Michelangelo Pistoletto at 90: from mirror paintings to the search for a ‘Third Paradise’

Christie’s meets the Italian artist at his base in Biella, where his Cittadellarte foundation, aiming to establish ‘harmony between nature and artificial life’, now spans five acres of the city and welcomes 40,000 visitors every year

Michelangelo Pistoletto in the Piedmontese city of Biella. The wool mill has been repurposed to become the centrepiece of his Cittadellarte

Michelangelo Pistoletto in the Piedmontese city of Biella. The wool mill has been repurposed to become the centrepiece of his ‘Cittadellarte’. Photo: Andrea Oitana

Michelangelo Pistoletto’s long career can be split into two seemingly quite distinct phases.

The first is dominated by his celebrated mirror paintings, featuring life-size figures created using various media — often tissue paper — laid on highly polished stainless steel. He began to make them around 1960, after he had caught sight of his silhouette emerging from the glossy black background of an early self-portrait.

Pistoletto’s radical proposal — that the images’ reflective surfaces transform viewers from passive onlookers to active participants — brought him enormous success. He soon caught the attention of the gallerists Ileana Sonnabend and Leo Castelli, who took him to New York, and there he rubbed shoulders with Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol. Pistoletto subsequently became a leading figure of Arte Povera, protesting against the rise of consumer culture.

The artist’s mirror paintings now hang on the walls of national institutions and regularly fetch seven-figure sums at auction. He still produces a handful each year, but the second half of his career has mostly been dedicated to a quest to create something larger and more collaborative — what he describes as his ‘Third Paradise’.

Michelangelo Pistoletto (b. 1933), Uomo che guarda un negativo (Man Looking at a Negative), 1967. Painted tissue paper on polished stainless steel. Executed in 1967. 90½ x 47¼ in (230 x 120 cm). Sold for £3,721,250 on 6 October 2017 at Christie’s in London. Artwork: © Michelangelo Pistoletto

This philosophical quest began in 1991 with the purchase an old textile mill in the Italian city of Biella, where he was born in 1933.

‘My idea for the project was to place art in relation to different aspects of social life,’ he explains. ‘I was trying to transform my paintings from visual work into something more practical.’

Biella, which lies just over an hour’s drive northeast of Turin, has been Italy’s ‘wool capital’ since the 1300s. Owing to cheaper foreign imports, however, many local mills have become empty in recent decades.

Although Pistoletto’s father, an art restorer, had moved his family to Turin by the time his son was a year old, there were regular trips back to Biella throughout his childhood.

A group of Pistoletto’s mirror paintings in the permanent exhibition at the Cittadellarte

A group of Pistoletto’s mirror paintings in the permanent exhibition space at Cittadellarte. Photo: Damiano Andreotti. Artwork: © Michelangelo Pistoletto

‘My mother’s sister lived here, so we used to visit and see the factories working,’ says Pistoletto. ‘It was important for me that this was a place where there had been life before. The empty space was a bit like an empty mirror.’

Pistoletto’s first act was to refurbish his former mill’s top floor. He filled the cavernous space, which has a wooden roof that resembles an upturned ark, with a series of interconnected doorways. Each represents the entrance to a room — or office, as he puts it — which houses one area of his research: art, education, economics, politics, fashion, architecture or nourishment.

Over the following years, the floors beneath were developed into classrooms, co-working spaces, libraries, accommodation, galleries and a restaurant. And when Pistoletto’s vision outgrew the first mill, he started buying more.

Today, the site, called ‘Cittadellarte’, covers five acres of Biella and welcomes more than 40,000 visitors every year. It has also helped to earn Biella its special ‘Creative City’ status from UNESCO.

Pistoletto's Sede del Terzo Paradiso (Home of the Third Paradise) at the Cittadellarte

The Sede del Terzo Paradiso (Home of the Third Paradise) at Cittadellarte: ‘The two circles either side represent nature and artificial life. The middle circle represents a world where these conflicting elements can exist in harmony’. Artwork: © Michelangelo Pistoletto

In 2003, some 12 years after acquiring his first mill, Pistoletto set out to unite the conceptual nature of his art with the practical work taking place at Cittadellarte.

‘I wanted to transform my mirror paintings into a kind of mathematical formula,’ he explains. ‘I started with the mathematical infinity symbol, which produces a single point where the line crosses itself. By crossing the line twice, I created a third circle between the other two.’ With his index finger, he traces this triple-loop shape across the top of his dining-room table.

‘The two circles either side represent nature and artificial life,’ he continues. ‘The middle circle represents a world where these conflicting elements can exist in harmony.’ This central space is, he says, a womb for a new humanity — his ‘Third Paradise’.

‘There were so many people [at my birthday party] that it felt like I was attending my own funeral. It was like I had died at 90 and could see everyone’s response. It was very good!’

In simpler terms, the Third Paradise is an art project that questions how mankind can better itself for the future, and the triple-loop symbol is a bit like Pistoletto’s own version of the peace sign. Unveiled at the Venice Biennale in 2005 (two years after he was awarded the festival’s Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement), his Third Paradise concept has been broadcast around the world.

For example, in 2015, the symbol was recreated on the 500-square-metre lawn in front of the United Nations building, using 193 blocks of stone, each quarried from a different UN member country. In Sarajevo in 2017, a series of Third Paradise lectures culminated with hundreds of local students standing in three huge circles in Skenderija Square.

More than 60 years after his first mirror painting, Pistoletto's work is being celebrated with a series of global exhibitions marking his 90th birthday

More than 60 years after his first mirror painting, Pistoletto’s work is being celebrated with a series of global exhibitions marking his 90th birthday. Photo: Pierluigi Di Pietro

Pistoletto is happy for anyone to organise their own event to promote the Third Paradise, so that its message can grow organically. He only insists that his symbol is not used for any purpose that is commercial, illegal, discriminatory, political or religious. He claims that his teachings have been received by more than 4.5 million people.

The artist turned 90 in June, yet he shows no signs of slowing down. He celebrated his milestone with a party at Cittadellarte. ‘People came from all over the world. There were so many people that it felt like I was attending my own funeral. It was like I had died at 90 and could see everyone’s response. It was very good!’

An installation of Venus of the Rags, Pistoletto's iconic Art Povera work conceived in 1967, at the Cittadellarte's permanent exhibition

An installation of Venus of the Rags, Pistoletto’s iconic Art Povera work conceived in 1967, in Cittadellarte’s permanent exhibition space. Artwork: © Michelangelo Pistoletto

Conversation turns to the recent destruction of his Venus of the Rags, a monumental iteration of an Arte Povera icon. The work, in which a classical statue of the Roman goddess of love confronts a pile of discarded clothes, was burnt to the ground in an arson attack in Naples in July.

‘I am not at all sad about it,’ insists Pistoletto. ‘The meaning of the Venus, which contrasts eternal beauty with degrading consumerism, is not destroyed, but reinforced. Its destruction has highlighted the reality of conflicts in today’s society.

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‘But,’ he continues, now becoming more animated, ‘If we can find a balance between these opposites, that’s how we can create harmony — a Third Paradise!’

Throughout 2023, Galleria Continua has been marking Pistoletto’s 90th birthday with eight exhibitions across its spaces in San Gimignano, Havana, Les Moulins, Rome, Paris, São Paulo, Beijing and Dubai

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