New York

Michelangelo Pistoletto

P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center

Conditioned by the lapidary mandates of Pop art and Minimalism, American audiences may be slow to adjust entrenched and chauvinistic canons to accommodate the multivalent art of Michelangelo Pistoletto. Anticipating this reluctance, Germano Celant argues in his catalogue essay accompanying this 25-year retrospective that it is precisely Pistoletto’s stylistic “equivocation” that lends his vision its characteristic breadth.

Anxious to rescue the artist’s early achievement from Pop art’s shadow, Celant suggestively contrasts Pistoletto’s “mirror paintings” from 1962 with Andy Warhol’s soup cans and Marilyns from the same year. In this work, painted figures affixed to or sandwiched between mirrored surfaces mingle with viewers’ reflections. Accommodating this unstable element within the perceived frame, the pieces inject the variable dimensions of time and motion into a customarily static pictorial situation. Though Celant’s claims on behalf of the mirror paintings feel inflated, he does hit on the trick that lends these works their particular resonance.

As soon as one gives into the metaphoric potential of the mirror, apparent stylistic disjunctions begin to look like part of a multifaceted but continuous meditation on the nature of representation. In 1964, Pistoletto inaugurated the Plexiglas pieces. Extending the thought process initiated with the “mirror paintings,” he affixed images of common objects to Plexiglas sheets. Like the mirrors, these rectangular panels mimicked conventional pictorial supports; however, the now-transparent “pictures” no longer functioned as metaphoric windows onto autonomous worlds, but as literal windows onto the plain walls of the gallery. Table with Record and Newspaper (Plexiglass), 1964, abandons the supporting convention of the painting altogether. In the catalogue, Pistoletto explains how, by pasting two red dots on the piece, he has created an object that is no longer a picture and in one sense functions quite literally as a table, yet one that retains its status as a representation of a table. Fine-tuned semantic considerations on this order seem comfortably at home in the late ’80s, considering the renewed interest in artists such as Richard Artschwager, whose ruminations from the mid ’60s bear an uncanny affinity with Pistoletto’s own remarks.

Pistoletto maintains that the dimension of time, as accessed via the mirror, is his most persistent thematic concern; certainly his stylistic mobility wreaks a certain havoc with habitual attributions of art-historical precedence. If the mirror-bottomed Upside Down Furniture, 1976, looks as if it might easily be the hottest twist on the recent ubiquitous redeployment of the found object, Pistoletto’s latest work feels positively out of step with current trends. These chunky forms covered with loose expressionistic brushstrokes of dingy tertiary colors are unlikely to be remembered as his best work, but in the context of Pistoletto’s broader production they take on a resonance proportional to their contentious eccentricity. Whether or not future art-historians share Celant’s faith in Pistoletto’s studied antitheticality, this comprehensive exhibition affords New York audiences an opportunity to assess the artist’s production in all its range and complexity.

Jack Bankowsky