“Piero Manzoni. Materials of his Time” at Hauser & Wirth New York, 22nd Street (2019), installation view, photo: Thomas Barratt, © Fondazione Piero Manzoni, Milan, (courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth)

The career of Italian artist Piero Manzoni was vanishingly brief; he had his first solo exhibition at the end of 1957, when he was 24, and died of a heart attack in his studio in 1963, five months before his thirtieth birthday.

In those handful of years, his goal was nothing less than the regeneration of art as a force in contemporary life — to jettison its past, strip it down to zero, and start over. With the aftermath of World War II as a backdrop, Manzoni propagated his ethical stance with manifestos, essays, and objects that simultaneously questioned and affirmed the necessity of their existence.

With the dual exhibitions, Piero Manzoni. Materials of His Time and Piero Manzoni. Lines, filling the second and third floors, respectively, of its West 22nd Street location, Hauser & Wirth has mounted a museum-worthy treatment of what the gallery’s website calls “Manzoni’s most significant bodies of work: his Achromes (paintings without color) and Linee (Lines) series.” The exhibition has been curated by Rosalia Pasqualino di Marineo, director of the Piero Manzoni Foundation in Milan, who also edited the handsome, two-volume catalogue.

Piero Manzoni, “Achrome” (c.1962), bread and kaolin, 12 1/4 x 12 1/4 inches, © Fondazione Piero Manzoni, Milano, photo: Bruno Bani (courtesy of the Foundation and Hauser & Wirth)

The focus on these two series skillfully circumvents Manzoni’s image as a prankster who signed the nude bodies of models, transforming them into works of art, and canned his own shit. Although there is an argument to be made about the seriousness of intent behind these gestures — especially in light of his lesser known, more wistful series of inflated balloons, Fiato d’artista (Artist’s breath, 1960) — it is wise to treat them as a distraction in order to open viewers’ minds to the dynamic range of Manzoni’s thought and prodigious output.

In her essay for the exhibition catalogue, Laura Hoptman writes:

Despite his youth and his lesser-known artistic status in Milan, a city that was just beginning to absorb the effects of postwar avant-gardism, with [the manifesto “Per una pittura organica” (“Toward an Organic Painting,” 1957)], Manzoni would declare war on the traditional notion of painting and its formal and ideological elements codified since the Renaissance.

Manzoni’s weapon in this ideological war was the Achrome, “a project which, beginning in 1957 and ending only with the artist’s death in early 1963, took the form of a series of two-dimensional works on canvas, wood, or polystyrene and a few sculptures, most of which were white.”

Piero Manzoni, “Achrome” (1961), square cotton wading and cobalt chloride, 22 1/8 x 18 5/8 inches, Herning Museum of Contemporary Art (HEART), © Fondazione Piero Manzoni, Milan, photo: Søren Krogh © Fondazione Piero Manzoni, Milano (courtesy of the Foundation and Hauser & Wirth)

Achrome, however, is a misnomer, because none of these works lack color; they are instead, for the most part, paintings without paint, materials in their unprocessed though not necessarily pure state. And their innate or subtly altered hues — the pastel blues and pinks of cobalt chloride, the lustrous silver of reflective powder on straw, the pale grays of polystyrene balls and kaolin, and the countless shades of white, from the icy brightness of glass fiber to the gamy ivory of rabbit fur — are rich and absorbing.

To elucidate the gist of Manzoni’s project, Hoptman emphasizes the influence that Roland Barthes’s Le degré zéro de l’écriture (Writing Degree Zero, 1953) exerted on postwar culture. Embodying both endpoint and renewal, Barthes’s book “introduced the notion of ‘écriture blanche’ (white writing),” which the author defined as “writing that is pure form and form alone.”

A few years later, Hoptman writes, Manzoni developed the Achrome primarily in terms of an idea — one that was “dangerous, even annihilating to all previous definitions of painting as a window, or an allegory, and a proposition for a new kind of realism for the new realities of a postwar world.”

Despite his enthusiastic production of essays and manifestos, Manzoni did not make art as a polemicist, but rather as a sensualist and a serialist. The key to his work is a quote from his manifesto, “Toward an Organic Painting,” which Hoptman uses to open her contribution to the catalogue: “The picture is the space in which we are free to reinvent over and over again the art of painting…”

Piero Manzoni, “Achrome” (c.1962), package in newspaper, 16 x 16 inches, © Fondazione Piero Manzoni, Milano (courtesy of the Foundation and Hauser & Wirth)

In the second-floor galleries at Hauser & Wirth, the Materials portion of the exhibition is divided into sections based on the elements Manzoni used for the works: raw canvas, gravel and pebbles, cotton wool, natural and synthetic fiber, polystyrene, wood, plush, brown-paper packages with red wax seals, rabbit skin, straw, and bread.

These clusters of works give the impression not of a progressive exploration of narrowly circumscribed conceits, but of a compulsive return to an established pattern, a need to do the same thing over and over again, a fixation that feels more Adolf Wölfli than Sol LeWitt, but no less compelling for its repetitiveness.

The third floor, devoted to Lines, is also divided into distinct sections, but here they are more historically specific. A square room reconstructs Manzoni’s Linee (1959), the inaugural exhibition of Azimut, a gallery in Milan, in which spotlit canisters containing rolled-up scrolls of single lines in various lengths (4.89 to 33.63 meters) sit like votives on shelves mounted on the walls, alongside a framed linear “fragment” that’s a mere 121 inches long.

“Piero Manzoni. Materials of his Time” at Hauser & Wirth New York, 22nd Street (2019), installation view, photo: Thomas Barratt, © Fondazione Piero Manzoni, Milan, (courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth)

A round enclosure houses the artist’s monumental “Linea lunga 7200 metri” (“Long line 7200 meters”), a 4.5-mile-long line that Manzoni made by pressing a squeeze bottle of black ink against the surface of a giant roll of paper as it mechanically unspooled into a take-up reel behind him. (A series of photographs documenting the process is mounted on the exterior of the enclosure.) A third room offers a rich trove of ephemera (typescripts, manifestos, invitations, catalogues) documenting Manzoni’s career, along with an illustrated biographical timeline stretching across three walls.

The power of Manzoni’s art comes not simply from his dedication to essences, but also from the founts of associations that his unvarnished directness allows to percolate, and from the paradoxes that his efforts embody: his work can be viewed as slight and Herculean, tragic and buoyant, mystical and materialist, minimal and baroque.

With his line drawings, he made seemingly endless iterations of the sine qua non of mark-making — simplicity incarnate — but his ambitions eventually led him to produce them on a superhuman scale, with one canister labeled “Linea di lunghezza infinita (“Line of endless length,” 1960). His need to “reinvent over and over again the art of painting” expressed a staunchly forward-facing optimism even as it acknowledged that the world in which he grew up had so destroyed itself that there was nothing left to build on.

His extensive use of hidden components smacks of ritual — the Eucharist enclosed within the tabernacle — and demands a quantum of faith: we are obliged to trust that there are in fact line-filled scrolls inside the canisters and shit inside the cans. (This wouldn’t apply, of course, to the “Line of endless length,” a purely conceptual, or agnostic, move.)

Piero Manzoni, “Linea di lunghezza infinita (Line of endless length)” (1960), wooden cylinder, paper label, 5 7/8 x 1 7/8 inches, © Fondazione Piero Manzoni, Milano (courtesy of the Foundation and Hauser & Wirth)

At the same time, his engagement with the real-world elements of his Materials implies both a positivism that brooks no interpretation beyond the physical properties of the object, and a kind of sacred secularism that venerates the implied animism of the everyday.

What unites these divergent strains in Manzoni’s Lines and Materials is their reliance on the artist’s hand: his work is not an exercise in the nebulous freedom of everything-is-art; something becomes an artwork only when he does something to it, whether it is putting his signature on a human body, or arranging a grid of whitened bread rolls inside a meticulously crafted shadowbox frame, or encasing a paper scroll in a tube whose label states its contents as “A LINE […] MADE BY PIERO MANZONI”

The obsessive precision with which he manipulates his objects isolates and heightens their inherent properties, edging them into a platonic realm and rendering the border between art and life at once decisive and beside the point. Surrounded by the rubble of war, Manzoni wanted to start over, and he did. Exquisitely strange and profoundly commonplace, his intense, hermetic works come down to us like fragments of heaven in a sordid world.

Piero Manzoni. Materials of His Time and Piero Manzoni. Lines continue at Hauser & Wirth (548 West 22nd Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through July 26. The exhibition is curated by Rosalia Pasqualino di Marineo, director of the Piero Manzoni Foundation in Milan.

Thomas Micchelli is an artist and writer.