PRINT March 1991


There are no beginnings in the brief life of Piero Manzoni (1933–1963); there is no period of development.1 From his first contact, about 1954, with avant-garde artistic circles in Milan, he exhibited an unconditional and fully conscious militancy, displaying the temperament of a protagonist who, knowing that he lives in a period of change, wants to intervene from within.

Crucial to this understanding was a recognition that the avant-garde is supported not only with works of art but with declarations of poetics, with polemics, with manifestos. Manzoni wrote his first manifesto, Per la scoperta di una zona di immagini (For the discovery of a zone of images), in 1956; he published his last, Alcune realizzazioni, Alcuni esperimenti, Alcuni progetti (Some realizations, some experiments, some projects), the year before his death, in 1962.

Manzoni’s first manifestos were published under the aegis of the so-called Nuclearisti (Nuclearists), whose Movimento Nucleare (Nuclear movement), begun about 1951, sought to radicalize the lesson of art informel. Artists like Enrico Baj and Gianni Bertini declared a new poetics that foresaw the marriage between art and scientific research. Earlier, also in Milan, Lucio Fontana and the Spazialisti (Spatialists) had posed the same questions, believing that technological progress, in transforming the world, must also transform art, pushing it not in search of a new style but toward the transcendence of genres, with the aim of creating an unprecedented form of total art.

The Nuclearists, fascinated by the miniaturized worlds hidden within the visible universe, saw in disciplines like subatomic physics the sign of the new that they themselves were ready to reinvent in art. They didn’t succeed, however, because they were unable to break away from the expressive and highly dramatized language of informel.

The case of Manzoni was different. Influenced by art informel, he very briefly used tar on canvas. Soon he began to combine it with oil paint, delineating black humanoid silhouettes with spherical heads and antennae instead of ears. In these works, painted from 1956–57, material values are deadened and delegated to the elaboration of the background, and gestural expressiveness is played down. At times words that seem determined by free association appear—“Le Cose” (The things), “Chissà” (Who knows), “Milano et Mitologia” (Milan and mythology), “Genus,” “Tenderly,” etc.—and these accentuate the alienating, vaguely ironic sense of the compositions. The figures refer to the human, to the extraterrestrial, to the bacteriological, to the archaic, to the grotesque. And with these ambiguous attributes, they lie at the intersection between the figures of myth and those of the unconscious.

“Without myth art doesn’t happen” (Senza mito non si dà arte)2 is the first proposition of Manzoni’s first manifesto, a position that he continually reiterated in all his written polemics. For Manzoni, the artist must be confronted with archetypes, that is, the myths generated by the collective unconscious. This was to be accomplished through a process of self-analysis, the result of which is the primary image:

For the artist it is a question of a conscious immersion in himself, by which, having overcome that which is individual and contingent, he descends to the point where he reaches the live germ of human totality. . . . Through the discovery of the psychic substratum common to all men, the author-work-spectator relationship is made possible. . . . And so the artistic moment lies in the discovery of preconscious universal myths and in their reduction to images.3

The artist . . . discovers new totems and taboos, the germ of which lies, unbeknownst, within his own epoch; he creates within a culture in progress.4

Art thus has a mission that it must accomplish in the wake of collectivity: the artist must refute individualistic resolutions, must place himself well beyond his own “experience.”

Manzoni never ceased to insist on this necessity of overcoming the expression of mere subjectivity, just as he never ceased to verify in practice the depth of what he considered a “mission.” Over time his actions assumed freer forms and intentionalities, but within this free space what remained constant was the concept of the artistic act as the revelation of the Other. The artist was no longer to present himself as the center, but to step aside and allow the Other to manifest itself in its pure being.

The primary image is not only the archetype that emerges from the depths of the collective unconscious and that is revealed down to its microstructure. What is also primary for Manzoni is the image understood in its phenomenal reality—as thing, as matter. The artist must take into consideration the autonomous existence of every element, from the most secret and mysterious to the most obvious and banal. And so the artistic act is identified in large part with an act of pure recognition: the artist, at a great remove from romantic expressiveness based on emotional involvement—the poetics of art informel—doesn’t interpret things, he points them out. He doesn’t manipulate them, doesn’t transform them, but exposes them for what they are. In so doing, he grasps them in their total autonomy with respect to subjective emotions. Manzoni renounces the demiurgic stance that characterized Marcel Duchamp and transformed everything he touched into gold (into value, into art). Instead, he accepts the world for what it is; and his art simply strives to be tangential to this world. His art touches the world and is touched by it.

In much the same way, and about the same time, Fontana and Yves Klein also did away with the goals traditionally assigned to art. In 1946, the year of his Manifiesto blanco (White manifesto), Fontana proposed a renewal of art based on the marriage of scientific thought—of the sort that governs technological development—and intuitive thought—tied to elements of the unconscious. The next year, he expanded his approach to space, that is, to the dimension that is both real and transfigured by the imaginary, where the work becomes a total experience, an event. On the one hand, this was realized concretely in the installations that Fontana created from 1946 on; on the other hand, it was revealed as idea in his greatest works, begun circa 1948–49, first on paper and then on canvases with holes, cuts, gashes, all invariably entitled Concetto spaziale (Spatial concept). Instead of limiting himself to the sensory stimulation of the viewer, Fontana contemplated an exquisitely intellectual problem: to present space within its own negation, that is, within the two-dimensional conventions of painting. What the hole or the cut reveals is real space, that which truly lies beyond the surface, but it is at the same time an indefinite and total dimension, alluded to in the ecstatic opening—Georges Bataille’s la béance—that the work itself bears. Thus the physical world beyond the painting becomes an elsewhere, a state of otherness (Fontana will later call this elsewhere “nothingness”), something that has the characteristics of the inexpressible and the absolute.

For Klein, who in 1957 embarked on his blue “monochrome adventure,”5 “the authentic quality of the canvas, its very ’being,’ once created, is to be found beyond the visible, in the pictorial sensitivity to the primary state of matter.”6 The work is transcended by the aspiration to the infinite, the “all” without dimension, of which it is both an index (indeed, it bears the color of the sky) and an integral part (it is made of blue pigment). It acts on the viewer thanks to the color’s power of “impregnation,” which is the only means of experiencing the whole. The artistic act thus assumes a conceptual value; its realization is not visual but above all mental.

Manzoni’s own investigations of the absolute began in 1957 with his “achromes,” literally “without color,” which were made of canvas soaked in wet plaster and/or kaolin that was allowed to dry without artistic intervention. The only form of preordained activity was the choice of the support—canvas on stretchers—which corresponded to the conventions of easel painting. The achrome represents a “zero grade” of pictorial expressiveness that is limited to the exhibition of its basic materials and the linguistic elements pertinent to it. Just as, in Disegno geometrico (Geometric drawing, 1960), Giulio Paolini articulated an art system in which the artist/subject is eclipsed, becoming just one of the several functions of the system itself, so Manzoni, with the repetition-variation of his achrome’s surface values, transgressed every function supported by artistic tradition. Thus “prepared,” the surface doesn’t submit to representation, or to effusive expression; it doesn’t allow any further sign, but changes its own substance, becoming a pure epiphany of material—cotton, polystyrene, glass fiber, bread. At the same time, the achrome is an index of an elsewhere; as Manzoni himself states, it is a finite but “indefinable and infinitely repeatable”7 part of a total space, a surface that does not support further definitions of form or color or composition. The achrome indicates an irreducible otherness precisely because it is what it is: “A white surface that is a white surface and nothing more (a colorless surface that is a colorless surface), or, even better, that is, and nothing more.”8

The foundation of the work thus begins as an ontological statement that is, by definition, tautologous. But ontology tells us only that things are, its language will not tolerate other determinations. Manzoni therefore designates an absolute otherness; the work (the thing) refers only to itself, nothing more. And since, as Emmanuel Lévinas writes, one can know only the generality, based on the relationship of the thing to other things,9 and since “knowing” presumes the establishment of relationships, it follows that the work, as something absolute, that is, without relationships, cannot be known, cannot be imagined.

Manzoni here presents us with the limitation of language, what Ludwig Wittgenstein calls “the mystic,” that which though demonstrated cannot be said. Whoever reflects upon language first experiments with its insurmountable incapacity to grasp existence in its most banal, common manifestations. The point of departure for Manzoni’s achrome adventure is this desire for the absolute that allows one to measure the inanity of language and the consequent need for its reestablishment. In 1959 Enrico Castellani, along with Manzoni, founded the magazine Azimuth and directed an eponymous gallery, Azimut. According to Castellani:

The need for the absolute that pushes us, in presenting us with new themes, keeps us from the means considered suitable to pictorial language; . . . The only compositional criterion possible in our works will be one that doesn’t involve a choice of heterogeneous and finite elements. . . . the only one that, through the possession of an elementary entity, line, indefinitely repeatable rhythm, monochrome surface, is able to give the works themselves the concreteness of the infinite, and can endure the conjugation of time, the only conceivable dimension, meter, and justification of our spiritual exigency.10

Rhythm and repetition: the work, being a confrontation with the absolute, cannot be made synchronic with the time of the world, it can only incessantly repeat its urgency. Manzoni thus “repeats” the achrome, just as, during this same period of the 1960s, Fontana repeats the vertical cut and Klein repeats the blue. Surface, monochrome, line: they are basic elements of pictorial language, elaborated in their specificity, which is also absolute, uncontaminated. For Manzoni, they become the principle signs of the “concrete” infinite, or rather they themselves are this infinite. From the beginning, we have seen that the essence of the surface is without dimensions, continuous, free. Visually it extends from the plane of the achrome to the terrestrial surface. Monochrome, or to be precise the absence of color, dissolves every relativity that might refer to subjective expressiveness or to any contingency whatsoever. Finally, the line also simply is.

From 1959 on, Manzoni drew in ink on rolls of paper lines of different lengths that he enclosed in cylindrical black cardboard, stainless-steel, or chrome-plated containers, each bearing a label stating the line’s length and the date of execution. At the moment of exhibition, the line could be unrolled and made visible, or it could remain closed in its container. In fact, visibility was not essential to the work. Nor (as Lawrence Weiner would say later) was its effective realization necessary to its qualification as a work of art, which is guaranteed solely on the basis of the act of designation. In 1960 Manzoni made a solid black wood cylinder “containing” a line of infinite length: “A line can only be traced, very long, toward infinity, regardless of any problem of composition or of dimension; in total space there are no dimensions.”11 The line is, it doesn’t matter how it is presented to our senses—as an object, as a sign, or even here, in Linea di lunghezza infinita (Line of infinite length), as pure idea. It is only what it is, and it is a fragment of the infinite. As Kirby Gookin has recently and very opportunely written, here Manzoni picks up the classical concept of “drawing” as the impression of the platonic idea, but he thematicizes it as an impossibility for the modern artist to comprehend, just as it is impossible for thought to encompass the absolute.12

In Manzoni’s work the infinite is never understood as possibility, but always as tension, as desire, as something ineffable that, precisely as such, cannot stop speech and therefore gives incessant origin to language. In Herning, Denmark, in 1960, Manzoni created a line 7,200 meters (ca. 4 1/2 miles) long that he writes “is the first of a series of lines of great length, of which I will leave an example in every major city in the world . . . until the total sum of the lengths . . . will have reached the length of the circumference of the earth.”13 Manzoni also proposed tracing a white line along the entire Greenwich Meridian, and finally, in 1961, he created the epitome of all readymades, Base del mondo (Base of the world), an upturned pedestal that effectively makes the planet into a work of art.

When Manzoni’s work is discussed, mention is often made of a substantial ambiguity, an ambiguity that has two complementary but opposite sides: the protoconceptual aspect of the achromes and the lines, and the neoDadaist aspect of his provocative actions. What Thomas McEvilley has recently written about monochrome painting, that its “language oscillates in ambiguous fashion between history and spirituality. . . . The surface to be freed isn’t only the soul, it is also the face of a devastated Europe,”14 is equally applicable to Manzoni’s case.

The opposition is less radical than it might seem. If, as Lévinas says, being is what is not given to us, then it can be understood only in relation to what, in contrast, is given—the world, life. And in reality, Manzoni speaks of nothing but life: “There is nothing to be said: there is only being, there is only living.”15 What Manzoni is dealing with is not thought but sensibility, which ignores ontological limitations and isn’t concerned with knowing. In fact, sensibility “doesn’t pertain to the order of thought, but to that of sentiment, that is of affectiveness, where the egoism of the ego pulsates. Sensible qualities, the green of this leaf, the red of this sunset, are not known but experienced.”16 Life is a gift that is accepted, it is an expression of an immediate pleasure that refers only to itself: “To enjoy without utility, in pure loss, gratuitously, without referring to anything else, always passively—this is what is human.”17 Seeing himself reflected in language’s lack of being is what pushes Manzoni to lean on the world. He does so with immediacy, with playful intent (not with irony, but with joy), with narcissism. And he accepts the Eden along with the devastation, embraces the unattainable infinite and its twin, desire. Manzoni’s actions are continual examples of acceptance, of recognition, of making contact, brought about through pure tangency.

The 1958 alphabets incarnate the act of recognition of language as such, just as the fingerprints of 1960 are the very act of designation, with a sign that is both a distinctive and an anonymous trace.18 Manzoni thought of himself as anonymous, not as a distinct individual but as a biological being. For example, he dealt not so much with that which the body creates but, more immediately, with that which the body expels (in pure loss, without referring to anything else): shit and breath. Moreover, the one is the sublimation of the other, and vice versa. There is nothing banal about this choice, because few biological actions are invested with so much symbolism as breathing and defecating. Nevertheless, Manzoni, this time with irony, reduces symbolism to the minimal terms of an earthly response to solicitations of transcendence. So we have the breath of the creator imprisoned in an inflated balloon (Fiato d’artista [Breath of the artist,1959], Corpo d’aria [Body of air, 1959–60]), the Zen-void of Klein now become the “fullness” of air that, immediately, testifies to pure life. And, instead of the gold of the alchemist, we have the shit that, even though packaged and sold by weight, never ceases referring to the ecstatic moment that it allows, as in Bataille. These actions are intended as parashamanistic operations, references to the world through an immersion in the undifferentiation of biological matter, as Germano Celant has shown.19

Manzoni opens up to the nonspecific, to that which is, and nothing more. He opens the art system to what is nonrecognizable, to the anonymous: in Divorare l’Arte (To devour art, 1960) the artist invites the public to consume boiled eggs on which he has affixed his thumb print, in a ceremony that, however sublimated, is nonetheless still suggestive. In Sculture viventi (Living sculptures, 1961) he selectively begins an “enterprise” of certifying his friends as artworks, some for life, others under specific circumstances (sleeping, for example), and still others only after they had paid an agreed-upon sum. In Base magica (Magical base, 1961) he invites all who want to to climb on a pedestal and to embody, for a moment, the essence of the work of art.

These are not acts of desecration, they are attempts to verify the minute sacredness of the events of life, and they imply the necessity to reestablish art on new grounds, beginning with its expressive tools. Manzoni dissolves the borders between art and life, between individuality and collectivity, between body and soul. To do this, there is no need for the demiurgic gestures of a Duchamp. It suffices to act through pure tangency. It suffices to use what exists. It suffices to live.

Giorgio Verzotti is a writer who lives in Milan and contributes regularly to Artforum.

Translated from the Italian by Marguerite Shore.


1. Manzoni did make some figurative paintings in the early ’50s, but they are few in number and insignificant.

2. Piero Manzoni, “Per la scoperta di una zona di immagini (1),” 1956, reprinted in Germano Celant, Piero Manzoni, Milan: Prearo Editore, 1975, p. 73.

3. Manzoni, “Per la scoperta di una zona di immagini (2),” 1957, in ibid.

4. Manzoni, “Prolegomeni per una attività artistica,” 1957, in ibid.

5. When Manzoni visited Klein in Paris for the first time in 1961, he introduced himself saying: “You are the blue monochrome. I am the white monochrome, we must work together.” (Quoted in Celant, p. 58.)

6. Yves Klein, “Il superamento della problematica dell’arte,” quoted in Giuliano Martano, Yves Klein, il mistero ostentato, Turin: Martano, 1970, p. 62.

7. Manzoni, “Libera dimensione,” 1960, in Celant, p. 77.

8. Ibid.

9. Emmanuel Lévinas, Totalità e infinito, Milan: Jacabook, 1980.

10. Enrico Castellani, “Continuità e nuovo,” reprinted in Marco Meneguzzo, Azimuth e Azimut, Milan: Mondadori, 1984, n.p.

11. Manzoni, “Libera dimensione,” in Celant, p. 77.

12. Kirby Gookin, “Manzoni’s Lines,” in Piero Manzoni, exhibition catalogue, New York: Hirschl & Adler Modern, 1990, p. 56.

13. Manzoni, quoted in Celant, p. 47.

14. Thomas McEvilley, “La peinture monochrome . . . ,” in La couleur seule, exhibition catalogue, Lyons: Musée Saint Pierre, 1988, p. 24.

15. Manzoni, “Libera dimensione,” in Celant, p. 77.

16. Lévinas, p. 136.

17. Ibid., p. 135.

18. Edizioni Scheiwiller, Milan, published some of the alphabets and fingerprints as 8 tavole di accertamento (8 tables of verification), in 1962.

19. Celant, p. 54.

#image 1#

#image 2#

#image 3#

#image 4#

#image 5#