‘Everything in my work has come from the mirror,’ says the modern Italian master, Michelangelo Pistoletto. Now in his eighties, Pistoletto has become synonymous across the art world with a series called the ‘Mirror Paintings’, which has engaged him for more than five decades. Its works feature life-size images of human figures that are affixed to larger surfaces of highly-polished, stainless steel. Through his or her reflection, the viewer becomes an active player in each picture.
A remarkable early example from 1967, Uomo che guarda un negativo (Man Looking at a Negative), will be offered in the Thinking Italian sale of 20th-century Italian art in London on 6 October.
‘Almost all the figures in the “Mirror Paintings” are people close to me,’ says the artist, ‘whether members of my family, friends or people [I’ve] met on a daily basis. Uomo che guarda un negativo might be described as unique, as it portrays Alighiero Boetti.’
The late, great Boetti — one of the pioneers of Italy’s Arte Povera movement in the Sixties and Seventies, and one of the world’s leading Conceptual artists after that — can be seen sharply dressed, standing with his back to us, and looking at a photographic negative of a child’s face that he holds up to the light.
In all the ‘Mirror Paintings’, Pistoletto offers a an irreverent, interactive experience, with the viewer animating and completing the artwork as he or she stands before it. In the specific case of Uomo, however, there’s also an inquest being launched into the traditional relationship between artist, subject and viewer.
Pistoletto invites us to look at an image of Boetti looking at an image of a boy, while simultaneously inviting us to look at the image of ourselves reflected in the surrounding mirror. This is nothing like portraiture as we know it.
Pistoletto’s inspiration for the ‘Mirror Paintings’ came in 1961, while he was in the early stages of painting a self-portrait on a shiny, black ground and noticed his reflection in the surface. ‘I was no longer looking at my features in the mirror I’d placed beside the work,’ he says. ‘I was looking at my features in the work itself. I realised that everything around the picture — including me — was moving, while my image remained still.’
This was a career-defining discovery. Pistoletto was enthralled by the combination of effects, which he looked to capture in new artworks. In his attempts to maximise the reflection, he started working with stainless steel.
In recent times, his figures have been photographs silkscreened directly onto the surface; in early examples, such as Uomo che guarda un negativo, they were cut-outs of paintings done on tissue paper.
For Pistoletto, what unites all the mirror pieces is the way they exist beyond the two or three dimensions of most art, and involve the fourth dimension of time. Speaking respectively of his figures and what’s reflected in the mirrors around them, he says ‘one is static and one is in motion’, representing ‘time that passes and time that stands still’.