View of the exhibition “Gianni Piacentino: Works 1965-2013,” 2015, showing (left) Warm Violet Gray Pole II, 1966-67, and (right) Dark Dull Pink Large X, 1966, at Michael Werner.

This recent mini survey of Italian artist Gianni Piacentino (b. 1945), a rather renegade member of the original Arte Povera group, featured nine major works spanning nearly five decades, from 1965 to 2013. The show was a pared-down version of a 2013 museum retrospective organized by curator Andrea Bellini for the Centre d’Art Contemporain in Geneva. (Another Piacentino retrospective, organized by Germano Celant, is currently on view at Milan’s Fondazione Prada, through Jan. 10, 2016.) 

Launched in Turin in the mid-1960s, the Arte Povera group became well known for ad hoc installations and sculptures employing unorthodox, abject or found materials. Within the group, Piacentino was regarded as a materials expert, having studied the development and use of various plastics and resins in the early 1960s. He incorporated these substances into his own work, and often assisted other Arte Povera artists in experimenting with novel techniques and materials. 

Piacentino, then in his 20s, created minimalist paintings and sculptures; the ultra-refined, rather precious surfaces that he favored differed dramatically from the more rough-hewn works by his peers. The show featured several prime examples from this period, such as the vertical diptych Amaryllis (1965). The lower panel of this monochrome red-brown painting is set flush against the wall, while, disconcertingly, the upper panel leans forward at a slight angle. With its monolithic comportment, the work straddles painting and sculpture, as does Dark Dull Pink Large X (1966). At 10 feet high and wide, this simple but imposing wall piece consists of the title form rendered with painted, polyester-coated wood strips.

Austere and audacious, these objects were unlike anything else being done at that moment in Italy—and perhaps in Europe in general—and evolved independently of the work of American Minimalists. At the time, Piacentino was unaware of like-minded artists like Walter De Maria and Sol LeWitt, although in later years they became supporters and friends of his. Piacentino’s early works also correspond to those of West Coast Finish Fetish artists, especially John McCracken, whom Piacentino was also unaware of at the time. 

In the early landmark Arte Povera exhibitions in Italy, Piacentino’s works were shown with those of prominent members of the group, including Giovanni Anselmo, Alighiero Boetti, Michelangelo Pistoletto, Piero Gilardi, Jannis Kounellis, Mario Merz and Marisa Merz. But his style was often at odds with the group’s prevailing aesthetic. His detractors found his work too polished, and they derided its fetishistic attributes. In the exhibitions, his pieces were often relegated to the back of the room. Feeling marginalized, and following numerous altercations, Piacentino left the group in the late 1960s.  

With the support of collectors abroad, especially in Germany, he followed his own path. He continued to refine his work, centering it on themes of speed, using racecar motifs and images of propellers and other mechanisms of early aviation, which continue to preoccupy him today. Representing the 1970s, the narrow 10-foot-long wood and bronze Gray and Amaranth Decorated and Initialed Rectangular Bar (1971) resembles a car ornament. At the center, a rendering of the artist’s initials, in highly stylized block lettering in nickel-plated bronze, has the slick look of a logo. 

The most recent work here, the only sculpture in the round, Nickel Frame Vehicle with Aluminum Triangle Tank and Wheels_F_Model 71 (2013), seems to be emblematic of speed itself. The shiny, two-wheeled contraption made of elongated triangles suggests an aerodynamic vehicle. In this iconic piece, and in many of his recent works, Piacentino idealizes motion in an expressive way, aiming for something personal, beyond the world of physics.