BY Nicholas Cullinan in Frieze | 02 FEB 05
Featured in
Issue 88

Robert Lumley, Arte Povera

Arte Povera (Tate Publishing, London 2004)

BY Nicholas Cullinan in Frieze | 02 FEB 05

‘We’re already in the midst of a guerrilla war’: this was the closing salvo from Germano Celant’s 1967 text that launched Arte Povera in a blaze of pseudo-Marxist and revolutionary rhetoric. After the Utopian vision of social change in Italy during the late 1960s collapsed among the dystopian reality of terrorism and assassinations in the 1970s, Celant cashed in his left-wing credentials in favour of 1980s career politics. He re-branded and re-launched Arte Povera by invoking an amnesia that forgot the politicized origins of the movement, instead couching it in terms of a retrograde cultural nostalgia.
Robert Lumley’s book appears at a time when Arte Povera is ripe for re-evaluation. Either it could continue to be lumped alongside Alessi appliances and Illy coffee cups as another over-aestheticized but beautifully designed Italian export, or its relationship with one of the most politically turbulent moments in postwar Italian history could be given more consideration, an interpretation the increasing interest in that country’s contemporaneous political theorists, such as Antonio Negri, would surely support.
This book is not the platform for such a re-reading, but its publication elevates Arte Povera to the status afforded movements such as Minimalism and Conceptual art in the pantheon of pre-existing titles in this series. Lumley’s extensive research, mastery of the material and lucid text are made all the more impressive by the book’s brevity, which is turned from a potential weakness into a strength through a concise account that, as the blurb on the back cover states, ‘cuts through thickets of misinformation [i.e., the bulk of the bibliography on the subject] and hyperbole [Celant] to present a history that is remarkably cogent’.
The conflation of a monographic with a thematic approach allows a more sophisticated discourse than the norm, as comparative analysis, or even critical discussion, is so often lacking from the literature on this subject. Only the last chapter, a brief discussion of the impact of Arte Povera on contemporary art, suffers from the book’s limited length. Such a huge subject requires a more extensive treatment, but this is a small reservation about what is otherwise a hugely impressive survey of a difficult subject to define succinctly, which perhaps now paves the way for further studies that are sensitive to the cultural specificity of this work rather than just regurgitating the overblown banality that affects so much material on Arte Povera.