Michelangelo Pistoletto, From One to Many, 1956-1974
After my visit to the Barnes Foundation I made a quick trip to the Philadelphia Art Museum to see a show of Michelangelo Pistoletto’s work. Pistoletto was born in Northwest Italy in 1933 and came of age in postwar Italy. Much of his work is a reaction to the tensions that existed in society during the 1960s and 1970s. He began his “Quadri Specchianti” (mirror paintings for which he is best-known) in 1962. The mirror was used as “a means to reflect, reproduce and interpret the world.” He moved away from the notion of static figure painting to art that included the viewer in the narrative of the work itself. He also worked in plexiglas in the mid 1960s. A key player in the Arte Povera movement Pistoletto believed that the artist’s job is not only to “create artwork but, through that practice, to reflect upon the relationship that pervades our everyday interactions with the world.”
Pistoletto’s father was a painting restorer and thus he was exposed at an early age to the art of Giacometti, Francis Bacon (whose influence is quite evident in his work), and Alberto Burri. The most accessible subject Pistoletto had was himself so early in his career he painted self-portraits. He used solid colors in the background with silhouettes of figures in the foreground. It was during this time that he came up with the idea of using his own reflection as part of the work since the surfaces of his early paintings were so highly reflective.
Made of painted tissue paper on highly polished steel, his mirror paintings created an awareness of the passage of time since part of the image constantly changed depending on who was standing in front of a work. In the creation of these works, Pistoletto hired a photographer his father used for documenting the restoration of works to take pictures of his friends and family. He then took all of the context away and isolated the figures in the composition. The photos were enlarged, cut out and painted in detail by Pistoletto before being affixed to the steel panels.
By 1964, Pistoletto began to investigate a new medium–Plexiglas. Shown alongside his mirror paintings, these works explore a new idea. He believes the works are ideas of objects more than representations of them. This anticipates conceptual art by a few years.
In 1965 and 1966, Pistoletto made works that were reactions to the sociopolitical situation at the time called the “Demonstrations” series. He would take shots of rallies and isolate figures from them, manipulating the viewers sense of what they were seeing without them even realizing it.
Light and reflection became of interest to Pistoletto in 1967, once again emphasizing the passing of time. The strands of lights in Painting of Electric Wires made me think of Felix Gonzalez- Torres. He also achieved the reflective qualities from placing a sheet of mylar on the ground.
He continued to work on sculpture using Stracci (rags) from his studio as actual works of art themselves. By juxtaposing classical sculpture with piles of rags, these works were great examples of the Arte Povera which made people question what the definition of art actually is.
Pistoletto returned to mirror paintings from 1966-1969. These works not only included strangers instead of family and friends but they had vibrant colors instead of his usual monochromatic palette. A sense of the theatrical is evident in some of the poses of the subjects. Many of the subjects are looking intently, at what we are not sure. However, in this image of a woman holding a book, Pistoletto once again manipulates by putting his name on the cover alluding to the fact that she is contemplating one of Pistoletto’s art creations.
Minus Objects were also created by Pistoletto from 1965-66 at that same time that Minimalism was occurring in the States. He did not view these varied sculptural, installation works as constructions…but liberations. He was free to use any number of materials in their creation. The twisted canvases seem to be a combination of Ellsworth Kelly and Robert Morris.
Pistoletto was part of a performance collective called Lo Zoo that performed in the streets as well as theaters. By 1972 Lo Zoo has disbanded and Pistoletto returned once again to making mirror paintings. I am fond of the work, Saracinesca, which I found humorous in its realism though it was made at a time when Pistoletto was commenting on violence in Italian culture.
By the late 1960s and early 1970s Pistoletto altered his process for making the mirror paintings to using silkscreen. In fact, I had never seen examples of his tissue paper on stainless steel works in person. I was only familiar with his silkscreened works. This made the creation of images easier and quicker. Though he could have only created multiple editioned works with this new process, he chose to make unique works.
Still active, Pistoletto had work in the last Venice biennale and just recently was the keynote speaker at Art Basel Miami Beach. Though I thought I was familiar with his work, this show was interesting and provided more insight into this important and influential artist’s work.