In 1961 came the breakthrough that led to the Mirror Paintings. After painting the canvas with a black background and a thick coat of transparent varnish, and then starting to paint his face on it, he suddenly realized that he could see his reflection directly on the surface, without having to use a mirror to observe himself. Profoundly struck by this discovery, he painted a number of works over the course of the year using this technique—portraying himself in a seated position and standing, from in front and behind—whose titles always included the expression “The Present” to indicate the instantaneous nature of the relationship that these works created between the observer, his or her reflection and the painted figure.
“In 1961, on a black background that had been varnished to the point that it reflected things, I began to paint my face. I saw it come toward me, detaching itself from the space of an environment in which all things moved, and I was astonished. I realized that I no longer had to look at myself in another mirror, that I could copy myself while looking at myself directly in the canvas. In the next painting I turned the figure around, because the painted eyes were still artificial, whereas those of the reflection could be as real as those of the figure that now was on the surface of the painting looking into the painting. In fact, being now turned in the same direction as I was, it possessed my eyes.”
(M. Pistoletto, Il rinascimento dell’arte, 1979, unpublished manuscript)
“The figure of a man seemed to come forward, as if alive, in the space of the gallery; but the true protagonist was the relationship of instantaneousness that was created between the spectator, his own reflection, and the painted figure, in an ever-present movement that concentrated the past and the figure in itself to such an extent as to cause one to call their very existence into doubt: it was the dimension of time itself.”
(M. Pistoletto, Oggetti in meno, Galleria La Bertesca, Genoa 1966)