Michelangelo Pistoletto was born in 1933, in Biella, Piemont. From 1947 to 1958, he worked as a restorer of paintings and, in 1956, did his first self-portraits – a pictorial genre he would focus on in the years to come. It provided motif and platform for reflecting about questions of portrayal and self-referentiality in his art. Pistoletto was one of the early protagonists of the Turino art scene, charaterized by a turning away from the Informel and from an involvement with the works of Francis Bacon and Jackson Pollock. Already in 1960, Pistoletto had his first solo exhibition at the renowned Galleria Galatea in Turino. In 1967, he received the Grand Award of the Biennale São Paulo.
Early on, Pistoletto’s work contained the need for a sensual perception of one’s own portrait and the wish to objectify one’s pictorial counterpart to the highest possible degree. This led to a continuous engagement with one’s own reflection in the mirror and guided Pistoletto’s interest towards techniques that could make the reflecting surroundings of the figure visible in the picture itself. The first of his so-called »Mirror Images« was done in 1960/61. Pistoletto initially experimented with silver and gold picture planes on which he applied narrow, upright, life-size portraits. Eventually, he started to work with reflecting black varnished surfaces (Autoritratto in Camicia, 1961; Uomo di schiena il presente, 1961) and, finally, with polished steel plates (Alpino, 1961). They indeed represent painted figures and, at the same time, mirror the exhibition room. Only after 1973 did he also work with screenprints, using photographs in order to produce the illusion of real figures that share the room with the viewers (Sacra Conversazione, 1973; L’Etrusco, 1976): »The canvas itself became the mirror. And I realized that, instead of a painted background, the live world emerged. In the picture, behind my image, I saw the wall of the room where I was, and everybody else could also see himself in this mirror room. I understood that I needed to match that perfect reflection with a representation that was as objective as possible, and I found this quality in photography« (Pistoletto, in: Ausst.-Kat. Mailand 1984).
Pistoletto’s conceptual notion of art made him one of the main inspirational figures of the artist group Arte Povera. The group was introduced at exhibitions and in manifestoes by art critic Germano Celant in 1967, with much curatorial enthusiasm. Especially the material of art and the necessity to always experience it anew, were aspects Pistoletto and his fellow artists focused on. Moving away from iconographic traditions of interpretation and from institutional frameworks became of primary importance. Closeness to everyday life and, at the same time, the distancing defamiliarization of the familiar, appear as important maxims of transgressing hermetic notions of art. With Venere degli stracci (1967), for example, a work emerged that presents a classical statue of Venus with a mass of used clothes.
In 1967, Pistoletto opened his studio for other artists and, from 1968 to1970, he also performed with the street theater Lo Zoo in Milan, Rome, and Turin, doing Actions and Happenings. These are further facets of the revolutionary pathos characterizing his artistic expressions. With his Plexiglas works, he took another successful step in making museum space alive. Ladders painted on Plexiglas panes, for example, create the impression of real objects and thus include the museal surrounding space that otherwise goes unnoticed (Scala doppia appogiata al muro, 1964). In the series Le Stanze from 1975/76 Pistoletto led the viewers into the infinity of ever-repeating spatial formations that are only an effect of perception.
During the time he created his mirror images, Pistoletto also devoted himself to concepts of the object in art and, in numerous works, dealt with possible ways of defamiliarizing objects during the course of exhibitions. The socalled Oggetti in Meno (Minus Objects), to which the artist added extensive theoretical explanations, are everyday as well as art objects that Pistoletto had collected since 1965 and exhibited for the first time in 1966. The objects are of widely different origins and, as to their selection, the artist stressed the arbitrariness of their materiality (wooden Madonna figures, bedsteads, bathtubs, Plexiglas works, etc.): »My works don’t want to be a construction or a building of new ideas, neither do they want to be objects that impose themselves on others or with which I want to impose myself on others. Rather, they are objects through which I liberate myself from something – they are no constructions but liberations – I do not consider them to be added objects but minus objects («oggetti in meno»). With that I mean that they carry with them an experience of perception that has irreversibly been pushed into the exterior world« (Pistoletto, in: Ders.: Die Minusobjekte, 1966).
After staying in the U.S. from 1979 to 1981, Pistoletto again turned towards sculpture. Monumental heads and torsos but also reliefs of marble and rubber foam with rough, edgy surfaces emerged (Dietrofront, 1981 — 84; Trittico-bassorilievo, 1985).
Pistoletto participated in the Documenta 7, 9, and 10 (1982, 1992, 1997). His works were shown in large solo exhibitions in Baden Baden (1988), Bern (1989), Hamburg (1992), and Vienna (1995). In the 1990s, Pistoletto founded a public forum of communication with his highly committed »Progetto Arte.« It is positioned at the interface of architecture, fashion, and design and impacts art in public space.
Michelangelo Pistoletto lives and works in Turin.
Bätzner, N.: Arte povera. Zwischen Erinnerung und Ereignis. Giulio Paolini, Michelangelo Pistoletto, Jannis Kounellis, Nürnberg 2000
Michelangelo Pistoletto – Azioni materiali: Ausst.-Kat. Innsbruck, hg. v. S. Eiblmayr, Köln 1999
Michelangelo Pistoletto – Memoria, Intelligentia, Praevidentia: Ausst.-Kat. Städt. Galerie im Lenbachhaus und Kunstbau, hg. v. H. Friedel, Ostfildern 1995
Michelangelo Pistoletto. Gli oggetti in meno, lo specchio, la gabbia: Ausst.-Kat. Deichtorhallen Hamburg, hg. v. F. Zdenek, Hamburg 1992
Michelangelo Pistoletto: Ausst.-Kat. Staatl. Kunsthalle Baden-Baden, hg. v. J. Poetter u. R.E. Pahlke. Baden-Baden 1988