Gilberto Zorio, in London this week
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Gilberto Zorio is wilting by the time he arrives at his Mayfair hotel from the airport. “I think the taxi driver got lost,” murmurs the Turin-based artist, his brown eyes rimmed by shadow and one hand pressing into a painful lower back. I suggest that he and Grazia Toderi, his wife, who is also a successful artist and film-maker, have a moment’s pause in their room.

When the couple reappears, we come to roost at a table in the restaurant, together with Mario Codagnato, chief curator of Blain Southern gallery where Zorio is about to have a solo exhibition. Coffees arrive. Spirits lift. Zorio, a striking figure in dazzling white shirt, black jacket and black cashmere scarf, exclaims in admiration at the patterned froth on Toderi’s cappuccino before muttering “E’ buono” in mild surprise as he sips his own espresso.

Now in his 69th year, Zorio is the quiet man of Arte Povera, the Italian movement that kicked off in the late 1960s when a group of artists started to make sculptures from everyday materials such as coal, sackcloth and cast-off industrial scraps. It’s no coincidence that their home town was Turin, hub of the Fiat empire and powerful trade unions. The Povera band, which included Michelangelo Pistoletto, Alighiero Boetti and Giuseppe Penone, wanted to make art that spoke of and to the workers rather than follow the slick, graphic ethos of US Pop.

Arte Povera percolated deep into the psyches of many of today’s most successful contemporary artists, among them Damien Hirst, an impact that has been acknowledged with recent solo shows for Pistoletto (at the Serpentine) and Boetti (at Tate Modern). Zorio is equally respected; one of the hits of this year’s Venice Biennale is the Prada Foundation’s recreation of When Attitudes Become Form, a seminal show curated by Harald Szeemann in Bern in 1969, where Zorio’s sculptures play a leading role. So why has he slipped under the British – and even more so, the American – radar?

“He’s very focused on his work,” Codognato tells me before Zorio joins us. “He just isn’t that interested in publicity.”

While other Arte Povera artists used their materials to express social and conceptual insights – think of Boetti’s mind-bending sequences, or Pistoletto’s mirror portraits – the primary concern of Zorio is with the physical nature of matter itself.

Visitors to Blain Southern can expect to find a gallery that resembles a laboratory. Yoked together from his lexicon of recurring symbols – stars, canoes, javelins – often connected by long, slender, iron tubes so that they soar through the air like perilous mobiles, Zorio’s sculptures hiss and steam, inflate and contract, light up and darken. Crucibles of copper sulphate, melted metal surfaces and bursts of phosphorescence add to the mood of risky hazard. Often the reactions are provoked by stimuli beyond the artist’s control: a change in temperature in the gallery, or the presence of a spectator.

To my surprise, many of these gnomic assemblies turn out to have their origins in concrete memories. Zorio’s predilection for canoes, for example, stems from a spell in his childhood spent in Termoli in southern Italy.

“I went to school in a medieval castle that overlooked the port which was being excavated,” he recalls. “I spent all my time looking out the window watching these huge boats that had sunk during the war being pulled up from the seabed.” He pauses, rapt.

“Boats that fly are not a thing you see every day. It was like a dream.”

By then, his enthusiasm for art had been fired. “My father was a geometra [overseer of public building projects],” he explains. “But my mother used to paint and I was always near to her canvases …I found a portrait by Raphael in an album and fell in love with it,” he continues, adding that he championed the Tuscan master while his brother was an advocate for Giotto.

Afflicted by childhood illness, he spent hours in bed drawing and modelling. After moving back from the south to Turin, where he was born, he studied ceramics at school and was captivated by terracotta.

“It was the first material to be synthesised by humankind!” he exclaims. “You take this mud, you model it, it copies your hands, then you put it in the furnace and it comes out like a stone!”

He taps the china sugar bowl on the table as an example of what is clearly still a quasi-magical process to him.

He had his first gallery show at the startlingly early age of 18. Asked how it came about, he alludes to the artistic ferment that was early 1960s Turin.

“I lived in an area called La Crocetta where, in the radius of a few hundred metres, also lived the artists Piero Gilardi [a key influence on Arte Povera] and Piero Ruggeri [a leading abstract painter]. Behind my house there was a wonderful colorificio [where pigments were sold] where we all used to meet, and nearby, a new gallery called the Piccola Galleria d’Arte Moderna.

“Also there were four cinemas, railways, building sites and the university. It was a magnificent place.”

Zorio’s first show catapulted him to the heart of the avant-garde, even drawing a visit from Enzo Sperone, now famous for his New York gallery Sperone Westwater, but then still in Italy. Despite the success, fear of becoming “a mannerist” saw Zorio change tactics. He spent the next two years “cooling myself down”. Banishing all “tactility and manuality”, he forced himself to “deliberately use materials I didn’t love”.

By 1967, when solo and group shows in Sperone’s Turin gallery announced him as a serious talent, Zorio was presenting mute industrial materials – cement, concrete, rubber, fluorescent tubing, polyurethane – as actors caught up in vital, unpredictable alchemies.

‘Aluminium Star on Skin’ (2006)

Key works included “Rosa-Blu-Rosa” (1967), a semi-spherical cement column filled with cobalt chloride that changed from pink to blue according to the humidity. “On the opening night, there was an incredible fog and they left the door open,” he chortles now, remembering the dramatic effect of its chameleon hues. Behind his fascination with such processes lies a delight in “the crazy autonomy” they give to the work. “It doesn’t change straight away. It changes when it wants to. So you don’t represent it. It auto-represents.”

Listening to Zorio, you can hear the whisper of the post-structuralist philosophies of the 1960s and 70s: the instability between self and other, the uncertainty of meaning, the dialectical encounter between different forces. Yet his skill lies in translating this intellectual ballast into an art that is simultaneously raw and ethereal. His sculptures seem profoundly earthed yet on the verge of evaporation or self-immolation.

His own manner mirrors this paradox. One moment he is voyaging down a whimsical tangent, the next he has veered back to more grounded sentiments.

For example, he is now worried about conservation. “Many [of my earlier works] have suffered. People don’t always respect the chemical processes, particularly when they are taking down the displays.” As an aside, he murmurs that the humidity at Prada’s Venetian palace is giving grounds for concern.

Did he never foresee this problem? “A bit yes, a bit no. I thought: ‘Oh well, I can always retouch them a bit.’” His tone betrays the naivety of the young man who did not know, as his wife points out sweetly, that he was making works which would “transform art history”.

Indeed Toderi, who is some 20 years younger than Zorio, was nervous when she first encountered him. “Because of the violent energy of his works, I thought he might not be very nice,” she says, with a radiant smile. “But he is actually the most gentle person.”

Gilberto Zorio, Blain Southern, London August 9-September 28

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