Italian Painter, Sculptor, Conceptual and Performance Artist
Summary of Piero Manzoni
Piero Manzoni was an Italian of noble birth now best known for canning and selling his own excrement in the name of art. Irreverent, subversive and committed to the tearing down of the established rules of artistic production, Manzoni's body of work spans monochromatic paintings, sculptures, and conceptual art objects, all of which maintain a sense of humour and mischievous satire.
Despite this attitude and generally prankish demeanour, the ideas outlined by Manzoni and his use of the body (both his own and others') as a medium through which to create art has proved to be immensely influential after his unexpected death at the age of 29. Performance, Land and Conceptual Art movements have all built on aspects of his work and persona, expanding on key concepts and profoundly altering the development of modern artistic practices in doing so.
- Manzoni's work is audaciously irreverent and humorous, often using a simple and transgressive concept to provoke a reaction in its viewer. These concepts (that an artist can claim anything as their art, or that an artist makes something valuable by signing it, for example) often contain an implicit criticism of the consumerism of post-war Europe. For Manzoni, it is the direct connection of an object to an artist (usually via direct touch) through which this significance is imparted.
- For Manzoni, art exists in anything that the artist claims. The challenge this poses to the art market, and the often-ridiculous situations that such an idea may result in (like as the sale of human excrement at the price of the same weight of gold) reveals the subversion at the heart of much of Manzoni's work.
- The post-war European avant-garde that he was a part of was profoundly inspiring to Manzoni, and his work often reflected the work of the artists around him. This magpie-like approach to influence from friends helped solidify several innovative artistic techniques (such as the use of a pure field of color in paintings) as characteristic of the period.
- The idea of the body as art object, and bodily processes as able to be repurposed as artistic ones, is key to Manzoni's practice. For Manzoni, the body and its processes are as valid as artistic materials as any others. This would go on to influence Performance Art in particular, with artists using their own bodies as a material that was seen as able to resist marketisation and subvert commercial recognition.
The Life of Piero Manzoni
Manzoni’s tin cans of excrement caused an uproar when he priced them at the same price of gold in 1961. The trick worked however, and his art appreciated at a higher rate than precious metal; In 2002 the Tate brought one can (30 grams) of shit for £23,000.
Progression of Art
Manzoni's work Achrome uses kaolin (a white clay) and canvas to create a ridged surface painting. The image was created without any direct sculpting from the artist, with its texture allowed to form naturally after the canvas was dipped in the wet clay. He described these works as "colorless paintings", or paintings containing empty space transformed by the raw materials. Manzoni began to work in this manner after being inspired by Yves Klein's monochrome works. Like Klein, his monochromes use one color to occupy and illustrate the space occupied by the work itself. Whilst the emptiness of the image might invite the viewer to project their own meaning on to it, for Manzoni it was the materiality of the image that was interesting and important. In this work he not only subverts the traditional techniques of paint as an artistic medium, but works towards his project of art that "disappears completely", a concept he referred to as a tautological (a repeating or logically inherent) self-sufficiency.
As art critic Germano Celant wrote, Manzoni aimed for images that, "are as absolute as possible, which cannot be valued for that which they record, explain and express, but only for what which they are: to be". As Celant's analysis refers to, these works are concerned with the potential of their material, and how such materials can cancel out visual space, rather than expressing emotion or recording the world. The implicitly anti-art stance behind the work, reminiscent of Manzoni's admiration of Dada and Duchamp's concepts of the readymade, are a direct reaction to the ideas of cancellation and subversion circling amongst avant-garde artists, and the Italian art market in which Manzoni was working at the time.
Kaolin and Canvas - The Art Institute of Chicago
This work consists of a single unbroken line, printed using a newspaper press on a long strip of paper then coiled and inserted into a cardboard tube. The tube is labelled with the length of the line it contains. After their original display, the tubes were sold under the condition that they never be opened. A small label on the packaging of each work "guaranteed" the author, the date, and the exact length of the line inside. As the drawing itself can never be seen unless opened, it suggests that conceptually the line does not functionally exist other than in the mind of the viewer. By the work never being removed it completes the self-fulfilling tautology which Manzoni began working towards with his Achromes.
Art historian Tony Godfrey states that the series was "a truly immaterial and invisible work: if the seal was broken it ceased to be art". The word and intent of the artist are the only things that give Lines any meaning, and to go against his wishes and open the tube in order to confirm the line was contained within or was the length advertised would undo its status. This puts the emphasis on the performance involved in the making of these lines as the art, rather than the tube which is bought and sold. This was an important concept that would go on to be developed by Manzoni in later works, as well as being taken up and developed by Conceptual artists from the 1960s. Despite the artist's intent and stated wishes, several of these line pieces have since been exhibited unfurled alongside their tubes.
Line drawn on newsprint in cardboard tube - Collection of the Tate, United Kingdom
The Consumption of Dynamic Art by the Art-Devouring Public
Here Manzoni, whilst addressing an audience at Galleria Azimut (which he co-owned with Enrico Castellani), marked hard-boiled eggs with his thumbprint, insisting that by doing so they became "art". He then ate one of the eggs before offering the rest to the public. Manzoni saw the consumption of the eggs as fulfilling his desire for the work to disappear. He also suggested that by eating the egg, the consumer becomes an artwork due to their contact with the artist's hand.
This work is primarily one of performance, which can be usefully examined through the lens of Relational Aesthetics as defined by Nicolas Bourriaud. As an artwork, the interaction between people is where the art lies, rather than in an object. In the case of The Consumption of Dynamic Art by the Art-Devouring Public, the emphasis is on the transfer of the symbol of the "art"' between the egg and the audience as the interaction. The eggs have widely been read as a placeholder for Manzoni's body by critics like Flaminio Gualdon, who writes that there is "a religious influence in his work, the body is always at the centre and its sacred. The objects must be consecrated as if the artist had some priestly power". This notion of an artist having "priestly power" was one of the key concepts Manzoni was interested in, with the touch of the artist consecrating seemingly mundane or otherwise throwaway objects with significance. His body plays a significant role in this work as it is the catalyst for the transference of "art". This work can also be read as reflecting the consumerism which dominated much of Italian society after WWII, as well as the Catholic notion of transubstantiation. In a society increasingly fuelled by mass production, Manzoni's artworks explored the value in an individual's (the artist's) touch.
Boiled Eggs with the artist's fingerprint, consumed by the artists and audience members
Artist's Breath continues Manzoni's exploration of the sanctifying presence of the artist. The work consists of balloons blown up by Manzoni and fixed to wooden boards, a process which places the value of the sculpture/installation not in the physical components but in the breath of the artist itself. As Manzoni himself said, "when I blow up a balloon, I am breathing my soul into an object that becomes eternal". Manzoni charged a fee of 200 lire for each litre of air he blew into the balloons. As his breath would slowly evaporate over time, the object is left an empty husk, leaving it devoid of the artist's breath and therefore "worthless". The idea of purchasing emptiness was also pursued by Yves Klein in his sale of 'immateriality', and was a notable influence on Manzoni's piece.
Germano Celant, a notable critic of Manzoni's work, describes the culture in which Manzoni was making this work as one "still pervaded by the tragedy of the Second World War and strongly marked by a sense of failure bound up with that vast, historic catastrophe". The deflated balloon can then be seen as a metaphor for the deflated body of a person surrounded by the aftereffects of war and in a culture which increasingly valued mass production over individual craftsmanship. Manzoni's piece valorizes the idea of the unrepeatable, unique, as well as the transient and ephemeral. Only he is capable of producing the 'artist's breath' which brings this piece into being.
Balloon and breath sealed on wooden base - Collection of the Tate, United Kingdom
Socle Du Monde
Socle du Monde was the culmination of a year-long process using plinths to play with the notion of an artist's authority. Where previously Manzoni had asked the audience to stand on plinths in order to become living sculptures, or signed parts of their body in order to declare them as works of art, this sculpture takes the concept of artistic ownership via claiming to its logical conclusion. As the final work of the series Manzoni made the large plinth seen in this image, imprinted with the legend Socle du Monde (Base of the World), and turned it upside-down. This was designed to symbolize the plinth as bearing the weight of the world, suggesting the earth itself was a piece of art claimed by Manzoni. The plinth was installed in Herning in 1961 when Manzoni was invited by Danish manufacturer Aage Damgaard to create a work during a residency in the city and contribute to his public collection of art objects from significant contemporary artists. There is speculation amongst critics that Manzoni's inspiration came from the fact that it was possible to see the curvature of the earth on the horizon of the Northern lowlands near Herning.
As with other pieces exploring similar ideas, Manzoni's concept is a simple one taken to extremes. Manzoni was working towards making an artwork so large that it was unable to be sold, and therefore his solution was to claim and perhaps even attempt to sell the entire globe. In an article in the Guardian, the artist Gavin Turk reflects on Manzoni (one of his influences) by saying that he "repeatedly exercised his ability to purify thought into action and deed". This purification can be seen though the directness of the upside-down plinth as a work which requires the viewer to literally change their point of view by tilting their head. Manzoni truly believed that he was able to change the world through his art, distilling complex ideas about consumerism and post-war society into witty and satirical conceptual pieces.
Plinth made of Iron - Herning Museum of Contemporary Art, Denmark
In 1961, Manzoni created his most infamous and successful artwork, Merda d'Artist, which comprized 90 tin cans ostensibly containing 30 grams of the artist's excrement. Each can was labelled with the contents, along with text reading "Freshly preserved, produced and tinned in May 1961" in English, French, Italian and German. These cans were weighed and priced to correspond to the price of gold at the time of production. As biographer Flaminio Gualdon writes, Merda d'Artist "plays on the value between gold, which is the most valuable material, and shit which has no value whatsoever". Like his line drawings, there is no way to know if the label on the can corresponds to what is actually inside without opening it. Doing so though would disrupt the intent of the artist, its status as an artwork resting on its ambiguous nature.
The cans echo the then-pervasive language and aesthetics of mass production, as well as the expansion of canning to allow food to have a long shelf life that was becoming increasingly common in the early 1960s. Part of the inspiration for the piece is said to come from Manzoni's father, who as well as owning a cannery (which Manzoni used in the production of the piece) is said to have told his son that his work was 'shit'.
Building on the ideas explored in pieces like Artist's Breath, this work allows art collectors to own a piece of the artist, with value added by the connection between his body and the art object. Manzoni was firm in his belief that it was the artist's intention and interaction which made an artwork, and therefore took the most natural bodily process and declared it art. Manzoni's emphasis with Merda d'Artist was "I sell an idea, an idea in a can", which reflects both his conceptual basis for the implicit critique of the art world and collectors, and the mischievous humour he used to communicate it. As Gavin Turk remarks "he always took his art seriously; I think he thought he could change the world with it. I imagine how much he must have laughed when he had his ideas". Merde d'Artist is funny and audacious, and yet is also a serious condemnation of consumerism immediately after the Second World War and a reflection of Manzoni's commitment to a conceptual expansion of the themes of his work.
Collection of the Tate, United Kingdom
Biography of Piero Manzoni
Piero Manzoni was born in Soncino, a village in the Po valley near Cremona in 1933. His father was Egisto Manzoni, an Italian noble (the Conte di Chiosca and Poggiolo), and his mother, Valeria Meroni, was from a well-known family in Soncino. He was the eldest of five children with two younger brothers, Giuseppe and Giacomo, and two sisters Elena and Mariucca. Piero spent most of his childhood in Milan where he attended the prestigious Jesuit school Liceo Leone XIII. During the summers and whilst on other school breaks he would often spend time at the family house near Lake Garda as well as at a sea side resort on the Ligurian Riviera. At the age of 15 his father died from a heart attack, with Manzoni taking to art shortly after.
Education and Early Training
Manzoni never formally trained or pursed an art education, but started to paint at the age of 17, working independently to create traditional landscapes and figurative works. Many of these works were later destroyed or painted over. Due to the noble status of his family and his gregarious nature, Manzoni was a well-known and prominent social figure in the area throughout his early adulthood. As a result, he became friends with the Argentine-Italian painter Lucio Fontana, a friendship that would last throughout his lifetime and go on to influence his artistic practice. Manzoni did study for a short time at the Brera Academy in Milan, a period most notable for the amount of time he spent in 'The Giamaica', an artists' café in the city. There artists would meet and discuss their influences, desires, and ideas about the nature of art, debates that would fascinate the young Manzoni and influence his development far more than the lessons at the academy.
His first exhibitions as an artist were group shows for local painters in 1956, in which he showed oil paintings of humanoid subjects and everyday objects which had been dipped in paint and printed onto the canvas. During his early years of painting he composed a working manifesto which he used to outline his philosophy of art. Beginning in 1956 with "Per la scoperta di una zone d'immagini (For the discovery of a zone of images)", he declared that painting was his idea of freedom and his process was one of setting out to discover the images by creating them. This early interest in the use of manifestos to define the individual intentions of the artist would continue throughout his career and develop into a critical view of the conventions of the art world.
Through his friendship with Fontana he affiliated himself with the International Nuclear Movement in 1957. This group had been gaining prominence after the Second World War and became a political rallying point for artists. The 'Nucleari' group exhibited at the Galleria San Fedele in Milan in the same year, with the exhibition including the artists Enrino Baj, Franco Bemporard, Mario Rossello, Asger Jorn, Arnaldo and Gio Pomodoro, Ettore Sordini, Serge Vandercam, Angelo Verga, and Yves Klein. This exhibition proved to be inspiring for Manzoni, particularly the work of Klein, whose use of a pure field of blue (the now famous International Klein Blue) on canvases and objects were particularly engaging to Manzoni. Shortly after this exhibition Manzoni created his first Achrome, a white monochromatic canvas that sought to liberate painting from narrative and figuration. These Achromes are a series of works which have a clear debt to Klein's paintings.
Manzoni continued to create his Achromes throughout 1958, and whilst Klein was perhaps the most obvious influence on this phase of his practice, so too was his long-term friend Fontana, whose own artistic career had garnered him much recognition and a connection with several avant-garde groups in Milan. This personal connection allowed Manzoni to develop works alongside other painters and artists thinking critically about the way art is made. This led him to think about what exactly art is and in turn expand his practice away from painting. Through Fontana's introduction he become close friends with artist Enrico Castelani, with whom he would go on to write and publish two issues of the journal Azimuth. In 1959 his series Lines was shown for the first time at the Pozzetto exhibition in Albisola, where one of the rolled drawings which had been taken out for display was damaged by a member of the audience during the opening event. He and Castelani founded Galleri Azimut together in 1959, a venue which would only stay open for a year. Manzoni's works were often exhibited in the gallery.
During 1961, Manzoni continued to question how the art object was constituted. He used what he declared was his "artist's touch" to create artworks out of human beings, certifying them as living sculptures by marking them with his signature. He exhibited these works alongside Enrico Castellani at the Galleria La Tartaruga in Rome. Manzoni also created a series of plinth works he called Magic Bases in which he would invite members of the audience to stand on to become a sculpture. This series would lead him to being asked by Danish manufacturer Aage Damgaard to create a work through a residency on his land. Manzoni took one of these plinths and flipped it upside-down, titling it Socle du Monde (Base of the World) in which he declared the entire earth to be a work of art. Damgaard would go onto donate his collection of art in order to found a museum on the same tract of land, an act which created the Herning Museum for Contemporary Art. This museum would continue the legacy of Manzoni by running a biennial in his name. During this period, Manzoni was also still regularly creating new Achromes with varying materials and showing in group exhibitions. His work featured in the twelfth edition of the Premio Lissone as well as being included in the "informative experimental section" of the Gruppo Milano 61 artists. This was also the year in which he produced his (arguably) best-known and controversial work of art, the Merda d'Artista (Artist's Shit), in which Manzoni produced and labelled 90 small cans ostensibly filled with his own excrement. This work was first exhibited in the Albisola, Galleria Pescetto in August.
Manzoni's profile continued to grow during this period, with several notable group and solo exhibitions. In 1962 his work was featured at the Zero exhibitions in Antwerp and Bern, and he also participated in the show of Nul (Nothingness) in Amsterdam at the Stedlijk Musuem, which was organized by one of his peers, artist Henk Peters. The concept for this exhibition was looking at the "disappearing of the work of art", an idea which stemmed from a manifesto signed by Manzoni in 1960 and was published in Basle, the "Manifesto contro niente per l'esposizione internazionale di niente (Manifesto against nothing for the international exposition of nothing)". Piero Manzoni passed away suddenly in his studio on the 6th February 1963 of a heart attack, on the same day an exhibition of his Achrome paintings was being held in Brussels. His death certificate was signed by his friend, fellow artist Ben Vautier, and declared a work of art.
The Legacy of Piero Manzoni
Whilst Manzoni may now be best known for his Merda d'Artist, he was an artist who truly embraced the avant-garde of the late 1950 and 1960s to craft his own unique brand. In his work, performance and intent were the driving forces behind his attempts to change the world. His work serves as a precursor to contemporary art movements such as Body Art, Performance Art and Conceptual Art. He was also cited as a key influence on the Italian artistic movement Arte Povera of the late 1960s and 1970s, where Italian artists embraced the use of 'poor' materials Manzoni pioneered. It has been suggested by artists involved in the Arte Povera movement that it is continuation of an artistic project that began with Manzoni.
His Body Art works, most specifically Merda d'Artist also have ties with the notion of the abject, a focus on the lived reality of the body to create works which threatened the distinction between subject and object (causing a dissonance in the viewer's perception). Recognizing the subjectiveness of a dead body, for example, causes the viewer to realize their own potential 'objectness'. Abjection as a theory applied to artistic practice came into prominence through psychoanalyst Julia Kristeva's book Pouvoirs de l'horreur. Essai sur l'abjection (1980) and was later connected explicitly to artistic work like Manzoni's.
Manzoni's poignant and humorous interventions into the art market of Italy after the Second World War stood out in their deep commitment to the questioning of what art is and could be through an almost prankish or subversively impolite quality. The ripples of this practice can be seen in the work of artists as diverse as Gavin Turk, Tracey Emin and Gilbert & George, who similarly combine humor with their conceptual endeavours.
The Piero Manzoni Foundation, which manages the artist's estate, has in the late 2010s become embroiled in several litigations and arguments over the authenticity of works, culminating in the 2018 destruction of 32 pieces deemed forgeries by an Italian civil court. This was contrary to a criminal court judgement on the same case. This controversy has been tied to accusations that the foundation interferes in the authentication process of Manzoni works in order to inflate the value of its own holdings, a perhaps ironic consequence of a practice that attempted to subvert the newly marketised art world in the post-war period.