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Recent European Art

October 19, 1997 – December 1, 1999

In recent decades, art has tended towards a stylistic pluralism comparable to the diversification present in contemporary Europe. Societal diversity has been accompanied by a search for forms of expression that would open new paths for experimentation.

In the late 1960s, the term Arte Povera, meaning literally "poor art," was coined to describe a group of artists, mostly Italians, who began to use unconventional industrial, organic, or everyday materials in three-dimensional works as a way of stressing the conflict between nature and man-made creations. Mario Merz, one of the leading Arte Povera artists, uses glass, metal pipes, branches, clay, and screws in his Unreal City, Nineteen Hundred Eighty Nine (1989). Since 1968, Merz has been using the semispherical form of the igloo, a temporary dwelling, to reflect his view of the artist as nomad, moving from place to place to mediate between nature and culture, as well as the artist's resistance to stylistic uniformity. Jannis Kounellis's installation Untitled (1988) also deliberately combines industrial materials like coal and iron, which he positions, like paintings, against the wall. The fusion of organic and inorganic materials symbolizes the unpredictable, mutable nature of the meaning of art.

Contemporaneous with Arte Povera, Earth Art reflected the increasingly felt need to get closer to nature while rejecting the commercialization of art. The movement arose in part as an expression of the disillusion with the sophisticated technology of industrial culture. With Earth Art, nature was no longer seen as merely providing an environment for a work of art but actually became the work's central protagonist. During his walks through uncultivated land, Richard Long arranges wood, stone, or dirt into geometric forms, photographing his interventions as a means of preserving what nature will eventually undo. Long's poetic indoor installations recall the artist's movements over diverse terrains. He places stones to create forms that evoke Japanese gardens or, perhaps, primeval ritual acts.

Christian Boltanski's installations use light bulbs and photographs of anonymous people to explore such universal themes as death, time, and memory. In Humans (1994), Boltanski uses light and shade to evoke the atmosphere of small theatres and churches, arousing silent admiration and a sharp sense of loss and absence in the viewer.

Enzo Cucchi, usually associated with the Italian Trans-avant-garde movement, paints apocalyptic pictures in a figurative style or, as in The Great Design of the Earth (1983), uses materials such as wood and iron in clear reference to Arte Povera. Gilbert & George are a pair of artists who, regardless of medium, rely on themselves as artistic material. Their photomontages, executed in a hieratic style that parodies stained-glass art, deal-not without humour-with highly contemporary issues like homosexuality, racial conflict, and violence.

Mario Merz

Unreal City, Nineteen Hundred Eighty-Nine (Città irreale, Millenovecentottantanove), 1989

Glass, mirror, metal pipes, twigs, rubber, clay, and clamps

5 x 12.8 x 9.9 m overall

Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York
Gift of the artist

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