Part painting and part performance piece, Michelangelo Pistoletto's Donna nuda al telefono is one of the artist's iconic "Mirror Paintings" that he first exhibited in April 1963 and that has come to define his career as one of Europe's most innovative artists. The figure of a nude woman is shown sitting on a dresser stool and talking on the telephone, a modern evocation of the classical nude painted throughout art history. But here, the highly polished surface not only supports the image of the woman, it also reflects back an image of the viewer, and the contemporary world that they inhabit. This duality between what is fact and what is fiction, what is historical and what is contemporary, runs throughout Pistoletto's fifty-year career. An early prodigy of the Sonnabends, Pistoletto became an important member of a tight cadre of European artists whose influence continues to remind the world that not all artistic innovation in the 1960s emanated from New York.
Pistoletto was one of the artists who first pioneered the practice of bringing the viewer directly into the artistic process rather than merely having them as a passive spectator. The artist arrived at this juncture in 1961 while he was trying to paint his own face on a highly varnished monochrome surface. "I realized," Pistoletto recalled, "that someone like Pollock, although he attempted to transfer life onto canvas through action," had not succeeded "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 (also) did not succeed in rendering a pathological vision of reality. I (then) understood that the moment had arrived to make the laws of objective reality enter the painting" (M. Pistoletto, quoted in G. Celant, Identité Italienne. Paris, 1981, p. 81).
He soon realized that one important factor was missing, that of the viewer. 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, exh. cat., Galleria La Bertesca, Genoa, 1966).
In Donna nuda al telefono, the face of the female figure is turned away, thus upsetting the traditional dynamic of the male gaze that has been so incumbent in centuries of historical painting. Here, the subject is, in fact, looking in the same direction as the viewer, almost into the work. But as the surface of the work is itself highly reflective, is she not able then to look into the refection and thus be able to see the viewer looking at her over her shoulder? Just as Édouard Manet examined the nature of the male gaze in A Bar at the Folies-Bergere, 1882 (Courtauld Institute of Art, London), here Pistoletto invokes the conventions that have developed in the way we read paintings only to the subvert them.
Pistoletto's arrival at this unique form of artistic expression was the result of continuous innovation and development. Initially, to create the mirrored effect, Pistoletto used conventional mirrored glass, but when he found that it did not produce his desired effect, he ultimately turned to polished steel because its highly reflective surface avoided the problems with the disturbing depth of surface that the glass mirrors gave. Similarly, after originally attempting to paint directly onto the steel surface without success, Pistoletto arrived, as in this work, 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 itself.
The result is a highly conceptual work that subverts not only art historical conventions but also visual ones too. "The mirror," Pistoletto said, "is a symbol that is simultaneously an anti-symbol. It... reflects every place and continues to reflect even when and where no human eye is present. ...A meeting point between the human mirroring and reflective phenomenon and the universal reality that the mirror is itself capable of reflectingit functions as a mediator between the visible and the non-visible, extending the eyesight beyond its apparently normal capabilities. Whether in a room or on an altar, a mirror expands the possibilities of the eye and the capacity of the mind so far as to offer a vision of totality" (M. Pistoletto , L'arte assume la religione., 1978 quoted in G. Celant, Michelangelo Pistoletto New York, 1989, p. 28).