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“Zero to Infinity:

Arte Povera 1962-1972″

At the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden to Jan. 20

Whether it designates a rock band or a handy grouping of like-minded bohemians, a creative brand, no matter how heavily freighted with metaphor, ultimately comes to refer only to whatever gets done under its banner. In the late ’60s, some groovy academics blew a few hip minds with their avant-psychedelic sounds, apocalyptically dubbing themselves the United States of America. A few years later, three military brats purveyed folky soft rock to the Brits before hitting the jackpot back home; their name: America. The supremely flexible “New Realism” means different things depending on whether you’re talking about philosophy, children’s literature, or visual art—in which case it means no fewer than three different things.

“Arte Povera” fortunately refers to but a single entity, the not-so-loosely-conceived not-quite-movement of forward-thinking northern and central Italian artists named semiretrospectively in 1967 by the young Genoese critic Germano Celant. As a snappy tag for a uniquely Mediterranean cocktail of minimal-, conceptual-, performance-, and process-art elements, the term (literally, “poor art”) has become loaded with cultural mystique. But by my estimation, there are only a handful of the more than 140 works installed at the Hirshhorn for “Zero to Infinity: Arte Povera 1962-1972” that display any obvious poverty. The rest, in their own open yet obdurate way, overflow with riches.

The 14 artists gathered by the Walker Art Center’s Richard Flood and the Tate Modern’s Frances Morris under this latest spreading of Celant’s umbrella were, in the ’60s and early ’70s, a philosophically and politically engaged bunch. Italy was awash in theory, from the homegrown semiotics of Umberto Eco and consumer-kitsch critique of Gillo Dorfles to the imported Freudian Marxism of Herbert Marcuse and literary structuralism of Roland Barthes. The postwar economy’s “Italian miracle” was giving way, and the polity was taking a beating from both left and right, as a sequentially illuminated pair of red light boxes by Alighiero Boetti suggests, like a Ping-Pong ball batted from communist to fascist and back again.

Conditions that could have led to an art that was forbiddingly abstruse and locked into the mind-set of its age instead produced an abundance of well-conceived and finely wrought work that travels comfortably into our own time. By and large, Arte Povera is rigorous and lean but—and this is arguably the Italianness of it—still plugged deeply into the pleasure principle. Some works are so unobtrusive that it’s possible to walk right past them; others give themselves up only to those who have the key. But to discover the secrets of Giovanni Anselmo’s Invisibile (1971), in which the viewer becomes a movable screen searching for the hidden focus of a beam of light, or of Giuseppe Penone’s Tree (1970), which exposes the dead sapling that lies embedded at the core of a hunk of lumber, is to enter a terrain of play, wonder, and surprise governed by gamesmanship of the highest order.

Sadly, the social scientist lurking in the heart of many an art academic—and many an artist, as well—threatens to pack the Poverists off to the lab. Too often what they accomplished is characterized in terms of “experiments” or “investigations.” Part of the problem lies in the romantic attraction of proceeding from first principles: Whenever the burden of history becomes too great, it is tempting to imagine chucking the whole thing and generating all knowledge from a few fundamental observations about matter. “The artists were all starting at an aesthetic ground zero,” Flood told the Minneapolis Star Tribune last year. “You try to find antecedents for them, and it’s not so easy because they all were really starting from nothing.”

But that’s largely PR, and Flood knows it. Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev’s catalog essay nicely details the artistic lineage that birthed Arte Povera, from the canvas-slicing Lucio Fontana to the shit-canning Piero Manzoni. And Arte Povera wasn’t even the first postwar art movement to think of itself in the mathematical terms of the current exhibition’s title. The organizers took as their inspiration the arrow and infinity symbol scratched into the top of a metal block made by Anselmo in 1969. His inspiration, in turn, was probably Dusseldorf’s Manzoni-friendly Zero group, the third volume of whose self-titled magazine, issued eight years earlier, opened with a spread of precisely those two signs.

Lest these calculuslike trappings feed claims of “reality” or “truth,” it should be noted that Arte Povera was at least as interested in telling lies. Mario Merz has based much of his work on the Fibonacci Sequence, in which each integer is the sum of the two preceding it: 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, etc. For a 1970 work, he had a photographer shoot a factory canteen as it filled up with workers in accordance with the sequence. All goes according to plan until the last two pictures: The one marked with a neon “55” is off by a couple of guys, depending on how you count those who are partially obscured, and its predecessor, which hangs beneath an electric blue “34,” shows almost as many men. Either Merz was sloppy or he was making a point about the inability of human systems to follow natural patterns and our willingness to believe what we are told about them.

Boetti moved such a notion into the geopolitical arena with his 1969 Political Map of the World. By superimposing flag designs on the outlines of their corresponding countries, he succeeded in making artificial geographic divisions seem arbitrary and bizarre to an audience conditioned by the familiar color-tiled image of the globe. But Boetti, too, chose to jettison foreordained programs: By giving a surplus of stars—somewhere in the neighborhood of 60—to a U.S. flag that was then but a decade old, could he have been making a point about the unfinished American project?

Political and environmental notes hover over a number of pieces that take their cues from camouflage, the most obvious being Boetti’s 1966 Mimetic, which presents two unaltered expanses of camo fabric as a painting. Stretched taut, its repeats revealed, the fabric disguise can be seen as the flag of nature—although designed by hands that little understand the subtleties of the natural order. If camouflage is normally used to hide the man-made among the woodsy, Piero Gilardi engineered a reversal with his sold-off-the-roll foam-rubber Nature Carpet (1966), which looks outrageously synthetic until you’re required to turn up the one legitimate river rock hiding in plain sight among the impostors.

Such falsity would have appalled a high modernist such as Constantin Brancusi, who made “Truth to materials” his rallying cry, but he probably wouldn’t have felt much better about an untitled 1966 sculpture by Anselmo that features a slightly curving iron rod sprouting upward out of a modest wooden block. Its off-the-cuff elegance on the verge of vanishing altogether, it looks like the earlier artist’s Bird in Space without the bird.

An actual avian is missing from an untitled 1967 piece by Jannis Kounellis, the Poverist who goes furthest in bringing fundamental natural forces into his work and who hence suffers most from the federal health and safety regulations that unintentionally manifest themselves at the Hirshhorn as content restrictions. Unpopulated, the seed and water cups and perch protruding from a sheet of varnished iron may, at a glance, come off as medical-fetish furnishings. Solid fuel tiles shelved in rows for a later piece are likewise sadly inert; they are supposed to be on fire. Denied his conflagrations of feathers and flames, the Greek expat can at least take comfort in the fact that he is still allowed ground coffee and cacti, whose aroma and tumid shapes, respectively, blossom from other metal displays.

As long as we need to be protected from it, there’s only so much of the antic spirit of Arte Povera that can be preserved in an institutional setting. And now that the original works have become prized commodities, some of them need to be protected from us as well. I leaned in close to try to get a whiff of the alcohol that Gilberto Zorio quixotically claimed could purify words uttered into a metal-flanged rubber hose, but because speech is now forbidden, I think all I got back was the aroma of suggestion. You can draw near to an angled railing dubbed by Michelangelo Pistoletto Structure for Talking While Standing (1965-1966), but past that you can’t do any better than turn to the catalog to see someone else actually leaning on it. You begin to wonder why, exhibition copies having been made of several Kounellis pieces and of the fragile neon tubing in Merz’s Iguana, new facsimiles couldn’t be more liberally employed elsewhere, whenever the need for audience participation trumps the desire that an artifact be genuine.

Just consider yourself lucky that the aluminum cascades of the Living Sculpture of Marisa Merz, Mario’s wife, still make the rounds; they look as delicate as the metal fins inside an air conditioner. For that matter, it’s something of a miracle that the freezing sculptures of Pier Paolo Calzolari are up and running three decades after they were made. Between the opening and last week, the compressor driving 1968’s Un Flauto Dolce per Farmi Suonare had started to fatten with frost the letters of the title, which translates to “A Recorder to Make Me Play.” Above the words, the holes in an alto recorder made of lead were starting to fill in, and the slab that phrase and instrument alike lie on had gained a glittering veneer of ice.

As Calzolari’s phrase implies, looking at Arte Povera is an exercise in self-transformation—which explains the prevalence of mirrors in several artists’ work. In one of a series of Pistoletto paintings in which figures are set against a ground of wavy, polished steel, three girls turn their backs on the viewer, who is sucked, distorted, inside the fictive space the girls are peering into. Luciano Fabro’s Hole (1963), a mirror with an intermittently silvered backing, offers a more optical, less conceptual take on the interweaving of spaces on either side of the picture plane. And Pistoletto’s Cubic Meter of Infinity (1965-1966) takes the specular function almost entirely into the notional realm: Six mirrors are turned in on one another and lashed together to form a box that endlessly, lightlessly reflects space into itself.

It could be argued that Arte Povera, at its most slender, lends itself to the one-note performance. But the right note rings clearly and resonantly, while the wrong one clatters and quickly fades. Perhaps the liminal gestures of Emilio Prini—a piece of cardboard flung down outside the entrance of the exhibition, a paper sign tautologically confirming his participation in the show—once seemed truly radical. Now they’re just cautionary examples of what can go wrong when attitudes become norms. By rights, Giulio Paolini’s Young Man Looking at Lorenzo Lotto (1967), consisting of a crude black-and-white photocopy of the subject of a Renaissance portrait, ought to seem just as slight. But knowing that Lotto is something of a mystery man, his aesthetic identity arguably the concoction of Bernard Berenson and later art historians, makes all the difference: For at least the last century, looking at a Lotto has been conflated with looking for Lotto himself, and we are confronted with the image of someone who had the opportunity to know Lotto as we cannot—someone who, in turn, looks blindly at us.

The best of Celant’s crew offered both the satisfaction of getting the joke and the thrill of the unforeseen experience. “Arte Povera 1962-1972” generally excels in rendering these pleasures anew, and when it cannot, it at least gives away enough for us to know what we are missing. If we feel these absences out of proportion to their number, chalk it up to division by zero. CP