Immediately afterward he carried out a series of experiments aimed at attaining as high a degree as possible of the objectivity he had seen in the pictures with a black ground. He tried using a variety of materials to make the background more reflective, including aluminum sheets which he applied to the canvas, as in Grey Man from Behind [Uomo grigio di schiena] (1961). Finally he found in stainless steel polished to a mirror finish the material best suited to obtaining this effect. To give the maximum of objectivity to the figure portrayed as well, he decided to make use of photography. At first he tried to apply a cutout of the photographic image directly onto the sheet of steel, a solution that he rejected because in that way the photograph would have created the impression of an object that had been inserted, in contrast with the immateriality of the reflected image. He also tried using an ordinary mirror as a support for the photograph, but had to reject this solution too because the thickness of the glass that covered the reflective surface of the mirror would have resulted in a mismatch between the plane of the reflected image and that of the photographic image. Eventually he developed the technique which he would use to produce his Mirror Paintings [Quadri specchianti]: a sheet of stainless steel polished to a mirror finish, onto which he applied an image made by tracing a photograph blown up to life size on flimsy paper. In 1971 he started to replace the painted paper with a silkscreen process in which the original photograph was transferred directly onto the sheet of reflective steel, and by 1973 this had become the definitive technique.
Up until the end of the sixties, the photographs utilized for the Mirror Paintings were mostly taken, under the artist’s guidance, in the studio of the photographer Paolo Bressano, whom Pistoletto had got to know in the fifties as he used to take pictures of the works that his father was going to restore. In later years the pictures would be taken by a number of different photographers, always under Pistoletto’s guidance.
The Mirror Paintings constitute the foundation of Pistoletto’s work, the basis of both his subsequent research and artistic production and his theoretical reflection, where he has constantly returned to them in order to probe their significance more deeply and develop their implications. The essential characteristics of the Mirror Paintings, the ones that the artist himself identifies in them, are: the dimension of time, not just represented, but really active; the inclusion in the work of the observer and the surroundings, which make it a “self-portrait of the world”; the meeting of opposite poles (static/dynamic, surface/depth, absolute/relative, etc.), brought into play by the interaction between the image of photographic origin and what is going on in the virtual space generated by the reflective surface; and the fact of no longer being an illusory window open onto the world, as in the conception of the picture that emerged with Renaissance perspective and reached its conclusion with the historic avant-gardes of the 20th century. Unlike this perspective, directed exclusively forward, the mirror painting now offered a twofold perspective, showing both what is in front and what is behind us and thus creating an opening through which the setting in which it is displayed extends into the virtual space of the work, a door connecting art and life.
The Mirror Paintings were shown for the first time in Pistoletto’s solo exhibition at the Galatea in April 1963. Not long after the opening Pistoletto went to Paris, where he met the gallerists Ileana and Michael Sonnabend. A few days later they came to Turin, visited his exhibition, bought the entire show and took over the contract between the artist and the Galatea. Thanks to the partnership between Ileana Sonnabend and the New York gallerist Leo Castelli, Pistoletto was represented in Europe by Sonnabend and in the United States by Castelli. Two of the most prestigious and influential gallerists of the day, they represented the exponents of Pop Art, a group in which Pistoletto was the only Italian artist to be inserted.
In June Pistoletto accompanied the young Turinese gallerist Gian Enzo Sperone to the Galerie Sonnabend, where Roy Lichtenstein was holding a solo exhibition, and encouraged him to show the works of this artist and other exponents of American Pop Art at his gallery. This marked the beginning of Sperone’s collaboration with Sonnabend, establishing a link between Turin, Paris and New York that would prove decisive, following the birth of Arte Povera in 1967, to the diffusion of the new Italian artistic research in Europe and the United States as well that of the Americans in Italy.
The Mirror Paintings quickly brought Pistoletto international recognition and success. In 1964 he took part in a series of major European exhibitions devoted to New Figuration, Pop Art and New Realism. Over the course of the sixties, he was also invited to hold solo exhibitions at important galleries and museums in Europe and the United States: in 1964 in Paris (Galerie Ileana Sonnabend); in 1966 in Minneapolis (Walker Art Center); in 1967 in Brussels (Palais des Beaux-Arts), New York (Kornblee Gallery), Cologne (Galerie Zwirner), Detroit (J.L. Hudson Gallery) and Paris (Galerie Ileana Sonnabend); in 1969 in New York (Kornblee Gallery), Rotterdam (Museum Boymans van Beuningen) and Buffalo (Albright Knox Art Gallery).