The Boundless Legacy of Michelangelo Pistoletto, Father of Arte Povera
At a 1964 Thanksgiving dinner in Robert Rauschenberg’s New York City studio, many famous artists, as well as several great artworks, were in attendance. At the time, the least conspicuous presence—or most surprising, depending on your outlook—might have been Michelangelo Pistoletto’s Lampadina (1962-1964), one of his renowned “Mirror Paintings.”
The piece hung quietly on the wall behind the dinner table, its reflective surface resembling an everyday mirror that tracked the passing dinner and, in blurrier moments, may have been mistaken for a doorway into another room, where a single light bulb hung from the ceiling. These days, Pistoletto’s illusory, participatory piece is regarded as one of Arte Povera’s most important works—one that helped launch the radical conceptual art of 1960s and ’70s.
In 1963, a year before that Thanksgiving dinner, Pistoletto debuted his mirror paintings to a local crowd at a small gallery in Turin, Italy. A month later, prominent French dealer Ileana Sonnabend had purchased the entire show and promised the young Italian an exhibition in Paris. The luminous works that caught her eye (photographic figures and objects silkscreened onto polished steel surfaces) soon became Pistoletto’s signature series and the foundation for a wide-ranging, transgressive body of work.
Coming out of school in the late 1950s, with an eye to Lucio Fontana’s shredded, holey paintings and Alberto Burri’s molded and humped canvases, Pistoletto was inspired to further dismantle the limitations of traditional painting. His gateway came with the mirror—a reflective surface that vanished boundaries between object, environment, and viewer. Some works, like Lampadina or the more recent Uscita Operai (2007), depict everyday objects like ladders and light bulbs or street signs. In front of them, a viewer might question their surroundings. Were they transported, spontaneously, to an abandoned artist’s studio or a damaged road? In other paintings, where life size-figures are present—like Untitled (1976), Tre Uomini (2007), and Lavoro – Installatori (2011)—we are folded into a stranger’s narrative, and they into ours.
After his mirror paintings, fusion of art and life became Pistoletto’s perennial intent. In the late 1960s, he crafted a series of everyday objects from inexpensive (or “poor”) materials. Coining them “Minus Objects,” they expressed autonomy from traditional approaches to medium and valuation. He reinvented his objective again, with Venus of the Rags (1967), by placing a found reproduction of the ancient Greek statue alongside a pile of recycled cloths. Later, he turned his focus to the importance of collaboration and founded the Zoo, a shared studio space for artists working in all mediums, scales, and durations. Finally (we say with uncertainty—for Pistoletto’s work, it seems, is never done), he established Cittadellarte, a multidisciplinary platform for the creative reflection of art, society, and politics—and, in the artist’s view, his legacy.
Perhaps it is apt for an artist who has reflected in so many different formats on the interaction of art and life to describe his legacy as an “empty space.” For Pistoletto, the meaning of empty is manifold. It signifies not only a void, but also “the boundless container that is the mirror, which is always filled virtually by every existing thing.” In this sense, one imagines Pistoletto’s legacy to look something like Lampadina at the precise moment when a big, boisterous gathering plays out in front of it, reflecting shared experience—that space between art and life.