‘For me the mirror was not only an illusionistic pathway back through the wall, back into the space of the traditional perspective or even into the material cut of Fontana and the mysterious dark space behind the canvas. It suggested a double projection, in to the wall and out into the space of the viewer. In a way it integrated painting and sculpture. You could virtually walk in the space that was reflected in the painting ... For centuries we have been projecting ourselves into the fictional space of painting. I thought it was time to have the space project out to us, to once again create space’ (M. PISTOLETTO)
‘I am of the opinion that each and every thing also contains its opposite’ (A. BOETTI)
Held in the same collection since 1969, Uomo che guarda un negativo (Man looking at a negative) (1967) is an exceptional early Mirror Painting by Michelangelo Pistoletto, that features the artist himself and Alighiero Boetti, the grand master of conceptual Arte Povera. Boetti, sharply dressed and depicted with crisp realism in paint on tissue paper, stands with his back to us, holding a photo negative of a child’s face up to the light. Reflected in the surrounding surface of polished stainless steel, the viewer steps into Boetti’s space, sharing his mirrored environment. Thus taking part in the composition, they complete and animate the artwork: Pistoletto not only offers a playful interactive experience, but also poses a compelling inquest into the relationship between artist and viewer. His treatment of the negative that Boetti is inspecting adds a virtuoso detail, with its light areas left unpainted to create a brilliant sense of true transparency. Boetti’s own artistic captivation with the idea of doubling and reflection makes him an exquisite subject. Image within image and artist within artwork conspire in an extraordinary Mirror Painting of rare and vital importance, standing testament to the twin outlooks of two of the greatest Italian pioneers of the last century.
Appropriately, this work was executed in 1967 – the same year that Germano Celant first coined the name for ‘Arte Povera’, the avant-garde movement of which both Boetti and Pistoletto were guiding forces. Boetti provides a perfect vehicle for Pistoletto’s Mirror Painting treatment. He not only shared Pistoletto’s ludic sensibility, inventive spirit and creative charisma, but also, in his own work, was fascinated with the concept of doubles. Pistoletto chose the photograph of him (taken in Pistoletto’s Turin studio) looking at a negative – with its implied opposite of the positive – as if to highlight this shared aspect of their artistic projects. Boetti believed that the world’s unity comprised of a balance of opposites, based on the coexistence of harmony and chaos. He trained himself to write and draw ambidextrously; in I Gemelli, a 1968 double self-portrait, he manipulated photographs so as to appear to be holding hands with an identical twin; in 1973, he renamed himself as the dual persona Alighiero e Boetti (‘Alighiero and Boetti’). From the alphabetical games of his Arazzi to the geopolitical collaborations of his Mappe, his practice was driven by the opposing poles of the individual and society, error and perfection, order and disorder. ‘The fact is’, he wrote in 1988, ‘that we are confronted by a natural reality: it’s incontestable that a cell divides in two, and then in four, and so on; that we have two legs, two arms, two eyes, and so on; that mirrors double images; that man has founded his whole existence upon a series of binary models, including computers; that language proceeds by pairs of opposed terms, like the ones I cited above: order and disorder, sign and design, etc. It’s obvious that this concept of the pair is one of the fundamental archetypes of our culture’ (A. Boetti, quoted in S. Lombardi (ed.), Dall’Oggi al Domani, Brescia 1988). Standing forever in the mirror of the present work, he is a gatekeeper at the threshold between the world of reality and that of reflections, his own image fluctuating between physical and pictorial space.
Like Boetti, Pistoletto saw this doubling as a way of understanding the world. Rejecting the ‘base’ myth of Narcissus, who falls in love with his own reflected image and drowns diving into the smooth surface of his pond, Pistoletto preferred to see the reflection as a revolutionary instant of dawning self-consciousness. ‘I think rather that one has to seek the beginning of history’, he wrote recently, ‘by tracing back to the moment in which man recognises his own image in the mirror as an image of himself detached from himself, like a double, like a representation of himself, that is, like an emblematic sign of himself. That is the moment at which the phenomenon of rationality is revealed. Rationality, intervening between man and his image, gives man his independence and the ability to make use of that image … In this way one produces the expressive and communicative signs that make up art and on which the evolutionary patterns of civilisation are structured’ (M. Pistoletto, ‘The Mirror’, in Riflettiamoci, exh. cat. Studio Guastalla Arte Moderna e Contemporanea, Milan 2013, p. 11). As with Boetti’s rule-based studies of chance, sign, system, word and number, the Mirror Paintings are therefore more than a mischievous undermining of art’s traditional prerogatives: they form part of a wide investigation into the mysteries of man’s experience of being in the universe.
The Mirror Paintings, or Quadri specchianti, evolved out of a series of self-portrait studies that Pistoletto painted in the late 1950s and early 1960s, which were influenced by the existential paintings of Francis Bacon. One day in 1961, he saw his own face reflected in the glossy black background of an emerging self-portrait. ‘I saw it come toward me,’ he recalled, ‘detaching itself from the space of an environment in which all things moved, and I was astonished’ (M. Pistoletto, Il rinascimento dell’arte, 1979, quoted in Michelangelo Pistoletto: From One to Many 1956-74, exh. cat. MAXXI, Rome 2011, p. 143). Almost instantaneously, Pistoletto realised the new direction in which he should take his work. ‘The figure of a man seemed to come forward, as if alive ... but the true protagonist was the relationship of instantaneousness that was created between the spectator, his own reflection, and the painted figure, in an ever-present movement that concentrated the past and the figure in itself to such an extent as to cause one to call their very existence into doubt: it was the dimension of time itself’ (M. Pistoletto, Minus Objects, Galleria La Bertesca, Genoa 1966). From this point onwards Pistoletto began to refine his paintings and to title them ‘The Present’ in reference to what he now realised was their true subject – the living, present moment of the constantly changing real space and time that had now entered into the reflective surface of his painting. From these painted works, the Mirror Paintings were born.
Isolated in their reflective panel, Pistoletto’s subjects (usually friends, colleagues and other people he knew) assert and question the difference between the world of representation and the reflective ‘reality’ of the mirror. Gazing at these works, the viewer immediately enters into a paradoxical and problematic world, seemingly both participating within the often intimate and private space of the subject – a mother nursing her child, an artist in the act of drawing or, as in this work, Boetti considering his own creation – and yet also remaining remote and separated, in an alternate space and time that simultaneously exists within the same picture. 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, participating in and observing 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, interacts with both these different space-times and consequently acts as a bridge between two separate worlds. ‘When I realized’, Pistoletto recalled, ‘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 ... I understood that the moment had arrived to make the laws of objective reality enter the painting’ (M. Pistoletto, inteview with T. Trini in 1964, quoted in G. Celant, Identité Italienne, Paris 1981, p. 81). Pistoletto’s solution was to use the reflective mimesis of the mirror as a way of letting reality and the life of the person, be it himself or the viewer, enter into the work as both subject and performer.