‘The viewer becomes the one who walks on the canvas—finds himself in the same space as the artist’
(M. Pistoletto quoted in J. Lewinson, ‘Looking at Pistoletto / Looking at Myself’, J. Lewinson in K. Burton, (ed.) Michelangelo Pistoletto, Mirror Paintings, London 2010, p. 15)
Against the vast, expansive field of Michelangelo Pistoletto’s Maria a Colori, a woman sits, solemn and introspective. Balanced on the brink, one foot tentatively testing the edge, Maria Pioppi, Pistoletto’s muse, ponders whether to step out of the mirror. Chancing across her in this quiet moment of contemplation, the curious sightseer becomes the furtive voyeur. Moving closer, seeking to discern more detail, the observer is suddenly stopped short: from within the depths of the work, another puzzled figure emerges, a second pair of eyes gaze questioningly back. A moment passes, and the viewer recognises his own reflection – and in the instant of realisation, he is doubled: transported into fictional space, to stand in the mirror beside the woman; yet remaining stubbornly, physically real. One of Pistoletto’s critically-celebrated series of mirror paintings, Maria a Colori is filled with mesmerising potential: while the woman in the mirror remains lost deep in thought, the work changes to reflect the constant shifting of the universe – night falling, day dawning, stranger after curious stranger tracing on its surface.
Maria Pioppi enraptured Pistoletto from their very first meeting in Rome in 1967. Shortly after, Pistoletto began to feature her in the mirror paintings: she reclined gracefully in poses which recalled art historical masterpieces, such as Maria nuda (Maria Nude), 1967; or stood beside the artist in soulful portraits which evoked the intensity of their shared tenderness, as in Lei e Lui – Maria e Michelangelo (She and He – Maria and Michelangelo), 1968. In Maria a Colori, Maria is depicted some twenty-five years later. Here, she is a vision of consummate elegance: sitting poised, hands folded neatly in her lap, hair neatly coiled, dressed head to toe in understated black, which belies, with gentle irony, the work’s title. Time has passed, but the artist has remained captivated by the woman who has been not only a life-long companion but also an artistic collaborator. Alongside Pistoletto, Maria was a part of The Zoo, a circle of artists, writers, actors and musicians, active between 1968 and 1971, who were later recognised as instigators of Arte Povera. Together, they performed spontaneous, chaotic theatre in streets and piazzas throughout Italy, drawing on the rich traditions of wandering minstrels, travelling troubadours and Italian improvised theatre, the commedia dell’arte. In anarchic performances whose plots were littered with illogical twists, Maria and Pistoletto played fantastically absurd roles, clad in costumes made up of colourful rags. ‘Everything could happen, and the opposite of everything,’ Pistoletto recalled their work with The Zoo. ‘Our stories and performances were born out of unexpected encounters, the moment, the chance’ (M. Pistoletto, quoted in A. Bellini (ed.), Facing Pistoletto, Zurich 2009, p. 58).
The mirror paintings, too, were borne of a startling encounter: Pistoletto’s chance meeting with his likeness, reflected back at him from the surface of a painting he was working on. ‘In 1961, on a black background that had been varnished to the point that it reflected,’ the artist recalled this moment, ‘I began to paint my face. I saw it come toward me, detaching itself from the space of an environment in which all things moved, and I was astonished.’ (M. Pistoletto, quoted in Michelangelo Pistoletto, From One to Many, 1956-1974, exh. cat., Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, 2011, p. 143). Fascinated by the cerebral interplay between painted image and reflected figure, Pistoletto began to explore materials and processes which would merge the two into a flawless, seamless unity. Maria a Colori, created in 1993, is the culmination of this technical investigation: the carefully composed silhouette is printed directly onto a dazzlingly polished sheet of steel, allowing permanent image and fleeting reflection to share the same surface.
Maria a Colori is the point of origin from which space expands in multiple directions. The mirrored plane encompasses the physical surroundings before it, indiscriminately subordinating them to its reflective logic, and inverts them into a cavernous perspective. Throughout his practice, Pistoletto has understood art in terms of space: admiring, but ultimately rejecting the flatness of works by the Abstract Expressionists, made claustrophobic by their highly personal content, he instead turned to the perspectival illusions of the Renaissance for inspiration. Pierro della Francesca, Pistoletto proposed, 'put realistic figures in an abstract space. The space had its own presence, not as specific place, but as an indefinable void' (M. Pistoletto, quoted in K. Burton (ed.), Michelangelo Pistoletto, Mirror Paintings, Ostfildern 2011, p. 67). In Maria a Colori, the artist updates these spatial experiments for the twentieth century, allowing perspectival geometry to engulf reality. Where the Renaissance had opened a window onto a fictional world, Pistoletto creates a door, inviting the viewer to step through. Within the mirror, the viewer is liberated, becoming an actor improvising in a theatre of his imagination, following in the steps of Maria, Pistoletto and The Zoo. 'The step from the mirror paintings to theatre – everything is theatre – seems simply natural…,' the artist explained. '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’ (M. Pistoletto, quoted in ‘Interview with G. Boursier’, in Sipario, April 1969, p. 17).