Pistoletto’s ‘Mirror Paintings’ are the key works of the artist’s long, eclectic and varied career and, over the last fifty years, have formed the central ‘golden thread’ of his enduring aesthetic. Deriving originally from a series of painted self-portraits, made in the early 1960 and inspired by Francis Bacon, they are large reflective pictures that assert themselves as ‘open works of art’ that require the physical participation of the viewer in order to function. In this way, these interactive pictures are paintings that, in accordance with much of the progressive art of the period, question and break down the conventional borderlines between art and life. Adorned or appended, as if they were painted canvases, with illustrative figures and objects drawn from the ‘real’ world of everyday life, these also often theatrical works intentionally play with and question the nature and validity of all imagery by probing the illusive gap that exists between representation and reality.
‘The mirror’, Pistoletto has 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 reflecting, …it 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.’ (Michelangelo Pistoletto , L’arte assume la religione., 1978 quoted in Germano Celant, Michelangelo Pistoletto New York, 1989, p.28.)
In La Folla (The Crowd) of 1978, Pistoletto returned to a theme he had first explored in some of his very first mirror-paintings of 1960s, that of the crowd. In La Folla, as in his balcony scenes of 1964 and his mirror-paintings of ‘people looking’ of 1965 for example, Pistoletto presents a varied and intriguing group of people all standing with their backs to the viewer while engaged, like an audience, in staring intently at some unseen spectacle or performer. As is the logic of Pistoletto’s mirror-paintings, what these people are in fact looking at is the viewer of the work, whose reflection, when looking at the picture, becomes visible - or, in the case of this work, partially visible - in the highly reflective, polished stainless steel surface of the painting. As was Pistoletto’s intention, in this way, the viewer, becomes an active participant, or even perhaps a collaborator in the artist’s creative act as well as a performer in the unique, mirrored space of the painting.
In a playful gesture typical of Pistoletto’s work of the late 1970s, in the case of La Folla, the viewer’s presence in looking at the work actually transforms them from the observer of the painting into its subject. For here, within the reflected space of the mirror, it is they who have become the centre of attention, appearing to stand, like a host or guide, in front of an attentive and scrutinising audience. Normally, of course, it is the painting itself that is the object of a viewer’s scrutiny, but here, in a knowing extension of the kind of game of looking first articulated by Velasquez’s Las Meninas, La Folla has playfully reversed the traditional way of looking at a painting and turned it into a pictorial paradox that deliberately questions the conventional borderlines determining our understanding of space and the differentiation between subject and object, the viewer and the work of art, the real and the representational.
‘Nothing escapes the mirror.’Pistoletto has said.’ The great space is in the mirror, time (whole time) is already in the mirror and space has the dimension of time. The mirror is at the bottom of the well and we can see it, but perhaps it is also under the furniture at home, in the trees, or behind our heads where we can’t see it; is it you that looks at me from behind without my even knowing it? The eyes are mirrors, the mind is the mirror of the eyes and actions are the mirror of the mind. Now that the mirror has come to light from Art we can see inside history, the bright and sparkling history in the thickness of the mirror and the life that Art reflects in this thickness... Conscience perceives the inexorable absolute in existential relativity, the mirror’s perpetual motion that comes without pose to its own surface.’ (Michelangelo Pistoletto, ‘Inside the Mirror’ 1987, reproduced in Michelangelo Pistoletto exh. cat. MACBA, Barcelona, 2000, p. 30)