Michelangelo Pistoletto
30 June-4 November 2007


La venere degli stracchi, 1967
PHoto P. Pellion

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The Nice Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art is devoting its temporary exhibition spaces to the powerful and extraordinary work of Michelangelo Pistoletto. The exhibition includes 68 works, mostly from the artist’s personal collection, which will acquaint visitors with his entire career, from the Self-Portraits and Mirror Paintings of the 60s, through the Arte Povera works, Minus Objects and Divided Mirrors of the 70s, to Art Sign, his latest concept, materialized in objects of everyday use. There are also numerous documents relating to his performances of the 80s, and to Cittadellarte, site of the University of Ideas he has created in Biella, Italy.
The artist’s humanist dimension is unique. It gives an ethical basis to his oeuvre, broadening it and reinforcing the aesthetic component of his art.

The exhibition opens with Autoritratto oro 1960 and Il Presente – Uomo di schiena 1960-61. The effect of the glossy varnish that covers these early oils on canvas, appeared to the artist to reflect an other reality—that of the viewer standing in front of the painting, seeing in its surface himself and the surrounding space of the gallery or studio.

Next, Pistoletto devised backgrounds of polished steel, over which he applied the fixed image of a more or less anonymous figure—first in adhesive vellum, then in silkscreen. These are the Quadri Specchianti, or Mirror Paintings, in which the duplication of the image becomes a theater of analytic perception. The sequential play, in the mirror, of reflections of the immediate surroundings, including us as viewers as we survey the room and approach the work, causes first surprise, then reflection of the cerebral kind. Time and space telescope on the bright surface, leading to a loss of the fixed points that ordinarily mark out our true life, but here are scrambled in a dizzying manner. “The work is two-dimensional, because it’s a picture with height and width; it has a depth that suggests three-dimensionality; it is four-dimensional because one perceives the true measure of time. All time is there: past, present and future” (from Conversation with Michelangelo Pistoletto / Gilbert Perlein).

After setting a significant and spectacular course, in the early 60s, with the Quadri Specchianti, Pistoletto shifted expectations in a provocative way with the Minus Objects. In just a few months, in late 1965 and early 1966, he created a group of works that were unusual not because of their astonishing and sometimes commonplace appearance (mobili, letto … ) but because of their juxtaposition in a single space—his studio, first of all, then cutting-edge contemporary art galleries. “In 1965-66 I brought together a series of works under the title, Minus Objects. Though they were proposed as volumes, all of these objects made reference to an idea of subtraction, of material displacement, of materiality that they did not attempt align with the obtuse power of an alienating monumentality” (from Les Mots, published for the exhibition at Centre d’art contemporain du Creux de l’Enfer, Thiers, 1993).
To identify the author of these works on stylistic grounds is out of the question. Objects as different as an antique wooden Virgin protected by orange plexiglas (Scultura lignea 1965-66), or a gigantic, open rose made of partially burned corrugated cardboard (Rosa bruciata 1965), rub elbows with a large-scale photograph of Jasper Johns’ ears, or with an oblong vitrine displaying men’s clothing (Vetrina 1965). Works like Casa a misura d’uomo, Lampa a mercurio and Mappamondo have nothing in common. Even the term, ‘minus’ objects, continues, today, to make critics’ ink flow. The most complete expression of this series is undoubtedly the Cubic Meter of Infinity, a closed cube whose six inner faces are mirrors. Clearly, from the outside one does not see these mirrors, which endlessly reflect one another in the darkness of the box—or so one imagines. It is the quintessence of concept.

These works preceded the theoretical framework of Arte Povera constructed by Germano Celant in 1967. Michelangelo Pistoletto was not part of the initial presentation of Arte Povera, at Galerie La Bertesca in 1967; he first showed with the others at Galerie Stein-Sperone-Il Punto in December 1967, in “Con temp l’azione”. Celant theorized the main intuitions and common characteristics of the fifteen or so artists, and acknowledged the new meaning they brought to the Turin art scene by offering original responses to a formal inquiry centered on the means of art. Michelangelo Pistoletto’s work took form at that time when the 50s climate of alienation and existential angst—the cultural malaise of a society wholly focused on wellbeing—overflowed into the 60s. The artist confronted this society, the art world and its financial or aesthetic dictates. The period was seething with creative ideas in all areas of artistic endeavor, in writing as in music and theater, on a scene where these activities came together. Venere degli Stracci 1967 and Borna miliare 1967 came from the repertory of antiquity, but Borne is etched with the date 1967, and Venus is half buried in a heap of brightly colored, used rags, which symbolize contemporary consumer society while recalling the traditional way of life of those families who used and reused the even humblest material until it turned to dust.

At the same time Michelangelo Pistoletto took his investigation of the mirror in another direction. He delved into the basic structure of the material, dividing that structure in two, four, n fragments, all of which continued to work as the principal element had. He progressed by dividing and multiplying the mirror. Each part had the power to capture the universe and to give it back. Pistoletto extended the mirror’s basic function by dividing it until its reflective capability approached infinity. His works became more and more imposing, with visual repercussions in the spaces they occupied, which were chosen by virtue of their meditative atmosphere.
In 1968, at the Venice Biennale, Pistoletto presented the manifesto of “Collaboration”. This act marked the birth of the Zoo, an open-ended group that proposed an art of creative exchange, of discovery of the identity of ‘others’. The Zoo proposed an intersubjective activity that was neither theater, nor happening, strictly speaking, but that aspired to take artistic creation beyond the object. This sort of activity has cropped up time and again in Pistoletto’s artistic endeavors, often involving family, friends and fellow artists; it gained its most concrete expression in the creation of Cittadellarte, in Biella, in 1996. At Cittadellarte he applied the action of dividing-multiplying the mirror to a microcosmic society. In an old mill, in a region once specialized in making threads and yarns from the most beautiful wools, in an imposing architectural context, he brought researchers—veteran or novice artists, writers, and scientists—to a sort of crucible where the exchange of ideas sparks an active collaboration with far-reaching social benefits.

His most recent undertaking, in keeping with the goals expressed in the concept of Cittadellarte, has been to choose a symbol to be his personal sign—the Segno Arte, or Art Sign—which he shapes into all possible forms of utilitarian object: a table, a four-poster bed, a window, a radiator, and a door—which all the more symbolic as the door is the means of “passage”, a sign of the fusion of art and life.

The project as a whole—the choice of works, their installation, and the editorial management of the catalogue—has been carried out in close collaboration with Michelangelo and Maria Pistoletto.
Excerpts from the conversation between Michelangelo Pistoletto / Gilbert Perlein
19 February 2007

 

Gilbert Perlein
Can you begin by telling us about this archaeology, this very first step in your reflection on portraiture, the reflection on black or gold grounds, and the move to the Mirror Paintings?

Michelangelo Pistoletto
That’s true, you spoke of archaeology and I think my first step really touches upon the archaeology of Art, including the basic concept of the icon, which is deeply meaningful in representational art because it is the projection of spiritual thought. Representation is one of the important elements of the history of Art, which begins not with icons but with rock carvings on cave walls. It is all a matter of raising thought and, at the same time, of representing reality.
I felt a personal need to find my spiritual path in the history of figuration. Yet I’m indebted to modern Art, too, and to the discovery I could make with it. Modern Art opened up a vital passage. It offered Art a sort of freedom and autonomy that was never before so clear, so obvious, so real, I think. Spirituality lodged itself, then, in an autonomous manner, in the innermost depths of Art itself.
To my understanding, this spirituality was linked not only to the different movements that came forth in the 20th century, but above all to the individuals who, by gaining their own autonomy, gave autonomy to Art in return. It’s this individual autonomy I sought, to see how to find my spiritual identity, with my nature, with my image and at the same time with the necessity I had to overcome this image. So, I did something different from what had been done before. I tried to enable my subjectivity to open up to objectivity, to open up to something that had not begun in that precise moment but that came from far away, therefore from the history of Art. I wanted to do something new without breaking with the past, but following on the past.

GP
Then your path turned toward self-portraiture.

MP
Yes, self-portraiture. I rejected abstraction but I accepted representation, which came from the very distant past, and I set out to give it a contemporary justification. That’s why I used a mirror to see myself and, thanks to the mirror, I was able to make my self-portrait. One can’t make a self-portrait without a mirror. As a rule, when an artist paints his self-portrait, he finds himself alone on the canvas. It wasn’t solitude I was looking for in my inquiry: that seemed contradictory, in a way. I was looking for my relationship to the world through my self-portrait…

GP
This was the time of the black-ground pictures.

MP
Yes. I made one, first of all, then when I saw that was really what I was looking for, I went on. But earlier on I had used gold, silver and other grounds rooted in the tradition of Byzantine icons—a tradition greatly concerned with spirituality. Long ago, God was represented as a human being with the infinite light of the Divine glowing around him. I was painting a human being, and the light around him was not an abstract light, the sign of the Divine, but the light of reality, of the things that exist. The light of reality as it is, hence the light of the whole world. There is no longer just light, there is the universe, space, time, people, society…. All existence is in the work.

GP
When you speak like this you are already describing the Mirror Paintings.

MP
Yes, but in the event it was the picture I titled Il Presente, the present. The first picture, I made looking straight into it. I realized right away that the guy reflected in the picture-made-mirror was I, too. So I painted myself from behind—that is to say, turned the same way as the viewer looking at him/herself in the mirror. That’s how I went a step further and attached my self to the mirror.

GP
Do you want to go back to the choice of the title for this picture, Il Presente?

MP
It was clear that what was going on there was the present. The artist is present with his image. The public, the audience, the viewers, are also there, at the same time. They all come from different situations, yet they are all there together. Everything takes place in the present. What one sees in the reflection is something that is going on, but going on through the present. Space is present. Time is marked by the present instant. Everything is present in the Presente paintings. But naturally, one has even more tangible elements in the works on polished steel, where photography replaces painting and makes the present even more pertinent….

MP
The mirror doesn’t exist without a viewer. One can say that if there were suddenly no more human beings in the world, mirrors would be pointless. It’s human consciousness that invented the mirror.

GP
You have a very fine formula concerning mirrors. You speak of them both as an incarnation and as an epiphany, two words that come straight out of a religious code—a Christian one. The two terms are pertinent. Incarnation, the moment at which part of a person, an artist or a viewer returns …

MP
… Because the image returns to the person. The mirror image is reincarnated in the viewer moment by moment. And regarding epiphany, it is rightly phenomenology that is called into play by the Mirror Paintings, which give rise to visions that could not be described without this experience. Epiphany is illumination. To have an epiphany a phenomenon must be born, must be produced, and something must reveal itself through this phenomenon. The Mirror Paintings are not personal works, they are not personal expressions of the artist, they depend on a totally objective phenomenology that produces information.

GP
I’d like to shift attention now, in a more specific way, to the media you use, to technique. A moment ago we spoke of personal mythology, of the problem of self-portraiture; can you tell us more about your choice of subjects? For the photographs, for instance, are you the photographer? What materials do you prefer for the images you are going to place on the mirror’s surface?

MP
A mirror is always ready to give us accurate images of the things that happen right in front of us, or of those that take place a little further away, which we may not see.
I even reached the point of making Mirror Paintings with images of Vietnam, of the Vietnam War. That was in 1965. These events clearly didn’t take place on the street in front of me, but I became aware of them through newspapers and television—I felt close to them after all. Modern media bring us distant images instantaneously. In the self-portraits I started with my own image, then replaced it with images of my friends and family, of everything that appeared around me. I didn’t stop after just one Mirror Painting, I kept working; it became a sort of narrative for me, a history that traversed my life. The stories, situations, objects—all these things cannot be reduced to a single specimen. In the mirror, one sees all kinds of things take place, all sorts of situations: there are people who embrace, who kill each other, who fall … shifting clouds. The mirror is a story. The things that pertain to life come across the surface of the mirror, they are expected. The mirror is always there, waiting, for what will happen tomorrow, or in the future. The image I put on the mirror is the image of an experience that immediately becomes memory. As soon as one takes a photograph, the present becomes a memory. One tries to hang on to the present via the memory, but one knows that the present passes swiftly, that tomorrow is already here….

Pierre Padovani
It’s not glass, it’s polished metal. Image and ground are placed on the same plane.

MP
Right. It’s polished metal. Technically it was impossible for me to use glass mirrors, because of the thickness of the glazing; the reflecting surface was on the back of the mirror and there was a distance between my fixed image and the reflection.

PP
Concerning the image, it doesn’t have to be a silkscreen process, necessarily: you worked with a mixed, painted and photographic technique, with the image pasted to the ground. You turned to silkscreen later.

MP
That’s right. I used different techniques. It was necessary to use the photographic process so the photograph could be made part of the image projected by the mirror. Why photography? Because the reflecting surface I used after 1962 demanded a painting, a fixed image that had the same objectivity as the image reproduced by the mirror. Only photography makes the image work as the eye sees it. Photography alone creates the sense of memory. A painting, even a very naturalistic one, responds to its own condition. A photograph truly represents a past moment. So, memory is there. And it was very important for me to let memory, the past, the present, and the future, come together at the same time, in the same place.

GP
The present, which is the instant T one looks at it, you bring back on the surface, a hyper-thin, diaphanous, almost intangible surface.

MP
The image I fix is always tangible, whereas the mirror image, the reflection, is intangible. This way, the physical and the non-physical find themselves living together, with just a tiny subtlety of difference.

GP
With the dualities you mention between the opaque, the reflecting, the two-dimensional, depth of field, the real, the virtual, the past, the future…

MP
The work is two-dimensional, because it’s a picture with height and width; it has a depth that suggests three-dimensionality; it is four-dimensional because one perceives the true measure of time. All time is there: past, present and future. Regarding time, there is a sort of precedent in the Grand Verre. One sees things move, through the glass.
In my works, every thing takes place on this side of the surface, not beyond the surface. The figure viewed from behind sees what is behind himself, in the mirror. What he sees is in front of us and behind us at the same time. The relationship between past and future changes drastically. The mirror captures the past, and it sends us back where we have come from. We see something that is there in front of us, and we can attain it by turning around. Duchamp readily accepted the crack in the Grand Verre because he probably thought, maybe, this way, one will be able to pass through to the other side of the glass one day….

GP
The moment you get away from the oneness of the mirror and you decide to divide it in two or more parts, by leaving this speculative field you start multiplying space and image. Can you say more about this new theoretic device?

MP
What led me to the division of the mirror? At one time I identified with the mirror. I considered my eye, myself, to be the mirror: I had to, in order to make my self-portrait. I wondered, what tool might the mirror need in order to know itself? The mirror duplicates everything that exists, but it always stands before, or faces, the existent. It cannot acknowledge itself. Just as my eyes cannot acknowledge themselves as they look upon the world. Both follow the same principle, don’t they? The only difference is that our eyes are mirrors that convey images to the brain, which produces thought.
So, a mirror can’t know itself if it doesn’t have a mirror in which it can see itself. I had to find a solution if I was going to duplicate the mirror. So I cut it in two and, from then on, the mirror had its double. There was no longer a single mirror, there were two. I set out from the basic concept of the universal mirror that reflects a universal reality. The concept of the mirror, itself, became the principal character, and I divided the concept of the mirror into two parts. One of the mirrors sees itself in the other, and the two together give rise to a third mirror that can be seen in the first two. So this is procreation. The same thing occurs in biology, in cell division.
What is important is that the mirror’s ignorance of itself can be represented mathematically by the figure 0, zero knowledge. I divided this 0 and got 2. I went from 0 to 2, 1+1 and 1+1 makes 3.
When the angle between two mirrors is reduced, the reflection within the mirrors is multiplied; the mirrors so generated become increasingly numerous, reaching infinity as the original mirrors are brought face to face. This is the mirror that recognizes itself in each new generation.
It was very important for me, above all, to be able to find philosophical, mathematical, spiritual and biological reasons for all this. The phenomenology of the work pressed on.
When I established Cittadellarte, which is an opening of collaborative art making to all sectors of society, I finally realized the importance of this work, the division-multiplication of the mirror. I became aware of the importance of the act of dividing. The act of dividing the mirror sparked the multiplication of the mirror itself. The division came before the multiplication. Of course, multiplication mingled with division, but the fundamental action of division was determinant.
As an artist, I know the value of action, and that is the basic value that I projected into the social sphere. My social aim is division, not accumulation. In Italian one says con-division…
In several cases I made mirrors lined up against a wall considering that each bit of mirror had the same value as the mirror as a whole. I created many others—broken, destroyed, with different shapes … and I called them ‘fractals’. Even the smallest element has the same quality, the same function as the whole mirror. Take the smallest bit it of: it has exactly the same function as the universal mirror, that of offering an image, of reflecting.

GP
Let’s turn now to the Cubic Meter of Infinity, which is another way—this time in three dimensions—of reaching a limit and of considering the exterior where one actually is, and the interior where one can project oneself mentally.

MP
In the Cubic Meter … there are not just two mirrors, there are six. They form a cube with the reflecting surfaces on the interior. The mirrors define a space in their midst, and it is this space that is reproduced without end. This work is representative of the whole Minus Objects series. The reflecting effect inside the cube is not visible. One enters the work with the imagination alone, by a mental exercise.
Why is the Cubic Meter representative of the Minus Objects? Infinity is contained in a finite body. Inside the cube, infinity is created in an intangible way, but it requires a physical space to exist and this finite body has the job of creating the infinite. The infinite produces this particular body in order to be incarnated in it. The Cubic Meter is the immateriality of the infinite, less this material body. So the cube is: infinity -1. In effect all objects are the totality minus one. Hence the Minus Objects….

GP
At this point we might say something about the Arte Povera sequence: the Mile Post, Venus of the Rags, Tail of Arte Povera and Little Monuments…

MP
Let’s take the Venus of the Rags, which is quite close to the Mirror Paintings. A Mirror Painting is made up of two basic elements, the image that doesn’t change and the images that do—in short, the photograph and the reflection. Venus has been around for a long time. She is memory, and the rags are the everyday nature of things, change in a material sense; they represent all things that pass, such as fashions. There is the lasting and the fleeting. The rags are debased products of consumer society. In Venus of the Rags, we are confronted with a classical relationship with beauty, with the quintessence of femininity, with fertility, the universal and the eternal, and it’s Venus who supports this heap of rags, who pushes it back. Venus, in the face of this invasion of litter created by modernity, steps back as we ourselves do before the Mirror Painting.

GP
Can you tell us about Art Sign?

MP
With the mirror, I eliminated personal signs altogether. And symbols. The mirror can be considered an archetypal symbol of representation, but I found in it the possibility of eliminating all social, political, economic, and religious signs, as well as subjective expression. Then, as my work evolved, I understood that I would be able to obtain new symbols from the mirror. It’s clear that I could never have conceived these new symbolic signs without passing through the Mirror Paintings and the Minus Objects….

PP
Concerning Art Sign, it seems this was not a new project: it appeared in 1976 in the book One Hundred Exhibitions in the Month of October.

MP
This was a little book published by Galleria Persano in Turin, after the twelve exhibitions of the Rooms at Galleria Christian Stein. The booklet brought together a hundred ideas, and the Sign project was described twice in it: on one page I propose my Art Sign and on another page I suggest that other people trace their own Art Sign, even if they are not artists. For me, the personal Art Sign is like a key for going in and out of a private place or for going from the social to the private. You need a key to get into your house, and it protects you. You protect yourself with a key. Every key is shaped differently from every other. I ask people to design their key for entering Art and for entering their home, at the same time.

PP
So it’s an individual sign within the collectivity.

PP
Exactly. A person in front of the mirror has a vision of the world, hence of society. The individual and society are inseparable organisms….

PP
And life is tangled up with it, too. The Sign can be a door, a table, a car …

MP
Sure. My Art Sign is a fusion of art and practical life. It is impossible in front of each of these works to say where Art ends and where everyday life, the daily use of objects, begins. Cittadellarte’s activity, too, touches upon different social sectors—politics, economics, communication, education, spirituality—initiating a permanent fusion of Art and life. At the basis of this assumption is the awareness that Art never loses its autonomy even if it is implicated in a practical way in social life. The Art Sign is emblematic in this sense. My Sign is, as you said, a passage as one sees it in a door taking the form of a person who goes through it. What is established at Cittadellarte is an ongoing acquisition of awareness and of knowledge that passes from the individual to the social.

GP
That brings us to this—splendid—idea of Cittadellarte, which is also what you have set forth all your life as a basic assumption, the artist’s social status, the artist and his presence in the world. Not the artist entrenched in his studio or in the production cycle of his work, but in the midst of something where art and life are blended, in any case of something effected by the gaze of those around him.

MP
For me, it’s the grand project that truly takes me from the dimension of ‘I’ to that of ‘we’; not so much ‘we’ as a group gathered around a specific activity (theater, cinema, performance), as ‘we’ as society. It’s the translation of the individual/humankind relationship that acquires a real dimension with Cittadellarte. The objective is to act in such a way the Art might truly touch humankind, overstepping a dividing line that is all too well marked. It is not acceptable, for me, that Art should talk about society, look at it, critique it, but do nothing with it in form or substance. Once again, we’re talking about a door that permits one to enter into society, bringing to it, concretely, an activity of responsible change. Art is no longer considered solely as bearing aesthetic change; it now brings real, ethical change…

Conversation with Michelangelo Pistoletto /Gilbert Perlein, Pierre Padovani and Michèle Brun, 19 February 2007
Transcribed by Michèle Brun
Edited by Michelangelo Pistoletto and Michèle Brun
© Mamac

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