Michelangelo Pistoletto - Biography and Legacy
Italian Sculptor, Painter, Conceptual, and Performance Artist
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.
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.
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.
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.