On ViewLévy Gorvy
October 14, 2020 – January 9, 2021
New York City
“The mirror is nothingness which contains everything, even that which has yet to become. In the mirror, the present is possibility.”
Printed on the wall in the stairwell of Lévy Gorvy, Michelangelo Pistoletto’s words not only offer insight into his work but provide a clue as to how to engage with it. Bespoke installations occupy all three floors of the gallery in a major survey of the artist’s 60-year career, inviting viewers to move beyond passive observation, to an experience in which their presence becomes part of the ongoing history of the work. Brimming with mirrors and architectural structures, the exhibition stands as a kind of cerebral funhouse throughout which the present-moment contribution of the individual completes and extends the possibilities of the artist’s intention.
Placed at the entrance to the show, Viceversa (1971) features an ornately carved 17th-century wooden frame propped up on an easel. The frame itself is empty, a swatch of orange paper filling the space where a picture should be. This same orange lines the back of the frame, where a mirror has been neatly fitted within its borders. From the front, it appears the art is missing, the history is gone. But circling the object, I am startled to find my reflection and that of the gallery around me there in the verso—life is literally happening behind the façade that fills the frame. An extension of this idea is at play in Color and Light (2016–2017), an installation of large frames containing mirrored panels which line the walls of the room. The primary panel shows a full mirror fissured, much like a puzzle, into pieces. Individual fragments are repeated in each subsequent panel, isolated against a field of blue fabric that fills the rest of the frame. The morning light that illuminates the gallery bounces from shape to shape as I walk through the room, specific pieces revealing different angles of the space, the singular harmonizing with the collective.
A large jail cell with no door dominates the second floor of the gallery. A grid of black bars interspersed with smaller rods rises from the floor, the words “The Free Space” wrapping around its top tiers. Pistoletto offers The Free Space (conceived 1976/fabricated 2020) to individuals whose liberties have been taken from them as a symbolic space in which to exercise freedom of thought. An earlier iteration was constructed in 1999 in collaboration with incarcerated persons of San Vittore prison in Milan, a facility that was used by Mussolini’s fascist regime to house political and military enemies. In the waning months of 2020, the work speaks not only to the millions of Americans living in incarceration, not only to immigrant children held at America’s southern border, but to the Trump presidency’s maniacal claim that political opponents and journalists should be found guilty of treason. The Free Space rebels against the containment of human lives past and present in its suggestion that no prison can prevent an escape into the infinite space of the mind.
On the third floor, beams of wood intersect to create gateways to small chambers in the architectural installation Porte Uffizi (conceived 1995/fabricated 2020). Each chamber is named after an aspect of society for which Pistoletto believes we are collectively responsible. Within the chambers, the artist has placed smaller works that embody each theme. Under the heading “Art,” Pistoletto’s mirror painting, Autoritratto con quaderno (2008) features a life-sized photograph of the artist, pen in hand, standing and reading an open notebook, that has been silkscreened onto a mirror. Entering the chamber, the viewer’s image is reflected in the mirror, creating the illusion of sharing the same space as the artist. Autoritratto is Italian for “self-portrait”; while the photo shows a fixed likeness of the artist, the work allows the viewer to enter the image as well, creating a self-portrait of their own. “Communication” contains Sfera di giornali (conceived 1966/fabricated 2020), a very large ball covered in newspaper clippings. As part of the Arte Povera movement of the 1970s, Pistoletto rolled earlier iterations of this piece through the streets of his hometown, Turin, among other cities, in a gesture symbolizing the movement of art out of studios and museums and into society’s everyday locations.
“Economy” holds Terzo Paradiso (2020), a hanging sculpture of three interconnecting rings wrapped in fabric rags. A triple version of the symbol for infinity, it is also the symbol of “the third paradise,” a concept developed by Pistoletto in a 2003 manifesto of the same name. Here, the artist describes the paradise of nature and the paradise of the man-made coming into balance in a future, third paradise. The idea of such possibility resonates throughout the show. Pistoletto’s art lies not so much in the physical objects he creates, but in what happens to us when we encounter them, and in the potential they inspire.