Michelangelo Pistoletto endures. Even COVID couldn't stop him.

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Michelangelo Pistoletto endures. Even COVID couldn't stop him.
The Cittadellarte-Fondazione Pistoletto in Biella, Italy, along the Cervo torrent, Oct. 8, 2020. Pistoletto’s career covers more than 60 years, ranging from Pop to Arte Povera. A New York gallery has mounted a rare show of his work. Marta Giaccone/The New York Times

by Ted Loos

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- For someone who is 87 and who survived a severe bout of COVID-19 that put him in the hospital for a month, Italian artist Michelangelo Pistoletto was steadily upbeat on the phone, speaking from a respite on the Ligurian coast.

“I’m still alive,” he said, sounding defiant, as if it had been a close call.

“It was very, very hard to retake life,” Pistoletto added of his long recovery. He spoke in imperfect English but with the forceful current of someone who has worked for a lifetime to make himself understood, in his case through his art.

“After this lockdown time I am feeling revitalized, and life is very good,” he said. One engagement he has retaken is the exhibition of his work at the Lvy Gorvy gallery in New York, through Jan 9. The show, organized with Galleria Continua of San Gimignano, Italy, was designed by Pistoletto himself.

It features 19 works made more than 50 years by a man who gained early fame in pop art, then became a star of the arte povera movement — meaning poor or plain art — in Italy.

But no single movement has been able to contain him.

Since the heyday of arte povera ended in the 1970s, he has struck out on his own with varied works and projects that included founding, in 1998, the Cittadellarte-Fondazione Pistoletto, a creative laboratory and think tank in his hometown, Biella, Italy, in the Piedmont region, where he still lives.

“As I go on, there are more and more branches on my tree,” Pistoletto said, and the natural metaphor is apt, given that ecological and environmental concerns have become paramount for him in the last few years.

In the interview at the end of the summer, Pistoletto gave the impression he could talk for hours, which makes sense because, constitutionally, he has always been focused on engaging with the wider world and pushing art ever outward from its cloistered confines.

“Art,” he said, “is an engine of connection.”

Beginning in 1966, Pistoletto has been presenting a work called “Sfera di giornali” — “Newspaper Sphere” — by rolling the big ball of print through the streets and gathering followers like the Pied Piper.

What later became common — infusing performance into artistic practice — was still new back then.

“He really wants to include the viewer, in no uncertain terms, in his work,” said Nancy Olnick, a major Pistoletto collector, with her husband, Giorgio Spanu. The couple founded a museum, Magazzino Italian Art, in Cold Spring, New York, where Pistoletto rolled “Sfera” through the streets in 2017.

A version of that work, considered one of his important “Minus Objects” of the 1960s and one that he updates periodically, is in the Lvy Gorvy show.

“Newspapers are something you throw away, but this reactivates them,” said Pistoletto, who connected the idea to his “Stracci” series, sculptures made of rags, which came to symbolize the overall arte povera movement for use of a humble material. “It’s a regeneration.”

Pistoletto is perhaps most famous for his “Mirror Paintings,” begun in the early 1960s, which incorporate a reflective background. The very act of looking at one puts the viewer in the picture, or, as Italian artist Francesco Vezzoli, put it, “Pistoletto anticipated the selfie.”

A new suite of Mirror Paintings is on view at Galleria Continua until Oct. 1 of next year.

Much of the income from the sales of his art goes into Cittadellarte, which focuses on sustainable architecture and sustainable fashion. In 2014, the foundation held a conference on sustainable fibers and forests, complete with a fashion show.

Carlos Basualdo, who curated a 2010 retrospective of Pistoletto’s work at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, called the foundation “the love of his life."

“It’s expensive,” Pistoletto admitted. But he said it fits his idea that “making art doesn’t mean just making products, something to be sold.”

Although Pistoletto’s art is “very accessible,” in Olnick’s words, it’s also hard to categorize, and that may help explain why exhibitions of his work have been scarce in the United States since that Philadelphia show.

His career stands out for another reason, too. Vezzoli said, “I envy him that he has been able to merge being recognizable and being credible.”

Perhaps the most old-fashioned European part of Pistoletto’s practice is that he likes to produce theoretical manifestos, in the tradition of dada and surrealist artists of a century ago.

Some of these are long and dense, but in the relatively concise 2003 manifesto “The Third Paradise,” he wrote that humanity must seek “a balanced connection between artifice and nature.” Pistoletto said he sees that statement as the basis for his practice since then.

The Lvy Gorvy exhibition features “Third Paradise,” a wrapped-fabric work shaped like an infinity symbol.

When an artist from the country of Dante invokes paradise, it certainly sounds religious; Pistoletto also mentions the Bible from time to time. But he waved me off a literal religious reading of his work.

“No, no, no,” he said. “We have to reorganize our vision in a spiritual way.”

Early on, Pistoletto was steeped in the practical details of artmaking. At 14, he went to work in the Turin studio of his father, a painter and restorer.

“He was my teacher, for the techniques of art and its history.” Pistoletto said.

In the 1970s, when his father was still alive, Pistoletto put on a father-son show of their works, and then re-created it years after his father’s death.

“My father was very happy to see what I was doing,” Pistoletto said of the reaction to his more radical turns. “He was not against it. He was very curious.”

He then studied graphic and advertising design, fields that were as important to his development as they were for other budding pop artists in the 1950s.

“It was through that that I discovered the incredible freedom offered by modern art,” Pistoletto said. “It was probably the opportunity to connect my school of the past and my school of the future.”

Francis Bacon impressed him early on, and Pistoletto started as a figurative painter by making self-portraits, as he continues to do. The Lvy Gorvy show features the Mirror Painting “Autoritratto con quaderno (Self-portrait with notebook)” from 2008.

He began the Mirror Paintings in 1962, and they found a savvy audience right away. Pioneering dealer Ileana Sonnabend saw them at a show a year later at the Galleria Galatea in Turin and bought out the entire exhibition. He started showing with her in Paris, and then with Sonnabend’s ex-husband, influential gallerist Leo Castelli, in New York.

“For a while, I was the only non-American artist included in pop,” Pistoletto said, recalling that the period included a friendship with artist Roy Lichtenstein. “I’m very proud of pop art because it was about representing the objectivity of life.”

But the urge to do something essentially Italian was strong. “I cannot renounce my identity,” Pistoletto said.

Italian curator Germano Celant, who died from complications of the coronavirus this year, provided that opportunity when he coined the term arte povera in 1967, organizing a show of five artists in Genoa and soon expanding it to include more than a dozen creators like Alighiero Boetti, Jannis Kounellis, and Mario and Marisa Merz.

When it took off, Pistoletto was in his early 30s and thus an elder statesman of the group. He was, Basualdo said, “the bridge from pop to arte povera.” And he had the means to support others in the movement.

A fellow arte povera artist, Giuseppe Penone, said, “He did something remarkable at the time, which was collecting other arte povera artists.” Penone recalled that those purchases included two of his own works.

Arte povera’s materials may have been plain, but the ideas were rich. In their work, the artists registered dissent about the direction of society, putting issues like nationality, immigration and identity front and center.

Those subjects are still percolating in Pistoletto’s art. “The Free Space” (1976-2020), which dominates the second floor of the Lvy Gorvy show, is a large steel cage. He has said of the piece, “We assume that there is freedom outside the jail. I created for them a free space within the jail.”

The show’s third floor is devoted to “Porte Uffizi” (1994-2020), a series of symbolic rooms divided by open-timber architecture. Each represents an abstract concept like the economy, politics or spirituality, and other artworks are placed inside the rooms.

“It’s about the connection between the rooms,” Pistoletto said. “In between them, you must find the solution.”

It seems like further proof that a passion for synthesis — explicit attempts to reconcile the traditional and the modern, nature and civilization — drives much of what he does, and what he will continue to do.

“Arte povera came at a certain moment,” he said. “It was, for me, an important step. Just not the final step.”

2020 The New York Times Company

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