Before 1962, when the mirror replaced the canvas in Michelangelo Pistoletto’s work, he painted searching self-portraits to express a sense of cultural desolation and personal isolation. Concurrently, Pistoletto attempted to tackle what was perceived in some postwar art circles as the bankruptcy of traditional pictorial form. “It was a moment of great tension and no solution,” he explained. “I had to find a way out of this dramatic situation of an art that reflected the need to recapture some indication of how to continue.” Increasingly, the artist varnished the backgrounds of these portraits, thus creating reflective surfaces, and the decision to employ actual mirrors followed. For the initial incarnation of the mirror pieces, he silkscreened photographic images of men and women on highly polished steel plates. The life-size and lifelike figures seem to be observing a phantasmic world beyond the looking glass. As viewers, we encroach upon what seems to be their private space as our own reflections peer back from the picture. In actuality, it is the very space we occupy. The uneasy shift between reality and representation is startling. For Pistoletto, the introduction of the mirror provided a liberating aesthetic strategy that ventured far beyond the play between art and life, pursued to varying degrees by other members of the Arte Povera group. While the depicted figures are frozen in time, the reflective surfaces are infused with potentiality and indeterminacy. This temporal element, captured in the concept of the fourth dimension, is fundamental to Pistoletto’s art. So is an appreciation of the semantic distinction between the definitions of “reflection”: the word denotes both the occurrence of a visual likeness and the act of mental contemplation. Within this term is located the congruity between seeing and thinking, a phenomenon at the core of Pistoletto’s conceptual project.
By the mid-1970s the artist had extended his experiments to create split reflective surfaces that, in essence, mirror themselves in an endless repetition of their own forms. Pistoletto also fragmented the mirror, breaking the reflected image into pieces and thereby exposing the deceptive nature of mimetic representation. Broken Mirror, as part of the larger Division and Multiplication of the Mirror series, is an elegant and challenging example of the artist’s meditation on the nature of reflection and representation.