Michelangelo Pistoletto (born 1933, Biella) began his career as a painter in the mid-1950s and a decade later became one of the key figures of Arte Povera, both as an artist and as a spokesperson. He was widely known in the early 1960s for his ‘Mirror Paintings’, in which life-size images of the human figure, usually shown in arrested action, were applied to a polished stainless-steel back-ground as if it were a canvas. Breaking down traditional notions of figurative art, these works reflected the surroundings and the spectator and so made them part of the work, linking art and life, the past and the present in an ever-changing spectacle.

These concerns remained central to Pistoletto in works such as Ball of Newspapers (Globe) 1966–8, a 2-metre globe made of newspapers, which embodied the constantly shifting, newsworthy events of life over a two-year period, and which he rolled through the streets of Turin. In 1965, he began his series Minus Objects, furniture-like sculptures that, instead of being yet more objects in a commodity-obsessed society, offered rewarding psychological and physical experiences for each individual viewer. Lunch Painting, 1965, for example is a cross between a sculpture, a painting and a picnic table and chairs. Pistoletto has also worked on collaborative performances, such as The End of Pistoletto 1967, in which actors moved in a mirrored space, and The Zoo 1968–70, a series of collective actions involving his friends, which combined music and theatre and took place in streets, galleries and theatres throughout Europe.