Pier Paolo Calzolari’s U.S. Debut

Dean Kaufman

Thanks to dealer Marianne Boesky, the Italian artist is exhibiting stateside.

There’s something about Pier Paolo Calzolari’s work that feels a bit like magic. Not magic in the flashy, abracadabra sense, but the subtler kind—the kind that seeps in under the door and gently tickles the senses. The 69-year-old Italian artist and highly regarded Arte Povera master makes tableaux studded with frost, burned wood, salt and dried tobacco leaves; living sculptures; and painterly 3-D compositions that spew water, emit sounds and combine metronomes, plants, eggs and, on one occasion, a bathtub blanketed in lead.

His work is quiet but potent, displaying the sort of restraint that only comes with years and years of careful honing and experience. He’s highly active, renowned in Italy and beloved by younger artists, yet in the United States he’s hardly a household name.

Now, thanks to a major retrospective at the Ca’ Pesaro International Gallery of Modern Art in Venice last year, the unwavering support of an energetic and influential new dealer and worldwide Arte Povera (Poor Art) buzz, that’s about to change.

Calzolari is one of Arte Povera’s few original practitioners still living and working today. The movement emerged amid Italy’s 1960s-era social and political upheaval. It had less a unifying look to it (à la Pop or minimalism) than it did an underlying philosophy. Inspired by a handful of boundary-pushing post–World War II innovators—like Alberto Burri, who made “paintings” out of twisted and layered burlap sacks—Calzolari and his peers produced challenging work using everyday, natural or “poor” materials (dirt, cement, leaves) and processes not bound by formal or academic constraints. They rejected any notions of an art market and sought to undo art genres in favor of work that was guided by a purity of ideas. They experimented with installation and performance in ways still mimicked, and they advocated for a seamless union between art and life.

Today Arte Povera has grown increasingly popular with museums, emerging artists and collectors—a reaction, some have argued, to the high-sheen mass production displayed by the Damien Hirsts and Jeff Koonses of the world and to the art market’s staggering boom and bust.

Most artists would kill for the opportunity to exhibit their work at a major New York gallery—particularly those who haven’t done so in close to 25 years. But that isn’t exactly the market-averse Arte Povera way. So when New York dealer Marianne Boesky approached Calzolari about collaborating on an exhibition, he asked, “What are your intentions?” Boesky, who’s been in the game for more than 15 years, currently works with such contemporary luminaries as Barnaby Furnas, Adam Helms, Rachel Feinstein and Jay Heikes. She was instrumental in building the careers of Takashi Murakami and 2013 U.S. Venice Biennale rep Sarah Sze. But she would have to prove herself first.

It was, in many ways, a refreshing request. “He was testing me and really questioning me,” Boesky recalls with a laugh. “You’ve got to protect what you have and not put it in the wrong hands.”

Boesky’s arduous pursuit began after Heikes—who makes mostly abstract sculptures and tableaux out of materials ranging from silk to aluminum to porcupine quills—cited the artist as a major influence. “I knew his name and that he was part of the Arte Povera group, but I had never focused on the work,” she says. “He’s incredibly well-respected and collected by the best of the best in Europe. But he hasn’t been on the American collector radar for a long time.”

She reached out to friends and colleagues to see if anyone could put her in touch. And after some two years of letters, meetings, studio visits (no easy feat: Calzolari lives and works in Fossombrone, a remote enclave in Italy’s Marche region) and encouragement, Boesky convinced him to return to the U.S. to show. The blockbuster exhibition—Calzolari’s first solo in New York since 1988—runs through June 2. It consumes Boesky’s sizable West 24th Street space, as well as one of Pace Gallery’s three Chelsea outposts, just around the corner, on West 25th Street. The galleries will be connected by a new (but temporary) doorway cut through both spaces’ back walls. It’s a real testament to his importance that “it takes two galleries and a secret passageway to give justice to his work,” says Massimiliano Gioni, associate director of the New Museum, curator of the 2013 Venice Biennale’s International Art Exhibition and a longtime supporter of Calzolari’s.

The Arte Povera label is one that Calzolari is not totally comfortable with, but, as Gioni says, laughing, “That’s always how you recognize a real member of the Arte Povera movement: They deny belonging to it.” The pieces on view span eras (dating from 1967 through 2012) and media, with work mounted on walls, stretched over the ceiling, resting on the floor, running on generators and, even, at times, activated by live performers.

Calzolari was recently in town for a rare visit with Boesky and her staff in advance of the show’s late April opening. In person, he is every bit the prickly, soulful and beguiling Italian artist that I expected. His substantial gray beard is wiry and unkempt. His build is big and burly. His dress is casual, if not slightly disheveled. And he speaks in winding, carefully measured sentences, often with a potent hand-rolled cigarette dangling precariously from his right hand.

Calzolari was not at first interested in becoming an artist. He had initially hoped to become a concert violinist. “I tried to figure out whether my body and my mind could be suitable to be a great violinist, or just a mediocre one,” he says. “In my case, I decided I would be mediocre, so I wasn’t interested in doing that.”

He assisted his grandfather, who worked in graphic design, and started to paint a bit. There was, he says, an immediate desire to take control. He started thinking, “Who made me an instrument and who is playing me? I know it’s a very metaphysical answer, but it’s the only answer I can give when someone asks me why I became an artist.”

Calzolari was not terribly keen on the Abstract Expressionist trends that persisted at the time. Clinging instead to some form of representation—and continually taken by the art and architecture of Venice—he frequented the Riva degli Schiavoni, a famed waterfront promenade, and tried to paint what he saw. “I look at how the light would hit the marble balconies and try to represent it,” he says. “I thought I was quite good, but I always had the same problem. As soon as the painting was done, the light would be completely different. I was chasing something that was continuously changing.” He came to a very logical conclusion: He was using the wrong tool.

In the ’60s, Calzolari was exposed to the work of Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, who, also, sought to address the limitations of a traditional medium like paint. It was around this time that Arte Povera (as coined in 1967 by famed Italian curator and critic Germano Celant) started to take hold as well. Calzolari set up his first official studio in 1965 in Bologna, in his early twenties. It doubled as an alternative-art space of sorts, where he exhibited works by other emerging artists and screened experimental films by the likes of Andy Warhol and Jonas Mekas. The space also afforded Calzolari the opportunity to test-drive performance art. His first such work, from 1967, was Il filtro e benvenuto all’angelo (The Filter and Welcome to the Angel). “It was a very big white space, and I displayed grass on the floor and had white doves just flying around,” he says. “To enter the space, visitors would be asked to wear red socks.”

Though his tools are hardly characteristic of the medium, Calzolari has clung tightly to painting from a formal standpoint—the urge to create a balanced composition, be it on the wall or through sculptures, sound or living things roaming in a gallery. “I didn’t consider Il filtro to be an installation or a performance,” he says. “It was a formalist work based on the colors white, red and green. The red would be the socks on the visitors moving throughout the space. The doves would be drawing lines within the space, and the green, of course, would be the grass.”

The artist soon started working with materials such as tobacco leaves, fluorescent lights and basic mechanical devices, like water pumps. He also discovered frost (as produced by the refrigerator generators that power several of his works) to be an apt way to capture that elusive, ever-changing Venetian light that seduced him as a child.

In the 1970s and ’80s, Calzolari jumped from city to city around the globe before permanently relocating to Fossombrone, in 1984. “He wanted to have peace and just make his work,” Boesky says. “He didn’t want to be part of a collective or a movement.”

Calzolari remains active as ever, constantly producing new work. Over the past ten years, he has also been compulsively buying back his old work, snapping up pieces whenever they are available and storing them in a 21,527-square-foot warehouse near his studio. He is driven by “an obsessive jealousy,” he says. And by an Arte Povera–esque view of the art market: “It has made everybody blind.”

“It’s pretty extraordinary to see,” Boesky says. “He cares very deeply about each object, making sure they are perfectly restored. And he refers back to them all the time.”

For Boesky, Calzolari is an important addition to the gallery. “There’s this progression in my program that’s starting to evolve,” she says. “It carves out a sort of niche for my gallery as more of a boutique experience.

“We’re big, but we’re not Gagosian and we never will be,” she adds. “I’m not so interested in finding young artists and just making them ‘hot.’ I’m interested in showing artists as part of an evolution.”

As for Calzolari, he’s eager for his reintroduction to New York City. “This idea of having a new audience, having people who have never seen the work before in such a full scale—it’s very emotional,” he says. “And I’m curious how this will be perceived.”

Pier Paolo Calzolari: The Details

“When the Dreamer Dies, What Happens to the Dream?” runs through June 2 and consumes two galleries, Marianne Boesky Gallery and The Pace Gallery in New York. For details, go to marianneboeskygallery.com and thepacegallery.com.