This week Bones, intrepid intrepid art-world raconteur, goes in on critical practice after finding himself at Michelangelo Pistoletto’s show at Luhring Augustine. What can we learn from at 75-year-old man who just doesn’t give a fuck?
Good standing in the art world is a contemporary artist’s everything. Young guns flash and burn and become footnotes, but artists with properly maintained careers will learn to anticipate crests and troughs in public visibility and relevance. Bankable signposts–exhibitions, monographs, and media appearances–intermittently spur the creative life, but the overriding designation of ‘in’ or ‘out’, a universal status judgment, dogs the artist above all. The cosmopolitan art critic today is expected to wrangle an unmanageable number of working artists while simultaneously pushing both geographical and cultural horizons. A crass binary–in vogue, or not, as the case may be–is what we’re working with, and it’s not right, but in this saturated art climate it gets the job done. It is a shortcut that allows us to meet deadlines and curate shows and continue to consider ourselves critical.
I reach for such polemics, without really planning to, in light of the current exhibition at Luhring Augustine in Chelsea. Michelangelo Pistoletto is 75 and works in Turin. This show is his first solo outing in New York in a decade, and it is a piece of cake to describe. It consists of nine pieces on mirrored, 50″X100″ stainless steel panels, and a separate, single panoramic piece on five of these panels put together. On eight of these shiny sheets, life-size figures are silkscreened. Five of them show what appear to be prostitutes, one a TV-newsman with a camera on his shoulder, one a shirtless rioter with t-shirt wrapped around his head and a rock in his hand, ready to pitch, and the last a couple in their 20s, boy and a girl, communicating through a chain-link fence. A ninth work shows a traffic bollard, and orange plastic construction netting stretches across the panorama piece.
You can either look at the work directly, so that you are reflected behind or next to the subject matter, in the scene, or you can look at the work laterally, inventing a narrative that implies other people and the other pieces hung on the other walls. I angled matters so that the cameraman was filming the rioter on the opposite wall–so will you–and with another pivot I was able to sneak a photograph of a suited gallery wonk chatting to a client while the rioter raged in front of them. In the main room, even more intricate compositions were possible: a call girl in the foreground, the construction netting in the background, another call girl way off in the distance. This blithe and rather obvious game is the sum of the show’s pleasures, and it takes about three minutes to intuit and digest.
And this is the type of work Pistoletto has always made. Mirrors are a constant in his oeuvre, and he’s been responsible for these exact sort of works (panels of this size, sporting silkscreened figures) on and off for almost 50 years. This exhibition is neither a surprise nor a breakthrough, for he could have made it any time in his career.
I learned of Pistoletto’s work a few years ago, at a private curatorial pow-wow in Philly anchored by the New Museum capo Richard Flood. He was rattling through slides and talking about Mexican teenagers. I was stockpiling free hoagies when I saw something in the back of an installation shot that struck me instantly as perfect. It was a sculpture that poked out of the wall, composed of planks of wood in a rectangle. It landed, if you wanted it to, as a cute bit of ’70s minimalism, at the soothing end of Judd-y geometry, but it was also engineered just enough to function as a table and two chairs. Duchamp’s idea of the viewer completing the work is one interesting thing, and art and design’s groovy intersection is another, but the perfection I saw in the work came from the simplest image it inferred: two people, sitting and facing each other, looking each other in the eye. Before style, before politics, before strategy, this sculpture says, comes dialogue.
I left Luhring Augustine boisterous and happy, believing at that moment that the knackered in-or-out critical binary could be trumped. Systematically–with uniformity and familiarity of materials, simplicity of elements, and cultural universality of subject matter–Pistoletto solicits the passion of a viewer, not a critic. The viewer is welcomed via art that is tangibly of and about his or her world; critics, meanwhile, are forced to figure out what they’re supposed to say about new work that is indistinguishable from work made in 1962. Pistoletto’s sculptures never attempt to finesse a critical response; they are built to welcome a sincere human reaction, however tiny, and to build from there. ‘In’ or ‘out’ becomes an inane and cruel designation when one’s faced with one’s own reflection, or another actual human being.
Michelangelo Pistoletto is up at Luhring Augustine, 531 West 24th Street, until December 20th. Catalogues at the front will fill you in on a remarkable career, and keep your eyes peeled for poet-curator Carlos Basualdo’s world-traveling Pistoletto retrospective in 2009.
Next week, in light of The Unforgiven, a group show of noisy/voracious/priapic males at Stellan Holm, and Aaron Young’s Bortolami Gallery debut, now seems to be the time to talk about the New York art world’s bad boys. Don’t worry, they won’t hurt you, really they won’t.