Piero Gilardi’s Nature Carpets Merge Art and Everyday Life

On view at New York’s Magazzino Italian Art through January 2023, Gilardi: Tappeto-Natura is the artist’s first museum retrospective in the United States.

What if you could cut a square chunk out of the forest floor and bring that perfectly preserved piece of the landscape home at the end of a hike? Or re-create a sliver of a summer garden in all its beauty and diversity in a form that will never decompose or become polluted? It sounds like science fiction or a marvel of genetic engineering, but in fact, it’s a potent artistic vision that emerged in 1965 from the Turin-based studio of Italian artist Piero Gilardi (b. 1942).

At the intersection of three movements—Italy’s Arte Povera and the beginnings of the environmental and performance art movements of the 1960s—Gilardi began making intricate carvings of idealized natural phenomena motivated by a deep desire to “safeguard nature” from increasing pollution. While his work gained traction among the Italian avant-garde (Ettore Sottsass once commented that his sculptures spread “awareness of the invasion of deadly phenomena surrounding us”), Gilardi has remained relatively unknown in the United States, until now, thanks to a new survey at Cold Spring, New York’s Magazzino Italian Art.

a black and white image of piero gilardi in his studio standing on top of one of his nature carpets
Piero Gilardi in his studio, Turin 1967. Courtesy the artist.
color photograph of artist piero gilardi's nature carpets piled on top of each other in a gallery
Gilardi exhibition at Galerie Ileana Sonnabend, Paris 1967. Courtesy the artist.

Gilardi coined the term “Microemotive Art’ in 1966 for his carvings, which embody the Arte Povera maxim “Art = Life” and were often conceptualized as “relational art” that took into consideration the energies, subjectivities, and experiences of both the artist and the audience. He calls these ecological works Tappeto-Natura or “Nature Carpets.” Gilardi conceived of his “carpets”, which he carved out of polyurethane foam saturated with pigment and dissolved in vinyl resin and rubber latex, as slices of uncontaminated nature that could be reconfigured on the floor, the wall, or even the body as a means of re-enchanting the modern world with nature. Often, he made them as large rolls and sold “cuts” of the art by the meter. At other times, his designs took the shape of dresses that could be brought to life through dance and performance. While gallery audiences can’t physically step on Gilardi’s original 1960s-era carpets, they can’t help but feel visually delighted by the way the objects take up space. Realistic heads of cabbage and verdant papaya trees grow out of walls; rectangular fragments of mossy earth or the pebbled bed of a creek cover the floor; a flock of seagulls perpetually ride the crest of a wave. In 1968, the iconic Italian furniture manufacturer Gufram began selling Gilardi-designed rock-shaped seating that is still in production today, preserving his vision to merge art and everyday life.

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