Piero Manzoni: trick or treat?

The Italian is notorious for his Merda d’Artista – a series of 90 cans of his own excrement. A satire on the pretensions of the art world or the final word in self-expression? In trying to decide, Alastair Smart looks at two important works

Alastair Smart

28/06/2016

If most people have heard of the Italian artist Piero Manzoni, it’s as the creator of Merda d’Artista, the series of 90 samples of his own excrement, which he canned and insisted be sold, by weight, for the equivalent price of gold.

In part this was a joke on Manzoni’s part at the idiotic pretensions of the art world – whose elite would buy and exhibit literally anything they were told was modish, even merda. There were certainly eyebrows raised among the British public, in 2002, when the Tate bought for the nation one 30g can of Manzoni’s waste, citing the work’s “seminal” impact and shelling out £22,300. An editorial in the Daily Mail newspaper called the gallery “absurdly gullible” for falling precisely into the artist’s trap, adding that it was akin to “a public library buying a book formed from stapling together an author’s toilet paper”.

Along with Carl André’s pile-of-bricks sculpture Equivalent VIII, Manzoni’s offering is perhaps the most controversial purchase in Tate history.

But there was more to Manzoni’s work than meets the eye.

He was playing with the Duchampian idea that an object – any object – can become an art work simply by fact of its being displayed in a gallery.

What’s more, he began his career in the mid-Fifties, in an art world dominated by the Abstract Expressionists, who were revered for the unreserved way they hurled paint at the canvas with maximum machismo.

Self-expression was king. And what, in his highly ironic interpretation, was Manzoni's canned excrement other than the ultimate, literal example of self-expression?

His brief career, cut short by a heart attack that killed Manzoni aged 29, was marked by many such ironies and games. One work saw him inflate several balloons, which inevitably over time went flat and the remains of which he exhibited as if the relics of a saint. (Manzoni was also perhaps suggesting the hot air and vacuous hype of contemporary art.) On another occasion, he designated people “living art works” simply by the act of his signing them, as a painter would sign his canvas.

 

For some commentators, such japery is all a bit lightweight, inconsequential and conceptual for Manzoni to deserve any more than a brief mention in the annals of art history. And to a large extent, I agree.

 

But that would be to overlook his most engaging series of work by far. Slowly but surely these pieces – and, indeed, their creator – are being afforded the acclaim they deserve.

They are his Achromes, which consist of canvases dipped in white kaolin solution and left to assume rucked, rippled and pleated form through stiffening and drying. This process was, in effect, a substitute for the act of painting.
Photo:
Piero Manzoni (Soncino, Cremona 1933 – Milano 1963)
Achrome, 1963
polystyrene, kaolin 53 x 43 cm
Intesa Sanpaolo Collection
Gallerie d’Italia – Piazza Scala, Milan


The Achromes amount to ethereal, off-white slabs, and the 1958 example from the Intesa Sanpaolo collection is a fine one. It is as much sculpture as painting, its swathe of central corrugations exquisitely articulated.

 

At first glance, the Achromes – with their undulating form – recall anything from crumpled bedsheets to the ridges of a ploughed field. But soon these associations give way to pure abstraction. The white seems to exist in a realm almost beyond our understanding – or, paraphrasing Kandinsky – seems to evoke “the nothingness that is before birth”.

 

Manzoni would later expand his Achrome repertoire through the application of other materials to his canvas – felt, pebbles, gravel, bread rolls, cotton wadding – before the process of dipping in kaolin.

 

Intesa Sanpaolo owns one of these works, too, from 1963 – comprising various polystyrene balls. Both this and the 1958 Achrome form part of the bank’s stellar collection of modern and contemporary Italian art and also feature in 101/900, a new publication cataloguing 101 of Intesa Sanpaolo’s best works from the 20th century.

 

The Achromes reveal Manzoni as one of the most daring painters of recent decades. Alongside his compatriots Alberto Burri (who blow-torched his canvases with fire) and Lucio Fontana (who slashed his with knives), he revolutionised the medium, insisting painters should quit standing in front of the canvas “as though it were a surface to be covered with colours and forms”. Nothing short of tabula rasa was what he sought.

 

Even in such a short career, Manzoni's impact on art was major. And the market, belatedly, is now catching up with this fact.

An Achrome regularly fetches millions of pounds at auction, the record being £12.6m at Sotheby’s in 2014.

 

In part this is a response to the recent rise in demand and prices for post-War Italian art generally, which seems to have steepled as collectors (particularly in the US) realise this is a critically important, but commercially untapped market; and appreciate that not all pioneering work from the era was made in New York.

 

More specifically, perhaps there’s a growing awareness of just how influential an artist Manzoni was: for instance, in his paving the way for Performance art; for Conceptual art (his cans of Merda were as much ideas as objects, in that we never see the fetid contents within the can but have to imagine them). Through his use of humble, everyday materials, he heralded the Minimalism and Arte Povera movements of the late Sixties, too.

Above and beyond influence, however, Manzoni – for all his pranks and ostensible disdain for traditional beauty in painting – ended up, with his Achromes, creating some of the most beautiful paintings in living memory.

 

 

Cover Photo:
Piero Manzoni
(Soncino, Cremona 1933 – Milan 1963)
Achrome, 1958
kaolin and creased canvas, 70×100
Intesa Sanpaolo Collection
Gallerie d’Italia – Piazza Scala, Milan

Related stories.