Piero Manzoni was an important and influential post World War Two Italian avant-garde artist. Along with his contemporary the French artist Yves Klein, he created new possibilities and further stretched, challenged and tested the boundaries of how far art could go. Marcel Duchamp was arguably the first artist to fully turn upside down hard wired notions of what art should be and he is often referred to as the Father Of Conceptual Art. His infamous Fountain urinal work signed ‘R.Mutt’ from 1917 is one of the earliest ‘Anti-Art’ statements; a mass produced readymade object that he didn’t make, which he appropriated and signed in the name of an imaginary person.
Manzoni’s most famous and controversial work is Merda d’Artista (Artists’ Shit) from 1961. This work comprises of an edition of 90 small round tins containing the artist’s faeces. Or at least that’s what we are made to believe. It has been disputed by one of Manzoni’s collaborators, Agostino Bonalumi, that the tins in fact contain just plaster. Manzoni declared them each worth their weight in gold and priced them as such at $37 (or according to the market price of gold at the time) a pop. Back then it may have sounded absurd, but today Manzoni is having the last laugh from beyond the grave. In 2015, tin 54 was sold at Christie’s auction house for a record breaking sum of £182,500.
When I was in Milan earlier in March this year, I visited the city’s principle museum of modern and contemporary art, the Museo del Novecentro. It features an outstanding collection of important works by the leading artists of the Futurism movement such as Umberto Boccioni as well as works by other important 20th century Italian artists like Georgio De Chirico, Giorgio Morandi and Lucio Fontana. For me though, it was the works on display by Piero Manzoni, which got me excited since it was the first time I saw any of his work in the flesh let alone several of his most important works together in one room. What’s more, the city of Milan is where Manzoni was born and it was also where he made all his groundbreaking works. As well as Duchamp and Klein, he was influenced by the local avant garde scene in Milan at the time; most notably by the anarchist artist Enrico Baj who was a leading member of the Nuclear Art movement.
Other works in the collection by Manzoni include his Corpo d’Aria piece from 1959-60 comprising of a wooden box containing a metal stand, a rubber tube and a deflated rubber balloon. An edition of 45 of these were made. Each one was originally priced at 30,000 Lira. For this work the buyer would inflate the balloon until fully expanded. Alternatively the buyer could ask the artist to expanded the balloon but would have to pay an additional 200 Lira per litre of air exhaled into the balloon. The work is influenced by Duchamp’s 1913 work 3 stoppages etalon/3 standard stoppages where Duchamp dropped three one metre length pieces of string on to a canvas and then glued them where they landed. For Duchamp this particular work, although perhaps not considered his greatest creation, was an important step in his artistic development since in his own words it ‘opened the way to escape from these traditional methods of expression long associated with art’. Manzoni’s ‘body of air’ pre-dates the influential German artist Joseph Beuys’s theory of ‘social sculpture’ and his notion of ‘everyone being an artist’. Beuys’ once said, ‘every sphere of human activity, even peeling a potato can be a work of art as long as it is a conscious act’. This particular work by Manzoni can be seen as a precursor to this in the sense that anybody could partake in the work and also be considered an artist of the work once they’d finished ‘consciously’ exhaling air into the balloon thus leaving their mark on the work. Just as Duchamp’s 3 stoppages etalon piece and his ‘readymades’ such as his Fountain work breaks down the notions of what defines a work of art, Manzoni’s Corpo d’Aria work breaks down the notion of what defines an artist.
The influence of Yves Klein is evident in his Achrome works created between 1957-63. Klein is well known for his paintings and works created using his own invented and patented International Klein Blue (IKB) pigment. In 1957 Manzoni visited an exhibition by Klein entitled ‘Proposte monochrome, epoca blu’ at the Galleria Apollinaire in Milan, which was to have a big influence on his own artistic development. In that same year he made the first of his Achrome works. The beginning of Klein’s fascination with the colour blue came one day on a beach in 1947 with his friends, the artist Arman and the composer Claude Pascal. The famous story goes that while lying down on the beach they each decided to divide the world between them; Arman chose the earth, Pascal chose words and Klein the sky. Klein subsequently declared, ‘The blue sky is my first artwork’. Manzoni, inspired by Klein’s ideas, chose the colour white for his Achrome pieces. Through choosing the colour white, Manzoni picks a neutral colour. A zero colour. A nothing colour. Colourless and that’s the end. Detached. Beyond the most basic form. Choosing the colour white wasn’t about getting to the essence of the colour white. Rather it was a way of cancelling out colour. Of nullifying it. That’s also what the Russian artist Kazimir Malevich achieved with his 1915 Black Square painting by arriving at the point beyond ‘abstraction’, form and the very notion of colour itself. It is a revolutionary work of art along with his 1918 White on White painting, which both predate by almost half a century the Minimalism movement that began in New York in the early 1960s. Manzoni expanded on the ideas behind his white Achrome works in part of a text he wrote entitled ‘Free Dimension’. In this text he declares the following;
My intention is to present a completely white surface (or better still, an absolutely colourless or neutral one) beyond all pictorial phenomena, all intervention alien to the sense of the surface. A white surface which is neither a polar landscape, nor an evocative or beautiful subject, nor even a sensation, a symbol or anything else: but a white surface which is nothing other than a colourless surface, or even a surface which quite simply ‘is’.
Perhaps Manzoni is closer to Malevich than Klein in his vision. This is especially true in the early Achrome works he produced such as one he created in 1958 comprising solely of small white canvas squares. In the following years he began to incorporate other materials such as fibreglass and even bread rolls painted white into the Achrome series. By including these added objects/features, Manzoni, via the colour white, continues the process of nullification and subtraction. The colour white is thus a steriliser of anything it comes into contact with whether its a bread roll or the cotton canvas surface its applied to.
Left: Linea m19, 32 (1959) – ink on paper, cardboard tube
Middle: Merda d’Artista no 80 (1961) – tin box and printed paper
Right: Impronta (1960) – hard boiled egg, ink and cotton wool in a wooden box
Corpo d’Aria/Body Of Air no 23 (1959-60) – wooden box, metal stand, rubber tube and rubber balloon
Achrome (1961) – fibreglass
Achrome (1962) – bread rolls and kaolin
Achrome (1959) – kaolin on creased canvas
Achrome (1958) – kaolin and canvas squares
Chrissa/Perhaps (1956) – oil on canvas
Photographs and text by Nicholas Peart
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