What’s that high-pitched sound you hear as you enter the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s Dorrance Galleries? Must be ringing in your ears, you think, as you look, first, at the self-portrait by Michelangelo Pistoletto: a life-size serious man-in-the-gray-flannel-suit type fellow staring straight at you. The surface surrounding him is shiny black, like a piano, and you can see your reflection in it.
In fact, after he painted the background shiny black with boat varnish, Mr. Pistoletto could see his own reflection. So fascinated was he by seeing his reflection alongside his painted self-portrait, he embarked on his series of mirror paintings, for which he is widely known.
The title Michelangelo Pistoletto: From One to Many, 1956-1974, refers to all the images we see reflected in the mirrored surfaces of his canvases: from one artist to many viewers and subjects. Mr. Pistoletto was a founding member of the Arte Povera movement in Italy in the 1950s and 60s – art makers used found materials, rather than expensive art supplies, so anyone could create art. He was also at the forefront of Pop Art, Minimalism and Conceptual Art.
As you walk along the series of reflective polished aluminum canvases – the paintings come down to the floor, so you feel like you are a part of the scene – that high-pitched noise grows louder. It sounds like a whistling teakettle. Is someone making tea in the gallery?
A docent is explaining his process: Mr. Pistoletto found stainless steel in factories. He would pose his friends and family for a 5-by-7-inch photo, then blow it up to life size on tissue paper. He used pencil and black oil paint to trace it on the back, then flipped it and adhered it to the polished surface, finishing it off with boat varnish.
The hissing noise is growing louder and louder – is it a radiator about to explode? Finally, a security guard ushers you in to see the teakettles before they are turned off. Indeed, the whistling teakettles are part of “Orchestra of the Rags,” an Art Povera sculpture that includes three boiling teakettles steaming up a glass-topped “table” made from a based of bricks wrapped in rags.
Mr. Pistoletto’s brand of art includes much humor and spectacle. To herald the opening of the exhibit, the 77-year-old Italian artist rolled a giant ball of wadded up newspaper through the streets of Philadelphia Oct. 30, to which the public was invited to participate. Two-hundred fifty people turned out to participate in this event that mimicked a similar collaborative performance Mr. Pistoletto orchestrated in Turin in 1967.
The procession made its way along the Schuylkill River, east through Rittenhouse Square, and north to City Hall before heading down the Benjamin Franklin Parkway – past Love Park, Logan Square, and the Rodin Museum, and finally up the East Steps of the Museum to much fanfare and a reception. The Spiral Q Puppet Theater entertained along the way, while students from the Curtis Institute of Music provided festive accompaniment. You can watch it on youtube: http://philamuseum.org/exhibitions/414.html?page=4
“It brings people together to play with the ball,” says the artist in a thick Italian accent. “You don’t need to talk about art… the procession is not a political procession, it’s not a religious procession, it’s not about war, but there is a spirituality that brings people together, no?”
It brings art outside the museum to interact with people, an important tenet for Mr. Pistoletto’s work. It gets children involved with art early in life.
Michelangelo was exposed to art at a very young age. His father restored medieval and Renaissance paintings in Turin, and Michelangelo worked for him beginning at age 14, learning classical style. While studying advertising, he was introduced to the work of American and European artists, most notably Alberto Giacometti, Francis Bacon and Jean Dubuffet.
Before developing his mirror paintings, Mr. Pistoletto experimented with different backgrounds: red, silver, gold. These were more about the ground than the figure, according to Nancy Hovnanian, a docent leading a tour. “He was trying to get the figure and ground as close as possible.”
Another favorite medium for the artist was rags. “Venus of the Rags” features a life-size marble sculpture of a classical female figure entering a pile of colored rags. “Little Monument” is a stack of bricks covered with brilliantly colored rags, on top of which sits an old paint-splattered show. Ms. Hovnanian says the rags are those he used to polish his stainless steel.
When Michelangelo was a boy, “his mother would heat bricks and wrap them in rags and put them under his bed at night to keep warm,” says Ms. Hovnanian.
In the 1960s, Mr. Pistoletto moved into performance art. His troupe Lo Zoo was made up of poets, musicians and artists – it was part street theater, part traveling performance collective..
As part of Art Povera, he cleared out his studio and invited artists to exhibit their work, turning it into a gallery. It was about collaboration and chance. He wrote a manifesto and a book, “The Minus Man, the Unbearable Side,” a symbol of a man free from the constraints of society.
As Italy became a hotbed of social unrest, Mr. Pistoletto’s mirror paintings changed. Rather than people, subjects became a white sheet drying on a line (suggesting the Shroud of Turin), a woman escaping, a frightened dog, a chain, hands on a gun, a noose, a chain-link fence with a skull and crossbones sign. He took the mirror paintings to the street, to show people demonstrating: against a hike in tram fare, men carrying a red flag, or, simply, “Nam.”
Mr. Pistoletto’s emphasis on participatory art became an important influence on the next generation of artists, the contemporary art of the past two decades. This is the first major survey of his work in the U.S. in more than 20 years.
It is accompanied by another exhibit, Michelangelo Pistoletto: Cittadellarte, an interactive installation exploring his interdisciplinary center for art and culture in Biella, Italy. The mission is to place “art at the center of a responsible process of social transformation.”
The name Cittadellarte is fabricated by the artist to suggest a fortified enclave and city of art and is a “laboratory of creative thinking that places art in direct interaction with society,” according to exhibition materials. The gallery at PMA includes two large tables fabricated in the shapes of the Caribbean and Mediterranean seas, acting as both a physical setting for conversation and a metaphor for exchanges across cultures. The museum has scheduled a series of programs to explore topics of social responsibility, highlighting sustainability, Caribbean culture and “Love Difference,” Cittadellarte’s motto for cross-cultural tolerance.
Michelangelo Pistoletto: From One to Many, 1956-1974 and Michelangelo Pistoletto: Cittadellarte are on view at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Benjamin Franklin Parkway at 26th Street, Philadelphia, through Jan. 16. 215-763-8100; http://www.philamuseum.org