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Piero Manzoni Photo

Piero Manzoni

Italian Painter, Sculptor, Conceptual and Performance Artist

Born: July 13, 1933 - Soncino, Italy
Died: February 6, 1963 - Milan, Italy
Movements and Styles:
Performance Art
,
Body Art
,
Arte Povera
"Why not to set free these forms? Why not trying to uncover the infinite meaning of absolute space, the meaning of pure and absolute light?"
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Piero Manzoni Signature
"Paintings are and will always be magical objects, almost religious. But gods are ever-changing, and they evolve as much as society does. Every moment is a new step, a new civility that is born. The artist represents this new human condition herald. He discovers new totems and taboo whose age has the semen but not yet the consciousness."
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Piero Manzoni Signature
"I should like all artists to sell their fingerprints, or else stage competitions to see who can draw the longest line or sell their shit in tins. The fingerprint is the only sign of the personality that can be accepted: if collectors want something intimate, really personal to the artist, there's the artist's own shit, that is really his."
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Piero Manzoni Signature
"When I blow up a balloon, I am breathing my soul into an object that becomes eternal."
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Piero Manzoni Signature
"I sell an idea, an idea in a can"
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Piero Manzoni Signature
"There is nothing to say: there is only being, there is only living."
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Piero Manzoni Signature

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.

Accomplishments

  • 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.

Biography of Piero Manzoni

Detail of <i>Merda d'Artist</i> (1961)

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

1957-58

Achrome

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

1959

Lines

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 - Tate Collection

1960

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

1960

Artist's Breath

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 - Tate Collection

1961

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

Merda d'Artist (1961)
1961

Merda d'Artist

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.

In the collection of the Tate, as well as Private collectors


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Content compiled and written by Marley Treloar

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Lewis Church

"Piero Manzoni Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Marley Treloar
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Lewis Church
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First published on 10 Jun 2019. Updated and modified regularly
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