Germano Celant, ‘Manzoni and His Times’ in: Exh. Cat., New York, Gagosian Gallery, Piero Manzoni A Retrospective, 2009, p. 30.
Created by Piero Manzoni in 1961-62, two mysterious parcels, one rounded in form the other box-like and hard-edged, form a compelling and rare example of the artist’s ground-breaking artistic legacy. Belonging to Manzoni’s all-encompassing and seminal Achrome project, these anonymous and mysterious parcels pin-point the most advanced and conceptual stage of the artist’s career. Manzoni's catalogue raisonné identifies thirty-five extant ‘parcel works’ by the artist, each one differing slightly to the next owing to the artist's choice of wrapping paper, the length of the string, and number of wax seals adorning their forms; however, conceived in pairs, there are but a handful still remaining together. Indeed, where each half of a pair is considered an individual work in and of itself, many pairs have been broken up over time. The present examples’ survival as a complete pair therefore is extremely rare. Consistently exhibited together throughout their lifetime – from the landmark 1971 retrospective at the National Gallery in Rome which was the first major showing of Manzoni’s work in the capital; the 1974 Tate Gallery exhibition; through to museum surveys in Paris, Herning, Madrid and Paris during the 1990s – the importance of these works is beyond reproach.
Initially, Manzoni’s Achrome works were colourless canvases devoid of political, existential or personal signification. His practice explored the concept of the ‘infinite’ as propounded by Manzoni’s Milanese predecessor Lucio Fontana, who had already made a profound impact on European art history with his breakthrough, three-dimensional artworks. Akin to Fontana, Manzoni’s achromatic paintings shied away from both literal and figurative representation; however, in 1959 Manzoni expanded remit of his Achrome beyond the limits of kaolin-soaked canvases to embrace a plethora of different mediums from straw and polystyrene, to bread rolls and pebbles. This move signalled a marriage between post-war abstraction and early conceptual art. As Jon Thompson elucidated, “The Achrome are material tautologies; they refer only to themselves as reiterations of their own composition” (Jon Thompson, 'Piero Manzoni: Out of Time' in: Exh. Cat., London, Serpentine Gallery, Piero Manzoni, 1998, p. 43). It therefore made logical sense for Manzoni to extend his inquiry beyond the traditional support of canvas and towards ever more conceptual and readymade artistic vessels. The packages thus present the furthest-most limits of this highly conceptual impetus. By attaching an object to a plain white canvas, Manzoni blurs the lines between sculpture and painting. This ostensibly simple artistic act takes Fontana’s theory one step further towards a metaphysical understanding of space. This painting is thus not only transformed into an art object but also introduces an object into the realm of art. Echoing the artistic philosophy of his forefather Marcel Duchamp, and his notions of the ready-made, Manzoni stated that “art history is not the history of ‘painters’, but rather of discoveries and innovators” (Piero Manzoni cited in: Exh. Cat., London, Gagosian Gallery, Manzoni Azimut, 2011, p. 131).
The packages fully confront the mystification of art and its maker. The empty white canvas offers up an ordinary wrapped parcel, which in itself is purely self-referential. Yet this suspended, protruding object tantalises us with the promise of what one might find inside, playing on the suspense associated with the arrival of the post or the opening of a present. In the case of the two works in question, this suspense is double. If the packages are empty we might feel cheated upon opening them; if they contain an object, we would have to decide whether the act of solving the packages’ inherent mystery by revealing its cargo is worth more to us than the artwork itself. Indeed, the enigma cannot be solved without destroying the artwork. The internal dialogue of these works form an ironic critique of the artist’s Milanese context since, following the economic boom of the late 1950s in Italy, consumer consumption had soared. As products that cannot be consumed therefore, these idiosyncratic artworks provide a wry look at contemporary consumer culture in the post-war era.
Manzoni took his highly conceptual and mischievous thought process to its logic conclusion with the jocular Merda d’artista series, created during the same year as the present works. Of these pieces he wrote, “If collectors want something intimate, something truly personal from the artist, here is the artist's shit, something truly his” (Piero Manzoni cited in: Exh. Cat., New York, Piero Manzoni: A Retrospective, 2009, p. 247). Where Manzoni had expunged the presence of the author in his white canvases, these later three-dimensional Achrome works re-establish the artist’s presence. One step removed from the iconoclastic Merda d’artista, these two parcels constitute a veritable gift from Manzoni to the history of art.
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