Venus of the Rags juxtaposes an over-life sized classical statue of the Roman goddess of love, beauty and fertility, with a large pile of brightly coloured, discarded clothes that are heaped on the floor. The Venus statue is positioned with its back to the viewer. The figure’s face and body press lightly against the pile of fabrics that rises up before it, so that the front of the statue is hidden.
Pistoletto has made several versions of Venus of the Rags. In the first (Fondazione Pistoletto, Biella, reproduced in Christov-Bakargiev, p.157), shown in 1967, he used a concrete or cement Venus, which he had purchased from a garden centre and covered with a layer of mica to create a glittering surface. He made three further versions in the same year using plaster casts of this original Venus statue. These works are housed in the De Bennardi Collection, Naples, a private collection in Germany, and the Giuliana and Tommaso Setari Collection, Milan (on long term loan to the Castello di Rivoli Museum of Contemporary Art, Turin). In 1970, Pistoletto produced two versions using a larger plaster Venus measuring 160cm in height (Toyota Museum of Contemporary Art, Japan; Hirschhorn Museum, Washington). In 1972 he made a version with a gold-covered Venus entitled Venere degli stracci dorata (Golden Venus of the Rags) (Lia Rumma Collection, Naples). T12200 is a unique version produced in 1974, for which the Venus was made by stone masons in Tuscany using a special Greek marble containing mica. In 1980, a version of Venus of the Rags was enacted in a performance held in San Francisco, with a live model replacing the statue.
Pistoletto’s use of a sculpture of Venus in these works, as an iconic motif of the canon of Western art, invokes Italy’s cultural past in an ironic way. By combining the classically-inspired statue with piled-up rags the artist announces a series of oppositions: hard/soft, formed/unformed, monochrome/coloured, fixed/movable, precious/disregarded, historical/contemporary, unique/common and the cultural/the everyday. In their ‘poorness’ the rags demonstrate a willingness to deploy any and all aspects of life in art. This was a characteristic of Arte Povera, a movement that emerged in Italy in the period 1967–72, of which Pistoletto was a central figure. The artist commented in 1967: ‘As far as I am concerned ... all forms, materials, ideas, and means are available and to be used’ (quoted in Flood and Morris, p.306). Cheap, adaptable and colourful, rags or discarded clothes appear in a number of Pistoletto’s works of the same period, including Monumentino (Little Monument) and Orchestra di stracci (Orchestra of Rags), both 1968 (reproduced in Io sono l’altro: Michelangelo Pistoletto, exhibition catalogue, Galleria Civica d’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea, Turin 2000, pp.112–3). The scraps of fabric deployed in the first Venus of the Rags were those that Pistoletto had used to clean the reflective surfaces in a series of works called the mirror paintings that he began to produce in the early 1960s, as in Uomo in piedi (Standing Man) 1962, 1982 (T12186). In T12200, the rags are replaced by second-hand clothes.
Just as Venus of the Rags comments on cycles of consumption, it, too, has had its own history of change through the making of the new versions of the work, which could involve modifications to the piles of rags. In 1997, Pistoletto explained:
In the various existing versions of the Venus, or their re-installation, you can use the same original rags or you can change them, but they must maintain their multi-coloured and ruffled character. One of the plaster Venuses of 1967 was broken. My project was to put the pieces together, leaving the signs of breakage evident, like the tears in the rags.
(Quoted in Christov-Bakargiev, p.157.)
The use of the sculpture links Venus of the Rags to earlier traditions, particularly the practice of deploying classical motifs by Italian artists associated with the Metafisica and Novecento movements of the early part of the twentieth century. This is the case in Giorgio de Chirico’s painting The Uncertainty of the Poet 1913 (T04109), which includes a depiction of fragment of statuary – a torso of Aphrodite. In Pistoletto’s Venus of the Rags the statue functions as a given, and its status as a replicated object makes it comparable to the readymades of Marcel Duchamp (1887–1968). The formlessness of the pile of torn fabrics may be said to anticipate and echo aspects of the idea of ‘antiform’ introduced by the artist Robert Morris (born 1931) in Artforum in April 1968. However, the sustained engagement with art of the past that characterises Arte Povera, and that T12200 exemplifies, makes this movement and this work distinct from the aims of antiform and other contemporary forms of art such as conceptualism and post-minimalism (Christov-Bakargiev, p.27).
Anna Imponente (ed.), Michelangelo Pistoletto, exhibition catalogue, Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna, Rome 1990.
Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev (ed.), Arte Povera, London 1999.
Richard Flood and Frances Morris (eds.), Zero to Infinity: Arte Povera 1962–1972, exhibition catalogue, Walker Art Center, Minneapolis 2001, pp.305–16.