Comprising solely of a graphic representation of a lone man lost in his own world reading and set against a double-panelled reflective stainless steel background, Uomo che legge is one of the first of Michelangelo Pistoletto's Quadri specchianti or 'mirror paintings'. These are the works that formed the core of Pistoletto's oeuvre in the 1960s and which since then, have run, the artist acknowledges, like 'a golden line' through his entire artistic career (Pistoletto, quoted in Ossian Ward, 'Interview: Michelangelo Pistoletto,' Time Out, 12-18 December 2007, p. 48).
The mirror paintings evolved out of a series of self-portrait studies that Pistoletto painted in the late 1950s and early 1960s. It was '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 in rendering a pathological vision of reality', Pistoletto recalled, that 'I understood that the moment had arrived to make the laws of objective reality enter the painting' (Pistoletto, quoted in G. Celant, Identité Italienne, Paris, 1981, p. 81). The solution to this problem, Pistoletto found, was to use the mimesis and reflectivity of the mirror as a way of letting reality and the life of the person, be it himself or the viewer, enter into the painting as both a subject and a performer.
Pistoletto started his first mirror paintings in 1961, and until 1971 when he began to silkscreen directly onto the mirrored surface, these first Quadri specchianti, as here, were made by the complex and painstaking process of blowing up a photograph, cutting out the silhouette of the figure, and then tracing it onto a semi-transparent onion-skin paper with oils and pastels. This image was then glued onto the reflective metal surface.
Isolated against this reflective panel, Pistoletto's subjects (usually friends, colleagues and other people he knew) began to assert and question the difference between the world of representation and the reflective 'reality' of the mirror. 'Nothing escapes the mirror.' Pistoletto observed, 'the great space is in the mirror, time (whole time) is already in the mirror and space has the dimension of time.' (Pistoletto, quoted in 'Inside, inside the mirror', 1987, reproduced in Michelangelo Pistoletto, exh. cat., Barcelona, 2000, p. 30). In looking at these works, the viewer immediately enters into a paradoxical and problematic world, seemingly both participating within the often very intimate and private space of the subject - a mother nursing her child, an artist in the act of drawing or as in this work, a reader absorbed in his paper - and yet also remaining remote and separated in an alternate space and time that simultaneously exist within the same picture. For Pistoletto's figures always, because of the hand-crafted nature of their representation, inhabit an entirely different world, frozen, and often alone, in a time that is clearly past. And yet, at the same time, and seemingly within the same frame or dimension of the picture, the viewer is also able to stand within the work, participate and observe the real space and time of the gallery - one that within the confines of the picture-plane, always appears as an ever-changing present. The viewer, whose image also appears in the mirror, interacting with both these different space-times consequently acts as a bridge between these two separate worlds. It was in this respect that Pistoletto felt what he described as 'an affinity between Muybridge's attempt to codify movement through photography and my Mirror paintings...(because they)...put images into perpetual motion while continuously dragging photographic memory into the dynamics of the present' (Michelangelo Pistoletto, statement 1997, quoted in Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev (ed.), Arte Povera, London, 1999, p. 155).
In some of his mirror paintings, as in this work, Pistoletto sought to emphasize this discrepancy between the worlds of representation and reality, as well as between outer image and inner self that is also revealed in these reflective paintings, by adding one, or sometimes more, empty mirrored panels. Like Andy Warhol's use of the extra blank canvas panel to highlight the fleeting shallowness of his imagery and lend it a bleak and very existential 'here-today-gone-tomorrow' element of temporality, Pistoletto's extra panels, simultaneously both empty and full, ask similar probing questions about the nature of representation and its relationship to reality. In contrast to Warhol who sought somehow to hide or dissolve himself in his imagery, running throughout Pistoletto's work is always the artist's deep-rooted interest in the relationship between outer image and inner being or experience - with the connections between image, representation and identity.
'The mirror is a symbol that is simultaneously an anti symbol. It is simply the physical and intellectual extension of the human phenomenon: from the eye to the mind and the actions, a person is entirely a series of reflexes and reflections. Indeed, the possibilities of mirroring cannot be contained within a limited dimension, and a mirror potentially reflects every place and continues to reflect even when and where no human eye is present. Hence, the mirror, on the altar or not, but nevertheless within the precincts of art, becomes the meeting point between the human mirroring and reflective phenomenon and the universal reality that the mirror is itself capable of reflecting, that is to say, the mirror 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 cited in Germano Celant, Michelangelo Pistoletto New York, 1989, p. 28.)