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Michelangelo Pistoletto Lot 26
Michelangelo Pistoletto (b. 1933)
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Michelangelo Pistoletto (b. 1933)

Il Presente. Figura su sfondo nero V (The Present. Figure on a Black Ground V)

Details
Michelangelo Pistoletto (b. 1933)
Il Presente. Figura su sfondo nero V (The Present. Figure on a Black Ground V)
acrylic and plastic paint on canvas
78 ¾ x 59 1/8 (200 x 150cm.)
Executed in 1961
Provenance
Galleria Galatea, Turin.
Acquired from the above by the present owner in 1962.
Special Notice

Artist's Resale Right ("Droit de Suite"). Artist's Resale Right Regulations 2006 apply to this lot, the buyer agrees to pay us an amount equal to the resale royalty provided for in those Regulations, and we undertake to the buyer to pay such amount to the artist's collection agent.

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Lot Essay

‘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

‘“I”, in these pictures, no longer exists without the “you” of the viewer. The animate, real world of the viewer and the space into which the painting itself is set now becomes what Pistoletto called the “protagonist” of his painting. By contrast, the static, painted, central image of the artist himself becomes only of secondary importance - a mere anchor for this dramatic move towards a new, open, form of picture making’ – A. Vettese

‘[Bacon] reconsidered the fundamental aspect of the human being, and that was important to me, but he dramatized the image of the person, and that’s where we parted ways, I, too, turned back to the person, but I sought to strip away any drama’ – M. Pistoletto

Forming part of the same collection since 1962, Il presente. Figura su fondo nero V (The Present, Figure on a Black Ground V) is a startling work comprising solely of a hand-painted full-length standing portrait of the young Michelangelo Pistoletto staring intently both into and out of a highly reflective, black, monochrome surface. One of a ground-breaking group of early paintings that Pistoletto made in the transformatory year of 1961, it is an imposing image that depicts the artist half veiled in shadow and seemingly emerging from or being enveloped by the void. According to the Pistoletto Archive in Rome, this impressive painting is one of the very first of the radical and ultimately revelatory series of reflective self-portraits that Pistoletto made in the early 1960s - the series in which he first discovered and then laid the foundations for his later, career-defining concept of ‘mirror-painting’.

Pistoletto was first inspired to paint this highly original series of self-portraits by the example of Francis Bacon’s deeply existential images of lone figures animating an oppressive void or imprisoning empty space. Bacon ‘reconsidered the fundamental aspect of the human being, and that was important to me,’ Pistoletto has said, ‘but he dramatized the image of the person, and that’s where we parted ways, I, too, turned back to the person, but I sought to strip away any drama’ (M. Pistoletto, quoted in M. Pistoletto and A. Elkann, The Voice of Pistoletto, New York 2014, p. 57).

The moment of greatest revelation for Pistoletto came one day in 1961 when, in the process of painting a self-image he caught sight of his own facial reflection in the sheen of the painting’s background. ‘I saw it come toward me, detaching itself from the space of an environment in which all things moved, and I was astonished’ he recalled (M. Pistoletto, Il rinascimento dell’arte, 1979, unpublished manuscript partially quoted in Michelangelo Pistoletto From One to Many 1956-74, exh. cat. Rome 2011, p. 143). Almost instantaneously, Pistoletto realised the new direction in which he should take his work ‘The figure of a man seemed to come forward, as if alive...; but the true protagonist 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).

From this point onwards Pistoletto began to refine his paintings and, as in this work, to title them ‘The Present’ in reference to what he now realised was their true subject – the living, present moment of the constantly changing real space and time that had now entered into the reflective surface of his painting. As Angela Vettese has written of these works, suddenly the ’I’, in these pictures, no longer exists without the ‘you’ of the viewer. The animate, real world of the viewer and the space into which the painting itself is set now becomes what Pistoletto called the ‘protagonist’ of his painting. By contrast, the static, painted, central image of the artist himself becomes only of secondary importance - a mere anchor for this dramatic move towards a new, open, form of picture making.
In subsequent variations on the same theme, such as Il presente. Figura su fondo nero V, Pistoletto would layer the monochrome background of his paintings with repeated coatings of a plastic boat varnish applied over his acrylic paint in order to heighten the reflective nature of their surfaces and encourage an appreciation of this spatial and temporal element to his work. In the end, of course, this surface was to be replaced by the polished stainless steel of his first mirror paintings made in 1962. ‘The materials were important in the evolution of my work.’ Pistoletto said of this process. ‘It is not that I arrived at the mirror for a conceptual reason: I arrived at the mirror through a material evolution. I did not arrive through the representation of the figure alone, but with the complicity of the materials from the beginning’ (M. Pistoletto, quoted in Michelangelo Pistoletto From One to Many 1956-74, exh. cat., Rome 2011, p. 143).

Il presente. Figura su fondo nero V, is therefore, a work that stands right in the midst of this crossroads between Pistoletto’s painterly self-projections on canvas and the first ‘mirror-paintings’, begun in early 1962, and in which the artist would eventually replace the painted image with a photographic portrait transferred onto tissue paper. With its dark, highly reflective monochrome varnished background bringing the spectator(s) of the work into its painterly orbit, the painting is both a powerful intimation of the entire future direction of Pistoletto’s art and also one of the most perfect expressions of the artist’s concept of the individual confronting his own participation in the miraculous spectacle of reality in the present moment.

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