Michelangelo Pistoletto

Michelangelo Pistoletto did his first mirror painting in 1961, and he can now assert, “For me the mirror remains the reference point at which art rediscovers its origin to become once again a necessity of life.” The mirror—source of truth and deception, of the encounter with the self or with a misleading facade; viewers of Pistoletto’s work, mirrored in it, themselves become an element in it, and through their experience as both reality and image can partake in Pistoletto’s ruminations on human existence in space and time.

With the sculptures shown last year at Documenta 7, Pistoletto seemed to have abandoned his trademark for a new direction that was extremely difficult to interpret. But the familiar thread of the artist’s thought could in fact be detected in that work, while in this exhibition it seemed less clearly followed through. The show began with an initially puzzling metal sculpture at the foot of the stairs, Der Käfig des Spiegels (The mirror’s cage), 1982. The visitor soon found the solution to the puzzle, at the entrance to the large exhibition space: leaning against the wall here were a series of mirrors, liberated, as it were. In terms of form these wood-framed objects combine such basic geometric shapes as the circle, square, and rectangle; some are cut into halves or other sections, the parts slightly separated. The conceptual, locus of the work, entitled Il disegno dello specchio (Design of the mirror), 1980, can probably be defined as the confluence of matter and idea, with the mirrors in the piece simultaneously comprising a portrait of the mirror of the title, and a vision of reality fragmenting and reuniting.

In the central exhibition space was a diagonal arrangement of six sculptures in Styrofoam and fiberglass, mostly white, though two works also showed a brownish ocher hue. Their arrangement pointed to a corner of the space, in which a divided square mirror, Divisione e motoplicatione dello specchio (Division and multiplication of the mirror), 1976–83, enabled the sculptural forms to meet and multiply. Pistoletto’s rough, powerful fragments of the human body, evoking lost civilizations from different eras and regions, became fragile monuments, existing both in proximity and in distance. At first, the effect was both comical and sublime. Pistoletto’s analysis of human existence; his abrupt combinations of reflected images of witnesses to civilization, the juxtapositions crossing social, geographic, and temporal boundaries; his mirroring of the present in the past; the distancing effect of the comparison between the sculptures’ cheap medium and noble ambience—all these were noteworthy, and compellingly staged.

Nevertheless, a heavy feeling permeated the installation, a sense of strained thought and a lack of convincing theory or poetic intuition. While one found oneself in deep agreement with Pistoletto’s goals—he is fighting the threatened destruction of humanity and civilization—one was nevertheless untouched by the works. They seemed more demonstrations than fulfilled art, and their monumental appearance was not successfully informed by spiritual energy.

Annelie Pohlen

Translated from the German by Martha Humphreys.