Manzoni: Azimut, Gagosian Gallery, London

Had Piero Manzoni not made art out of excrement he would probably have enjoyed the status of Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns and Yves Klein. As it is, he is branded a court jester of conceptualism rather than a founding father. Nevertheless, in recent years, the auction prices of his more serious works – canvases entitled “Achromes” dipped in kaolin – have been steadily rising. Capitalising on the trend, Gagosian, which represents the Manzoni foundation, has accorded him two exhibitions in as many years.

The first, in New York in 2009, was a straightforward monograph that served to highlight his oeuvre. The current exhibition, which closes next week, at London’s Davies Street gallery is arguably much more interesting. Entitled Manzoni: Azimut, it takes as its starting point the eponymous Milan gallery and magazine over which Manzoni and his fellow artist Enrico Castellani presided from September 1959 until July 1960.

Bringing together a clutch of Italian artists who exhibited alongside Manzoni there, the show restyles the Davies Street space to resemble the original Azimut in Via Clerici. The monochrome canvases stacked one above the other and illuminated by long-limbed spotlights recreated from the original 1960s design conjure up Milan at a time when, basking in an economic
boom, it became a magnet for the avant-garde, nourishing homegrown talents from Ettore Sottsass to Lucio Fontana.

By 1955 Manzoni – who was born into a family of Cremona aristocrats – had dropped out of law school and was calling himself an artist, and at a moment when the very idea of what constituted art was up for grabs, his quixotic wit compensated for his lack of study. After a brief gestural period aligned to Italy’s Nuclear Art movement, he rejected painterly expressions of emotion as jaded narcissism and embraced the cooler visions of Fontana and Klein.

This pair, the former with his cuts, the latter with his ultramarine monochromes, was in pursuit of an art that would express infinity. Into this pseudo-scientific mix, Manzoni tossed inspiration from Rauschenberg’s seminal “White paintings” – white surfaces animated by only by light and dust particles.

Banishing colour from his repertoire, he took to dipping his canvases in kaolin, a liquid ceramic that dried into a hard, smooth crust. Sometimes he pleated the centre; at others, he left it to dry naturally or cut it up into squares. The idea was to create a repeatable pattern with as little human intervention as possible: a concrete microcosm of infinity, statements of pure existence that were also declarations of absence. His friend and collaborator Vincenzo Agnetti described this concept as: “Art-no . . . presence at the cost of psychological crisis . . . the gaining of awareness [through] low, dull work, for true freedom.”

Manzoni conceived Azimuth as an international network of artists who shared this rejection of expression. (Referring to a system of measurement used by astronomers, the name – which the magazine spelt with an “h” – implied a cosmic perspective.) In 1959, he wrote to Hans Sonnenberg, manager of the Dutch Zero group, to ask him to send photographs of his artists’ works: “I am about to do a new magazine that will be first-rate and in which I will publish painters, not because they are friends, but only because of their quality and inclination.”

It is a shame that Gagosian chose not to showcase any of the non-Italian artists, such as Heinz Mack, who gave the group its cosmopolitan flavour. However, their absence is compensated by a beautifully produced catalogue and reproductions of the both issues of the magazine. The images – mainly gnomic mid-century abstracts – lose liveliness in reproduction but the texts are a precious testament to this angry generation.

Francis Picabia denounces late Dada as “Nero’s circus”; Albino Galvano accuses contemporary artists of being “stuffed tigers” at the mercy of the market. Vincenzo Agnetti rails against “ignorance and mannerism”. In an exquisitely barbed essay, Yoshiaki Tono contrasts the vacuous emoting of modern European and Japanese art with the “fecund uterus” of white space as practised by followers of Zen.

This is a snapshot of a cultural elite baffled by the postwar paradox of economic prosperity tainted by the memory of horror. Weary of expressionist lament, they desired to exploit the first and move on from the second – without sacrificing creative integrity. Samuel Beckett in the poem “Dead End”, included in the first Azimuth, sums up a collective confusion when he writes: “You want me to go from A to B but I can’t/I can’t leave I am in a country without trace.”

The pared-down elegance of the works eloquently expresses this longing for a clean slate. Contemporary artists take note: rigorous execution will add substance to the most nebulous ideas. From Fontana’s decisive slashes, here ripping through a large black surface, to Manzoni’s crisp nest of cotton wool, from the symmetrical trio of gaping holes cut into the canvas by Dadamaino, an unjustly neglected female artist of Manzoni’s generation, to the rows of taut, tented points that literally add an extra dimension to Enrico Castellani’s surfaces, every canvas here possesses clarity and power thanks to the combination of minimal detail, monochrome colour and geometric structure.

Manzoni, like so many post-Duchampians, walked a fine line between genius and joker. His last show at Azimut in the summer of 1960 featured “sculptures” of hard-boiled eggs, stamped with his fingerprint, that he encouraged the public to eat. One is on show here, as is a tube of the canned faeces that would make him famous, but his best tease – also on display – is his “Body of Air” sculpture, a balloon that is sold in a box but is available at extra cost when inflated with the artist’s own air.

Three years after the gallery closed, Manzoni died, probably of a drink-related heart attack. As happy to play the market as practise metaphysics, would he giggle or grimace at the million-dollar sums his works are fetching today?

Until January 7,

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