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Pistoletto: ’60s survivor at the Art Museum (2nd review)BY: Anne R. Fabbri 11.09.2010
Can art change the world? Michelangelo Pistoletto— equal parts artist and activist— is determined to keep trying, even at age 77.
“Michelangelo Pistoletto, From One to Many, 1956-1974.” Through January 16, 2011 at Philadelphia Museum of Art, Ben Franklin Parkway & 26th St. (215) 763-8100 or www.philamuseum.org.
The artist as social visionaryANNE R. FABBRI
I went to the Philadelphia Museum of Art to scoff, stayed to cheer and now cannot stop thinking about Pistoletto’s exhibitions, organized by curator Carlos Basualdo. I find myself questioning everything. Is it visual art? Or is it one individual’s desire to make a difference in any medium?
Michelangelo Pistoletto’s two exhibitions span the field from 1956 until today and, with his mission of Cittadellarte, he continues to assert the common ground of humanity in all cultures, with the seas as a unifying element.
The beginning of his exhibition, “From One to Many,” is almost a postscript to the Pennsylvania Academy’s current exhibition of self-portraits, “Narcissus In the Studio.” But it’s a little weird. One of Pistoletto’s self-portraits looks like an Abstract Expressionist canvas, until you step back and see the face. In others, the figure is isolated against an empty, dark background. Pistoletto commented that these images felt so self-centered and removed from life that he needed to include others.
Thus began his self-portraits as well as portraits on highly polished stainless steel surfaces that would include images of the viewers, by-standers and life around them. Now, this is disconcerting: The artist has inserted himself into my world.
Putting you in the picture
Then Pistoletto takes this notion one step farther and commissions the photographer, Paolo Bressano, to photograph individuals and enlarge them to life size. Pistoletto then cut out the figure, traced it on tissue paper, painted details and glued it to the shiny surface. You, the viewer, are still in the picture, but now you have company. The subject matter evolves into depictions of the political demonstrations of the 1960s. Pistoletto is changing with the times.
Pistoletto was born in 1933 in Biella, Italy (a small town near Turin), the son of an art restorer, and his childhood was imbued with Renaissance and Baroque theory. His mother advised him to take a course in advertising art and, from that initiation, his vocabulary changed.
He wanted to remove art from its rarefied fine-arts atmosphere and make it accessible to everyone, using everyday materials to create a work of art, christened Arte Povera. The medium could be anything from the public sphere: a twig, rope or soil. When he attempted to repudiate the commercialization of art, the results were antithetical, with a successful exhibition in Turin and, of course, galleries following the herd.
New uses for rags
The Stracci (Rags) gallery was the most fascinating to me. Instead of throwing away all the rags he had utilized to polish the stainless steel to the mirror finish of his figurative scenes, Pistoletto rendered them into an artistic medium, using rags to cover bricks to create a wall. He made a sound sculpture with whistling teakettles under glass, surrounded by a boundary of rags. He positioned one of Italy’s mass-produced marble carvings of a female nude so she is seen confronting a high hill of rags (above). This late ’60s period is the beginning of the Arte Povera movement that led to Earth Works and the broader definition of Conceptual Art. Since that time, anything goes.
Pistoletto next created a less interesting series of sculptures of very ordinary objects stripped of detail, followed by silkscreen images of violence and upheaval: a noose, jail bars and chain-link fences on polished stainless steel. Again he turned the spectator into a participant by creating Lo Zoo, street theater that he also hosted in his studio. By 1974 Pistoletto had withdrawn from the art world as such and retreated to a mountain village.
Across the hallway, don’t miss “Cittadellarte, City of Art,” potentially powerful enough to change the world. Pistoletto created Cittadellarte as a foundation in 1998. From an abandoned industrial building in Biella, Cittadellarte grants participants room and board in return for their creative thoughts about using art to involve the individual spectator with projects of social responsibility.
At the Art Museum, for example, we have two glass-topped tables: one in the shape of the Mediterranean and the other, the Caribbean. The seas are the unifying element for the multi-cultures surrounding them. Throughout this exhibition they’ll be the central focus for related projects about all aspects of society. Pistoletto persists in his faith that art can be the unifying element.
Pistoletto might have started out as a visual artist, but now he has become an advocate for all the arts and their creative impact on the way we think and act. Long live this advocacy of the power of creativity.♦
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