Piero Manzoni (1933-1963)
Piero Manzoni (1933-1963)


Piero Manzoni (1933-1963)
kaolin on canvas
23 5/8 x 31½in. (60 x 80cm.)
Executed in 1958-59
Reale Collection, Milan.
Galleria Blu, Milan.
Acquired from the above by the present owner circa 1990.
G. Celant, Piero Manzoni Catalogo generale, Milan 1975, no. 158cg (illustrated, p. 163).
F. Battino, L'impronta blu. 1957-1987, Milan 1987, no. 4 (illustrated, p. 73).
F. Battino & L. Palazzoli, Piero Manzoni Catalogue raisonné, Milan 1991, no. 347 (illustrated, p. 274).
G. Celant, Piero Manzoni Catalogo generale, vol. II, Milan 2004, no. 205 (illustrated, p. 424).

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'The question as far as I'm concerned is that of rendering a surface completely white (integrally colourless and neutral) far beyond any pictorial phenomenon or any intervention extraneous to the value of the surface. A white that is not a polar landscape, not a material in evolution or a beautiful material, not a sensation or a symbol or anything else: just a white surface that is simply a white surface and nothing else (a colourless surface that is just a colourless surface). Better than that: a surface that simply is to be (to be complete and pure).'

(Manzoni, quoted in 'Free Dimension', in Azimuth, no. 2, Milan, 1960).

Achrome, executed in 1958-1959, is a majestic and early example of Piero Manzoni's most celebrated series of works. Comparatively large, the work offers an unusual wealth of dense and undulating folds which traverse the full length of the canvas, drawing attention to the properties of its surface and of its making. Created through the marriage of soaked kaolin and canvas, Manzoni allowed the work to develop autonomously; the depersonalisation of the process and the properties of the medium adding a raw internal energy to the work. Its folds, the products of a random drying process, radiate a unique light across the body of the canvas, creating deep shadows in each seam. Despite the artist's concerted efforts to avoid association, figuration and the aesthetic, these pleats of canvas recall the works of seventeenth century master painters such as Van Dyke and Vermeer, who simulated the richness of drapery onto a two dimensional canvas. Similarly, the sculptures of the Baroque master Gian Lorenzo Bernini resonate with the Achrome. His works such as the Ecstasy of Saint Theresa or the statue of Saint Longinus in St Peter's, Rome, play with the illusion of drapery, rendering the marble tactile and sumptuous in texture. For Manzoni, the pleats generated by the Achrome are not simulated but tangible; the product of a chance artistic process, imbued with unmediated and unconscious beauty. This move beyond painting created a fundamental impact on the artistic milieu of the 1950s.

Along with his contemporaries Lucio Fontana and Yves Klein, Manzoni's artistic investigations into the nature of space were pioneering; a project that paralleled the geopolitical realities of the Cold War space race and gave birth to a whole new artistic language. Following an exhibition Manzoni shared with Fontana in 1958, he confidently asserted: 'I am a kind of symbol of the union of the three initiators of the three avant-garde movements in Milan' (Manzoni 1958, quoted in M. Gale & R. Miracco (ed.), Beyond Painting: Burri, Fontana, Manzoni Milan 2005, p. 108). They became inspirations to subsequent generations of artists, including those united under Conceptualism, Minimalism and Arte Povera. Achrome (1958-1959) marks the most fertile period of Manzoni's short career, providing one of the purest examples of his concept. Works from this period constitute a valuable part of museum collections worldwide including Centre Georges Pompidou Paris, Moderna Museet, Stockholm and Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam. Having been owned by a distinguished private collection, this is the first time that this exceptional work has been on public view for more than twenty years.

Manzoni's practice developed in the 1950s in dialogue with the prevailing post-war movements of the time such as Art Informel Being considerably younger than the associated artists he moved rapidly through the Informel mode of practice, railing against what he perceived as a misguided focus on artistic and expressive style. Manzoni was attempting by contrast to achieve a new and pure visual language, removed from the artist's interpretive code. As he once said of his work: 'Why not liberate this surface? Why not attempt to discover the limitless significance of total space, of a pure and absolute light?' (Manzoni, quoted in G. Celant (ed.), manzoni, exh. cat., Museo d'Arte Contemporanea Donna Regina, Naples, 2007, p. 30). In January 1957, Manzoni interacted with Yves Klein and Alberto Burri who were both exhibiting their works in Milan. The approach of these artists had a profound impact on Manzoni. Achrome clearly pays a visual debt to Alberto Burri's material works created out of burlap bags and velvet, and also to Yves Klein's exploration of the monochrome in his Epoca blu launched at the Galleria Apollinaire. Whilst Manzoni followed the artists' innovations with interest, his Achrome, with its raw physicality and absence of colour, can perhaps be regarded as the apogee of such investigations. For Manzoni, the materiality of the painting was central to the work. Instead of the smooth monochrome, Achrome appears tectonic, the uneven surface of the canvas born out of the cooling, hardening and crystallising process of kaolin on canvas.

From 1957-1958, Manzoni allied himself to Arte Nucleare instituted by Enrico Baj and Sergio Dangelo. The objective of the group was to champion scientific progress, generating artistic freedom in rejection of stylistic uniformity. They suggested, with what turned out to be misplaced optimism, that: 'man's new forms are those of the atomic universe; the forms are electric charges. Ideal beautycoincides with the representation of nuclear man and his spaceTruth is not yours; it lies in the ATOM. Nuclear painting documents the search for this truth' (Manifesto dell'Arte Nucleare quoted in M. Gale & R. Miracco (ed.), Beyond Painting: Burri, Fontana, Manzoni, Milan 2005, p. 112). In creating the densely white Achrome, Manzoni was clearly moving away from utopian modernism, figuration and the expressive brushstroke, towards the principles of Arte Nucleare. In a critical and mocking review of other artistic methods, Manzoni said: 'I am quite unable to understand those painters who, whilst declaring an active interest in modern problems, still continue even today to confront a painting as if it was a surface to be filled with colour and forms... the painting is finished: a surface of unlimited possibilities is now reduced to a kind of receptacle into which unnatural colours and artificial meanings are forced.' (Manzoni, quoted in 'Free Dimension', in Azimuth, no. 2, Milan, 1960). For Manzoni, the onus was on the artist to create a 'virgin space' or tabula rasa, where the canvas could no longer be subordinated to image and external impurity. The painting should abandon mimetic value in favour of its materials whether kaolin, cotton, fibreglass or styrofoam. The medium itself was to become the work, the new totem.

Manzoni's work marks an historical turning point in twentieth century art, providing the principles and points of departure for generations of artists. In Italy Arte Povera embraced his legacy, forging an entire aesthetic out of the tabula rasa his Achrome created. In the United States, the emergence of conceptual art and minimalism also reflected his influence. Working with the pure fundamentals of medium, in this case kaolin on canvas, Manzoni paralleled the colourless writing Roland Barthes theorized in the 1950s as the degree zero of writing, divorced from the strictures of language. Achrome seeks to create a similar purity in the absence of style, colour, image, emotion and expression. It offers a beautiful manifestation of the artist's lifelong ambition, to release art from intervention, and represents a cornerstone of his artistic achievement. In Achrome, the work's rich sculptural folds embody a duality; they are at once evocative of the old masters, Bernini and Vermeer, and at the same time are markers of innovation, much in keeping with the contemporary zeitgeist.

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