Imitation Games: Mike Bidlo and Piero Manzoni

Edition Review

  • Mike Bidlo, Not Manzoni (Impronte, 1960; Impronte pollice sinistro, 1960; Impronte pollice destro, 1960) (2015)

  • Three offset lithographs, sheet 20 x 14 inches (50.8 x 35.5 cm) each. Edition of 60. Printed by Anna-Marie Settine at the Robert Blackburn Printmaking Workshop, New York. Published by World House Editions, Middlebury, CT. Price on request.

Mike Bidlo, Not Manzoni (Impronte, 1960) (2015). Photo: Ali Eli, Camera Arts, New York.

The final line of Roland Barthes’ influential 1967 text, “The Death of the Author,” reads: “The birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author.”1 In the 1980s, appropriation artists such as Mike Bidlo purposefully conflated the roles of “reader” and “Author”—rereading the modernist canon and “rewriting” it in a contemporary sphere, while also playing the part of the original artist in the remaking of a work. A new print project by Bidlo offers a fresh opportunity, three decades on, to consider his mimicry as a reminder of the persistence of authorship and its ambiguities.

The Not Manzoni prints re-create three lithographs from Piero Manzoni’s only print portfolio, 8 Tavole di accertamento (individual prints created 1958–1960, portfolio published 1962). Manzoni, who died young in 1963, produced proto-conceptual, satirical works that wittily critiqued both the aura-laden artwork and postwar consumerism. (His most famous work is probably the edition of 90 sealed cans labeled “Artist’s Shit (Merda d’Artista),” which he priced by weight at the trading price for gold.) His portfolio included lithographic maps of Ireland and Iceland, two grids of stenciled letters (A through G), a sheet crossed by a horizontal black bar that alludes to his earlier multiple Linea (1959)2 and three reproductions of his fingerprints—left thumbprint, right thumbprint, and the prints of all ten fingers (which also appear on the portfolio cover). It is these last three images that Bidlo has chosen to re-create, copying Manzoni’s compositions—as in the originals, each of the thumbprints is enlarged to fill its page and the set of ten digits is presented in two rows of five—but using his own fingers. As indexical signs of individual identity, fingerprints are famously inimitable, thus the presence of Bidlo’s declares, along with the title, “not Manzoni.”

Manzoni, like Bidlo, challenged the ways in which we articulate the value of art objects. In a 1960 performance Consumazione dell’arte dinamica del pubblico divorare l’arte (The consumption of dynamic art by the art-devouring public), Manzoni offered the audience hard-boiled eggs marked with his thumbprint (he frequently used fingerprints as a kind of forensic “signature”), allowing the public to digest and eliminate objects “consecrated by the ‘personality’ of the artist: direct communion.”3 Both a parody of art consumption and a pun on the Eucharist, Manzoni’s satire enlisted the spectator, body and soul. Similarly, Manzoni’s Carta d’autenticita performance of 1961-62 were signed certificates of authenticity that declared the owners to be “Living Sculptures”; colored stamps designated different categories—a red stamp made someone a work of art until death; yellow certified a particular, designated body part; green meant the body part was only a work of art in a particular position (an arm held in the air, for instance).

Mike Bidlo, Not Manzoni (Impronte pollice destro, 1960) (2015). Photo: Ali Eli, Camera Arts, New York.

Bidlo is best known for his painted replicas of works Picasso, Matisse, Warhol, Pollock and other modern masters, works he titles with “not” before the original artist’s name to forestall any notion of forgery and emphasize his role as re-creator. His  appropriations have also extended to performances: in his 1982 show at P.S.1 in 1982, Bidlo hung his not-Pollock paintings in a replica of the townhouse belonging to Peggy Guggenheim where the originals were first shown; he further hired an actor to reenact Pollock’s infamous urination into Guggenheim’s fireplace. In 1986 he re-created Yves Klein’s famous performative painting Anthropometries (1960), and when he first met Nam June Paik, he cut off the artist’s tie, as Paik had once done to John Cage.4 At the IFPDA print fair in November, Bidlo will reenact Manzoni’s Carta d’autenticita, enabling visitors to become works of art (or reproductions, depending on how you think about it).

Bidlo’s appropriation practice was in itself appropriated to an extent, following on the heels of artists such as Elaine Sturtevant, who had been manually remaking the works of her peers (Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol, Frank Stella, etc.) since the mid-’60s, and Sherrie Levine, who began rephotographing the photographs of Walker Evans at the tail end of the ’70s. Like Levine, Bidlo works from reproductions, the means through which the modernist canon has been broadcast and maintained, but his reliance on hand facture produces a certain slippage between the appearance of the original and that of the re-creation.

The title of Manzoni’s portfolio translates as “tables of assessment” or “tables of verification”: and each print—the maps, the letters, the fingerprints—can be seen as a tool of comparative analysis in relation to an absent “original” subject (land, language, person). But each is also clearly a work of art, presented in a portfolio as a limited edition, the product of numerous aesthetic and conceptual decisions. The fingerprints are engaging to the eye and in their allusion to detective intrigue; they are also curiously ambiguous, suggesting the idea of individual identity without being a recognizable portrayal of an individual. Putting the Bidlo and Manzoni fingerprints side by side, one can pick out numerous differences between them, but in isolation each registers as an anonymous, universal sign.

Mike Bidlo, Not Manzoni (Impronte pollice sinistro, 1960) (2015). Photo: Ali Eli, Camera Arts, New York.

In recreating the 1960 lithographs Bidlo had a choice: he could replicate Manzoni’s product (drawing or otherwise imitating the friction ridge patterns of Manzoni’s fingers to make something that looked nearly identical) or he could replicate Manzoni’s process (substituting his own friction ridges). The continuation of the Manzoni-instigated play with creative identity logically required him to use his own fingers, but the process of re-creation is necessarily different from that of creation: in addition to the steps that both artists went through—inking and stamping their fingers, enlarging the results, making templates and running them through the press—Bidlo had to consider questions of matching. He studied the density of ink in the 1960 lithographs and the nature of paper, the shape of the fingerprints (his own fingers were larger and longer than Manzoni’s) and their positions on the page.

In Forgery, Replica, Fiction, historian Christopher S. Wood says, “to represent the copy is to reassert the distinction between copy and original.”5 Authorship is an inescapable element in a work of modern art, even when that work imitates other art. Bidlo’s studied matching of his fingerprints to Manzoni’s, with its inevitably unmatched result, is a reminder that, as Wood writes, “‘Art’ still names the protected realm where culture stages the bitter contest between original and copy, but always with the same outcome.”6

  1. Roland Barthes, “The Death of the Author,” in Image-Music-Text, trans. Stephen Heath (New York: Hill & Wang, 1978), 148. []
  2. Linea is the collective title for a group of Manzoni’s early experimental works, which consisted of inked lines on long strips of paper rolled up and sealed in cardboard tubes, with the length of each line written on a label on the outside of the tube, as well as on the back of each strip. Manzoni made at least 50 of these works in 1959, varying in length from 0.78 meters to 33.63 meters, plus three longer versions in 1959 and 1961. In 1960 he declared that the tubes should remain unopened, de-aestheticizing and de-emphasizing the work itself, which remains unseen. The appearance of the lines themselves is left to the viewer’s imagination. []
  3. Manzoni, in a letter to Shozo Yamazaki, 22 July 1960, quoted in Deborah Schultz, Marcel Broodthaers: Strategy and Dialogue (Switzerland: Peter Lang International Academic Publishers, 2007), 130. []
  4. From an interview with Mike Bidlo by Anney Bonney, Bomb 45 (Fall 1993). []
  5. Christopher S. Wood, Forgery, Replica, Fiction: Temporalities of German Renaissance Art (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008), 18. []
  6. Ibid. []