Michelangelo Pistoletto

Italian Sculptor, Painter, Conceptual, and Performance Artist

Born: June 25, 1933
Biella, Italy
At the crossroads between abstraction and representation, where I think every young painter today has passed or remained, I chose the representation of humans, because I feel it best suited to realizing my need to express particular feelings and situations of the human condition, what for me is the most vital and burning issue of all time.

Summary of Michelangelo Pistoletto

Though well-trained and with a facility for classical painting techniques, early in his career Pistoletto developed a stronger interest in the conceptual aspects of art objects. This included his use of humble materials such as tissue paper and mirrors, which helped lay foundations for the Arte Povera movement. Influenced by the social implications of more experimental tendencies in theatrical performance of his time, Pistoletto promoted a greater role for art in society and politics through his later projects that attempted to re-fashion the human world while involving many creative collaborators and crossing disciplinary lines, including mixing elements of music, theater, and installation, along with other visual art elements. He also designed works so that each would appear to be created by a different artist, defying notions of "branding" a signature style. Both playful (in his unconventional means) and serious (in his high-minded goals of changing the status quo), Pistoletto is a rare figure in arts practice for his commitment to do things differently, both in the art world and the world at large.


Progression of Art


Tre ragazze alla balconata (Three Girls on a Balcony)

Tre ragazze alla balconata (Three Girls on a Balcony) is one of a series of paintings on reflective materials that artist Michelangelo Pistoletto began working with starting in 1961. In this work's foreground, three women look out over a balcony rail into a gallery while reproductions of paintings resembling those of artists Ellsworth Kelly and Andy Warhol have been placed in the background. The mirror paintings, which form the foundation of Pistoletto's body of work, were an important example of work created as part of the short-lived Italian art movement known as Arte Povera. To create their work, artists associated with this movement used commonplace materials, such as clothing, rocks, and, in the case of Pistoletto, oil and pencil on tissue paper.

In this series, Pistoletto placed cut-outs of drawings on this paper onto the reflective surface of a mirror to allow for a secondary layer of engagement for viewers, who, beyond passively viewing the work, instead become part of the work, as his or her image - and the space from which they are viewing - is reflected back. When exhibited, Pistoletto's mirror paintings are often displayed at a height lower than standard museum levels - this viewpoint actually gives casual viewers the opportunity for both seeing themselves as part of the work of art and shift their , showcasing the works in the context of the surrounding environment.

Oil, graphite on tissue paper mounted to mirror-polished stainless steel - Collection of Walker Art Center


Quadro da pranzo (Oggetti in meno) (Lunch painting [Minus Objects])

Quandro da pranzo (Lunch Painting) consists of a wooden frame containing simple geometric renderings of two life-size wooden chairs and a table, which, when hung, allows the gallery wall to be incorporated into the painting. Much about the work, including the furniture and even the title referencing a meal, begs for the viewer to use the object. And yet that capacity for use is withheld in the way in which the piece is presented - which is neither flat like a painted representation of a table and chairs, nor as fully three dimensional and free-standing as a functional version of those furniture items might be. In this way, Pistoletto transformed a utilitarian object into art. This work is part of the Minus Objects series created by the artist between 1965 and 1966 that consists of a variety of non-representational, self-contained objects that bear little resemblance to the artist's other work. Made early in Pistoletto's career, the artist considered these works to be an act of liberation and served as a kind of escape from the increasing demand for his mirror paintings. When first exhibited together in 1966 as an exhibition in the artist's Turin studio, the Minus Objects were not well received, in part because those in the commercial gallery world did not know how to represent or market them. Challenging notions of what is or could be art, this work and the Minus Objects are considered fundamental to the Arte Povera movement and would become one of Pistoletto's most important bodies of work.

Wood - Collection of Walker Art Center


Venus of the Rags

Venus of the Rags, Pistoletto's iconic large-scale sculpture, consists of a classically rendered figure of the goddess Venus staring into a colorful mound of rags and discarded clothing. The inherent tension that exists between the two strikingly different objects leads the viewer to contemplate a myriad of contradictions raised by the work such as classical versus contemporary, use of monochrome versus color, hard and soft, precious and common, highbrow and the everyday. As part of its efforts to better connect art and life, the Arte Povera movement attempted to critique established cultural institutions and undermine the prevailing commercialization of art by putting into the foreground unusual combinations of materials for making artwork.

In this work, the traditionally rendered marble Venus pays homage to the rich cultural history of ancient Roman culture. The rags, in contrast, are commonplace, many of them having been used by the artist himself while working in his studio. The placement of Venus so close to the pile of rags that her face can no longer be seen not only allows for the traditional to become eclipsed by ordinary materials, but shows the full spectrum of color and greater dimensions of the rag mound. The way the goddess is turned to attend to the rags - the sort of tools used to produce her statue - credit the labor of that creativity as essential and even more important than the statue itself.

Marble and textiles - Collection of the Tate, United Kingdom



As reflected in the title, Bed resembles the familiar furniture item and is comprised of a thin mattress resting on a six-legged metal frame. Unlike the functional object however, this mattress and frame are crafted in the shape of a bow: narrow in the center and wide at the head and foot of the bed. This work is part of the Segno Arte series, which includes sculptures of everyday objects such as bookcases and doormats that Michelangelo Pistoletto created in the late 1970s and later returned to in the late 1990s. The origin of the furniture works comes from a text written by the artist in 1976, Libretto Giallo (Little Yellow Book), as one of a hundred exhibitions conceived in the period of a month. Translated, Segno Arte means "sign for art." Pistoletto wanted to develop a "sign" or shape for his art that could apply to a various common objects made in a variety of different materials. His bow-shaped sign was inspired by a geometric representation of the human body with arms raised and open and legs spread wide. Pistoletto also encouraged others to invent their own signs, thereby empowering them to impose, as he had done, their individual identities onto the world's objects. The act of taking an everyday object and transforming it into a "sign for art" allowed him to move objects from conventional functionality into the realm of high art.

Iron alloy, plywood, foam and cotton - Collection of the Tate, United Kingdom


Year One

A staple of Michelangelo Pistoletto's work is performance. While for some artists this is a solitary exercise, for Pistoletto it is most often a collaborative act involving individuals from diverse artistic disciplines. Year One was a staged performance conceived by Pistoletto that debuted at the Teatro Quirino in Rome on March 17, 1981 and included interpretations from actors comprised of people from the Italian city of Corniglia. The actors donned architectural structures on their heads while they narrated the progress of history from the epic battle between Cain and Abel to man's first moon flight. The weight of the physical structures worn by the actors was meant to echo how humankind has become oppressed by civilization's actions throughout history. The piece has been revised and performed many times allowing for later world events to be added to the narrative. A 1994 Munich performance, with a vocal composition by Pistoletto's daughter, Cristina, referenced events from Berlin in 1989. Most recently in 2009 the piece was performed in Turin and was enhanced by music performed by actors including Pistoletto's granddaughter, Elettra (continuing the family tradition of the arts).



The Third Paradise in the woodland of Francesco di Assisi

In 2010, Michelangelo Pistoletto debuted one of his most ambitious projects, The Third Paradise in the woodland of Francesco di Assisi, a work of land art comprised of 121 olive trees planted in the shape of the symbol for his ongoing art project Third Paradise. Believing humanity has already lived through two paradises - the first in which humans were fully integrated with nature and the second in which humans used nature to create their own artificial world - Pistoletto's project calls for a third paradise to begin where humans unite once again to live in balance with nature. The work's symbol, loosely based on the mathematical infinity sign, includes two circles signifying nature and artifice or the artificial world created by man, and a conjoining middle circle intended to represent the potential for rebirth of a new humanity. Throughout the last decade Pistoletto has created works depicting the symbol of Third Paradise in a variety of materials such as sand, enamel, aluminum, and rags; but this massive work of land art provides a permanent home for the symbol. Its home in the St. Francis Woods of Assisi, Italy is important to the artist as it evokes the memory of St. Francis and his message of peace while the work also demonstrates Pistoletto's skill at using art as an agent to increase consciousness and effect change by altering the environment in a symbolic and large-scale physical way so that humans and the natural world can be seen as better able to co-exist.

Oil Trees - Made in Collaboration with FAI - Fondo Ambientale Italiano, Assisi, Italy

Biography of Michelangelo Pistoletto


Michelangelo Pistoletto was born into an artistic family. Before his parents' marriage, his mother Livia Fila, was a pupil of his father, artist Ettore Olivero Pistoletto. A year after Pistoletto was born his father moved the family to Turin and opened an art restoration workshop. As a child, Pistoletto's father taught him how to draw, and at age fourteen he began working in his father's workshop. Pistoletto learned about art history through studying the important old master paintings that his father helped to restore. Pistoletto described how, despite his father's wishes that he too become a painter, from a young age he had no interest in painting only the landscapes and still lifes he might see, but looked to question the nature of both reality and representation. He did this while re-activating viewers experiences with art objects in order, as he later stated about his work, "to give a part of myself to those who wish to give a part of themselves." That is, he sought to make a more dynamic, shared exchange between artists and audience.

Early Training

With an affinity for drawing, Pistoletto began his formal training at age eighteen when his mother enrolled him in Armando Testa's prestigious advertising school. After working at Testa's commercial firm for a year, Pistoletto started and ran his own business for several years while continuing to help his father restore paintings.

The advertising world exposed Pistoletto to art that was more contemporary to his own time. Motivated by his realization that there were other types of painting than that produced by the Old Masters, Pistoletto began creating works of self-portraiture. He exhibited his first self-portrait in 1955, and his first solo exhibition was held in 1960 at the Galleria Galaten in Turin. In 1957, Pistoletto and a group of young artists published the journal Presenze in which two of his self-portraits were reproduced. Another contributing author to the journal was Marzia Calleri, whom Pistoletto had married in 1955. The couple's daughter, Cristina, was born in 1960.

Mature Period

In 1961, Pistoletto's fortuitous discovery of his reflection in the layer of transparent varnish he added to a self-portrait provided the spark that led him to create paintings on mirrored surfaces. Launching him onto the contemporary art scene, the mirror paintings he began creating in 1962 were his first key series and formed the foundation of his oeuvre. Minus Objects, Pistoletto's later series of sculptures made in 1965 and 1966, unsettled the usual passive approach that viewers were offered in gallery settings by bringing them outside to engage viewers more randomly as well as other means for disrupting typical viewers' experience of art objects. These works became fundamental to the creation and understanding of the Arte Povera movement.

Early in his career, Pistoletto displayed an interest in performance art as well, influenced in part by early "happenings" and in 1967 he began to locate such actions outside of traditional exhibition spaces, encouraged no doubt by a trip to Turin by New York-based avant-garde Living Theater, whose principal directors stayed in Pistoletto's apartment during their visit. For instance, as part of his participation in the group exhibition Con-temp-l'azione (1967), he took the Newspaper Sphere (1966), one of the Minus Objects, for a 'walk' through city streets connecting the three galleries where the exhibition was being held, involving other artists and passers-by to produce a larger creative context. As Pistoletto developed his ideas about performance, they became more often collaborations among people of different artistic disciplines such as music, theater, and literature, in addition to the visual arts. This philosophy resulted in his forming The Zoo, a group which led collaborative performance pieces in various venues, including the streets of Italian villages, from 1968 to 1970.

In 1974, despite growing artistic success, Pistoletto withdrew from the art world. He took an exam to become a skiing instructor and spent time in the mountains of San Sicario. This "retreat" served as a time of reflection and planning for later stages of his shifting series of creative responses to the larger world. After deciding to return to making art, Pistoletto resumed his practice of creating works in a variety of materials and artistic styles, and performance also continued to be important to the artist. In 1978 and 1979 Pistoletto produced Creative Collaboration, a series of performances given across the United States and delivered in unconventional public locations among diverse audiences who did not typically experience contemporary art. A creative partnership that involved local artists as well as longtime collaborators, including the experimental jazz music compositions by Morton Feldman, (with whom Pistoletto had staged an adaptation of a play by Samuel Beckett), the piece continued the legacy inherited from Pistoletto's multi-generational artistic family when it was performed throughout the city of Atlanta and included his daughters Cristina, Armona, and Pietra. Among its many offerings were an outdoor staging of mannequins as a theater piece, and a performance by schoolchildren for the residents of a nursing home.

Late Period

The desire to effect social change was a strong motivator for Pistoletto's artistic endeavors. In 1991 he was appointed Professor of Sculpture at the Vienna Fine Arts Academy, where during his nine year tenure he worked with his students to develop a program with the aim of breaking down traditional barriers across artistic disciplines, and hierarchies in the academic world by inviting students to actively collaborate on projects with their teachers, and even shape the curriculum. Project Art, begun in 1994, allowed Pistoletto to involve diverse artists in an attempt to make porous the borders between art and the rest of life while promoting change through manifestos, public meetings, displays, and exhibitions. His establishment of Cittadellarte-Fondazione Pistoletto in a former mill in Biella in 1998, provided a home for the goals and work expressed through Project Art. While relying on art as a principal mode for collaboration in order to produce greater social harmony, this "citadel of art" is organized with a staff and offices to plan and implement programs in specific non-art fields such as economics, politics, ecology, and communication. An emblematic sculptural-functional piece produced by Cittadellarte is a mirror-topped conference table shaped like the Mediterranean Sea entitled Love Difference (2002). It is meant to promote tolerance of ethnic diversity and varying forms of government in that troubled part of the world.

In recent years, the environment has become an increasingly important theme in Pistoletto's work, which led to the creation of his Third Paradise series, which has had many different iterations using different media over more than a decade. Introduced in 2003 as a manifesto, the underlying idea of this project is to overcome the existing global conflict between nature and the artificial world created by man - part of the utopian thread that has run through much of the artist's work meant to stimulate awareness of the world we share. Versions of the piece have focused on recycling and environmental sustainability, including in architecture, and bioethical responsibility in the textile and fashion industry, and have included workshops, meetings and public demonstrations as well as a land art project in 2010 involving the planting of 160 olive trees in the shape of an infinity sign (the symbol for the continuing project).

The Legacy of Michelangelo Pistoletto

The legacy of Michelangelo Pistoletto's career lies both in his artistic output as well as his use of some of that art to influence shifts in society. Restless and inventive - his rich body of work has long pushed the boundaries of what is or could be considered art - he has changed the perception of what art can be for audiences, as well as inspired countless generations of artists to follow his lead in disrupting expectations of not only what but where and by whom art can be produced, as well as the greater effects it can have in everyday life and the larger world.

Though his name is associated with the Arte Povera movement, the work of his early years has moved beyond a challenge to established institutions and traditional notions of art exhibited in the commercial gallery world. Pistoletto's strong desire to cause social change in the larger world is also at the heart of his work as an artist. Not simply choosing to produce works that make a statement, he has developed comprehensive ways of thinking expressed through artworks, manifestos, performances, residencies, awards, and programs in an ongoing attempt to help make the world a different and better place. More than most conceptually based performance artists of the 1960s and 70s, Pistoletto's legacy has provided an example for creative individuals who have followed in greater attempts to prompt "audiences" to become collaborators in creative acts. Such newer forms of participatory art that mean to engage with and transform communities through "social practice" have also been referred to under the name "relational aesthetics." While at times playful to the point of seeming whimsical, such work is also meant to effect profound changes in how human beings relate to one another.

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