Interview with Giovanni Lista on the work of artist Giuseppe Penone, by Antonio Furone.
A.F. : Under what circumstances and on what occasion did you meet Giuseppe Penone?
Giovanni Lista : It was in 1998, I was preparing a paper on Arte Povera for a French magazine and Penone must have found out through his friends – he was living in Paris at the time while teaching at the Académie des Beaux-Arts on the Quai de Conti. He called me and offered me an interview. A month later, he came to my house and we did the interview, in Italian. I translated it and it was published the following year. As far as his character is concerned, he is a direct and sincere man, endowed with strong analytical intelligence. He comes from a family of farmers who work in the fields and express themselves in a matter-of-fact way.
After I stopped the recording, we talked at great length about Italian art in general. I was struck by how original and non-conformist his views on the work of Medardo Rosso and Lucio Fontana were, as well as on the rather negative role he felt the Catholic Church had played in the history and development of Italian artistic culture. Among other things, I noticed he had a true sculptor’s sensitivity: he sees everything in three dimensions and pays great attention to materials’ tactile quality. Subsequently, we stayed in touch for a long time until he returned to Italy after 2012. During this Parisian period, he was taken on by the Durand-Dessert gallery in Paris and by the Marian Goodman Gallery in New York.
A. F. : What remains of Arte Povera today? It is probably the last great movement of modern Italian art, before Maurizio Cattelan and what we call “contemporary art” – an ambiguous concept which, according to some, reveals the influence of American neoliberal capitalist culture…
Giovanni Lista : Yes, indeed! The Arte Povera group, which formed around 1965-1967, embodied a very significant phase of Italian art, and came about after the first centenary of the Italian nation. There were at least two appreciations of Italy at the time. The most contemporary was defended by the journal Civiltà delle macchine, which was published in Milan by poet and engineer Leonardo Sinisgalli and funded by the I.R.I. (Institute of Industrial Reconstruction). According to this view, also supported by intellectuals such as Umberto Eco, the humanist tradition that had always defined Italian culture needed to open up to the values of industry & technology and embrace the cause of technical progress.
The government chose the city of Turin, the first capital of unified Italy, to celebrate the centenary of the Italian nation in 1961. Therefore, the Turin-based automobile industry F.I.A.T. decided to finance the festivities. Among other things, an elevated monorail train was created and Pier Luigi Nervi and Giò Ponti designed a gigantic Palazzo del Lavoro to host an exhibition on Labor in Italy… Basically, everything was being done to make Italy look like a modern industrial power, an efficient and technologically-minded nation.
As a reaction to this, Arte Povera artists sought to restore the truth: Italy was first and foremost the country of Virgil’s Bucolics, celebrated the poverty of St. Francis of Assisi as well as the agriculture which has shaped its appealing natural landscapes since Roman times. Moreover, Italy still carried of the legacy of classical culture. Arte Povera was not merely the last great movement of modern Italian art, but also the last structured group whose name stood for a concept, like the avant-garde groups of the first half of the twentieth century did. Pino Pascali and Jannis Kounellis were in Rome, Claudio Parmiggiani in Reggio Emilia, Pier Paolo Calzolari in Bologna, Luciano Fabro in Milan, Michelangelo Pistoletto, Mario Merz, Giulio Paolini, Alighiero Boetti, Giovanni Anselmo and Gilberto Zorio were in Turin, but they exhibited as a group at the most significant art shows of the 1960s.
Only after Arte Povera did globalization arrive, removing all national boundaries and cultural references for artists. Today’s art news regards artists as free individuals, international stars with no strings attached. I have no idea how anyone can possibly write the history of the art of our time.
A. F. : What was Giuseppe Penone’s place within the Arte Povera artists group?
Giovanni Lista : He was the last to join, in 1970. The artists in the group shared a similar approach to art, while each pursuing their individual paths. For instance, they all deeply respected materials, whether these be natural or “cultural” by essence. They believed they should not manipulate or alter them through interventions, but simply enhance them by means of assemblage or montage, to create contrast between materials and energies, or create a new perception of the object. Thus Paolini used neoclassical plaster statues, Merz used neon tubes, Zorio used long curved wooden rods, Kounellis used living animals or ancient materials such as charcoal and Pistoletto printed realistic serigraphs on mirrors, but the technical procedures remained identical. The point was always to “rediscover” objects, to appreciate their physical nature, their potential for energy, whether latent or manifest.
Penone started out after Pistoletto’s “minus objects” (1965), when he exhibited in December 1969 at Gian Enzo Sperone’s Turin gallery. He was the art dealer who had truly launched Arte Povera and, at the time, Sperone had established a close collaboration with Ileana Sonnabend, the great Leo Castelli’s first wife. Ileana had opened a gallery in Paris, where she exhibited Warhol, Oldenburg, Dine, Rauschenberg, Lichtenstein and the best American artists of the time. Sperone in turn exhibited the same American artists in Turin. So thanks to Sperone’s work, Italian artists living in Turin were familiar with American minimalism very early on and were able to take it into account.
The spirit of minimalism is in keeping with the stripped down, basic character of Arte Povera works. There was a clear difference in the French and Italian attitudes with regard to the reception of American art as advocated by Sonnabend. While Parisian artistic circles preferred to ignore this initiative, hanging on to the certainty that the city of Paris was the center of international modernity, Sperone and Italian artists quickly grasped that novelty now came from New York. In 1964, the Venice Biennale awarded its prize to Rauschenberg, thus consecrating Pop-art. The reaction of French culture had been to drape itself in disdain, which made it lose a great opportunity for dialogue with American art which was to impose itself on the international level.
A. F. : What pieces did Penone exhibit in December 1969? Did his develop in the same direction as the principles of Arte Povera?
Giovanni Lista : He joined the group dates in the months following this exhibition. At Sperone’s gallery, Penone was showing photographs of the “actions” (although the word “interactions” would be more appropriate) he carried out in the forests of his mountainous region around Cuneo, in Piedmont. These were especially “imprints” he first made on tree trunks, so that the tree could retain the memory of its contact with the artist’s hand during its growth. Immediately afterwards, Penone produced the photographic series Rovesciare i propri occhi (1970), in which he appears with reflective lenses on his eyes that deprive him of any contact with reality. He thus focuses on the human body and his sensations in a perceptive relationship with the world, whether through sight or touch. A fundamental idea of Arte Povera, common to all the artists in the group, is that the experimental approach must be verified through any creative act.
During a conversation, Luciano Fabro told me that a so-called abstract artist paints abstract paintings simply because it is his style and the market asks him to confirm this. During his interview, Penone developed the same notion of how crippling stylistic repetition can be, but added an additional category of obsessive repetition, as was the case for Morandi and his bottles. We can accept Morandi’s repetition because it manifested to the artist’s inner need, a requirement that he could not do without. But Arte Povera artists can only reject stylistic repetition. They must always renew their art as a creative experience, as an overall questioning of his relationship with the world.
For Penone, this means constantly reliving the experience of discovering the world through new eyes, as well as the possibilities of interacting with it. We must therefore reject the idea of style and repetitive variation. Stylistic repetition is equivalent to an act of death, to the conception of work as a stillborn object. Another fundamental concept of Arte Povera is that the art is not conceived as a “representation” of the elements of reality, but that it is part of reality itself, according to an idea also asserted by Lucio Fontana. It is about a reality perceived or rediscovered as a permanent contrast of forces or latent energies, but precarious and ephemeral because of the continuous withering away of the materials that embody them.
A. F. : How has Giuseppe Penone’s work progressed since his first exhibition?
Giovanni Lista : We cannot really speak of phases or periods in his work. In fact, he comes up with an idea, creates a piece, and then later takes the same idea and develops it differently. And he always creates series. For instance, his sculpture Soffio (1978) is a red terracotta produced in several copies. It is quite an impressive object, which embodies the breath projected by the artist himself with maximum energy outside his own body. It is a three-dimensional imprint of the breath, literally materialized in volume by terracotta.
Then he started the Anatomia series (1990) by exploring an idea belonging to Leonardo da Vinci, who wrote that the human body is similar to the earth since rivers are like veins, rocks are the equivalent of bones, etc. Penone exhibited blocks of marble displaying veins of mineral stone, very similar to the anthropomorphic veins in our body.
A year later, he finished his work Struttura del tempo (1991-1992), a terracotta piece materializing the different stages of the process of plant growth. Several times he exhibited tree trunks patiently carved out from the concentric circles of the wood, so as to highlight the birth of the branches and the slow growth of the tree itself. The piece thus becomes a perception of elapsed time, translates the memory of a transformation by going back through its own history.
In 2001, during an exhibition at the Marian Goodman Gallery in New York, Penone presented for the first time his series Pelle di Cedro (2001), an installation of 24 bronze plaques, most of them arranged on the floor of the gallery. Cast in bronze and leather, they were based on prints taken from the bark of a century-old cedar tree. Natural materials, its roughness and the visual signs resulting from its growth were rendered sacred as a work of art produced by nature and legitimized by the artist. Penone views these casts as negatives of the original, of which they are an integral part, and not as copies.
A. F. : We could perhaps say that he progresses in a spiral shape, forever returning to his own ideas, but at a higher stage … Could we call him an ecological artist?
Giovanni Lista : The cedar, a majestic tree with distinctively marked bark, has attracted Penone more than once. In 1999, when he read in Le Figaro that a storm had uprooted a 200 year-old cedar from the forest of Versailles, he immediately asked if he could buy it to make a sculpture. He had the trunk transported to his workshop in Turin and, with several months’ work, he hollowed it out until it regained its original, live shape.
In 2004, during a major retrospective presented at Pompidou Center, he had it installed in the hall, with the title Cedro di Versailles ( 2002-2003). Is he an environmentalist artist? Why not. He unveils the deepest, ongoing mechanisms of the natural world, beyond the hell of consumerism and industrial production. His work, which even anticipated environmentalism, opens the great book of nature and introduces us to the processes of plant growth and the passage of time – secundum naturam as the Latins used to say.