In the mid-1960s, Merz was one of the founders of the Italian arte povera movement and throughout his working life remained one of its pivotal figures. Arte povera means literally ‘poor art’, a term that involves a certain irony. Artworks were indeed made using ordinary and not very ‘artistic’ material such as brushwood, sand, rags and old paper, yet they were permeated with a rich cultural tradition and a keen awareness of nature. Their irregular, nature-inspired forms contrasted sharply with the taut industrial lines of American Minimal Art. Arte povera links nature with culture, and the functional with the dysfunctional, with a respect for art, nature and these ordinary objects.
Each with one work, Gianni Piacentino (1945) and Emilio Prini (1943), two Italian guest artists from the same movement but whose work is not represented in the S.M.A.K. collection, enter into dialogue with the Merz pieces. The extreme nature of their work evades the usual clichés regarding material and magic that are associated with arte povera and take it in different directions. The hyper-aesthetics of Piacentino’s Vehicles and Prini’s extremely political approach to art both push boundaries, both in their own particular way.
Like the oeuvre of Zvi Goldstein, which is being shown at the S.M.A.K. at the same time as this exhibition and which also evolved out of the fringes of arte povera, Piacentino’s and Prini’s works represent the fact that, ultimately, stories about the artists themselves often became more important than the discourse on their art. The work of these two guest artists also shows up gaps in the S.M.A.K. collection, which thus tries to connect with artworks that provide a relevant context for its own works.
In addition to work by Merz, Piacentino and Prini, in From the Collection | Incontri con Mario Merz, S.M.A.K. is also showing pieces by such artists as Giulio Paolini, Ettore Spalletti, Alberto Garutti and Luciano Fabro, who are counted as arte povera artists. The exhibition presents an intimate interplay between material, concept, aesthetics and politics, which makes it apparent that the term arte povera, coined by the Italian art critic and curator Germano Celant in 1967, is a concept that is a product of its period more than being related to any well-defined content… This emphasises the importance of the specific, individual practices of the artists associated with the movement.