PIERO MANZONI (1933-1963)
Artist's Resale Right ("Droit de Suite"). Artist's… Read more
PIERO MANZONI (1933-1963)


PIERO MANZONI (1933-1963)
kaolin on canvas
31 ½ x 39 3/8in. (80 x 100cm.)
Executed in 1958-1959
Galleria Regis, Finale Ligure.
Galleria Notizie, Turin.
Private Collection (acquired directly from the above in the early 1960s).
Anon. sale, Sotheby's London, 20 October 2003, lot 13.
Private Collection (acquired at the above sale).
V. Kahmen, Erotik in der Kunst, Tübingen 1971 (illustrated, p. 199; dated 1959).
G. Celant, Piero Manzoni Catalogo generale, Milan 1975, no. 5 cvo (illustrated, p. 175; dated 1959).
F. Battino and L. Palazzoli, Piero Manzoni Catalogue Raisonné, Milan 1991, no. 463 BM (illustrated, p. 302; dated 1959).
G. Celant, Piero Manzoni Catalogo generale, vol.II, Milan 2004, no. 414 (illustrated, p. 455).
Paris, Galerie Mathias Fels & Cie, Piero Manzoni, 1969-1970 (illustrated, unpaged; dated 1959).
Amsterdam, Stedelijk Museum, Piero Manzoni, 1969-1970, no. 7. This exhibition later travelled to Eindhoven, Stedelijk Van Abbe Museum; Mönchengladbach, Städtisches Museum and Hannover, Kunstverein.
Cologne, Museum Ludwig, Köln Sammelt: Zeitgenössische Kunst aus Kölner Privatbesitz, 1988, p. 271, no. 84 (illustrated, p. 93; dated 1959).
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Annemijn van Grimbergen
Annemijn van Grimbergen

Lot Essay

Executed between 1958 and 1959, Achrome is a rare example of Piero Manzoni’s Achromes on canvas, a career-defying series of purist, white works that, towards the end of the 1950s would assert the artist as one of the most important artistic figures of the Italian Post-war period. Within that series, Achrome belongs to a rare group of only seven examples in which the artist reduced the creases of the canvas to two single, adjacent folds. Through its simplicity, the single crease introduces Achromes a sense of primal balance and restrained visual expression, until then unprecedented in his work. Evoking the presence of a fissure or the infinite geometrical form of the line, in its specific form, the present work establishes significant connections with the art of its time – such as Lucio Fontana’s slashes – while also anticipating Manzoni’s own later, more conceptual works, such as his Linee.

Rigorously colourless and animated solely by the undulations and creases of the canvas, Manzoni’s Achromes established a crucial turning point in the artist’s career, breaking away from the Arte nucleare group with whom the young artist had until then associated himself. Manzoni started developing the idea of the Achromes in 1957, yet he only exhibited them for the first time in April 1958, in Bologna, as part of the exhibition ‘Fontana, Baj, Manzoni’. Like the rest of the Achromes on canvas, Achrome consists of an unpainted canvas, which the artist coated in kaolin – a soft china clay used to make porcelain – and folded, in this case, in its middle to form a wide, horizontal fissure. Denying any form of representation – be it realist or abstract – with the Achromes series Manzoni presented the canvas as a self-defined object, interacting with its materiality in a way that asserts this object’s presence in the world as substance, rather than as a vehicle of depiction.

Manzoni, alongside Yves Klein, Alberto Burri, and Lucio Fontana, is regarded as one of the foremost pioneers of the 1950s whose work laid the foundations for much of the conceptual art of the following decades. Embracing a unified white surface and challenging the materiality of the canvas cloth, works such as Achrome opened a dialogue with Klein and Burri’s works, while asserting Manzoni’s singular artistic voice. They embraced the value of the monochrome professed by Klein, but pushed its principle even further to a drastic total absence of colour. If they incorporated Burri’s revelation of the tactile presence of the canvas as a material, they did so with uncompromising rigour, relying entirely on the plastic potential of the unprimed canvas.

With its horizontal gash formed by the folds of the canvas, the present work establishes another bridge with the art of his time, echoing the slashes of Lucio Fontana. Fontana had looked at Manzoni’s art with great interest. On his part, Manzoni expressed great admiration for the older artist, declaring in 1959: ‘Fontana, who may be today the most interesting Italian artist, whose work has opened and continues to open new paths’ (P. Manzoni, quoted in G. Celant, Piero Manzoni: catalogo generale, vol. I, Milan 2004, p. 124). In 1959 – around the time when Achrome was executed – Fontana had started his series of Attese, monochrome canvases with single or multiple slashes. Following the buchi (holes), a series of punctured canvases, the Attese aimed at underlying the spatial existence of the canvas, violently opening its surface to reveal the gaping void beneath it. Echoing Fontana’s work, Manzoni’s Achrome creates the illusion of a cut: as the canvas folds, the shadow created by the crinkles seemingly suggests the presence of a slash. Both works point at the materiality of painting, redefying it through a subversion of its very medium, the canvas. Yet, while Fontana still ascribed great power to the gesture of the artist through his slashes, Manzoni transferred all the attention to the material: his Achromes are created by letting two media interact, they are self-determined objects. While in Fontana’s works the canvas is liberated by the artist’s elastic cut, in Achrome the canvas is inversely stiffened and folded under the effect of the kaolin, caught up in its own material weight.

Expressing a zeitgeist also embodied in the works of Klein, Burri and Fontana, Manzoni’s Achromes are nevertheless the expression of the artist’s personal stance on painting. At the source of Manzoni’s Achromes lies the artist’s utter conviction that the canvas would cease to be a simple vehicle, the mere support to a pictorial illusion. In ‘Dimensione libera’, a statement published in 1960 in the second issue of Azimuth, the magazine Manzoni published together with Enrico Castellani, the artist questioned: ‘a surface of unlimited possibilities is now reduced to a kind of receptacle into which unnatural colours and artificial meanings are forced. Why shouldn’t this receptacle be emptied? Why shouldn’t this surface be freed?’ (Piero Manzoni: Painting, reliefs & objects, exh. cat., Tate Gallery, London, 1974, p. 46). Manzoni’s Achromes are to be understood as the answer to the artist’s provocative questions, their emptiness being the essence of their message. In their sheer materiality, they assert painting as an object endowed with a poetic power independent from the act of painting. In their simplicity, works such as Achrome convey a sense of aesthetic achievement that is situated beyond representation and abstraction. Manzoni’s Achrome asserts the materiality of painting, while achieving a restrained, surprising elegance.

The title ‘Achrome’, which Manzoni repeated invariably throughout the series, called for an absolute absence of colour. With its uninterrupted white surface, for instance, Achrome eschews even monochromatism: its whiteness is not the product of the artist’s choice of painting the canvas white, but the inevitable result of the application of kaolin, a pure quality of the material with which the work was realised. In ‘Dimensione libera’, Manzoni was careful to detach the white of these works from any possible figurative interpretation, explaining: ‘the question as far as I am concerned is that of rendering a surface completely white (…) A white that is not a polar white, not a material in evolution or a beautiful material, not a sensation or a symbol or anything less: just a white surface that is simply a white surface and nothing else’ (P. Manzoni, quoted in Piero Manzoni: Painting, reliefs & objects, exh. cat., Tate Gallery, London, 1974, p. 47). As the structure of painting was reduced to its bare minimum through this drastic refusal of colours, painting itself could expand into an infinite realm. Manzoni explained: ‘Infinity is rigorously monochrome, or, better still, it has no colour’ (P. Manzoni, quoted in Piero Manzoni: Painting, reliefs & objects, exh. cat. London, 1974, p. 46). Devoid of all composition, forms and colours, works such as Achrome evoked a new spatial environment, conceptually boundless and abstract: ‘in total space form, colour and dimensions have no meaning. The artist has achieved integral freedom: pure material becomes pure energy’ (P. Manzoni, quoted in Piero Manzoni: Painting, reliefs & objects, exh. cat., Tate Gallery, London, 1974, p. 46).

Following a principle that could be extended to infinity, Manzoni’s series of Achromes – just like Fontana’s Attese – could thus be repeated by the artist endlessly, each time asserting the new dimension in which painting had entered. Expanding the range of the Achromes, Manzoni later experimented with new materials – cotton buds, polystyrene, fibreglass and even bread rolls – and with new ways to interact with the canvas – folds, stitches, square patches of cloth. In its specific form, however, the present work holds a particular significance: concentrating the tension of the surface onto a single central horizontal line, Achrome establishes a fascinating relationship with Manzoni’s next series of works, the Linee – ‘Lines’ – metres-long single lines, drawn on rolled up paper, subsequently enclosed in black tubes. Recognising the conceptual power of Manzoni’s Linee, Fontana was among the first buyers of those works. In the simplicity of its restrained linearity, the present Achrome appears as perhaps one of the most subtle, conceptually charged examples of Manzoni’s Achromes.

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