the late 1960s. Based predominantly in Turin and Rome, they rejected the principals of figurative art and classicism, creating works from everyday materials including jute, wood, coal and even fire.

The term was coined by Italian art critic Germano Celant, who organised the first, groundbreaking Arte Povera exhibition in 1967. His pioneering efforts created a collective identity for the artists whose materials, though ‘poor’, were use to make conceptually rich works that sought to provoke change.

Alberto Burri (1915-1995), Nero Legno, 1961. Wood, fabric and acrylic on board. Signed and dated ‘Burri 61’ (on the reverse). 65⅜ x 45¼ in (166 x 115 cm). This work was offered in The Italian Sale on 6 October 2016 at Christie’s in London, King Street

Alberto Burri (1915-1995), Nero Legno, 1961. Wood, fabric and acrylic on board. Signed and dated ‘Burri 61’ (on the reverse). 65⅜ x 45¼ in (166 x 115 cm). This work was offered in The Italian Sale on 6 October 2016 at Christie’s in London, King Street

With his gestural cuts to the canvas, Lucio Fontana (1899-1968), the founder of Spatialism, opened doors for the next generation of artists to explore new ways of transforming their art. Alberto Burri (1915-1995) predates Arte Povera but could be considered the father of the movement, having first explored the use of unconventional materials such as fire, jute, wood and iron at the end of the 1940s. 

Giovanni Anselmo (b. 1934), Invisibile (Invisible), 1970-1973. Lead. (i) 2½ x 2¾ x 4¾ in (6.5 x 7 x 12 cm) (ii) 2½ x 6⅝ x 4¾ in (6.5 x 17 x 12 cm). This work is one of six unique versions in different dimensions. This work was offered in The Italian Sale on 6 October 2016 at Christie’s in London, King Street and sold for £173,000

Giovanni Anselmo (b. 1934), Invisibile (Invisible), 1970-1973. Lead. (i) 2½ x 2¾ x 4¾ in (6.5 x 7 x 12 cm) (ii) 2½ x 6⅝ x 4¾ in (6.5 x 17 x 12 cm). This work is one of six unique versions in different dimensions. This work was offered in The Italian Sale on 6 October 2016 at Christie’s in London, King Street and sold for £173,000

Who were the main figures in the Arte Povera movement?

The movement's key protagonists were Giovanni Anselmo (b. 1934), Alighiero Boetti (1940-1994), Jannis Kounellis (b. 1936), Mario Merz (1925-2003), Pino Pascali (1936-1968) and Giuseppe Penone (b. 1947). 

Anselmo explored his place in the vastness of nature, and the laws that govern the universe, in a series of works that employ a wide variety of organic and inorganic materials. Boetti’s many masterpieces were produced in a variety of materials and stem from his insistence that art is not what is represented, but the idea behind it. Kounellis created installations with raw materials such as coal, stones and wool, and his work rarely comes to market. Merz's ‘continuous’ drawings explored the idea of organic creation, while his signature igloos examine man's relationship to nature. Pascali's playful works transformed materials such as hay, cans, brushes and fake fur. Penone is best-known for his iconic tree sculptures, which have taken over galleries across the world.

The Italian Sale in October 2016 was led by Coda di Delfino by Pino Pascali (main image at top of page), a masterpiece of Arte Povera which comes with excellent provenance as it was formerly part of the Franchetti collection in Rome and the Durant-Dessert collection in Paris. One of only two dolphin tail sculptures produced by the artist, it was offered at auction for the very first time.

Michelangelo Pistoletto (b. 1933), Uomo appoggiato (Leaning Man), 1966. Painted tissue paper on polished stainless steel. 90½ x 47¼ in (230 x 120 cm). Signed, titled and dated 1966 Michelangelo Pistoletto uomo appoggiato (on the reverse). This work was offered in The Italian Sale on 6 October 2016 at Christie’s in London, King Street and sold for £1,925,000

Michelangelo Pistoletto (b. 1933), Uomo appoggiato (Leaning Man), 1966. Painted tissue paper on polished stainless steel. 90½ x 47¼ in (230 x 120 cm). Signed, titled and dated '1966 Michelangelo Pistoletto "uomo appoggiato"' (on the reverse). This work was offered in The Italian Sale on 6 October 2016 at Christie’s in London, King Street and sold for £1,925,000

Another acknowledged leading figure of the movement is Michelangelo Pistoletto (b. 1933), whose now iconic mirror paintings played with the representation of reality by inviting the viewer to enter the work. Uomo Appoggiato (Man Leaning) represents the artist’s dealer Gian Enzo Sperone. As with his work in the Tate, Uomo in Piedi (Standing Man), the work requires the viewer’s participation to complete the portrait.

Other proponents of the movement as it took hold in the 1960s include Luciano Fabro (1936-2007), whose conceptual sculptures are highly sought after, and Giulio Paolini (b. 1940), acclaimed for his minimal and conceptual works subverting classical materials such as canvas and plaster.

What brought Arte Povera to the public’s attention?

In 1968 art dealer Fabio Sargentini invited artist Pino Pascali to exhibit in his Rome gallery, L’Attico. Tragically, Pascali was killed in a motorcycle accident before the exhibition was staged, and Jannis Kounellis was asked to take his place.

Jannis Kounellis, Untitled (12 Horses), L’Attico di via Beccaria, January 1969. Courtesy Fabio Sargentini — L’Attico Archive. Photo Claudio Abate
Jannis Kounellis, Untitled (12 Horses), L’Attico di via Beccaria, January 1969. Courtesy Fabio Sargentini — L’Attico Archive. Photo: Claudio Abate

Kounellis’s show was daringly unconventional, consisting of a dozen live horses tethered to the gallery walls. Hugely popular with critics and the public alike, Untitled (12 Horses) became legendary, encapsulating the idea that art could be made from anything and didn’t have to be commercially viable. The exhibition is widely regarded as marking the birth of Arte Povera. 

How did the ideas of Arte Povera influence other artists and movements?

At the end of the 1960s a number of major international exhibitions took place outside Italy. One of the most important was Live in Your Head: When Attitudes Become Form (Works – Concepts – Processes – Situations – Information) curated by Harald Szeemann in 1969. The show opened a dialogue between Boetti, Kounellis, Anselmo, Merz and Pascali, and American artists such as Bruce Nauman, Richard Long, Sol Lewitt and Walter de Maria, demonstrating the similarity in thinking between the two groups. 

Alighiero Boetti (1940-1994), Tutto, 1988-1989. Embroidery on canvas. Signed, inscribed and dated Alighiero Boetti Peshawar 1988-89 (on the overlap). 50¼ x 92½ in (127.6 x 235 cm). This work was offered in The Italian Sale on 6 October 2016 at Christie’s in London, King Street

Alighiero Boetti (1940-1994), Tutto, 1988-1989. Embroidery on canvas. Signed, inscribed and dated 'Alighiero Boetti Peshawar 1988-89' (on the overlap). 50¼ x 92½ in (127.6 x 235 cm). This work was offered in The Italian Sale on 6 October 2016 at Christie’s in London, King Street

How has the market grown for Arte Povera?

The market for Arte Povera has grown steadily since 2003, although a breakthrough moment came in February 2014 with Eyes Wide Open: An Italian Vision, an auction at Christie’s in London of the biggest collection of Arte Povera works ever brought to market which saw fifteen artist records set in a single night. 

Jannis Kounellis, Sans Titre. Huile et mine de plomb sur collage de papier marouflé sur toile, 133.2 x 290.6 cm (52½ x 114⅜ in). This lot was offered in Collection Claude Berri  on 22 October 2016 at Christie’s in Paris and sold for €1,562,500

Jannis Kounellis, Sans Titre. Huile et mine de plomb sur collage de papier marouflé sur toile, 133.2 x 290.6 cm (52½ x 114⅜ in). This lot was offered in Collection Claude Berri on 22 October 2016 at Christie’s in Paris and sold for €1,562,500

What should a collector consider when seeking to acquire Arte Povera?

There are a number of factors that can affect the value of Arte Povera works, from date of execution to material and ease of conservation. As with other movements, the form of works is varied — collectors can choose from works on paper, editions, sculptures or flat art, starting from around £5,000 and rising into the millions for the most important pieces. 

Some Arte Povera works can be fragile, although they should not be dismissed if they are not in perfect condition. Few Arte Povera artists sought to make long-term investment pieces, and the condition of works in this category matters less than in others because the ideas behind them were so important. 

Gilberto Zorio (b. 1944), Untitled, 1967. Asbestos pipe, plaster, cobalt chloride, in two parts. Diameter 23⅝ in (60 cm); height 66⅞ in (170 cm). This work was offered in The Italian Sale on 6 October 2016 at Christie’s in London, King Street and sold for £281,000

Gilberto Zorio (b. 1944), Untitled, 1967. Asbestos pipe, plaster, cobalt chloride, in two parts. Diameter: 23⅝ in (60 cm); height: 66⅞ in (170 cm). This work was offered in The Italian Sale on 6 October 2016 at Christie’s in London, King Street and sold for £281,000

Are there any Arte Povera artists the market is yet to discover?

From the Arte Povera group, works by Gilberto Zorio are attractively priced. Untitled (1967), above, featured in our Italian Sale (October 2016) and is a masterpiece of both the artist and the movement. Furthermore, the sale featured two women artists never previously presented at auction. Self-taught Carol Rama produced paintings that explored sexual identity, while Giosetta Fioroni worked in aluminium enamel paint, veering from Arte Povera to adopt the Pop aesthetic promoted by the Scuola di Piazza del Popolo.