"when a painting is finished: a surface of infinite possibilities is now reduced to a sort of recipient into which unnatural colors, artificial significances have been forced and compressed. And why, instead, should we not empty this recipient? Why not liberate this surface? Why not attempt to discover the limitless significance of a total space, of a pure and absolute light?" --Piero Manzoni
"The advent of new conditions and the posing of new problems calls for new methods, new measures and new solutions.We cannot leave the ground by running or jumping, we need wings. Small changes are not enough; the transformation must be total" --Piero Manzoni
At nearly five feet across, this magnificent painting is one of Piero Manzoni's largest horizontal Achrome canvases. Painted in 1958, the myriad of folds and ridges that populate its central portion speaks to Manzoni's belief that painting should not be an expression of the artist's soul, instead it should be "an area of liberty" in which the canvas is released from the constrictive shackles of chromatic and figurative representation (P. Manzoni, quoted in G. Celant, Piero Manzoni Catalogo Generale, Milan, 2004, p. LIII). This ground-breaking canvas was painted in direct contrast to the prevailing emotional outpouring of the Abstract Expressionists, whose dramatic works were imbued with every ounce of angst and inner turmoil that their lives threw at them. By contrast, the purity of Manzoni's Achromes belonged to an entirely new genre of conceptual art, one in which existential themes were brought to the fore and which acted as a precursor to two of the most exhilarating genres of the late twentieth century art historical canon--Arte Povera, Zero and Minimalism.
This particular Achrome is distinguished by both the density and complexity of the ripples and pleats that occupy the central band of the canvas. These undulating ridges rise and fall across the surface, each initially formed by the artist's hand, yet ultimately taking their own form as they are left to dry and take shape through this self-sufficient organic process. In this example the compact bands bow gracefully outwards, an effect enhanced by the flatter planes that comprise the upper and lower portions of the work. Although initially these sections appear to be bereft of detail, closer inspection shows the surface to be alive with the evidence of their own creation. Each of the folds harbors a variety of textures, where areas of bare cloth coexist next to pools of kaolin that are concealed deep in the crevices of the undulating fabric. This rich variety of textures also extends to the upper and lower bands of canvas, whose surface also bears witness to the vagaries of nature, as the kaolin dried leaving the remnants of bubbles and drips; memories of the medium in its liquid form.
To create this complex surface structure, the artist would steep raw canvas in a chalky kaolin solution which was then allowed to dry, allowing each furrow to find its own form as the prevailing atmospheric conditions permitted. Although initially Manzoni allowed his early Achromes to determine their own structure, beginning in 1958, with mature examples such as the present lot, he began to execute his paintings by pleating the impregnated canvas to produce a richer, more pronounced surface. The resulting paintings are distinguished by this dramatic and innovative nature of their surface texture.
Once he had decided to remove all chromatic and figurative references, Manzoni ensured that the canvas became an object in its own right, recognizing the individuality of the canvas and the material that covers the surface as integral to the ethos of the work. "We absolutely cannot consider a painting to be a space in which we project our own mental sets," the artist once said, "but rather as our area of liberty, where we can go in search of our first images. Images that are as absolute as possible, which cannot be valued for what they recall, explain, express, but only insomuch as they are: being" (P. Manzoni, quoted in G. Celant, ibid..).
Manzoni developed his Achromes during a period in post-war Europe when a small group of artists were looking to re-write the rules of artistic expression. Together with Lucio Fontana and Alberto Burri, Manzoni sought to break free from the conventions of the past, "I cannot seem to understand those painters who, though they claim to be interested in modern problems, still even now place themselves in front of the canvas as if it were a surface to be filled with colors and shapes, in keeping with the more or less laudable taste, more or less in tune," Manzoni lamented, "Once they have drawn or supplied a sign, they step back, look at what they have done, tilting their head to one side and gently closing one eye, then they leap forward once again, adding another sign, another color from their palette, and carry on with this form of calisthenics until they have filled up the painting, covered canvas: the painting is finished: a surface of infinite possibilities is now reduced to a sort of recipient into which unnatural colors, artificial significances have been forced and compressed. And why, instead, should we not empty this recipient? Why not liberate this surface? Why not attempt to discover the limitless significance of a total space, of a pure and absolute light? Allude, express, represent are nowadays nonexistent problems, whether we are talking about the representation of an object, a fact, an idea, a dynamic phenomenon, or not" (P. Manzoni, quoted in G. Celant, "In the Territory of Piero Manzoni," G. Celant (ed.), Piero Manzoni, exh. cat., Naples, 2007, p. 30).
Manzoni's ability to transform the soft, malleable qualities of kaolin and canvas into solid form are unmatched within the history of modern painting. In a similar manner to the Baroque master sculptors such as Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Manzoni possessed the skill of an alchemist, someone who is seemly able to transform one medium into another with such apparent effortlessness and ease. But unlike Bernini, Manzoni's creations were not about the artist constructing an object; it was more about the nature of self-determination of the material. Manzoni saw the canvas not as a surface ready to receive an image, but rather as an image itself.