Piero Manzoni was born in Italy in 1933 and died from cirrhosis of the liver at the age of 29 in 1963. In fact, he quite literally drank himself to death. Despite the shortness of his life and career, he became a leading figure in the European Pop Art movement, which is known as "Nouveau Realisme."
As a young man, he studied art for a short time at the Brera Academy, in Milan. Perhaps more important to his education, and to his eventually tragic fate, was the time that he spent at "The Giamaica", a cafe-bar in Brera, the artists' district in Milan at the time. In some respects, "The Giamaica" was the Italian counterpart of the Cedar Tavern in New York's Greenwich Village, where Pollock, de Kooning and the other Abstract Expressionists drank, argued and discussed art.
Until 1956, Manzoni worked in a rather conventional figurative style, occasionally adding imprints of objects from the real world. In 1957, influenced by the burgeoning European avant-garde and in particular, by the French artist, Yves Klein, who he met that year, Manzoni began a series of radical experiments which would continue until his death. The first of these works were paintings influenced by Klein that Manzoni called "Achromes." Manzoni had a studio not to far from "The Giamaica". That studio was a stark, white, bare room where he would immerse himself in the whiteness of cotton canvas and plaster. He would roll out pieces of canvas on the floor and then crumple and wrinkle them into thousands of white folds. These became a series of monochromatic textured white paintings that signified nothing beyond their own immediate existence. Other "Achromes" were sculptures made from white cotton, wool, fiberglass, and bread. He also produced a series of "infinite lines," drawn or painted on rolls of paper and then sealed in metal containers. That same year, Manzoni was one of a number of advanced artists involved in the publication of the "Manifesto Against Style", which called for a radically new art, designed to abandon tradition.
Beginning in 1959, he devised a series of provocative works and artistic gestures that included signing people's bodies and designating them works of art, and selling tin cans of his own excrement, claiming that the essence of art is in its own existence, no matter what the object. In this respect, he like Klein, influenced the development of Conceptual Art in the late 1960's, and Manzoni's influence can be seen on Performance Art from the 1960's until the present.
In 1959, he was one of the founders of the Azimuth gallery in Milan, as well as the magazine, "Azimuth", which proposed a new concept of art freed from all traditional restraints. Believing, as Duchamp had before him, that anything could become art, he took Duchamp's ideas several steps further by implying that the artist himself could become the work art by standing on a sculpture pedestal, and that other people, signed and dated by the artist could become art, with or without the pedestal. He also thought that the breath of the artist could be considered art, and that the earth itself was a work of art. Moreover, he produced art that was designed to be consumed by the art public. These were eggs, marked with the artist's thumbprint and displayed in wooden boxes, which were handed out to be eaten by spectators at his exhibitions.
Needless to say, his most notorious work was a series of 90 cans of his own excrement, called "Artist's Shit", done in 1961, in an act of defiant mockery of the art world, other artists, and art critics, who failed to understand or appreciate his work. Each 30-gram can is numbered, signed, dated and labeled with "Artist's Shit", "naturally preserved" and each was offered for sale for its weight in gold.
Manzoni's last work of art is called "Base of the World." It is a large block, resembling a large sculpture base, on which is inscribed upside down in Italian, "The base of the world." This work from 1961, is installed in Herning Park in Denmark. Even as he approached his inevitable death from alcoholism, Manzoni continued to express his believe that the world was indeed a work of art, and as a parting gesture, made a sculpture base for it, no doubt to validate it as a work of genuine art for the future.