Details & Cataloguing

In Context Italian Art


Michelangelo Pistoletto
B. 1933
signed; signed and dated 1959 on the stretcher
oil on canvas
120.5 by 120.5 cm. 47 1/2 by 47 1/2 in.
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This work is accompanied by a certificate of authenticity signed by the artist. 


Acquired directly from the artist by the present owner in 1990


Asti, Palazzo della Provincia, Premio Alfieri, 14 October 1962

San Gimignano, Galleria Continua, Michelangelo Pistoletto. Prima dello Specchio, May – September 2015, pp. 43-45 and 81, illustrated in colour

Biella, Macist Museum, Mostra No. 3, Michelangelo Pistoletto, November – December 2015, n.p., illustrated in colour

Catalogue Note

Having remained in the same collection since it was acquired directly from the artist, L’uomo nero is a salient work depicting a brusquely painted portrait of a man against a black backdrop and four minimalist rows of shelves. A seminal early work by the post-war Italian master Michelangelo Pistoletto, L’uomo nero should be viewed as the hereditary seat of Pistoletto’s visual language; an arresting paradigm of Pistoletto’s examination of portraiture and the expressive poignancy of the individual figure, as well as an important precursor to the artist’s series of self-portraits on a reflective black background – the first works to explore the reflective device, which have since been celebrated as his very first Mirror Paintings.

The son of a restorer, Pistoletto was well versed in the canon of Western art from childhood. Making subtle stylistic reference to the existentialist giants who had dominated the post-war critical discourse, L’uomo nero is a work of singular quality that marks the beginning of Pistoletto’s fêted oeuvre. In the thin elongated head and pointed intimacy of its facing figure, we are reminded of the paintings of the elder French master, Alberto Giacometti. This comparison suffuses the present work with a mood of vague existentialist unease. As with Giacometti's deeply expressive portraits, the lone figure that dominates the oppressive black void of L’uomo nero purports the fragility of the isolated figure in space. Furthermore, many critics have ascribed the influence of Francis Bacon to Pistoletto's early paintings: we can compare each artist's sumptuous brushwork and their perennial inclusion of isolated figures inside imaginary pseudo-architectonic boxes. As Pistoletto pointed out: “Bacon reconsidered the fundamental aspect of the human being, and that was important to me, but he dramatized the image of the person, and that’s where we parted ways, I, too, turned back to the person, but I sought to strip away any drama” (Michelangelo Pistoletto cited in: Michelangelo Pistoletto and Alain Elkann, The Voice of Pistoletto, New York 2014, p. 57).

Firmly installed in the pantheon of Europe’s most influential contemporary artists, Pistoletto’s acclaimed Mirror Paintings defy categorisation, oscillating between spectacle and sculpture, photograph and performance. Frustrated with the imitative relationship between traditional painting and reality, Pistoletto first experimented with a reflective ground in the early 1960s with a series of self-portraits on a shiny surface entitled Figura su fondo nero. He recalled: “In 1961 I painted my own portrait on canvas using a variety of backgrounds: gold, silver, bronze, and glossy black. One day, sketching out the head of a standing man on a large canvas already prepared with black mirror-surface paint, I was shocked to see it coming towards me, detaching itself from the background – which was not part of the painting, but the actual wall behind my back” (Michelangelo Pistoletto in conversation with M. Friedman, Minneapolis, February 1966). In L’uomo nero the inclusion of this pioneering black background, here occupying the lower half of the composition, posits this work at the very brink of Pistoletto’s exploration of the mirrored surface and his career defining Mirror Paintings.

In Context Italian Art