Pistoletto in PA
Michaelangelo Pistoletto: From One to Many, 1956-1974, is the most exciting collection of work I’ve come across at my hometown museum in some time—since 2002, actually, when Ann Temkin guest-curated a stunning Barnett Newman retrospective (prompting me to think about the curator’s role for the first time in my life). As I finally got to see for myself, Carlos Basauldo, the Curator of Contemporary Art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art since 2005, is continuing to do a superb job of re-energizing significant parts of this traditional beast.
Moving through the substantial galleries with my ever-perceptive mother, an art therapist, she would occasionally interrupt my feverish note taking, exclaiming softly: “Look at how happy everyone is! They’re all smiling!” Indeed, scanning the room, I found visibly amused and soft expressions; a guard chuckling to himself while gazing at a pile of Plexiglas, and various couples paused and huddled in excitement before a work for a prolonged analysis. The Pistolettos appear to be an antidote for the condition of boredom that seems to afflict most museumgoers wandering through any given exhibition today.
Michaelangelo Pistoletto was incredibly prolific, and to do this semi-retrospective exhibition justice requires far more virtual space than I have here. Though Pistoletto is probably best known for his Demonstration mirror paintings, Stracci (Rags) installations, as well as for his involvement in the Italian Arte Povera movement, there is far more to learn about his practice. If your interest has been piqued, I would urge anyone reading this truncated write-up to conduct some research of his or her own on the man. Pistoletto is perhaps less known for his reflective (literally, emotionally) Mylar sculptural works, Plexiglass works, or for his hanging light bulbs (art historical ancestors to Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ own), his forays into Minimalist and Conceptual art, and for the theater/performance troupe Lo Zoo that he started in his studio in 1967-68—all of which are featured in this exhibition. With that acknowledged, I have limited myself to writing about the first two galleries in the exhibition as a kind of part-review, part-teaser preview.
The first room is occupied by Pistoletto’s very first works on canvas, which indicate a direct influence by the painter Francis Bacon; his self-portraits echo Bacon’s own ghostlike renderings of the human figure hovering in a black void, only Pistoletto’s void is a much glossier one due to his experimentations with boat varnish. These singular works evoke an existentialist mood and possess a cinematic quality—so many of them made me feel like I had been blessedly transported into an Antonioni film. Canvases hung low on the wall, Pistoletto’s figures dressed in sharp suits are rendered life-size so that the viewer becomes implicated in the image. These works explicitly precede the Quadri specchianti (Mirror Paintings) found in the next gallery.
Pistoletto’s iconic mirror works are delectable, if one can use that word in “art speak”. Sexy, playful, conceptually layered, Pistoletto began this series in 1962 after happening to catch his own reflection in one of his varnished paintings. Viewing these works is not unlike attending a terribly chic cocktail party. His early Quadri specchianti were constructed via a multi-part process: employing family friend and photographer Paolo Bressano to capture Pistoletto’s social circle at leisure in his studio, Pistoletto then affixed these life-sized photographs to mirrors, painting or drawing on the images to achieve a richer dimensionality. I balked when I read that these were all “hand painted on tissue paper,” a fact made only slightly less impressive recalling that Pistoletto had grown up with a father who restored paintings for a living, likely sharing the techniques of his trade.
The artist’s palette is dull, and yet, sumptuous (drab olive green, slate gray, hues of murky yellow), and his compositions spare, typically depicting four figures at most and with little context. Many of his subjects are captured from behind, denying the viewer total access to their identity. Pistoletto continue to employ this method as the quadri specchianti evolved to more political subject matter with the progression of the 1960s. His ability to collapse real-time and the static nature of painting with the mirrored works was at times alarming: there was one point where, for a split second, I confused a very clearly modern-day Eagles fan reflected in a work as part of the work. Pistoletto also has a fantastic sense of humor—one mirrored self-portrait showcases the artist bent down to tie his shoelace alongside a household plant, ass out to the crowd—a rather cavalier version of “the artist at work”.
The artist is still alive and well, and in fact came to Philadelphia to install Cittadellarte (link here: www.philamuseum.org) as well as to re-perform his 1967 action Scultura da Passeggio (Walking Sculpture)—Pistoletto originally rolled an enormous ball of newspapers throughout Turin, leading a procession. I wish I could have participated in the spirit of the thing, but frankly, I’m happy I got to see the exhibition at all.
Images courtesy the Philadelphia Museum of Art
This review was written by Amanda Hunt.
Amanda was born in Philadelphia, PA and moved from New York City to attend the Graduate Program in Curatorial Practice at CCA. She has worked at the Philadelphia Museum of Art; Friedrich Petzel Gallery, New York; Whitechapel Gallery, London; and most recently at LA>