Piero Manzoni

It’s hard to believe that, juvenilia aside, Piero Manzoni’s career was so brief. It’s always the wide-eyed, chubby face of a precocious, overgrown, mischievous kid that appears to us in photographs. But Manzoni covered more territory—not without false steps—in six years than most do in sixty, and artists are still sorting out the implications of his work. In his catalogue essay to the Serpentine show, which includes 186 works by the Italian artist, art historian Jon Thompson only begins to survey the sweep of his influence.

Manzoni never wanted to address any but the most fundamental questions of art—in the first instance, its material condition, and thereafter the object’s function as a locus of exchange between artist and public, an exchange whose objective, economic appearance is as important as its subjective essence. For him, art was an escape from the bog of selfhood, with its “extraneous details and useless gestures,” to that place where, he hoped, “one’s own individual mythology . . . becomes identified with the universal mythology.” It may seem surprising to hear such words from the author of the stringently abstract Achromes, which are not even surfaces to which some color has been added, like the monochromes of Fontana or Klein, but simply colorless (in practice, white) surfaces (later, volumes). But though these elegant and surprisingly specific variations call attention to their existence as a material fact more than they conjure meaning or allusion, they remain underwritten by a Romantic myth of art—the idea that the artist is inspired, and proves so by an ability to bestow inspiration in turn.

Manzoni’s brilliance lay in part in his ability to push this conception of art to the point of reductio ad absurdum, but in a way that underlines rather than subverts the notion. This is clear from the “Uovi con impronta” (Eggs with thumbprints) of 1960, which refer to a performance (as it would now be called) in which the artist held a “dynamic interaction with the spectator” by boiling eggs that he then “signed” with his thumbprint and invited the public to eat. But notice that this “consumazione dell’arte” took place in both the senses allowed by the Italian word—not only “consumption” but “consummation,” that is, as art’s fulfillment.

Internalized, consumed, consummated, art becomes an idea. This is the point of Manzoni’s Linee (Lines) of 1959–61, ink lines of various lengths he drew out on rolls of paper (a production he had documented) only to encase them in (usually) cardboard cylinders he then sealed with a label indicating the length of the line and the date of execution. There is a double distancing, then, from the material condition of the inscribed line: first, by the strategy of measurement, which substitutes perceptual apprehension of quantity with its rationalization; and then by the “packaging” of the paper bearing the line, which transmutes even this rationalized object of perception into an idea, a mental construct, which is at the same time a product, a commodity. “I put the Linea in a container so that people can buy the idea of the Linea,” as the artist said. “I sell an idea, an idea closed in a container.”

Manzoni’s best-known work, the ninety cans of Merda d’artista he produced in 1961, turned the idea as such back into an idea of matter (shit is base matter par excellence) and an idea of an end-product. In fact, the tins filled with the artist’s excrement seem the absolute reversal of the consumazione ideal of the Uovi. As flagrant a provocation as Duchamp’s Fountain, produced five decades earlier, to which they are a logical complement, it would be just as vain to dismiss them as mere provocation as it would be to describe Duchamp’s urinal as prankish. But the Merda represent a moment of atypical diffidence for Manzoni, a sense that the artist’s product might be ineffectual despite the exchange it yields.

A surprising aspect of Manzoni’s work is the feminine presence everywhere in it. The early Achromes, with their use of stitching and pleating, speak of women’s handiwork, while the later ones, so often made of bunches of feathery fiberglass thread or wads of cotton, have a kind of powder-puff quality that does not refuse recollection of female rituals of grooming. In his catalogue essay, Germano Celant rightly speaks of the consumption of Manzoni’s eggs as a rite of fecundation (and of the artist’s own partaking of it as a “self-fecundation”) but there’s a twist in that it is the female principle, the egg, rather than the masculine one, the sperm, that is incorporated. The 1961 photo of Manzoni signing the body of a nude woman as a “living sculpture” may seem to connect him to the all-too-conventional sexual politics of Klein’s Anthropometries (in fact anyone, with Manzoni’s signature and the appropriate certification, could become a living sculpture), but the more telling clue may come from the Base magica (Magic base, 1961), a wooden plinth whose brass plate is inscribed “PIERO MANZONI Scultura vivente,” conflating title and authorship. The implication is both that if you stand on the base you will become Piero Manzoni, living sculpture, and that the sculpture has walked away (as living sculptures are wont to do). The footprints representing the position of the absent sculpture are a man’s, and yet the reference is surely to the myth of Pygmalion: male and female have somehow been crossed, as have artist, viewer, and object. Perhaps this was the universal myth of which Manzoni dreamed.

Barry Schwabsky is the author of The Widening Circle: Consequences of Modernism in Contemporary Art (Cambridge University Press).