Over the course of a short but memorable career, the Italian artist Piero Manzoni (1933–1963) made his mark not only as a luminary in Italy’s 1960s art vanguard, but also as an important progenitor of Conceptual art. This compact retrospective of 30 pieces from six of Manzoni’s eight years of production was the first solo exhibition of his work to be held in Latin America.
Inspired by his contemporary Yves Klein, as well as his mentor Lucio Fontana, Manzoni embarked in the late 1950s on a progression of increasingly tough stands against expressionism and sublimity in postwar painting. His declarations first took the form of the series of all-white studies in light, shade, topography, and texture that he called “Achromes,” which evolved from rucked fabric soaked in chalky kaolin to arrangements of white-painted objects like pebbles and dinner rolls to framed, unpainted (although still white) hunks of man-made materials like fiberglass and Styrofoam.
At the same time, beginning in the early 1960s, Manzoni began to make proto-Conceptual artworks. The best known of these, Merda d’Artista (Artist’s Shit, 1961), was represented here by four numbered cans from a series of 90, each purporting to contain 30 grams of Manzoni’s excrement. The artist’s mischief is compounded by the fact that the cans have recently sold for over $100,000 each, with the suggestion made a few years ago by one of Manzoni’s contemporaries that the tins contain only a plaster mixture doing nothing to diminish their value. Manzoni would surely have enjoyed watching the tins’ crystallization as fetishized objets d’art.
Less successful, at least in terms of this exhibition, was the work Magic Base – Living Sculpture (1961), a simple wooden pedestal for people to climb up on and thus be instantly transformed into works of art. At MAM, in order to protect the historic artwork, the pedestal was off limits to visitors, denying them the chance to shine as Manzoni intended.
A version of this story originally appeared in the September 2015 issue of ARTnews on page 93.