Bookcase is one of two identical, free-standing sculptures with the same title by Pistoletto in Tate’s collection (T12190–1). Each comprises a floor-standing iron framework supporting five evenly spaced shelves. Together the framework and the shelves form a single unit that takes the shape of a huge, upturned bow. Thus the unit is widest at the top and bottom (the upper and lowest shelves measure 120cm), and narrowest at the centre (the middle shelf measures just over 60cm). It is coated with blue-green metallic enamel paint. T12190 and T12191 are designed to be displayed next to one another against a wall, or at right angles to one another in a corner.
The Bookcases are from a series of sculptures by Pistoletto based on a range of household objects, and collectively called the furniture sculptures. Tate holds three further examples, Doormats, Door and Bed (T12987–9), which all share the bow shape. Pistoletto used the term Segno Arte (meaning ‘sign for art’) in connection with these works, which signifies the transposition of a specific and unique form from the realm of the everyday into the realm of high art.
Pistoletto was one of the leading figures of the Arte Povera movement that emerged in Italy in the late 1960s. Arte Povera describes the work of a loose grouping of artists including Giovanni Anselmo (born 1934), Giuseppe Penone (born 1947) and Gilberto Zorio (born 1944), who privileged the use of diverse and unexpected materials and visual references. Pistoletto’s furniture works have at their origin a text written by the artist in 1976, the Libretto Giallo (Little Yellow Book). In the Libretto Giallo Pistoletto described in simple terms one hundred possible exhibitions conceived by him in the space of a single month. One of these involved the creation of Segno Arte works. Pistoletto made several Segno Arte sculptures in the late 1970s, and then returned to the theme in the late 1990s.
Pistoletto envisaged that the ‘sign for art’ shape he devised could apply to a whole array of ordinary objects made in any material. He called for everyone to invent their own signs and to impose their individual identity on the world of objects around them.
Writing in 2000, Pistoletto explained: ‘Segno Arte is conceived as an entrance key to art. It is understood as the very concept of art ... It is a filter of thought, a way to take distance from things and observe them with a lucid clarity.’ (Quoted in Io sono l’altro: Michelangelo Pistoletto, pp.142–4.) He continued:
I realize Segno Arte with different materials and produce ordinary objects, all forming this sign: doors, beds, radiators, windows, desks and so on. In these objects it is hard, if not impossible, to establish where art ends and the practical reality begins (or vice versa). Art and life meet and merge, each retaining its identity; at the same time, in this case, life leads art through the passages leading to the different fields of the social structure. In fact, after what I just said, it is important to underscore that Segno Arte not only represents the threshold of art, but reveals and shows the conceptual system which gives access to and governs every area of society.
(Quoted in Io sono l’altro: Michelangelo Pistoletto, pp.146–7.)
Developing the political implications of the concept, he condemned the way in which people’s lives were ‘defined by predetermined concepts which guide, moment after moment, point after point, the willpower of each of them, determining their practical life down to the smallest detail’ (quoted in Io sono l’altro: Michelangelo Pistoletto, p.149). For Pistoletto the act of independence involved in creating a personal sign and in imposing it onto the world of objects symbolised individual responsibility, a political and philosophical concept that reflects beliefs central to his work.
The autonomy of the artist and a return to simple materials in the face of an increasingly industrialised society emerged as defining characteristics of Arte Povera. The critic and writer Jean-Christoph Ammann has explained that Arte Povera is: ‘a kind of art which, in contrast to the technological world around us, seeks to achieve a poetic statement with the simplest of means. The return to simple materials reveals laws and processes deriving from the power of the imagination and is an examination of the artists’ own conduct in an industrialised society.’ (Quoted in Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev (ed.), Arte Povera, London 1999, p.20.)
Anna Imponente (ed.), Michelangelo Pistoletto, exhibition catalogue, Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna, Rome 1990.
Io sono l’altro: Michelangelo Pistoletto, exhibition catalogue, Galleria Civica d’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea, Turin 2000.
Richard Flood and Frances Morris (eds), Zero to Infinity: Arte Povera 1962–1972, exhibition catalogue, Walker Art Center, Minneapolis 2001, pp.305–16.