Michelangelo Pistoletto (Biella, 1933) was one of the interpreters of the radical renewal of the language of art, not only aesthetically but also socially, beginning in the 1960s, and one of the protagonists of Arte Povera, a key moment in the history of Italian and international art which developed in the second half of the sixties and was characterized by the use of primary and simple materials (either natural or waste products produced by society) and the importance attached to process, the performative dimension of art and the work’s dynamic relationship with space and time. These elements projected Arte Povera onto the international scene by its closeness to contemporary researches in Europe and the United States in Procedural and Conceptual Art.
Pistoletto’s development began in the mid-fifties, starting from the first Quadri specchianti (“Mirror Paintings”) of 1962, steel plates polished to a mirror finish on appear which life-size figures in tissue paper, passing through the Plexiglass series (1964) and the Oggetti in meno (“Minus Objects”, 1965-66), Pistoletto’s works were notable for their unflagging experimentation, quite apart from a predefined style or technique, and also for their gradual integration of the viewer and space-time into the reality of the works, first through the reflective surface of the Quadri specchianti, then in the real confrontation with the Oggetti in meno, which are objects – and sculptures – which “do not represent but are,” said the artist, announcing a breakthrough in a theatrical key of active, direct involvement in his work.
In Venus of the Rags (1967) the technique of assemblage, of apparently provocative juxtaposition, combines the evocation of the classic with the emblematically poor material of rags, initially used to clean the Quadri specchianti, and now used for the sake of their tactile qualities and colors. The scraps of colored cloth are arranged to fill the cavity between the reproduction of Venus with the Apple by the neo-Classical sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen and the wall which the sculpture, having lost both its authoritative frontality and prestigious workmanship (it is a serial industrial cast), seems to be moving towards, suggesting an unprecedented capacity for recycling and regenerating, between order and chaos, classicism and modernity.
In the Orchestra di stracci (“Orchestra of Rags”, 1968), described by Germano Celant as “a kind of volcano in eruption,” the steam they produced condensed on a pane of glass above the rags and soaked the fabric, making the work an olfactory and auditory experience as well as a visual one. The arrangement of objects also suggested the creation of an essential theatrical scenography, presenting elements that recur in the Pistoletto’s actions in The Zoo: rags, kettles and references to birds.
Rags are also used in the works presented by the artist at the exhibition-event Arte povera più
azioni povere held in Amal in October 1968. In Amal Pistoletto came with rags, bricks, candles and his Sfera di ornali (“Sphere of Newspapers”), then Mappamondo (“Globe”), installing the works directly in the spaces of the ancient Arsenals of the Republic and incorporating some existing Roman ruins in the process.