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The Art Story Homepage Artists Piero Manzoni
Piero Manzoni Photo

Piero Manzoni

Italian Painter, Sculptor, Conceptual and Performance Artist

Movements and Styles: Performance Art, Body Art, Arte Povera

Born: July 13, 1933 - Soncino, Italy

Died: February 6, 1963 - Milan, Italy

Piero Manzoni Timeline

"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?"

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.

Key Ideas

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

Important Art by Piero Manzoni Important Art and Analysis

The below artworks are the most important by Piero Manzoni - that both overview the major creative periods, and highlight the greatest achievements by the artist.

Achrome (1957-58)
Artwork Images Google images

Achrome (1957-58)

Artwork description & Analysis: 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

Lines (1959)
Artwork Images Google images

Lines (1959)

Artwork description & Analysis: 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

The Consumption of Dynamic Art by the Art-Devouring Public (1960)
Artwork Images Google images

The Consumption of Dynamic Art by the Art-Devouring Public (1960)

Artwork description & Analysis: 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

More Piero Manzoni Artwork and Analysis:

Artist's Breath (1960) Socle Du Monde (1961) Merda d'Artist (1961)

Influences and Connections

Influences on Artist
Artists, Friends, Movements
Influenced by Artist
Artists, Friends, Movements
Piero Manzoni
Interactive chart with Piero Manzoni's main influences, and the people and ideas that the artist influenced in turn.
View Influences Chart
Show influences

Artists

Germano Celant
Marcel DuchampMarcel Duchamp
Alberto BurriAlberto Burri
Robert RauschenbergRobert Rauschenberg

Personal Contacts

Yves KleinYves Klein
Lucio FontanaLucio Fontana
Ben VautierBen Vautier
Enrico Castellani

Movements

Conceptual ArtConceptual Art
Performance ArtPerformance Art
Monochrome PaintingMonochrome Painting
Influences on Artist
Influences on Artist
Piero Manzoni
Piero Manzoni
Years Worked: 1956 - 1963
Influenced by Artist
Influenced by Artist

Artists

Andy WarholAndy Warhol
Sol LeWittSol LeWitt
Gilbert and GeorgeGilbert and George
Rebecca HornRebecca Horn
Gavin TurkGavin Turk

Personal Contacts

Lucio FontanaLucio Fontana
Henk Peters
Yves KleinYves Klein

Movements

Conceptual ArtConceptual Art
Performance ArtPerformance Art
Avant-Garde Art
Body ArtBody Art

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Cite this page

Content compiled and written by Marley Treloar

Edited and revised, with Synopsis and Key Ideas added by Lewis Church

" Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Marley Treloar
Edited and revised, with Synopsis and Key Ideas added by Lewis Church
Available from:
First published on 10 Jun 2019. Updated and modified regularly. Information
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