Standing Man is a typical example of Pistoletto’s Quadri specchianti or mirror paintings. It comprises a mirrored surface made of highly polished steel measuring more than two and a half metres in height. A life-sized image of a man wearing a dark grey suit and standing with his back to the viewer has been attached to the mirror. The work is intended to be hung flat on, or slightly above, the floor, enhancing its illusionistic possibilities.
The anonymous suited figure of the standing man in T12186 has its origins in Pistoletto’s paintings on canvas of similar figures, such as Uomo grigio di schiena (Grey Man from the Back) (reproduced in Vettese, p.15), dating from 1961. In the same year the artist began making mirror paintings, which became his signature works. He continued with the theme into the 1980s. In the first examples he used cut-out images of people painted onto tissue paper and applied to sheets of stainless steel that had been given a mirrored finish. In 1962 he started to use photographs of friends and relatives taken by a professional photographer. These he enlarged and copied onto tracing paper in black and white. During the 1970s Pistoletto perfected a silkscreen process based upon a manual four-colour printing method. The figure of the standing man in T12186 was made using a silkscreen print in three colours.
The figures in the mirror paintings are generally shown with their backs to the viewer, as the standing man of T12186, or appear in partial profile, as, for example, the couple who occupy Uomo e donna con occhiali (Man and Woman Wearing Sunglasses) 1968 (reproduced in Imponente, p.111). However, the potential presence of the spectator’s reflection within the frame urges an active engagement between the viewer and the image, and may even create the impression of a face-to-face encounter. Most of the figures of the mirror paintings appear immobile, as the man in T12186 does, but some are caught in motion. For Donne nude che ballano (Nude Women Dancing) 1964 (reproduced in Imponente p.82), Pistoletto was inspired by the work of the pioneering British photographer Eadweard Muybridge (1830–1904), who used photography to study motion. In the later work Donna che fugge (Woman Escaping) 1971 (reproduced in Imponente, p.114), the figure of a woman is cut off at the work’s left vertical edge as if she is stepping out of our view, which creates a sense of movement and spontaneity. When installed as a group, Pistoletto’s mirror paintings create possibilities for infinite multiplication and division of the image. However, the figures are not unchanging absolutes: their clothing and hairstyles necessarily have certain historical resonances.
The mirror works can be seen in relation to Pistoletto’s interest in performance art, which developed first in the mid-1960s with solo performances, and crystallised in the group The Zoo that the artist founded in 1967 with his partner, Maria Pioppi, and collaborators from a range of artistic disciplines. Underpinning the group’s aims was the wish to include audiences in the performances. Between 1968 and 1970, Pistoletto carried out a series of theatrical events – conceived of as ‘creative collaborations’ and as a form of communication – in galleries and theatres, but also in less conventional spaces, including streets, squares, bars and discotheques. In an interview in 1969, the artist commented:
The mirror paintings could not live without an audience. They were created and re-created according to the movement and to the interventions they reproduced. The step from the mirror paintings to theatre – everything is theatre – seems simply natural ... It is less a matter of involving the audience, of letting it participate, as to act on its freedom and on its imagination, to trigger similar liberation mechanisms in people.
(Quoted in ‘Michelangelo Pistoletto: Works’, http://www.pistoletto.it/eng/crono07.htm
, accessed 20 January 2010.)
The mirror paintings of the 1960s express Pistoletto’s belief in art as a mediator, rather than originator, of thought and experience, while his performative actions of the later 1960s showed his determination to involve people and the spaces of everyday life in art. Nevertheless, a sense of the historical impact of centuries of Italian artistic tradition is often felt in Pistoletto’s work, as, for example, in Venus of the Rags 1967, 1974 (T12200). The artist grew up surrounded by Renaissance and Baroque art; his father was a picture restorer and, as a young adult, Pistoletto assisted him. The mirror works seem to play on the trope of painting-as-window that has its origins in the Renaissance, and may also be seen to evoke illusionistic conceits of the period, such as the frescoed figures emerging through fictive doorways in the decorative scheme by Paolo Veronese (1528–88) at the Villa Barbaro at Maser. Some of the titles of Pistoletto’s mirror paintings refer to sacred themes found in Renaissance art, such as Sacra Conversazione (Anselmo, Zorio, Penone) (Sacred Conversation (Anselmo, Zorio, Penone)) 1973 (reproduced in Imponente, p.116), which pictures in discussion three other artists of the Arte Povera movement, of which Pistoletto was a central figure. Deposizione (Deposition) 1973 (reproduced in Imponente, p.117), referring to the descent of Christ from the cross in its title, features a partial view of a bending female figure who supports and appears to drag the limp body of a lying man.
Anna Imponente (ed.), Michelangelo Pistoletto, exhibition catalogue, Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna, Rome 1990.
Angela Vettese, ‘Dentro lo specchio: Into the Looking-Glass’, in Io sono l’altro: Michelangelo Pistoletto, exhibition catalogue, Galleria Civica d’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea, Turin 2000, pp.10–33.
Richard Flood and Frances Morris (eds), Zero to Infinity: Arte Povera 1962–1972, exhibition catalogue, Walker Art Center, Minneapolis 2001, pp.305–16.