“The mirror paintings could not live without an audience. They were created and re-created according to the movement and to the interventions they reproduced. The step from the mirror paintings to theatre—everything is theatre—seems simply natural…. It is less a matter of involving the audience, of letting it participate, as to act on its freedom and on its imagination, to trigger similar liberation mechanisms in people.” (Michelangelo Pistoletto, interview with G. Boursier, in Sipario, Milan, April 1969, 17).
Lui e lei abbracciati is a full-length, life-sized, double-portrait ‘mirror-painting’ depicting Michelangelo Pistoletto and his life-long companion and artistic collaborator Maria Pioppi standing with their arms around one another in an act of intimate union. It was made at the beginning of 1968 soon after Pistoletto and Pioppi had first met and fallen in love and belongs to a unique group of intimate and yet also open and interactive double-portraits of the couple that Pistoletto made at this time in apparent celebration of the couple’s new creative and romantic partnership.
Comprised of a polished stainless steel ground onto which a hand-coloured, printed image on tissue paper of the couple has been laid down, Lui e lei abbracciati is a double-self-portrait of Pistoletto and Pioppi that asserts the intimate and private nature of their relationship at the same time that it quietly proclaims their creative union. Depicted from the back, facing away from the viewer, their arms entwined, Pistoletto and Pioppi appear to be sharing a private moment together away from their audience. But in this, as so often in Pistoletto’s mirror paintings, there is a deliberate paradox. For, as in all of Pistoletto’s mirror paintings, in viewing the work, the viewer must participate within the picture too. Here, the viewer’s animate, living reflection appears in the painting as if viewing the couple from the front and thereby seeming to also be a part of their intimacy and union. This open and inclusive function of the mirror-paintings - their ability to break down the borders between representation and reality or between art and life, and to open up the creative process to one of collaboration between artist and audience was at the absolute forefront of Pistoletto’s mind at the time that this mirror painting was made. ‘The purpose and the result of my mirror paintings,’ Pistoletto claimed at this time, ‘was to carry art to the edges of life in order to verify the entire system in which both of them functions. After this, there remains only one choice. On the one hand there is the possibility of a monstrous involution and a return to the system of doubling and conflict, and, on the other-hand there is the possibility of revolution and of leaving the system altogether. One can bring art into life - but no longer in terms of metaphor.’ (Michelangelo Pistoletto, le ultime parole famose (The Famous Last Words), Turin, 1967)
Lui e lei abbracciati belongs to a group of mirror paintings of Pistoletto and Pioppi that Pistoletto appears to have made partly in celebration of his new found love and their shared spirit of creative collaboration, and partly in preparation for his first one-man show, to be held in Rome at the Galleria L’Attico between February and March 1968. This landmark exhibition, which was effectively the first to bring the doubled-world of Pistoletto’s ‘mirror-paintings’ out of the closeted, intellectual, flat realm of painting and into a public, Pirandello-like installation that involved theatre, performance and life, marked the culmination of an increasingly open and collaborative approach to his work that had been growing throughout the previous year before he met Pioppi and which, with her encouragement, would ultimately develop into the new couple’s joint development of their own theatrical group called Lo Zoo.
In Turin, in March of 1967 Pistoletto had met ‘the Living Theatre’. This was a celebrated troupe of players led by Julian Beck and Judith Malina then working in exile from America who, following the tradition of Antonin Artaud, were a communal, co-operative, enterprise living and working together with the aim of breaking down the conventional structures and hierarchies of behaviour and power in modern society through the public staging of interactive and provocational poetic dramas. After seeing their performance of Mysteries …and Smaller Places, Pistoletto got to know several members of the ‘Theatre’ and invited them to stay in his studio in Turin throughout much of 1967. This collaboration led soon afterwards to Pistoletto’s ‘Open Studio’ and his ‘Manifesto of Collaboration”. ‘As I had “opened” paintings to the presence and participation of all’, Pistoletto said, referring to his mirror-paintings, ‘why not “open” a physical space instead?’ (Michelangelo Pistoletto, interview with M. Bandini, in NAC, Bari, November 1973). Throughout the year Pistoletto also made regular visits to Rome, taking part in what is often thought of as the very first arte povera exhibition, Fuoco, immagine, acqua, terra at the L’Attico gallery in June. It was on such a visit to Rome in November of 1967 that Pistoletto first met Maria Pioppi.
In a recent interview, Pistoletto has recalled that he fell in live with Pioppi ‘immediately’ he saw her. ‘She was twenty-nine and I was thirty-four’ he recalls. ‘That evening (in November 1967) right after we (he and Pino Pascali) arrived in Rome, we went to the Pollarolo, a trattoria next to the Piazza del Popolo where the artists often used to go. A very small trattoria. I went in and Maria was there with a girlfriend. ...(she was dressed)…in black, with a turtleneck sweater and a fairly long, I say, three-quarter-length straight skirt that left her ankles barely visible. Her body could only be guessed at, but her face was beautiful…She lived by herself in a garret on the sixth and top floor of an apartment building. We went up the back stairs and on a landing we found a sack of potatoes. Maria took some of them and fried them, and that was all it took to make me fall head over heels in love, obviously.’ (Michelangelo Pistoletto, quoted in M. Pistoletto, A.Elkann, The Voice of Pistoletto, New York, 2013, pp. 44-5)
After taking Pioppi back with him to Turin, Pistoletto’s developing spirit of openness and collaboration took a further step forward to become a central part what was to be, in February 1968, his first one-man show in Rome. In part, Pistoletto’s 1968 show at L’Attico also reflected a response on behalf of the artist to the increasingly open and theatrical approach to exhibition-making that the gallery’s owner Fabio Sargentini was then also encouraging from his artists. As Sargentini has recalled, this aspect of the L’Attico gallery was a distinctly ‘Roman thing’. Pascali and Kounellis ‘gave to Rome a certain importance’ he remembered, ‘and together we became a kind of ‘force de frappe’...and Pistoletto in Turin was the first to understand this and become interested in what was happening in Rome, so he came very often and established a good contact with us, especially with Pascali... He couldn’t have done…(what he wanted to do)… in another gallery (or) in Turin at that time but he also did it with me because of the things that Pascali and Kounellis had done.’ (Fabio Sargentini, ‘A Conversation with Fabio Sargentini’, R. Brown, Pino Pascali, Ponte, London, 2008, p. 34) The previous year, 1967, had seen both Pino Pascali’s radiant blue seascape-grid Approximately 32 Square metres of Sea and Jannis Kounellis’ paintings with live caged-birds installed in the L’Attico gallery. Indeed, throughout 1967, Sargentini remembers, ‘Pistoletto and Pascali became pretty close, and Pistoletto started to spend a lot of time in Rome…So Pistoletto was very much a part of what was going on in Rome at that time and I offered him a show and he was very aware of and sensitive to the wavelength we were on. He is very intelligent and understood how everything was moving toward a sense of theatre and of performance etc, although… what he was really concerned with at this time was the mirrors. The mirror was his thing.’ (Fabio Sargentini, quoted in R. Brown, op cit pp. 34-6)
It is both fitting and appropriate therefore that as the centerpiece of this exhibition Pistoletto placed the mirror painting Lei e Lui, a double-portrait of himself and Pioppi facing each other and leaning in towards one another so that their heads are touching, as if, as in the present work, to show that the two artists and lovers are of one mind. The L’Attico exhibition also included three other mirror paintings, one of Maria as a reclining nude, one of a dressing room stool that encouraged viewers of the show to enter into its theatrical atmosphere of make-believe and another double-portrait of Maria and Pistoletto highly reminiscent of Lui e lei abbracciati in which the artist-couple are shown, again from behind and seemingly conferring with one another as if they were members of the audience.
The central idea of this elaborate exhibition was that it serve as an interactive arena that invited the active participation of the audience to create the ‘play’ or spectacle of the show. In the outer room, which served as a kind of entrance hall, there was a coat rack hung with elaborate costumes from Cinecittà that viewers were invited to put on so as to become performers in the exhibition space of the inner room which contained film-set props and mirror-paintings of the exhibition’s hosts Michelangelo and Maria. At the entrance to this room was a single spotlight focused on the viewer like a stage-light. In front of them was positioned the mirror-painting with a tissue-paper image of a stool and in which they would see themselves in costume before entering the collective performance with the images of Maria and Michelangelo in the inner room.
Establishing a complete breakdown of the traditional borders between, life, theatre, performance and art so that the identity of the viewer took on many layers and was also seemingly thrown into question, this show marked the culmination of Pistoletto’s experiments with mirrors in the 1960s and signified the beginning of a wider interest and increasing involvement with public theatre. The critic Giulio Carlo Argan writing in the catalogue entry for the show, published in March, called Pistolletto’s approach with this exhibition a ‘poetics of the threshold’. Like Pistoletto’s taking of his ball of newspapers out onto the streets of Turin, which he had done with Pioppi in one of their first collaborative actions, in January 1968, his exhibition at L’Attico similarly marked the full integration of Pistoletto’s ‘doubling’ world of mirror-paintings into the real world of their audience, the community and societal life in general.
Continuing the show’s predominant theme of interactive participation and open collaboration, Pistoletto returned to Turin between February and March where he commissioned ten young film-makers to make ten short films that were subsequently shown at the L’Attico gallery on the last day of the exhibition. Following this, in the highly political month of May 1968, Pioppi and Pistoletto announced the creation of their own theatre troupe Lo Zoo which, from May 1968 until the end of the decade in 1970, operated like a modern-day commedia dell’arte, touring and performing seventeen productions in a variety of public arenas that ranged from the city streets to large theatres. This period was a kind of collaborative honeymoon following the inaugural exhibition of personal, public and professional union that mirror-paintings such as Lei e lui abbracciati and the L’Attico exhibition had been for the couple.