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Collections> Browse Michelangelo Pistoletto

Michelangelo Pistoletto
Holdings (7)
2 paintings, 3 books, 1 sculpture, 1

essay Michelangelo Pistoletto, Walker Art Center Collections, 2005

Michelangelo Pistoletto came of age in the 1960s as one of a generation of artists radically exploring new aesthetic territories: reinventing a synthesis of art and life in the context of postwar consumer culture. A multidisciplinary approach informs his art with works ranging from paintings, sculptures, and photographs to performances and installations that often blur the boundaries between media. Best known as one of the leading figures of Arte Povera, Pistoletto began his career as a painter in the mid-1950s, focusing primarily on self-portraiture. He soon abandoned the post-Informel approach that defines his early work—with its existential anxiety and debt to British artist Francis Bacon—and in 19621 started working on a series of large works combining photography, painting, and collage.2 He called them quadri specchianti (mirror paintings): life-size images based on enlarged photographs, which are rendered in oil and pencil on translucent tissue-paper silhouettes and then glued onto stainless-steel surfaces so polished that they become reflective.

The definition of quadri specchianti implies the idea of process (specchianti literally means “mirroring/reflecting”). Like the phenomenological “open work” described by Italian theorist Umberto Eco, Pistoletto’s reflecting works are paintings whose “subject … is the background, conceived as the possibility of continuous metamorphosis.”3

A key example of quadri specchianti is Tre ragazze alla balconata (Three Girls on a Balcony) (1962–1964)—viewed from the back, three women are portrayed leaning on the rail of a balcony, their pose crystallized in the memory of a photograph.4 The figures belong to the realm of the everyday, yet they remain mysterious and enigmatic. They are fragments of an impossible narrative whose linear continuity has been lost, just like the estranged characters of a Michelangelo Antonioni film. The motif of the balcony conveys the dialectics between looking and being looked at, looking in and looking out, thus functioning here as a metaphor for painting: a space “in between” where presence and absence, stasis and dynamism meet. While playing with the Renaissance idea of a painting as a window on the world, Pistoletto conceives of art as a field of forces constantly in the making. Expressing his conceptual strategy, he has declared: “The entire system of representation has been flip-flopped. The system has arrived at a reflection of itself.”5 Art is potentially turned from finished object into ever-changing spectacle.6

Inscribed in the context of postwar American and European art of the late 1950s and early 1960s (represented in Italy by artists Lucio Fontana and Piero Manzoni, among others), Pistoletto’s quadri specchianti participate in the reaction to Abstract Expressionism by means of a gesture of erasure: the annihilation of the painterly ego through the use of photography as a source for the figure and the invention of a mirrorlike background incorporating the viewer’s physical presence. Contemplation is transformed into con temp l’azione (with time action), to borrow the title of a renowned Italian event-exhibition.7

The idea of painting as a space to inhabit is further developed in another series of works known as the Oggetti in meno (Minus Objects). Exhibited by Pistoletto in his studio in 1966, these works obliterate the distinction between public gallery space and private living space. Quadro da pranzo (Lunch Painting) from 1965 is one of these minus objects. In the artist’s words, “Unlike the mirror paintings, my new objects do not represent: they are … objects through whose agency I free myself from something—not constructions, then, but liberations. I do not consider them more but less, not pluses, but minuses.”8Quadro da pranzo consists of a wooden structure containing in its “frame” two life-size wooden chairs and a table in a simplified geometric design. Part painting, part sculpture, part everyday object, this work incorporates the white wall onto which it is positioned, challenging the very idea of art and its presentation. The title itself expresses a provocative synthesis of art and life by turning the idea of the tableau into an object. As we entered and exited the mirror paintings, now we are invited to live in the painting, sitting on it and inside it. The conceptual aspect is integral to the work. As Pistoletto has written, “To the idea of the wall can be ‘attached’ the idea of painting, to which the idea of the object can be ‘attached,’ to which the idea of the subject can be ‘attached.’ ”9

  1. Pistoletto has retrospectively defined as his first mirror painting the 1961 work Il presente (The Present). Although realized in acrylic and varnish on canvas, its luminous background projected his reflection into the painting, thus suggesting to him the idea of mirrorlike surfaces. See Michelangelo Pistoletto, “Gli oggetti in meno,” in Michelangelo Pistoletto, exh. cat. (Genoa: Galleria La Bertesca, 1966), reprinted in Michelangelo Pistoletto, A Minus Artist (Florence: Hopefulmonster, 1988), 12–14.

  2. Martin Friedman has noted that the collaged photographic image functions here as the “catalyzing force which makes the spectator enter into new spatial and psychological relationships.” Martin Friedman, Michelangelo Pistoletto: A Reflected World, exh. cat. (Minneapolis: Walker Art Center, 1966), unpaginated. The Walker exhibition in 1966 was the first U.S. museum presentation of Pistoletto’s work.

  3. Umberto Eco, Opera aperta (Milan: Bompiani, 1962), 136. (Trans. Francesca Pietropaolo). Among the key sources for Eco’s reflections on art (painting, sculpture, literature, music, and film) are French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty and American philosopher John Dewey, both crucial references in the cultural debate of the 1960s in Italy. See also Corinna Criticos, “Reading Arte Povera,” in Richard Flood and Frances Morris, eds., Zero to Infinity: Arte Povera 1962–1972, exh. cat. (Minneapolis: Walker Art Center, 2001), 67–88.

  4. As philosopher Roland Barthes has noted, “Death is the eidos of that Photograph.” To Pistoletto, the photograph “has its origin in the past; … but its life continues and is extended within … the mirror pictures.” See Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Hill & Wang, 1981), 15; and Michelangelo Pistoletto’s interview with Martin Friedman, 1966 (Artist correspondence, Walker Art Center Archives).

  5. Michelangelo Pistoletto, “L’immagine e il suo dop(pi)o” (“The image and its double”), Bit 1 (December 1967): 9.

  6. Pistoletto would subsequently develop the idea of art as spectacle through a series of performances. See Alanna Heiss and Germano Celant, eds., Pistoletto: Division and Multiplication of the Mirror (New York: Institute for Contemporary Art P.S.1 Museum, 1988), 32.

  7. In 1967 critic Daniela Palazzoli organized a joint group show at the Stein, Sperone, and Il Punto galleries in Turin under the title Con temp l’azione (with time action), which plays in Italian with contemplazione (contemplation). Pistoletto participated by rolling, assisted by Maria Pioppi, his Palla di giornali (Ball of Newspapers) on the streets of the city, from one gallery to the next.

  8. Pistoletto, “Gli oggetti in meno,” reprinted in A Minus Artist, 12–14.

  9. In the original text: “all’idea del muro può stare attaccata l’idea del quadro a cui può stare attaccata l’idea dell’oggetto, a cui può stare attaccata l’idea del soggetto.” Trans. Francesca Pietropaolo.

Pietropaolo, Francesca. “Michelangelo Pistoletto.” In Bits & Pieces Put Together to Present a Semblance of a Whole: Walker Art Center Collections, edited by Joan Rothfuss and Elizabeth Carpenter. Minneapolis, MN: Walker Art Center, 2005.

© 2005 Walker Art Center


artist’s quote artist’s quote Pistoletto, Michelangelo, 1964

I believe that Man’s first real figurative experience is the recognition of his own image in the mirror: the fiction which comes closest to reality. But it is not long before the reflection begins to send back the same unknowns, the same questions, the same problems, as reality itself: unknowns and questions which Man is driven to re-propose in the form of pictures…. The figurative object born of this action allows me to pursue my inquiry within the picture as within life, given that the two entities are figuratively connected. I do indeed find myself inside the picture, beyond the wall which is perforated (though not, of course, in a material sense) by the mirror. On the contrary, since I cannot enter it physically, if I am to inquire into the structure of art, I must make the picture move outwards into reality, creating the “fiction” of being myself “beyond the looking glass.” Michelangelo Pistoletto, 1964