But is it art: How 12 horses ignited the Arte Povera movement

Jannis Kounellis, Untitled (12 Horses), 1969. Courtesy the artist and Gavin Brown’s enterprise, New York/Rome. Photo: Claudio Abate
Jannis Kounellis, Untitled (12 Horses), 1969. Courtesy the artist and Gavin Brown’s enterprise, New York/Rome. Photo: Claudio Abate

Equines have captured the imagination of artists for time immemorial, but in 1968 the exhibition of a dozen horses as art were credited with marking the birth of the Arte Povera – “poor art” movement.

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.

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.

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.

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 used to make conceptually rich works that sought to provoke change.

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 at the end of the 1940s.

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).

Kounellis created installations with raw materials such as coal, stones and wool, and his work rarely comes to market.

Coda di Delfino, by Pino Pascali.
Coda di Delfino, by Pino Pascali.

The work of Pino Pascali will feature at The Italian Sale on October 6 by London auctioneer Christie’s. Pascali’s work Coda di Delfino, 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 is being offered at auction for the very first time.

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.

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