“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 on the rendering pathological vision of reality, I understood that the moment had arrived to make the laws of objective reality enter the painting” (M. Pistoletto quoted in G. Celany, Identité, L’art ed italie depuis 1959, exh. cat., Paris George Pomidou, Museé d’Art Moderne, Paris, 1981, p. 81).
With its hand-painted, life-size image of a man seated staring into the distance, Gilardi Assis is a part of Michelangelo Pistoletto’s most acclaimed Mirror Paintings series of works. Utilizing the mirror as medium, Pistoletto confronts the bridge between life and art, removing the wall between the artwork and the viewer. As the viewer approaches the work, they enter into the realm of the seated Gilardi, becoming part of the conversation, part of the work. The reflection of the viewer is as much a part of the art as the figure is; without the viewer the work is not activated.
Painted carefully on tissue paper, the young man seated was Pistoletto’s contemporary, Piero Gilardi. As an artist of the Arte Povera movement, “Gilardi came to distrust the artist’s fixation on the object. Instead he was interested in the question of how he might create a link between art and life, and his solution involved a rejection of the object” (F. Malsch, C. Meyer-Stoll, V. Pero, Che fare? Arte Povera – The Historic Years, exh. cat., Vaduz, Kunstmuseum Liechtenstein, 2010, p. 140). Gilardi’s Tappeto natura (Nature carpet) began his exploration into nature as a medium, representing the basis of his oeuvre. These works combine aesthetic and function, as in principle carpets are intended for interior decoration, thus inherently creating an interaction between the work and the viewer. Gilardi focused on nature as reality rather than the idyllic, he chose not to celebrate it, but to embrace its organic existence. By accepting this raw reality, Gilardi transcended the object creating an experience, uniting art and life.
Pistoletto’s Mirror Paintings evolved from a series of self-portrait oil paintings that the artist made in the early 1960s, which “attempted to negate the specificity of expression and to pinpoint the figure in the vastness of the present” (Ibid. p. 252). Obsessed with exploring the relationship of the figure to the background, Pistoletto reproduced life-sized figures in tissue paper and adhered them to highly polished stainless steel panels. “For Pistoletto, the mirroring surface was the ultimate unobtrusive space that enabled a casual relationship that, though instantaneous of reflection, transcended dimensional differences between the represented figures and the reflected reality of the world” (Ibid.). Like his subject in Gilardi Assis, Pistoletto found the ultimate means to erase the notion of an object, to wed one with art.
Executed in 1966, Gilardi Assis is among some of the artist’s first explorations to be made on the purely reflective surface of polished steel. In 1962, having initially experimented on glass mirrors, Pistoletto found the steel reflected flatly, where the mirror gave a disturbing depth of field, altering reality. The artist also came to use tissue paper through similar experimentation; while paint would not adhere directly to the steel surface, hand-painted tissue paper would. The life-sized drawings were made from Pistoletto’s photographs creating a realistic physical image, which appeared to be implanted within the flat plane of steel. Pistoletto once stated “On the one hand the canvas, on the other the mirror, in the middle me. 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 Michelangelo Pistoletto, Un artista in meno, Florence, 1989, p. 9).
Pistoletto’s early Mirror Paintings were exhibited for the first time at the Galleria Galatea in Turin in April of 1963. Having run into the famed Michael and Illeana Sonnabend on a trip to Paris, Pistoletto convinced them to visit his show in Turin. Impressed by what they saw, the Sonnabends acquired the entire set of paintings from the Galleria Galatea exhibition and displayed them at their own gallery in Paris. Their show opened in 1964 with glowing success, launching Pistoletto’s international reputation as a leading artist of the Italian avant-garde. Pistoletto recalled, “They were struck by the work and came to Turin where they bought up the whole Galatea show. They took over my 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, p. 26-29).