'When I realized that someone like Pollock, although he attempted to transfer life onto canvas through action, did not succeed in taking possession of the work, which continued to escape him, remaining autonomous, and that the presence of the human figure in the painting of Bacon did not succeed in rendering a pathological vision of reality, I understood that the moment had arrived to make the laws of objective reality enter the painting' (M. Pistoletto, quote in G. Celant, Identité Italienne, L'art en Italie depuis 1959, exh. cat., Paris Georges Pompidou, Musée National d'Art Moderne, Paris, 1981, p. 81).
With its stark, hand-painted, life-size image of the young artist seated, staring intently towards the viewer amidst the apparent void of a reflective polished metal surface, Autoritratto del 62 is one of the most iconic and historically significant works in Michelangelo Pistoletto's oeuvre. One of the first of Pistoletto's works to mark the revelatory pictorial transition of his early series of self-portrait oils on canvas (entitled The Present) into the open and multidimensional space-time realm of the mirror, Autoritratto del 62 is one of the first of the artist's celebrated series of Mirror Paintings. This is the extensive and on-going series of 'open works' first inaugurated in 1962 that form the core of Pistoletto's entire creative aesthetic and which the artist has continued to make periodically throughout his career ever since.
Pistoletto's Mirror Paintings grew out of a series of self-portrait oil paintings that the artist made between 1960 and 1961 exploring the relationship of the figure to the background and which had in turn been inspired by the existential portraits of lone male figures set against a painterly void made by Francis Bacon in the 1950s. At the root of Pistoletto's paintings of himself set against an empty painted background and to which he gave the title The Present was a question of identity and a powerful sense of the use of his own self-image as a pictorial icon through which he aimed to explore what he has described as 'the relationship between myself and the world in time' (M. Pistoletto, 'Interview with Michael Auping', K. Burton (ed.), Michelangelo Pistoletto, Mirror Paintings, London 2010, p. 65).
In a moment of revelation in 1961, while attempting to paint his own face against a highly varnished flat monochrome background, Pistoletto caught sight of his own reflection in the varnish and realised how suddenly the potential to expand painting into life had been opened up for him. Rather than the painted image of himself in the painting, he now realised, the true protagonist of such a reflective work, was the introduction of real life, space and time into the imaginary plane of the canvas. The 'true protagonist,' he later wrote, 'was the relationship of instantaneousness that was created between the spectator, his own reflection, and the painted figure, in an ever-present movement that concentrated the past and the figure in itself to such an extent as to cause one to call their very existence into doubt: it was the dimension of time itself' (M. Pistoletto, Minus Objects, Galleria La Bertesca, Genoa 1966).
Autoritratto del 62 belongs among the very first of Pistoletto's paintings to be made on the purely reflective surface of polished steel that the artist made subsequent to this defining revelation for him and which established the template for all the Mirror Paintings that were to follow. Having experimented first using traditional glass mirrors, Pistoletto turned ultimately to polished steel because its flat reflective surface avoided the problems with a disturbing depth of surface that glass mirrors gave. Similarly, after first attempting to paint directly onto the steel surface without success, Pistoletto arrived at a process of using life-size transfer drawings made from photographs on tissue paper that created a realistic looking physical image that appeared to be embedded within the flat reflective plane of the steel mirror. 'On the one hand the canvas, on the other the mirror, in the middle me', Pistoletto has said of such images. 'One eye directed towards the canvas, the other towards the mirror. By intensely fixing on the two objects, they are gradually superimposed. My reflected image is transferred to the canvas, although remaining in the mirror, and the canvas is transferred to the mirror, being changed along with it in to a single entity' (M. Pistoletto, 1962, quoted in Michelangelo Pistoletto, Un artista in meno, Florence 1989, p. 9).
The very first of these hand-drawn images for Pistoletto's earliest Mirror- Paintings derived from a series of staged photographs of himself and friends that the artist had made for him in his father's conservation studio by the photographer Paolo Bressano. Bressano's source image for Autoritratto del 62 depicts not only Pistoletto seated staring out towards the viewer as in the final painting, but also, standing directly behind him, his first wife, Marzia Calleri and his friend and fellow artist Renato Rinaldi. Removed from the final work, their presence behind Pistoletto is replaced in Autoritratto del 62 by that of the viewer of the work whose reflection (when looking at the work) stares back out of the picture as if they were standing behind the seated artist. Bressano's photograph of these three figures is one of a series of photographs of grouped figures that Pistoletto choreographed and Bressano shot at this time as part of his ongoing experimentation into successfully combining the unstable open-ended space of the mirror with the fixed and icon-like image of the figure.
The nature of Pistoletto's experimentation with composition and the new space of the mirror echoed in many respects the precision and preparation of earlier classical painters such as Piero della Francesca or Nicolas Poussin. But, as Pistoletto has recently explained in this regard, 'Piero put realistic figures in an abstract space. The space had its own presence, not as specific place, but as an indefinable void. Fontana took abstract painting and made the space real, by slicing through the illusion of the painted, coloured surface. These were important steps in my mind.' Pistoletto's introduction of the mirror, now 'changed how I perceived space' he has said. 'For me the mirror was not only an illusionistic pathway back through the wall, back into the space of the traditional perspective or even into the material cut of Fontana and the mysterious dark space behind the canvas. It suggested a double projection, in to the wall and out into the space of the viewer. In a way it integrated painting and sculpture. You could virtually walk in the space that was reflected in the painting... For centuries we have been projecting ourselves into the fictional space of painting. I thought it was time to have the space project out to us, to once again create space' (M. Pistoletto, quoted in 'Interview with Michael Auping', K. Burton (ed.), Michelangelo Pistoletto, Mirror Paintings, London 2010, p. 67).
Pistoletto's first Mirror Paintings were exhibited together for the first time at the Galleria Galatea in Turin in April 1963 where they initially garnered little enthusiasm or critical acclaim. It was only after a nearchance encounter with Michael and Illeana Sonnabend in Paris that these works came to secure Pistoletto's international reputation and launched him in the United States and Europe as a leading exponent of the Italian avant-garde. For it was after meeting Pistoletto in Paris that the Sonnabends came to visit Turin and impressed by what they saw acquired the entire Galleria Galatea exhibition of Pistoletto's Mirror Paintings which they then opened to much acclaim and success at their own gallery in Paris in March 1964. 'They were struck by the work,' Pistoletto recalled 'and came to Turin where they bought up the whole Galatea show. They took over the contract with Tazzoli and a situation developed that was extremely important for me: from my isolation in Turin, I was catapulted into an international dimension' (M. Pistoletto, quoted in G. Celant, Pistoletto, Florence 1984, pp. 26-29).