Pistoletto: '60s survivor at the Art Museum (1st review)

Survivor of the '60s

'Globe' (1966-68): A bit of the hopeful hippie.
'Globe' (1966-68): A bit of the hopeful hippie.

"Artists must not only be in art galleries or museums—they must be present in all possible activities. The artist must be the sponsor of thought in whatever endeavor people take on, at every level, from that of the "'masses' to that of "'command'."
—Michelangelo Pistoletto, Progetto Arte, 1994.

The first thing that you see is a portrait of a man. He appears to be in business, reasonably well fed and nicely dressed. There is a certain vacuity in his face, but he's probably just bored with the process of posing for this portrait.

One other odd thing— there is no background. It's just the image of the man, as though cut out of an art book and set down against a black background— a very highly varnished black background. So varnished that you can dimly see yourself reflected in it.

Hold on to that notion. It's important, and we'll come back to it.

Because it has become fashionable in certain social and political circles to knock the 1960s as the time when Everything Went Wrong, we tend to overlook the genuine ferment that took place in the arts. Michelangelo Pistoletto's work is a sort of time capsule of the late '50s to early '70s in the Italian arts. His earliest works, like the portrait I alluded to earlier, grow out the culture that created the hermetic poets and the films of Antonioni.

The great upheavals of the 1960s arrive and everything changes. (Perhaps it would be fairer to consider the 1960s as the time when Everything Changed.)

Pistoletto is a man for whom art is a raging fever. He is totally involved in it, and he wants to involve other people in it.

Mirror paintings

First came the quadri specchianti— the "mirror-paintings"— in which the spectator becomes part of the image he observes. This is involvement of a sort, but it's still a passive involvement: You can choose to walk away.

This may suffice for a jaded professional who "does art" for a living, but it will never satisfy the man who experiences art as a fever. There must be more.

An experiment called Open Studio— a melding of artists, writers and film-makers in creative dialogue— led to formation of Lo Zoo, a radical experiment in theater, along the lines of the Living Theater— again the goal was to put you in the picture and force a reaction from you. The Arte Povera movement with its ingenious use of "found art" was yet another attempt to re-define the nature of art and the ways in which people can relate to it.

All of this represented an ongoing notion of the democratization of art. It was a very hopeful time, and perhaps there was a bit of "hippie" in Pistoletto and his friends. Things ended badly, with political terror from the Left, political terror from the Right, and the poet and film director Pier Paolo Pasolini murdered.

Images turn violent

The mirror paintings took on dark and disturbing new connotations. No longer did they depict civilized images of ordinary people chatting and idly observing the world going by. Now we see men with guns, dead bodies, prison bars and the hangman's noose.

But Pistoletto's notion of dialogue was too strong to be scared off by violent times. Instead he traveled, bringing his work to places like Vienna and Atlanta. As always, his art wasn't a passive experience. He involved other artists; he involved the community at large. He wants his art to live.

Since the late 1990s Pistoletto has been involved in Cittadellarte, a community of artists living and working together. In some ways this is a more developed version of his Open Studio idea. In a derelict and reclaimed industrial complex in Biella, Italy, Cittadellarte has grown into a complex structure whose "offices" deal with such topics as Education, Teaching, Ecology and, of course, Politics.

You can't keep a '60s survivor down. The message of Cittadellarte's Politics Office is: "Love Difference."♦

To read another review by Anne R. Fabbri, click here.

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