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b. 1933, Soncino, Italy; d. 1963, Milan
Piero Manzoni was born Count Meroni Manzoni di Chiosca e Poggiolo on July 13, 1933, in Soncino, Italy. Self-taught, he started his artistic career as a painter, making gestural, abstract works. In the 1950s, he began to question traditional methods of art making and explored the ties among artistic practice, the collective unconscious, and so-called primal, universal imagery through manifestos: one coproduced with Ettore Sordini, Camillo Corvi-Morra, and Giuseppe Zecca (1956) and one produced independently (1957). Both were titled "Per la scoperta di una zona di immagini" (For the discovery of a zone of images). Shortly afterward and influenced by his visit to Yves Klein's exhibition at the Galleria Apollinaire, Milan, Proposte monochrome, epoca blu (Monochrome propositions, blue period, 1957)—a display of 11 virtually identical monochrome blue paintings—he began the Achrome series (1957–63). In direct response to Klein's paintings, Manzoni experimented with a series of works in varying materials, all lacking color. He began with a series of gesso-coated canvases, moving on to canvas covered in kaolin, a form of white clay, which he then cut or folded. Later, he produced Achromes of other colorless materials: white cotton wool, fiberglass, rabbit skin, and bread, even experimenting with phosphorescent paint so that the "colors" would change over time.
Manzoni began to interrogate the nature of the art object itself with a series of proto-Conceptual works. In 1958, he created the first version of Line 1000 Meters Long, a metal drum containing a roll of paper with a precisely measured ink line along its length. In the same year, he began to produce do-it-yourself pneumatic sculptures, comprising a balloon and tripod packed in a wooden case; the buyer could either inflate the balloon on one's own or have Manzoni perform the task for a fee. From 1959 to 1960, Manzoni and artist Enrico Castellani published the only two issues of their journal, Azimuth. In 1961 at the Galleria La Tartaruga, Rome, Manzoni began signing his name on models as well as gallery visitors, issuing them with a stamped certificate and declaring this body of work Sculture viventi (living sculptures); that same year he created Merda d'artista, an edition of 90 30-gram cans, ostensibly containing the artist's excrement, each valued at the market price of gold. His works were often featured at Galleria Azimut, the gallery that he founded with Castellani and was open from 1959 to 1960. For the final exhibition, Manzoni distributed hard-boiled eggs marked with his thumbprint to the audience (Consumption of Art by the Art-Devouring Public, 1960), ironically positioning art in an ecclesiastical context of consumption and resurrection. He spent the final years of his life continuing to produce Achromes, experimenting with new materials including chemically altered cotton (which changed color with fluctuations in temperature), kaolin-covered dinner rolls, rocks, and wastepaper. Manzoni died of heart attack in his studio on February 6, 1963, in Milan.
His work has been the subject of numerous exhibitions at institutions including the Stedelijk Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven, Netherlands (1969); Kunstverein Hannover, West Germany (1970); Contemporary Arts Museum Houston (1972); Musée d'art moderne de la Ville de Paris (1991); Castello di Rivoli, Museo d'arte contemporanea, Italy (1992); Serpentine Gallery, London (1998); Museo d'arte contemporanea Donnaregina, Naples (2007); and Gagosian Gallery, New York (2009).