PRINT March 1986

Liberations: The Minus Works of Michelangelo Pistoletto

I believe that if I act according to the dimension of time,
it will be difficult for others to catch me in the exact spot
where they are lying in wait.

—Michelangelo Pistoletto, 1966

IN MODERN TIMES, MANY ARTISTS have followed a single track, a common overall look to their work, for twenty or thirty years, while others have developed an internal structure and attitude that unite quite different pieces within a homogenous mental space. The first kind of artist makes works that we immediately identify with a certain gaze, or way of looking; the second, works that we identify with a particular mind. Michelangelo Pistoletto’s work over the past twenty-five years seems to escape both categories, but this observation does not imply a lack of identity in his art, nor should the viewer be satisfied with it as a conclusion. Rather, it offers a way into the artist’s production. Further help comes from Pistoletto’s working notes, and in particular from a perception he recorded in them in 1966, in a discussion of his earliest paintings:

In 1961 I painted my own portrait on canvas using a variety of backgrounds: gold, silver, bronze, and glossy black. One day, sketching out the head of a standing man on a large canvas already prepared with black mirror-surface paint, I was shocked to see it coming toward me, detaching itself from the background—which was not part of the painting, but the actual wall behind my back.1

This inversion of back and front in Pistoletto’s art develops from a level of psychological effect to one of epistemological interest, and on this second level another of the artist’s statements has considerable importance for the arts of our time:

When I realized that even [Jackson] Pollock, while striving to transfer life onto a picture via action, had not succeeded in entering the work (for the work itself continued to slip through the net and become autonomous); and that [Francis] Bacon’s use of the human figure did not succeed in giving anything more than a pathological vision of reality, I understood that it was time to let the picture be penetrated by the rules of objective reality.2

What Pistoletto refers to as “the rules of objective reality” should be understood as general principles that stand beyond the picture rather than as anything that can be represented by the picture—even if the picture involves a formal deconstruction of pictorial representation itself. Pistoletto’s elaboration of this position was important in the early ’60s, when many artists were still stuck on the dichotomy between attract and figurative art. By invoking the figurative possibilities of abstraction through the use of the mirror, and by rendering the abstractness of figuration through the application of full-sized photographic images of people to the mirror’s surface, the artist demonstrated how the subjective rules of physical existence can be perceptually reversed. The question became, What is reality if not what contains all possibilities minus one: the one that is presence? Piscoletto’s “Gli oggetti in meno”( The minus objects, 1965–66) derive their irrefutable importance from this idea. The artist says,

My works are not constructions or fabrications of new ideas, any more than they are objects which represent me, intended to be imposed and to impose me on others. Rather, 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,” in that they bring with them a sense of a perceptual experience which has been definitively manifested once and for all."3

The titles of some of these irreversible liberations run as follows: Lampada a mercurio a luce gialla (Mercury lamp giving yellow light); Struttura per parlare in piede (Structure for talking while standing); Rosa bruciata (Burnt rose); Statua lignea (Wooden statue); Il mobile (The piece of furniture); Paesaggio (Land scape); Corpo a pera (Body in pear shape); La fontana Luminosa (The fountain of light); Pannelli decorativi (Decorative panels); Foto di Jasper Johns (Snapshot of Jasper Johns); Le colonne di cemento (The cement columns); and so on. "Gli oggetti in meno’’ not only look different from any of Pistoletto’s earlier pieces, they are also different from each other, and bear witness to the changeability and flexibility of the language of his art. From here on his refusal to be reduced to the pursuit of a single visual style is clear, as is his avoidance of formalist dead ends.

The idea that an artist’s approach should remain homogeneous throughout his or her career is a fiction perpetrated more by external institutional needs than by internal creative will. A heterogeneous body of work such as Pistoletto’s offers an important model of variance from the limits often imposed in our culture on the possibilities of art. Pistoletto radically extends these limits—not by crossing over them into outside territory, as Marcel Duchamp did, nor by authorizing their transgression, like Francis Picabia, but by indicating all possibilities minus one. In doing so he describes a creative orbit that goes beyond the split between figuration and abstraction, beyond flat ideology, to reach a terrain of imagination, emotion, humor, fantasy, dream, desire, and human need. It is interesting that “Gli oggetti in meno” were made around the same time that Minimal art was beginning to appear in the United States; a “Minus object” and a Minimal work may appear to belong to the same family, and may both be children of the same historical period. Yet the two will also oppose each other, like Biblical sons of the same patriarch. Minimalism wants to pare away illusion as far as possible, wants to bring art to its irreducible elements and thereby to create the conditions for the maximum possible perceptual experience of the object—to such an extent that reality becomes the reality of the object. With “Gli oggetti in meno,” on the other hand, the object is void, empty; its function is to realize a presence, a possibility, something that cannot be contained in form. Reality becomes everything that the "oggetti in meno’’ manifest—minus the objects themselves. In the same way that the mirror stands between the infinite and definite, between being and nothingness, Pistoletto’s work stands between subject and object as the totality of all possibilities minus one: the one that is present.

After Pistoletto finished “Gli oggetti in meno,” on his initiative a group was created to do performances in the streets of many Italian cities and villages. The idea was to emerge from the specified site of art—the studio, the gallery—and to meet and collaborate with other people, both artists and lay, extending and mixing personal experiences of the world into collective ones. These performances may be seen in conjunction with the rebellious spirit of the times expressed in Italy by the practice of a number of Italian artists whose sensibility was christened arte povera by the critic Germano Celant, in September of 1967. With arte povera Pistoletto and others made clear their belief that art could also be a “minus culture,” could be something other than just a culturally specific expression of various preset, received, already functioning codes. For these artists art was not a single authoritative model for reality but a range of activities that disclosed the real. It was a kind of exchange of realities, specified and shared by a variety of people. In 1968 Pistoletto formalized this kind of exchange in his manifesto on collaboration—Manifesto per la collaborazione, published as a poster in connection with the 34th Venice Biennale. His subsequent work until the end of the ’70s, involving a wide range of objects and images, developed these ideas, and set up linkages between the performances, or “actions” —they were called “azione povera”—and the earlier “oggetti in meno” and mirror pieces.

In 1980, Pistoletto did a show in Turin with the title “Il testa coda” (The tailspin), and one of the works included was called “La coda dell’arte povera” (The tail of arte povera, 1979–80). This exhibition mixed together many of the formal elements of conventional art objects—the stretched canvas, for example—with the kind of everyday materials he had used in earlier works. Thus both elements were led astray from their usual roles, resulting in a strange, enriching irony which neutralized the risk of stylization. Pistoletto then started to make sculpture—modeled forms linguistically different from the momentary fragments of vision suggested by “Gli oggetti in meno.” In 1964 he had said,

At the start I confess that I thought about doing sculpture, too, and even toyed with the idea for a while. But it would really only have been an easy way round the obstacle; for I needed to force myself to solve my problem within the limits of the surface of a picture—to try to break through a traditional dimension which I knew well. And this indeed was the work I carried forward, gradually, over the years that followed.4

In 1964 the challenge for Pistoletto had been to find a way for the flat pictorial surface to go beyond historical notions of space. He also wanted to disclose and bring together the forces of time, both the external, historical time that one might be made aware of as one looked at a gestural work of Pollock’s, and inner time, the subjective time of the gaze, exemplified, to continue a comparison made by Pistoletto himself, by the confrontation with the self that occurs as one looks at a Bacon painting. By 1980, however, the obstacle and challenge were of another kind. The perspective was changing: many artists had begun to consider things in terms not of two and three dimensions but of multidimensional existence.

Like the mirror, an object either two- or three-dimensional, a Pistoletto sculpture offers both a perceptual event and a possible loss or confusion of perception, both a stimulus to the senses and a deprivation of them. Existing outside formal issues of scale, measure, weight, and space, it is not simply a constructed or fabricated idea or object, but levitates between the performed action and the drawn image. It is as if Pollock’s gesture and Bacon’s gaze were reflected in a mirror that included both the intention in side the moving gesture and the movement surrounding the fixed gaze. For Pistoletto as for Medardo Rosso and Constantin Brancusi, a sculpture is an image that transcends its material with movement; it is matter revealing its immanent conditions of being. But Rosso captures time that passes, time in its fluid, fugitive aspect, the kind of time that measures a person’s existence; and Brancusi discloses the eternity immanent in the ephemeral moment. With Pistoletto, suddenly, time is caught between the existential and the eternal. To discover both possibilities in his sculpture is to experience some of the amazement of Gulliver before a multifaceted reality involving more than one scale of proportion. The only way to see what is there is to grasp what is here. The only way to grasp what is there is to see what is here.

In one of the catalogue essays for the Documenta 7 exhibition, held in Kassel, West Germany, in 1982, the artistic situation of our time is described through the metaphor of the dark wood in which we travel without seeing our way. The image, of course, is an echo of Dante Alighieri, who opened his Inferno (ca. 1310–20) with the lines, “In the middle of the journey of our life I came to myself with in a dark wood where the straight way was lost. Ah, how hard a thing it is to tell of that wood, savage and harsh and dense, the thought of which renews my fear!”5 Pistoletto took that “hard thing,” Dante’s “cosa dura,” and arrived at a “poetica dura” a “hard poetics”—the title and context for a group of works he completed last year. These pieces reflect the difficulty and in fact the boredom Pistoletto experiences with the kind of art today that limits itself to illustrating social conditions or submitting to historical events (the first of these works is named L’Arte dello squalore— “the art of boredom”). The “Poetica dura” pieces are more “minus” works, works that evade the terms usually imposed on art by its material reality. They seek to liberate themselves from any such role as image or object, painting or sculpture, and from being seen as the product of either gesture or gaze. And they correspond to a “minus subject”—a secular artist, an artist who is neither a maker and fabricator (not Dante’s “miglior fabbro,” best maker, as T. S. Eliot called Ezra Pound in his dedication to The Waste Land, 1922), nor an esthete and deconstructor (not the poet in Charles Baudelaire’s Le Mauvais vitrier [The bad glazier, 1863], who stares astonished at the spectacle of breaking glass).

It would be insufficient if the “Poetica dura” works in fact reflected an art of boredom. The most luminous material is opaque and turbid if the artistic rhetoric surrounding it fails to reveal its clarity; the most spontaneous or pure intention is obscure and difficult if the ideology to which it contributes is lacking in coherence. But Pistoletto has kept his rigorousness, turning the uneven hand and the distracted eye into achievements. His pursuit of the sublime is neither idealist nor romantic, for in his minus possibilities lie hard realities.

Denys Zacharopoulos is an an critic who lives in Paris. He contributes regularly to Artforum, and is a scholar of arte povera.



1. Quoted in Pistoletto, Milan: Electa Editrice, 1976, p. 93. From an unpublished interview between Pistoletto and Martin Friedman, in 1976.

2 Quoted in Pistoletto, p. 93. From an interview between Pistoletto and Tommasi Trini, in 1964.

3. Quoted in Pistoletto, p. 96. From Michelangelo Pistoletto, Gli oggetti in meno, Genoa: Galleria La Bertesca, December 1966.

4. Quoted in Pistoletto, p. 93. From the interview with Trini.

5. In the translation of John D. Sinclair, New York: Oxford University Press, 1939, and republished in subsequent paperback editions.