Art And The Importance Of Materials: Part 1

One of the most fundamental and practical aspects of art is the importance of materials.

The stuff that artists use when they make a work of art influences both form and content. Every material brings something special to the creative process and the finished work. Materials influence how artists make their work and how viewers perceive it.

In today’s blog post and the next post I’ll share some examples of artists who use materials as a primary vehicle for expressing their artistic visions.

Let’s start by looking at a group of Italian artists who were part of a movement known as Arte Povera. That title translates into English as “poor art” and refers to the everyday, common materials the artists used to create their work.

Arte Povera as a defined movement lasted from the mid-1960s to the early 1970s. It was born in response to the elitist modernism that dominated the art world at the time, particularly the newly emerging Minimalism with its clean lines and anonymous surfaces.

This was also a time of major demonstrations and political protests around the world.

Without sacrificing elegance, the Arte Povera artists wanted to bring confrontation, raw materials and primal processes into mainstream art. To accomplish this goal they used the most basic materials they could find, often working with industrial leftovers such as construction grade steel, unfinished wood, glass, stone and dirt.

Their poetic combinations of undisguised raw materials and industrial elements made very powerful visual statements, particularly when they were exhibited in pristine galleries and museums.

Let’s look at a few examples…

large sculpture using a split tree by artist Giuseppe Penone

The first image is by Giuseppe Penone. It consists of two mature pine trees that have been stripped of their bark, sliced in half down their full length and then hollowed out. Resting in the middle of one tree is a cast metal form representing a section of another tree trunk. The scale of this piece, and the ambitious cutting and carving give the work a compelling visual presence.

sculpture made of mounded rags by Michelangelo Pistolleto

In this sculpture Michelangelo Pistolleto arranged two piles of rags on either side of a vertical sheet of glass. One pile is multi-colored and the other is all white. The two piles have been carefully formed to create mirror images of each other, giving the appearance of one large pile.

sculpture by Jannis Kounellis

Here we see a found wooden structure supporting four rows of dyed but unspun wool. The artist Jannis Kounellis often used his work to bridge the gap between static art and live performance. This sculpture looks somewhat like a grill, a shuttered window, or even a large painting. It also suggests just one step in a long industrial process.

sculpture by Mario Merz

Mario Merz was interested in architectural forms his entire career and often made dome shaped sculptures that suggest igloos or tribal huts. Here we see one of those forms built from sheets of stone, glass and metal held together by industrial clamps. At various points around the floor there are neon lights that spell out words.

As you can see from these examples it’s nearly impossible to look at the work of Arte Povera artists and not be aware of the materials they used.

In the next blog post we’ll look at the work of another group of artists who were active at the same time but who used radically different materials and ended up with, predictably, very different results.

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