Michelangelo Pistoletto

In 1961, two paintings by Michelangelo Pistoletto were entitled, Uomo di fronte—il presente (Man seen from the front—the present) and Uomo di schiena—il presente (Man seen from the back—the present). Both are self-portraits. In the former, the artist/subject is facing forward, toward the viewer/painter; in the latter, his back is turned to us. Both works are covered with a reflective, varnished surface, creating a field that seems to be in a state of flux. Description of the resultant images is difficult to fix. The works are, in effect, prototypes of mirrors. These two paintings, in which the viewer is physically reflected, become part of a generative chain of perception.

Appropriately enough, the spectator’s first impression upon entering this recent exhibition of works by Pistoletto is of a space turned in upon itself, a space with parameters that shift around us. In Cane che se guarda (Dog looking at himself, 1970), a huge mirror is leaning against the back wall of the gallery. In front of it is a plaster cast of a dog, sitting on a pedestal, transfixed by its own image. If Pistoletto’s mirror works question the relationship of the spectator to the image and its surface, they also put in question the autonomy of that image. In this case, the fixed position of the dog, the ostensible subject of the work, must be seen in light of the changing position of the spectator. In one sense, our position animates the image, allowing us to see the image of the dog in the mirror as well as the “reverse shot” that situates it in the room. However, the dog’s drop-dead stare becomes the geometrical center to which our gaze must return.

A second work, Libro (Book, 1992), is another manifestation of the artist’s concern with reflective surfaces, although here the emphasis falls more specifically on painting. Thirteen aluminum books, their pages splayed open, are set at eye level. The pages are coated in various colors: orange, yellow, pink, white, etc. In one book they are not painted but reflect the color from the adjacent page. On one level, the work illustrates the relationship between painting and reading through an exploration of surface. The page of the book is equated with the canvas, each surface signifying the potential for actualization, whether through words, color, or form. The realization of this potential thus depends on the position of the spectator.

Colore sospeso (Suspended colors, 1986) explores similar concerns. Here two canvases are suspended from the ceiling of the gallery. They form a kind of cross which doubles the architectural detail from which they hang. As in Cane che si guarda, here Pistoletto uses the physical contour of the gallery space as a means of contextualizing his art. In this case, he draws attention to the way in which the cross both delimits and expands the space. In Colore sospeso, one canvas faces the far wall, its surface covered with gradations of the color purple. Facing the viewer is the back of the canvas, a blank surface that, like the self-portraits done thirty years ago, testifies to the instability of labels and description in Pistoletto’s work.

Michael Tarantino