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‘He made visible the invisible forces that govern the universe’ – a tribute to Giovanni Anselmo (1934–2023)

4 January 2024

Giovanni Anselmo, a key member of the Arte Povera movement in Italy who has died at the age of 89, once wondered whether the idea of infinity arose in his work ‘perhaps simply because I am an earthling and for this reason limited in time, space and specifics’. A sculptor in the expanded sense in which his generation understood the medium, Anselmo was profoundly interested in the idea of entropy. He is best known for the imagination and the wit with which he made use of torsion, gravity and magnetism in his assemblages of materials ranging from stone and metal to vegetal matter, making visible the invisible forces that govern the universe.

For instance, Untitled (Sculpture That Eats) (1968) famously sandwiches a humble lettuce precariously between a standing block of granite and a smaller block, secured by a wire. If the lettuce were to dry out or rot, the stone would fall; the effect is a palpable tension and sense of unease, elevating these rudimentary materials into a memento mori. For Torsion (1968), leather set into a cement block is twisted around a wooden bar, the other end of which is held taut against the gallery wall; the viewer is induced to imagine the leather untwisting itself and the bar flying into them. Potential energy was essential to Anselmo’s work, or as he put it:

I, the world, things, life, we are situations of energy and the important thing is not to crystallize these situations, but keep them open and alive – like life processes […] My works are really the physification [sic] of the force behind an action, of the energy of a situation or event etc. and not its experience in terms of annotated signs, or just still life.

Untitled (Sculpture That Eats) (1968), Giovanni Anselmo. Photo: Giorgio Mussa; courtesy Archivio Anselmo and Marian Goodman Gallery

Born in 1934 in Borgofranco d’Ivrea, Anselmo shared an interest in processes and materials with a number of artists hailing from in and around Turin. It was not, however, in the Piedmont mountains where Anselmo, as a young self-taught painter, had his artistic epiphany but rather at the other end of the country, on the Aeolian island of Stromboli just north of Sicily. Climbing the island’s active volcano at dawn on 16 August 1965, Anselmo saw that the sun rising behind him cast its shadow not on the ground but in the air, where it dissolved.

In 1967, the critic and curator Germano Celant included Anselmo alongside Alighiero Boetti, Luciano Fabro, Jannis Kounellis and Pino Pascali in the exhibition ‘Arte Povera – Im Spazio’ at La Bertesca Gallery in Genoa. The exhibition was soon followed by Celant’s manifesto for this group, published in FlashArt, which emphasised the subtle precarity, instability and vivacity of Anselmo’s contribution to this ‘poor’ art. Anselmo had his first solo shows at Galleria Sperone in Milan in 1968, and then Galerie Ileana Sonnabend in Paris the following year. An opportunity to enter into dialogue with international trends was provided at Leo Castelli’s gallery in New York in 1968; ‘Nine at Castelli’ included Anselmo alongside Eva Hesse, Bruce Nauman, Richard Serra and others. His place in the canon of the 1960s was confirmed by his inclusion in Harald Szeemann’s renowned travelling group show ‘Live in Your Head: When Attitudes Become Form’, which debuted at the Kunsthalle Bern in 1969. Szeemann also invited Anselmo to contribute to the fifth iteration of Documenta in 1972 in Kassel.

The resurgence of interest in Arte Povera in recent decades, which has included the exhibition ‘Zero to Infinity: Arte Povera 1962–1972’ at Tate Modern in 2001 and Celant’s restaging of Szeeman’s show as ‘When Attitudes Become Form: Bern 1969/Venice 2013’ at the Fondazione Prada, Venice, in 2013, has meant that works by Anselmo feature regularly in modern Italian auctions and at art fairs. This year will bring Anselmo to greater international prominence with the opening of a monographic show at the Guggenheim Bilbao on 9 February, where the torque and torsion of his work will find an apt setting among Frank Gehry’s undulating architecture and Richard Serra’s labyrinths of weathered steel. The autumn brings Anselmo’s work to the Bourse de Commerce, Paris, as one of 14 artists in the major Arte Povera survey curated by Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, former director of the Castello di Rivoli just outside Turin, where the most significant collection of work by Anselmo and his peers is housed.

Rosalind McKever is curator of paintings and drawings at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.