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Art Review: Michelangelo Pistoletto Exhibitions at the Philadelphia Museum of Art


Art Review: Michelangelo Pistoletto Exhibitions at the Philadelphia Museum of Art

Pistoletto first gained prominence in the world of art in the early 1960’s with his Quadri Specchianti. These “mirror paintings” positioned life-sized and astonishingly lifelike images of people on highly polished sheets of stainless steel.

Pistoletto Walking Sculpture, Phladelphia

A reenactment of the rolling of Michelangelo Pistoletto’s famous “Walking Sculpture” gets underway in Philadelphia.
[Photo by Ed Voves]

Saturday, October 30, 2010 was a crisp, autumn day in Philadelphia. It was good weather for football, but a crowd of 200 people pushed, prodded and chased a different kind of ball through the downtown streets. The sphere, made of compacted newspaper, about three feet in diameter, replicated the one that Italian artist, Michelangelo Pistoletto, rolled through the streets of Turin in 1967, which became celebrated as the Scultura da Passeggio or Walking Sculpture.

Michelangelo Pistoletto, who took part in the Philadelphia procession, is the subject of two parallel, yet related exhibitions at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The first is a retrospective of his art, subtitled From One to Many, covering the years 1956 to 1974. The second is an interactive series of programs and an installation of contemporary work entitled Cittadellarte, the name of Pistoletto’s multi-disciplinary foundation in Biella, Italy.

Pistoletto first gained prominence in the world of art in the early 1960’s with his Quadri Specchianti. These “mirror paintings” positioned life-sized and astonishingly lifelike images of people on highly polished sheets of stainless steel. Since Pistoletto’s protagonists were posed nonchalantly or lost in thought or conversation, they almost never peer out beyond their frames, as in formal portraits. Instead, viewers of the Quadri Specchianti enter into these enigmatic realms, their reflections creating a kind of existential communion with the silk-screened figures on the shimmering, reflective steel surfaces.

Pistoletto’s Quadri Specchianti may sound like a clever gimmick. Actually, these signature works are part of a life-long effort to promote participation and collaboration. From his earliest work, Pistoletto has encouraged a dialogue in art, thought and social action with the ultimate aim of promoting unity and harmony among human beings.

Speaking at a press conference the day before the procession, Pistoletto traced the connection between his Mirror Paintings and the newspaper ball soon to roll down the streets of center city Philadelphia.

“A ball is like a mirror. It is a point of connection and reaction that brings people together.”

Michelangelo Pistoletto was born in Biella, Italy, in 1933. His father was an artist and an art conservator. Pistoletto began working in his father’s studio at the age of fourteen, while later studying modern advertising art. The creative tug of war between past and present was apparent almost from the beginning of Pistoletto’s career.

When Pistoletto was eighteen, he visited the Ducal Palace in Urbino with his father. Urbino was one of the formative sites of the early Renaissance. During his visit, Pistoletto studied a painting by Piero della Francesca, an enigmatic artist who depicted scenes from the life of Christ in settings that are so idealized that they often produce unsettling or mystifying reactions in the mind of the viewer. For Pistoletto, Piero’s Flagellation represented a moment of revelation. In a 1999 interview, he said that the 1950’s were marked by controversy that centered on “the conflict between abstraction and representation… It was the hot topic, the great debate of the moment. But in front of that painting I understood that Piero della Francesca was both abstract and representational. I saw that the problem was another one entirely, or at least that it had not been expressed clearly. I felt, then, that this painting offered me a grand solution.”

Pisoletto: Esperimento

Esperimento (Experiment), 1959. Michelangelo Pistoletto
Italian, born 1933. Silver, acrylic, rope, wood, and canvas,
29 1/8 x 23 5/8 inches (74 x 60 cm).
(Collection of the artist) © Michelangelo Pistoletto.
Photo by Paolo Pellion di Persano.

Pistoletto began searching for “the point of convergence between abstraction and representation.” Significantly, his reaction to the paintings of Piero della Francesca was reinforced by the films of Michelangelo Antonioni, most notably L’Avventura (1960). In his early works, Pistoletto created images of a single human being against reflecting backgrounds, silver in the case of Esperimento (Experiment) from 1959. This imparted the quality of movement to his paintings, making them seem like a film frame in a movie. At the same time, these paintings reached back to the mystical atmosphere of Piero della Francesca.

Pistoletto applied a layer of transparent varnish to create a mirror-like gloss on the backgrounds of a series of 1961 paintings, entitled The Present. From there it was but a step – albeit a momentous one – to the use of actual mirrors in his art works.

Biennale 66

Biennale 66 (Biennial 66), 1966. Michelangelo Pistoletto Italian, born 1933
Painted tissue paper on polished stainless steel, four panels.
Overall 90 9/16 x 189 inches (230 x 480 cm).
(The Sonnabend Collection) © Michelangelo Pistoletto. Photo by Graydon Wood.

Lui e lei abbracciati

Lui e lei abbracciati (He and She Embracing), 1968. Michelangelo Pistoletto, Italian, born 1933
Painted tissue paper on polished stainless steel, 47 1/4 x 39 3/8 inches (120 x 100 cm).
(Collezione Maramotti, Reggio Emilia, Italy) © Michelangelo Pistoletto

A year later, the first of Pistoletto’s Quadri Specchianti came to life. Pistoletto’s initial technique was to paint life-sized representations of himself, family and friends on tissue paper and then to apply them to the surface of polished stainless steel. These delicate, hyper-realistic images were based on photographs. The early Mirror Paintings, represented in the Philadelphia exhibition by Biennale 66 (Biennial 66), 1966, and Lui e lei abbracciati (He and She Embracing), 1968, appeared just as Pop Art was supplanting Abstract Expressionism in the U.S. Pistoletto’s works created a sensation when they were first displayed in a one-man show in the spring of 1963. The American art dealer, Ileana Sonnabend, bought all the works in the 1963 exhibit and signed Pistoletto to a contract to create more.

Tavolino con disco e giornale

Tavolino con disco e giornale (Small Table with Record and Newspaper), 1964. Michelangelo Pistoletto, Italian, born 1933
Photographs and paint on transparent Plexiglas,
13 3/4 x 23 5/8 x 23 5/8 inches (35 x 60 x 60 cm).
(Cittadellarte?Fondazione Pistoletto, Biella, Italy) ©
Michelangelo Pistoletto. Photo by Paolo Pellion di Persano

Pistoletto continued to experiment with the form and content of the Mirror Paintings, introducing topical allusions to contemporary politics, like the anti-war movement of the 1960’s. Eventually he replaced the tissue paper paintings with silk-screened images. In 1964, he expanded his range and vision to include representations of objects on Plexiglas, like his painting of a phonograph record and newspaper on a transparent table, Tavolino con disco e giornale. With these works, Pistoletto began to explore the relationship of objects in space, just as he was doing with images of people in the Mirror Paintings.

It was at this moment in his career that Pistoletto proclaimed one of the key concepts of his art, which he repeated at the Philadelphia press conference:

“An object is not a work art; but the idea of an object is a work of art,” Pistoletto declared.

By 1964, Pistoletto was certain that he did not want his art to be reduced to high-priced “objects.” He resisted pressure to relocate to the U.S. in order to increase the output of his now popular Mirror Paintings and works on Plexiglas. Instead, in 1965, he began creating a series of entirely unique works, utterly different in form and artistic media, which he called Oggetti in Meno or Minus Objects.

Rosa bruciata

Rosa bruciata (Burnt Rose), 1965. Michelangelo Pistoletto, Italian, born 1933
Corrugated cardboard and spray paint,
55 1/8 x 55 1/8 x 39 3/8 inches (140 x 140 x 100 cm).
(Cittadellarte?Fondazione Pistoletto, Biella, Italy) © Michelangelo Pistoletto.
Photo by Paolo Bressano.

The Minus Objects were created so that each would appear to be by a different artist. No one looking at the alarming cardboard petals of Rosa bruciata (Burnt Rose) would have guessed that its creator was the same artist producing the Mirror Paintings. The Minus Objects were not well received by art critics and some of Pistoletto’s dealers, including Ileana Sonnabend, curtailed their contracts with him.

Pistoletto created his Minus Objects just as the surge of 1960’s counter-culture began to overturn accepted artistic traditions. There seemed to be no containing Pistoletto. On March 6, 1967, he took one of his Minus Objects for a “walk” through the streets of Turin. This was his Newspaper Sphere, reincarnated as the Walking Sculpture. Early the next year, he restaged this event on camera for a documentary film by Ugo Nespolo which was called Buongiorno Michelangelo.

Pistoletto withdrew his work from the 1968 Venice Biennale to show his solidarity with the protests being staged during the late 1960’s. Collaboration was the key to his work, with Pistoletto working as a founding member of a performance art group known as Lo Zoo, from 1968 to 1970, and with Maria Pioppi, the young woman who assisted him with staging the Walking Sculpture event and whom he later married.

The amazing range and versatility of Pistoletto’s collaborative efforts can only be touched on in this article, but need to be kept in mind when viewing the examples of the art he produced in conjunction with the Arte Povera movement during this period. The most famous is on view in the Philadelphia exhibition, the Venus of the Rags, from 1967, which shows a cast of a classical statue posed in front of a heap of rags. Despite its title, neither this art movement nor Pistoletto’s assemblage directly attacked conditions of poverty. Rather, Arte Povera was a protest against the control and manipulation of art by individuals and especially by governments and corporations. The theoretical ideals underpinning Arte Povera were laid down by the critic Germano Celant. Pistoletto, as might be expected from an artist who had rejected the control of his art by powerful dealers, became one of the principal artists of the movement.


Monumentino (Little Monument), 1968. Michelangelo Pistoletto, Italian, born 1933
Rags, bricks, and shoe, 37 x 17 3/4 x 8 5/8 inches (94 x 45 x 22 cm).
(Private Collection) © Michelangelo Pistoletto. Photo by Paolo Bressano

In his Arte Povera works, Pistoletto stressed the value of everyday objects, things that expressed a utility in human life. Some of the rags that were heaped in front of the statue of Venus had been used to polish the stainless steel panels of his Quadri Specchianti. This was also true of his 1968 Monumentino (Little Monument) where pieces of cloth were wrapped around bricks, topped by a shoe. Here was indeed a validation of his own guiding theory that objects were not art, but the ideas behind them or expressed in what they represent do qualify as art.

The radical promise of 1960’s cultural movements like Arte Povera began to falter in the harsh economic conditions and conservative backlash of the 1970’s. The mid-1970’s, a bleak period in many countries, were especially bad for Italy. Sometimes called “The Lead Years,” this was the period when Marxist revolutionaries known as the Red Brigades tried to undermine Italian society by violence. The campaign of terror culminated in the kidnapping and murder of former Prime Minister Aldo Moro in 1978.

From One to Many concludes with work done in 1974. Pistoletto’s sympathy for non-violent and progressive change was abundantly clear by 1970. But he was greatly disturbed by the state of Italy, as his works of the period reveal. His Mirror Paintings from the early 1970’s do not invite viewers to enter, as earlier examples had. Instead, many are covered with fences and barriers. In 1974, Pistoletto withdrew to the mountain town of San Sicario and for a brief time it appeared that he might give up art to work as a ski instructor. But actually, his “retreat” was a time of reflection and of planning for the next stages of his ever-changing creative response to the contemporary world.

Cittadellarte is the culmination of his years of teaching, writing and collaborative art projects. In February 1994, Pistoletto organized a multi-disciplinary event in Munich, bringing representatives from the arts, politics and economics together to creatively bring about constructive change. This movement, Progetto Arte or Project Art, bore the hallmarks of the maturity that marked Pistoletto’s thought since the brief retreat in 1974. He was no longer wrapping bricks in rags, but was occupied in building cultural bridges among communities and nations. The manifesto of Progetto Arte announced that “the time has come for artists to take on the responsibility of establishing ties among all human activities, from economics to politics, science to religion, education to behavior—in a word, among the threads that make up the fabric of society.”

The ideals set forth in the manifesto of Progetto Arte became the guiding principles of Cittadellarte. Located in a former wool factory in Biella, Cittadellarte – Fondazione Pistoletto was founded in 1998. This “citadel of art” is an institution for bringing about “Responsible Social Transformation.” It is organized with offices and staff dedicated to planning programs in specific fields of endeavor such as economics, politics, ecology and communication. As with all of Pistoletto’s enterprises, art is used as a primary agent in collaborative efforts to achieve social harmony and productive change.

A signature piece of the art produced by Cittadellarte is a mirror-topped conference table shaped like the Mediterranean Sea. Created in 2002, this stunning work of art is entitled Love Difference. It celebrates the ethnic diversity and varying forms of government in this troubled region of the world. On a practical level, it serves as a forum where plans can be formulated to resolve tensions and controversies, greatly heightened as they are in the post 9/11 world.

The Love Difference Mediterranean table is on display in the Philadelphia Museum of Art gallery dedicated to Cittadellarte. A similar table, shaped like the Caribbean Sea, was created to promote a kindred meeting of minds and spirits in the Western hemisphere. Events at the Philadelphia Museum of Art are scheduled to take place, with participants from the nations of the Caribbean region and North and South America. In the New World, as in the Old, Pistoletto and Cittadellarte are in the forefront of exploring the “geography of change.”

“The 20th century produced an aesthetic revolution,” Pistoletto said, in his reflections to the press at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. “Now art is the hinge of the ethical revolution of the 21st century.”


Michelangelo Pistoletto: From One to Many, 1956 to 1974
Philadelphia Museum of Art (November 2, 2010 – January 16, 2011)

Michelangelo Pistoletto: Cittadellarte
Philadelphia Museum of Art (November 2, 2010 – January 16, 2011)

The Michelangelo Pistoletto exhibitions were produced in collaboration with MAXXI – Museo nazionale delle arti del XXI secolo in Rome, which will present the exhibitions during the spring of 2011.

Ed Voves is a freelance writer, based in Philadelphia, where he lives with his wife, the artist Anne Lloyd, and a swarm of cats who love curling up with good books. Mr. Voves graduated with a B.A. in History from LaSalle University in 1976 and a Masters in Information Science from Drexel University in 1989. After teaching for several years with the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, he worked in the news research department for "The Philadelphia Inquirer" and the "Philadelphia Daily News," 1985 to 2003. It was with the "Daily News," that he began his freelance writing, doing book reviews and author interviews with such notable figures as Umberto Eco, Maurice Sendak, and Peter O'Toole. For the "Inquirer," he specialized in reviews of major historical works. Following his time with the newspapers, he worked as an independent researcher for Knowledge@Wharton, the online journal of the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. He joined the staff of the Free Library of Philadelphia in 2005 and is currently the branch manager of the Kingsessing Branch in southwest Philadelphia. In 2006, he began writing for the "California Literary Review."    History of Yoga

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