"Untitled (Zero)", Mario Mertz:

Neon tubing. Audio cassette player. The glowing tube is plied into cursive across the wall:


The machine whispers:


"Tree of 12 Meters" Giuseppe Penone:

One wooden beam (American Larch). This is a motif that Penone would return to again and again. He took a saw to the beam, meticulously carving around the knots in the wood. He sheared away layer after layer, year after year, slowly revealing the fragile sapling at the immense tree's core.

Official-sounding description of first Contemporary Art exhibit enjoyed by author: From Zero to Infinity: Arte Povera 1962-1972, Hirshhorn Gallery, Washington, DC:

"This exhibition of over 140 sculptures and large-scale installations focuses on the first decade of Arte Povera (translated as "poor art"), a name coined by Italian curator and critic Germano Celant in 1967 to describe the work being created by a loose-knit group of artists working in Italy��_The works reflect the Arte Povera artists' desire to break down the separation between art and life and an almost alchemical interest in employing unorthodox materials, including coal, wood, silk, glass, live animals, and plants��_"

Author's friend Catherine's reaction to the above when dragged to the museum:

"This is crap."

I stumbled upon Arte Povera my senior year in high school, and it has been a recurring presence in my life ever since. I was seventeen and in the midst of my first spiritual crisis then-I think it was the earnestness of the artists that attracted me, the tangibility of their striving as they sought the crude truth of things. I went back to the Hirshhorn several times to see "From Zero to Infinity," my friends rolling their eyes when I brought them along. I even managed to convince my physics teacher that Arte Povera was a reasonable focus for my mid-term project, my justification presumably being that most of the works produced by the movement involved velocity, physical forces and/or mass.

Did Mom point me to the Washington Post review of "From Zero to Infinity" that would spark my interest and begin my subsequent obsession with Arte Povera? I'm not sure, but it seems likely for two reasons. First, she had taken me to art exhibits at the Smithsonian since I was very small-thanks to her, Renoir's "Girl with a Watering Can" was the closest thing I ever had to an imaginary friend. Second, Mom was continually cutting out articles for one of my brothers or for me. When my brother Matt gave the family's eulogy, he joked about this facet of her generosity: "Mom was always watching for some interest to cultivate, a spark of some future calling that she could help us find. In fact, you had to watch what you said around Mom, because if you expressed even the slightest interest in some topic, even in the most passing, off-hand remark, you ran the risk of receiving a substantial portion of your birthday or Christmas presents in the form of a stack of books on the matter." There was a heavy book on Arte Povera waiting for me under the tree that December, among all of the sheets and towels every senior in high school expects for Christmas. But, the review that first piqued my curiosity-did she show me that? She might have given me the Arts section after seeing a different article, and the Arte Povera headline caught my eye-yes, that sounds right.

"Untitled (Eating Sculpture)" Giovanni Anselmo:

Two polished blocks of black granite, one bigger, one smaller. Copper wire. Fresh lettuce. Gravity. The copper wire embraces both slabs, the smaller of the two held against the other a foot and a half from the ground. The lettuce is sandwiched between the blocks, its turgidity providing the tension that keeps the smaller slab precariously aloft. Give it a few days-the leaves wilt, the wire goes slack, the granite falls.

Ed, my oldest brother, is an artist. Two Januaries ago he was working through impermanence, and so I found myself circling our city block with him, bundled, carrying saws, in search of discarded Christmas trees. I looked away, followed my breath, as Ed laboriously decapitated their brittle remains. The bottom halves of these we lined on the sidewalk in front of our house, ceremoniously, creating an orderly series of severed pasts. Then Ed drilled holes into the trees' trunks and attached smooth platforms on which to dock soap bubbles. The toddlers from two doors down helped us with blowing the ephemeral spheres. We tried balancing them on the trees, but more often than not they popped first, or the wind blew them away. It was grey out, and very cold. Our adult neighbors looked at us askance and crossed to the other side of the street. Concentration and satisfaction mingled softly on my brother's face as the sky faded into night. Twenty expired Christmases-I was a little drunk on the improbability of the scene, and took many pictures.

''Cubic Meter of Infinity'', Michelangelo Pistoletto:

Six mirrors. String. The mirrors are bound together facing inwards to form a cube. Were light to enter, it would bounce off of the mirrors indefinitely. The paradox: how can light enter without breaking the perfectly and necessarily sealed structure? An impossible plenitude waits in the dark.

From the review that introduced me to Arte Povera :

"But this isn't really conceptual art, where the work is just an illustration for an idea that might as well be jotted down on paper. It is truly a materialization of infinity; like much of Arte Povera, it wants to bring us as close as we can come to grasping the ungraspable. Or at any rate, it comes as close to giving presence to infinity as any Renaissance painting could to giving us real access to the saints."

This April, Mom ordered me to keep all of her books. "They're yours," she said, "whenever you want them." In my memory I see us from above, lying together on my brother's blue comforter among a thousand white tissues. I was in the middle of a panic attack, having just flown home from Europe, home yet completely disoriented. She was trying to say the important things, check them all off, before it was too late. I couldn't breathe though and so I remember what she told me only in tantalizing fragments: take care of Daddy. And your brothers. Don't marry a jerk. Take your time.

From an artist's statement by Alighiero Boetti (page 238 in the book Mom gave me):

"It would be nice if there were two worlds, one wholly conscious, the other wholly unconscious, going along hand-in-hand without ever getting muddled; instead of finding ourselves between the two, with no certainty, monstrously held inside the vast pain-filled subject."

Arte Povera points to the "muddle". It's this, this insistence on a wrenching mystery that lies at the intersection of me and everything else, which leaves me hungering for more. It's the monstrous and the wondrous all entwined.

"Se la forma scompare la sua radice ̬ eterna," Mario Merz, which I saw at the Venice Guggenheim Collection's sculpture garden three hours before I heard that metastatic breast cancer had infiltrated my mother's brain (I knew that I needed to tell my friends, take a vaporetto back to the mainland, find the bus stop, catch the next plane to Paris, and then another home to Washington, but I stared forward, letting the sea breeze idle through my hair. I had perched myself on the very edge of Isola de Jesolo to return my parents' call, and in front of me sky flowed into water, punctuated only by the gleaming dome of a basilica in the distance. Light bounced off of every surface. The weather was perfect, but the scene was harsh, and its sparkling stung. My cell phone lay open as I interrogated an impossibly blue horizon, incredulous like one slapped. I should pray, I thought, tears finally welling up. How dare it be this beautiful?):

Neon script floats on a low brick wall amidst soft, fragrant clumps of wisteria. Energy pulses through the proclamation, "se la forma scompare la sua radice ̬ eterna".

if the form vanishes its root is eternal

Arte Povera:

Povera, poor


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