New York

Piero Manzoni

Acting out in ways that were simultaneously infantile and sublime, Piero Manzoni consistently transformed his intensity and self-destructive passion into rigorous and elegant work. It is fitting that he packaged his feces in tidy little canisters labeled, aptly enough, "Merda d’artista’ (Artist’s shit, 1961). These little obscenities are gifts to the world—packaged rage.

Reexamining his oeuvre today, 28 years after his death at the age of 30, it becomes clear that the integrity of Manzoni’s practice lies in his passionate engagement with form. Form is the site of all esthetic radicality, and, in his “Achromes” Manzoni literally sent a ripple through the picture plane.

He also understood the line as material. For him, the line was the physical manifestation of thought, and it was at the same time the borderline between realms: the real and the symbolic, the inside and the outside, good and evil. Manzoni treated the line as a pure abstraction, he drew lines on rolls of paper and packed them into labeled vacuum sealed canisters, thus removing the line from the plane in an almost nonsensical way. What can a linerepresent in a canister but its own materiality? Hence Manzoni made sure to label the containers with the length of each line.

At the same time, Manzoni’s work is about sensuality—the pleated canvas paintings are beautiful. Manzoni took the surface and emptied it of any reference except to itself. The canvas was no longer simply a support; the pleats, folds, and furrows remind us that canvas has a consistency and a materiality of its own. Like Lucio Fontana, Manzoni was able to liberate the canvas by conceiving of it not just as a metaphor for the picture plane but as matter to be stretched and disturbed.

The polystyrene bead pieces are like toxic ruminations. The beads en masse look like a skin disease or bacterial culture. In Achrome, 1961, there is an old and dirty plastic bag filled with these beads, and it is strangely moving to see the nonbiodegradable waste products of our industrial culture grow old. Achrome, 1960, provides us with another meditation on the surface; it is a piece of canvas woven with gold thread that glitters like a material fetish.

All of these works oscillate between the slightly poisonous or menacing, and the playful or contemplative. His objects resonate on so many different levels. The brownish gooey oil and tar paintings from the late ’50s are perhaps the only works in this show that fall short. The packages wrapped in string and sealed in wax anticipate the Fluxus moment, and, while they are charming and beautiful, in the context of the rest of the work, they also acquire an unexpected power.

Catherine Liu