Michelangelo Pistoletto: From One to Many, 1956–1974 at the PMA

Installation shot of the early mirror painting

It started with a mirror painting, like one of those above, when I first became enchanted with Michelangelo Pistoletto’s work. This retrospective of his career, currently at the Philadelphia Museum of Art through January 16, argues for an appreciation of the artist’s varied and influential career on the whole, and quite successfully. The early works above remain my favorites of the artist: scenes from life featuring Pistolletos’ friends in typical poses and then unmoored from their surroundings by being placed on a mirror.

Early painting, self portrait
A rare early painting attempts the same effect: to take a familiar subject, in this case himself, and while keeping the trappings of the present day with suits, cigarettes, or what not, utterly remove from any situation or outside realty by a glowing flat background. Its a way of looking for the eternal in the everyday.

Here you can see the detailed shading on this man’s face compared to the shiny surface of the mirror. Pistolleto, working from photographs, would cut silhouettes out of tissue paper and paint then very delicately before affixing them to the mirrors he polished.  
Me, with Three Girls on a Balcony

The tissue he painted on has not always aged well, like the spots across the middle girl’s back that you can see here. I love how looking at these mirror paintings is also interacting with them and taking a place in the tableau.

Pistolleto began to take the photographs as guides, for example coloring in this girl’s skirt a bright red. 
But they aren’t all mirror paintings. Above, next to another mirror painting, is one of Pistolleto’s plexiglass works. Like with the mirror paintings, he tries to find the essence of the thing. Between two sheets of plexiglass, a trimmed photograph of an electrical plug rests. It flirts with materiality even as it remains a flat image.
Ogetti in menu installation view, 1960s

Pistoletto also created sculptures that he called Ogetti in menu, or minus objects, because they were made from parts of a whole. Sometimes Pistolleto used these in his growing performance art that was widely influential, as he did some of the rag works below.

Venus in Rags
Stracci (rags) developed along with Pistoletto’s performance art in the late 1960s. Venus in Rags was originally used as part of a performance. The rags were those he had used to polish his mirror — actually stainless steel — paintings. Arte povera, much?

 Later he continued to create his mirror paintings, but changed how he created the image. Switiching to silkscreen, Pistoletto was able to create bright, photo-realistic images. In many of them a darker element, not present in the early portraits, appears like the jail bars above or the chain face to the left saying “Periculo de morte” (Danger of Death).

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