Michelangelo Pistoletto

Michelangelo Pistoletto was formed as an artist at the start of the ’60s, and, in keeping with the culture of the time, he understood form as merely that which was perceived. It was there, contingent, immediate; it was not metaphysical or absolute but simply what one saw at the moment of exhibition. Pistoletto went on to create his mirror works—objects of the clearest and most refined design, objects of total comprehension, but objects that also constituted a radical gesture. While the happenings, the Fluxus works and those of Yves Klein and Piero Manzoni, and the various Popisms were expressing chaos and existential and social squalor, Pistoletto came up with the facile certainty of a clean object which could absorb whatever lay in front of it, spectator as well as surroundings. Art in these works is the reflection, the perilous spring into which Narcissus gazed; it offers the vertigo of the void, introducing the spectator into the abyss. Printed onto the shining steel surfaces are a variety of images: seated or standing men, alone or in groups, seen from the front, the back, or in profile; women, clothed or nude, in full length or in detail; objects (a bottle, a grillwork, a cage, a noose, a lamp); plants; animals (a tiger). The work is the parergon, to use Jacques Derrida’s word, of an empty mirror which can contain all or nothing, depending upon a shifting viewpoint. The work’s substance is its perceptive and conceptual function.

Then, when art reclaimed its magical qualities with the advent of Arte Povera, Pistoletto produced his “Oggetti in meno” (Minus objects). These are a series of works varying in their materials, function, use, and imagery: a toy/house in painted wood; an authentic 14th-century sculpture in an orange Plexiglas container; an enormous, undulating cardboard rose, singed and sprayed with paint; a paper crèche; an oil painting on canvas (La fontana Iuminosa [The luminous fountain]); a metal barrier; and so on. The variety of classifications and references here is so great that while on the one hand the individuation of this series of different circumstances defines a kind of limit, on the other no exclusive models are established. The “Oggetti in meno” are, indeed, marked by their differences, each one defined in and of itself with extreme precision, and each one capable of being turned into the first of a long series (as, in fact, they were, by other artists). But Pistoletto proposed them all together and simultaneously, in all their incongruity and reciprocal incompatibility. Here, the naked substance of things and materials functions to convey the structure of the work.

The mirrors and the “Oggetti in meno” are the two emblematic vortexes from which Pistoletto’s work has proceeded up to the present. In this show, the work in these two veins occupied the interior of the building, like a memory. Outside, against the bastions of the Forte, 16 large statues looked out over the Florentine landscape, with its ordering of nature and history in a well-known, time-honored image. This was an art spectacle: no single statue meant as much as the copresence of all 16, strong points which, with the lightness of a gesture, inflected memories, recollections, and traditions: Giorgio de Chirico and Michelangelo, Arno Breker and Alberto Giacometti, Francis Bacon and René Magritte, Mycenae and Viareggio, cemeteries and theaters, art from the more or less recent past and an archaeology of a forgotten present. Once again, Pistoletto has reached a critical point between the ephemeral epiphany of appearances and the certainty of vision. The statues are alike in their heavy physicality (whether in polyurethane or marble) and their volume (Gigante di marmo [Marble giant, 1981–83] is over 19 feet tall); some show color (Teste rosse [Red heads, 1984] is marble painted red; Capelli azzurri [Blue hair, 1982] is an inexpressive mass of abraded polyurethane painted blue). But there is little consistency among them, only an image/ memory, with the plastic values more a recollection than a specific reference. In this setting the works, highly evocative of paradigmatic types, sought and found an obvious but effective counterpoint in the landscape which they reflected without touching, leaving it admirably intact and unpolluted. This encampment of colossal totems had its own topological value, however, both weighty and light, evanescent and sentimental, suggesting the well-spent life of an individual and his or her recollections of places and people known or encountered. These totems of Western culture, these ephemeral monuments of art, these heroic, alien personifications, proposed the goals of neither salvation nor gratification, but confined themselves to occupying the site with the levity and elegance of a thoughtful, careful, but temporary stay there.

Pier Luigi Tazzi

Translated from the Italian by Meg Shore.