Luhring Augustine Gallery, Bushwick
December 18, 2013 - May 11, 2014
After passing through the doors of Luhring Augustine’s vast gallery space in Bushwick for the reception of “Michelangelo Pistoletto: The Minus Objects 1965-1966,” I spent more than a half-hour leaning on a wall, trying to acclimate to the warmth of the room. It was snowing outside, and I had not dressed appropriately. From my peripheral position, I could see almost all of the seminal series of sculptures that the Italian artist made in a few months between late 1965 and early 1966. Soon, the artist would give a little speech in front of a restricted audience.
None of the Minus Objects look anything alike; they seem to add up to a group exhibition rather than a solo show. Of course, this was Pistoletto’s aim, to break the dogma of the uniformity of individual artistic style. More than 20 works in a variety of mediums are scattered in apparent disarray. There is an open rose made of partially burned corrugated cardboard and a large-scale photograph of Jasper Johns’s ears, a painting states, “Ti Amo (I Love You),” and what looks like an old and dirty painter’s suit rests in an oblong vitrine. It appears chaotic and unorganized, even if the spotlessness of the gallery suggests something staged with a calculating precision.
When they were first displayed in 1966 in Pistoletto’s home-studio in Turin, Italy, the Minus Objects became the subject of widespread bewilderment: critics greeted them coldly, the market value of his earlier “Mirror Paintings” froze, and his affiliation with many dealers ceased. Nonetheless, the series paved the way for the theoretical framework of the Arte Povera movement, conceptualized by Germano Celant just a year later. It was a breakthrough exhibition for Pistoletto, who succeeded in his intent to disrupt the art market, even if that disruption was localized to the salability of his own work.
With his non-representational and hard-to-commodify objects made of “poor” materials, Pistoletto was responding to the zeitgeist—that of the so-called “Italian economic miracle”—and reacting against the cultural malaise and existential angst of a society which was solely focused on well-being. The Minus Objects were not meant to signify a “surplus” but rather a “less-than-a-whole”—hence the minus—because, in the words of the artist, “though they were proposed as volumes, all of these objects made reference to an idea of subtraction, of material displacement, of materiality that they did not attempt to align with the obtuse power of an alienating monumentality.”
The original anti-establishment ethos in the work is compromised here by its presentation in a top-notch commercial gallery and, moreover, in an area intensively hammered by gentrification processes. In addition, the fact that “poor materials” are now ubiquitous in contemporary art spaces—in part as a direct consequence of the Arte Povera’s lesson—has loosened the original rebellious vigor of the Minus Objects. Still, the Bushwick re-enactment is worth visiting. It puts an accent on the important role played by the display of the pieces—arranged by the gallerist together with the artist—that has supposedly never been the same over the years.
“Each time they are presented, the objects are put out of articulation,” Pistoletto explained. “There’s a certain unpredictability that reflects the randomness of the moments in which each piece was created.” If one takes a look at the pictures of the messy and full-to-capacity studio that Pistoletto had in ’66, the difference is plain to see. The Bushwick gallery allows significantly more breathing space between the sculptures, and the Minus Objects look here more like a series of distinct pieces rather than a gigantic installation. It also makes it presumably easier to navigate through the objects. The dominant narrative leans towards visitors’ active involvement.
Pistoletto has been concerned with how viewers engage with his work since the early stages of his career. Here, this can be seen in the way people play with their reflections in the mirrored surface of “Letto (Bed)” (1965–1966), or hesitate on the possibility of sitting inside “Quadro da pranzo (Lunch Painting)” (1965–1966). Other efforts have taken this further. For example, “Rebirth-day”—the so-called “global artwork” initiated by Pistoletto in 2012—was intended “to trigger people and actions consistent with the process of responsible social change.” Activities included a charity concert in Harlem, co-organized by Francesca Berardi and Filippo Ferraris to raise funds in the months following Hurricane Sandy.
No direct references were made to this project in the Bushwick show, but the principle of viewer engagement was consistent. For example, “Struttura per parlare in piedi (Structure for Talking while Standing)” (1965–1966) was inspired by marks left on walls from visitors resting their feet. Unlike most art objects, this one could serve a utilitarian function. The audience was welcome to use it, to rest arms and legs, and to carry on a conversation. The work resonated with me, because as I was departing the gallery I noticed a snow stain left on the wall by my own boot. I considered it a personal reminder that in order to activate the Minus Objects, one needs to move in from the periphery.