Exhibitions: A really duff concept

The revamped Serpentine is truly lovely. But that can't be said for the work on show there, by the piffling Piero Manzoni
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The Independent Culture
IT'S VERY PLEASANT to have the Serpentine Gallery back again, and all lovers of art exhibitions will congratulate its director, Julia Peyton-Jones, on a successful refurbishment. From the outside, little has changed. The building is still the familiar 1934 tea pavilion, modestly and even decorously placed on the eastern side of Kensington Gardens. Inside, though, the actual exhibition galleries have been redesigned to much advantage. All the facilities have been upgraded. There's a new education room, entrance hall and information desk. The bookshop looks well-stocked. The security system has also been modernised. This is important, for it means that the Serpentine can now mount exhibitions of the most precious works of art.

The piffling efforts by Piero Manzoni do not fall into such a category, but more of the would-be enfant terrible in a moment. My initial impression of the new Serpentine was that it's now more of a sculptors' gallery than it used to be. In the old days paintings usually took precedence, even in the awkward central room. That particular gallery was always difficult to hang. It has been transformed. Paintings - except large ones - could look lovely in that space, but this critic's immediate urge was to find sculpture. Here's another attraction of the revivified Serpentine. It makes one wish to use it, to test things out. I haven't so much wished to organise a new exhibition for ages, and envy the people who will install the next Serpentine shows (by Cornelia Parker, Chris Ofili and Louise Bourgeois). I also predict a successful education programme, for the new room for such activities feels in close touch with the exhibition spaces.

How awful Manzoni would have looked in the old Serpentine! The new galleries enhance his work. But only momentarily, for one soon realises how slender his talent was. His small creative instinct petered out in a few gestures of non-art. And, as we know, people who make anti-art gestures are always those who were not very good at art in the first place. Peyton-Jones and her formidable publicity machine say that Manzoni "transformed the very nature of art". They think he inspired conceptualism. This is nonsense.

Most of the works at the Serpentine are paintings or sculptures. When they were made, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, they looked a little unusual. None the less, they were traditional objects in time-honoured genres: two-dimensional paintings that hung on the wall, three-dimensional sculptures that were placed on the floor or on a plinth. In other words, he was not a conceptual artist at all.

I suppose the Merda d'artista, tin cans of the artist's own shit, can count as a conceptual piece; but in truth the interest of these cans is trivial. Peyton-Jones is confident that Manzoni's excrement "continues to shock" 35 years after his death. Another view is that this merda d'artista would only shock people with very banal or trivial minds. This is not the case with most gallery-goers, whom I know to be an open-minded section of the public (and not easily fooled). Maybe Peyton-Jones has a different attitude to her visitors.

Manzoni's most satisfactory pieces are also his most conventional. At the end of the 1950s, pretty much at the beginning of his short public career, he began making paintings he called "achromes". They are white all over and the paint is actually kaolin - porcelain earth, rather nice stuff. The Serpentine has rather a large selection of these paintings. Two or three of them are likeable, if only for nostalgic reasons. For they take us back to the amateur vanguardism of the years after the war, when Manzoni (born 1933) was an art student. The "achromes" are not original. Their roughness derives in large part from a more senior Italian artist, Alberto Burri, who was making close-toned sackcloth paintings in the early 1950s. By the time Manzoni arrived on the scene, monochrome paintings were not unusual, both in Europe and in America. Manzoni kept an eye on American art, particularly of the Jasper Johns variety, but I guess his most immediate influence was that of the blue monochromist Yves Klein.

Johns's enigmatic character may lie behind Manzoni's Egg with Thumbprint No 37, though its derivation doesn't much matter. What does matter is the Serpentine's untruthful assertion that Manzoni was a major artist, and that conceptual art has a respectable lineage. We are asked to connect his example with the recent work by students from Goldsmith's College and their controversial appearance last year at the Royal Academy's "Sensation" exhibition. We now have "a deeper sense of the interconnectedness of conceptual art and the world of popular culture and mass media," says the catalogue. Writing as a person who looks at a lot of art and reports on it through the media, I suggest that this attitude is a load of publicists' merda.

Serpentine, W2 (0171 402 6075), to 26 Apr.