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Details & Cataloguing

In Context Italian Art

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Michelangelo Pistoletto
B. 1933
MOTOCICLISTI
signed, titled and variously inscribed on the reverse
painted tissue-paper on stainless steel
120 by 230 cm. 47 1/4 by 90 1/2 in.
Executed in 1967.
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Provenance

Studio Bellora, Milan

Acquired from the above by the present owner in the 1970s

Exhibited

Brussels, Palais des Beaux-Arts, Michelangelo Pistoletto, April – May 1967, n.p., no. 34, (text)

Catalogue Note

Forming part of Michelangelo Pistoletto’s most recognisable and celebrated series, the Quadri Specchiati or Mirror Paintings, Motociclisti from 1967 is an early example of the artist’s radical and eloquent use of the reflective surface. The present work captures a fleeting snapshot of a couple on a motorbike, wrapped up warm in their coats and scarves, they drive out of view in the bottom left corner of the mirrored surface. Created at a crucial point in the artist’s ascending career, 1967 marked the seminal occurrence of the very first Arte Povera exhibition, Fuoco, Immagine, Acqua, Terra at L’Arrico Gallery in Rome. Synchronously incorporating both the quotidian materialism of Arte Povera, with its mirror-like surface, and the mass-produced quality of Pop art, with the photographic figures, in Motociclisti, Pistoletto forges an entirely unique aesthetic that enmeshes the exalted and immortal dimension of the artwork with the changeable and transitory conditions of existence.

Firmly installed in the pantheon of Europe’s most influential contemporary artists, Pistoletto’s dialogic Mirror Paintings defy categorisation, oscillating between spectacle and sculpture, photograph and performance. Frustrated with the imitative relationship between traditional painting and reality, the artist first experimented with a reflective ground in 1956 with a series of self-portraits on a shiny surface. Pistoletto consequentially refined this process in the early 1960s by substituting the glossy ground for a highly polished stainless steel one, onto which he pasted finely rendered photo-realist images that were painted on tissue paper. While toying with the dominant Pop aesthetic of the time, Pistoletto was also highly influenced by Italian artists such as Lucio Fontana, Agostino Bonalumi, and Enrico Castellani. The essence of Fontana’s Spatialismo Manifesto, to refute the traditional parameters of two-dimensional painting and create a space in which the viewer actively explores the possibilities of art, is echoed in Pistoletto’s phantasmagorical Mirror Paintings. Extending the canvas by introducing a reflective surface, he examines and unravels the distortive illusionism of perspective. Masterfully appropriating the language of trompe-l’oeil to entirely subvert it, the Mirror Paintings position themselves within a grand artistic tradition of mirrors such as Édouard Manet’s A Bar at the Folies-Bergère or The Rokeby Venus by Diego Velázquez. What distinguishes Pistoletto’s works is a theatrical dramaturgy that infuses these pieces with rich performative aspects, naturally in flux through the constantly changing angle of the viewer.

It is in this collision of two spectral worlds that Pistoletto locates a complex reciprocal dialogue between the viewer and the intermediary figures in the painting. This interactive aspect of the Mirror Paintings echoes Pistoletto’s experiences of the time. In March of 1967, the artist met The Living Theatre, an experimental theatre company founded by Judith Malina, Julian Beck, and Erwin Piscator in New York in 1947. Their cooperative and collective ideology based on the philosophy of the French poet Antonin Artaud resonated with Pistoletto’s own concept of incorporating the viewer into his artistic spectacle. After seeing one of the group’s performances, he invited the members of the theatre to join him in his studio. This inspired his subsequent Open Studio and his Manifesto of Collaboration.

It is in this spirit of collective actions that the Mirror Paintings are firmly embedded. In their ability to literally mirror the dynamism and mutability of life, these pivotal works redefined the static perception of painting and challenged the deliberate involvement of the spectator. Making the viewer an integral part of the composition, Motociclisti is a powerful reflection on the inclusion of art into everyday life and evokes a constantly evolving literal and lyrical reflection of the self.

In Context Italian Art

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London