Magazine article Artforum International

Material Value: Jaleh Mansoor on Piero Manzoni at Gagosian

Magazine article Artforum International

Material Value: Jaleh Mansoor on Piero Manzoni at Gagosian

Article excerpt

PIERO MANZONI HAS APPEARED in only a small handful of shows in the US over the past two decades, among them the grand "Italian Metamorphosis, 1943-1968" at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York in 1994, curated by Germano Celant, and "Minimalia: An Italian Vision in 20th Century Art" at P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center in 1999, curated by Achille Bonito Oliva. Both positioned Manzoni's work as an enigmatic last gasp of modernist painting, and just one example among many of a proliferation of artistic brilliance and productivity in Italy in the 1950s and '60s. Yet "Piero Manzoni: A Retrospective," recently on view at the Chelsea branch of the Gagosian Gallery franchise, was a monographic show of such scale that it replaced previous endgames with inaugurations. Also curated by Celant--who, with few exceptions, has monopolized the discourse on Manzoni for four decades--the exhibition presented the artist's work beyond the terms of painting, stressing his conceptually difficult objects, highlighted in vitrines or placed bluntly on the floor, and emphasizing their incursion into the viewer's space.

Much of the show's effervescence stemmed from the productive tension between Celant and Gagosian's monographic agenda, with its drive to glorify a singular figure and enforce his authorial predominance, and Manzoni's own project, which effaces authorship by supplanting artistic intention with material contingency and individual conception with dialogue. The dissonance between such a magisterial presentation and Manzoni's own dismantling of any such bloated frameworks paradoxically made for the best way to acquaint an American audience with him--through negative dialectics. Against all odds, the exhibition achieved a sensitive reframing of the artist's oeuvre that reshuffled the old postwar art cards. It offered an alternative genealogy of Conceptual art, so often understood as the putative heir to Minimalism's rejection of painting.

In 1957, after a couple of false starts, Manzoni arrived at the neologism Achrome to describe the reduction of his work to the examination of material texture, draining it of color and mark making. That apparent reduction turned out to hold a great multiplicity of possibilities, generating dozens of works in plaster, kaolin, linen, cotton, rabbit fur, straw, synthetic fibers, and the infinite range of organic and artificial and hybrid stuff of the world. The chance to finally think through the generous plenitude of Manzoni's production--the lush, dense, and differentiated substances he explored in a very short time (1957 to 1963)--was among this exhibition's strengths. For the first two of those years, the Achrome as a form of nonpainting and nonsculpture--or, rather, those mediums pushed to the point of material excess--occupied Manzoni's entire field of production.

In August 1959, however, the Achrome led to strategies that may have reflected on painting but no longer resembled it in any way. Photographs show Manzoni seated at a newspaper factory, as if at the end of an assembly line, holding a bottle of ink to a running paper feed and manufacturing an inordinately long "line" that was subsequently rolled into a cylinder. Manzoni then replaced the conventional frame with commercial containers: tubes and canisters that packaged this series of painted lines, now rendered passive and industrially produced. Likewise, Merda d'artista (Artist's Shit), 1961, offered an analysis of the dialectics of art in the frenzied economy of reconstruction Milan: Merda d'artista is precisely that which contemporary artists make, total crap whose value emerges only from the abstractions on its label, or from the artist's proper name as name brand--Manzoni's own refuse held up as aesthetic totem (in an edition of ninety).

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Gagosian's museum-quality show also generously displayed ephemera that testified to Manzoni's move from painting to an increasingly sprawling practice, including flyers for the artist's gallery, Azimut, and issues of his magazine. …

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