In his brief but intense life as an artist, Piero Manzoni embraced and then cast off traditional aspects of visual art. Along with other post-war European artists, he experimented with all manner of unconventional materials and actions and his work is considered a forerunner of Conceptual art.
In Piero Manzoni: Materials of His Time, some 70 of his pieces, mostly from the early ‘60s, are on view at Hauser & Wirth through April 7. Organized by Rosalia Pasqualino di Marineo, director of the Piero Manzoni Foundation in Milan, it is the first show of his work here since 1995 when his line drawings were shown at Moca.
Most of the works are white or whitish. Manzoni preferred his term for them: Achromes, meaning without color. Each is created from simple materials — balls of cotton, sheets of white fur, rectangles of cotton wadding. It may sound simple or even simplistic but there is an obsessional potency at work. They tend to be modest in scale, rarely larger than a square yard. You are pulled in to look more closely at sewn cloth, stacked layers of straw, even bread rolls covered in white kaolin, a thin white clay.
Color might express itself in some of the materials such as cobalt chloride salt but not as a painting.
An Italian count, born in 1933, Manzoni studied law and philosophy in Milan before dedicating himself to art. At age 23, he first showed his self-taught paintings in the family’s castle in Sorcino. He was painting gestural abstractions until he saw an exhibition of French artist Yves Klein’s 11 identical blue canvases in Milan in 1957.
Subsequently, Manzoni dedicated himself to art as a mental, metaphysical or trickster act as it was originally conceived in the early 20th century by Dadaist Marcel Duchamp.
Between 1959 and 1963, he completed some 800 of these Achromes. Seeing such a large group of them together is a demonstration of his daunting exploration of his idea and to the universe of whiteness to be found in his humble materials. Curiously, in the midst of creating these Achromes, he made what is probably his most notorious work of art: Artist’s Shit, 1961. An edition of 90 cans purported to contain the artist’s own feces. Each was signed and numbered by the artist and to be sold for its equivalent weight in gold. (At auction, they have sold for a little more than $200,000.)
Manzoni was at the height of this output when he died of an unexpected heart attack at the age of 29. By then, he had demonstrated such complete commitment that fellow artist Ben Vautrier signed his death certificate as a work of art.
Manzoni remarked on ideas for possible future works in a 1961 letter to a friend. In the upstairs gallery are two posthumous recreations made for this exhibition: a room lined in white fur, another room of changing color. Amusing novelties, we will never know whether Manzoni would have approved of them.
Otherwise, this focused selection of Manzoni’s Achromes is a revelatory show worthy of any museum.