Held in the same private collection since the mid-1970s, Achrome (1959) is a superb example of the radical, colourless ‘non-paintings’ that Piero Manzoni made throughout the six years of his mature practice. Moving beyond the mystical blue monochromes of Yves Klein that he had seen in Milan in early 1957, in November that year Manzoni began to create completely white works by soaking creased and folded canvas in a mixture of glue and liquid kaolin, a white china clay. He designated these works Achrome to signify their absence of colour and of subject matter, as well as a withdrawal of the artist’s hand. Left to dry naturally, the Achrome’s final form was in effect self-directed, determined by the intrinsic properties of its materials rather than by artistic intervention. Brushstrokes had been eliminated, and content erased. No longer a vehicle for external references, the painting, Manzoni claimed, was returned to its primal virgin state, and born anew as a zone of liberation and discovery. The present Achrome’s surface consists of a band of fine horizontal pleats laid across a field of unadorned white. Tucked neatly over the painting’s edges, the pleats bow gently outward at the centre, as if swelled by a breath of wind.
Paintings are and always have been magic, religious objects. But the gods change, they change continuously, evolving as civilisations evolve. Every instant is a new step, a new civilisation that is born”
As ‘natural’ as the present work’s form appears, and as much as it departs from compositional norms in favour of seriality and symmetry, its elegant, iterated folds were of course initially shaped by the artist himself. There is a paradox inherent to Manzoni’s Achromes. Although born of an apparently austere conceptual program, they cannot be said to embody absolute purity. Even the white square in Malevich’s Suprematist Composition: White on White (1918)—a defining statement in painting’s turn away from representation—was subtly softened by its imprecise edges and quiet painterly texture. Similarly, the Achromes exhibit their material characteristics: tangible qualities that are deliberately laid out and heightened by Manzoni, in his early canvas Achromes in particular, in ways that retain hints of human touch and feeling. Although the present work’s rumpled fabric is fossilised in kaolin, its sensual allure is undeniable. Manzoni’s claim to transcendence is laced with bathos: his search for what he called man’s ‘primal’ or ‘primary’ images—the sublime essence which lies behind all that is superfluous and superimposed—is haunted by matter. If Achrome is the ghost of a painting, it has not quite left its body behind.
The Achromes, so metaphysical in conception, are richly and diversely physical. Some later examples would incorporate Italian bread rolls entombed in kaolin, while others were made of already-white materials including rabbit fur, cotton wool and glass fibre. As Martin Engler has put it, ‘If the end of painting consists of supple, physically palpable surfaces, then the question as to its end is shifted in a completely new direction, towards the domain of the body and its senses’ (M. Engler, ‘The Body: Its Image, Actions and Objects’, in Piero Manzoni: When Bodies Became Art, exh. cat. Städel Museum, Frankfurt 2013, p. 20). In the present Achrome’s billowing canvas surface—deliberately orchestrated, and inevitably suggestive of shrouds, of bedsheets, of marble veils draped over carved bodies—that tactile emphasis was already in place. Such associations, notably, are far removed from Alberto Burri’s stitched and ruptured fabric works, which evoked violence and scarring in the years following the Second World War. The Achromes’ sensuality is serene and rarefied, with the quiet cleanliness of a prelapsarian world.
Art is not a matter of hedonism, but of bringing to light preconscious universal myths and reducing them to an image. Art therefore is not a descriptive phenomenon, but a scientific process of foundation”
As a series of ideological statements, Manzoni’s practice anticipated much of the Conceptual art that only emerged as a definable movement long after his death in 1963. The potency of his ideas, as well as the myth that has come to surround the enigmatic, playful figure of the artist himself, have sometimes obscured the corporeal charge of his work. His entire oeuvre can be seen as a critique of the separation between art and life, with the body as its interface. The very literal physical expressions of his famed Artist’s Breath (1960) and Artist’s Shit (1961) were only his most provocative engagements with the value and belief systems that structure our reception of art. He also performed a communion-like ceremony where audience members ate boiled eggs inked with his thumbprint; he signed people’s bodies to declare them works of art, and stood them on plinths to transform them into living sculptures; his Socle du monde (1961), a plinth inverted as if to support the earth, claimed the entire world as an artwork. Following the mode of Marcel Duchamp, these works were utopian in their destruction of traditional conceptions of art-making. Taking the body as an experiential degree zero, they uncovered the essence of artistic creation in acts of raw consecratory magic. The Achromes might be understood as complements to these ritual leaps of faith: they are denuded objects ready to be enchanted.
Even as he negated painting, Manzoni remained fundamentally committed to its wall-bound and canvas-based format. He could not present emptiness without presenting the emptied vessel. In much the same way that Lucio Fontana had to make paintings in order to slash them—it was only in the action of breaking through that framework that he could discover the spatial infinity beyond—Manzoni could only search for his existential ‘area of freedom’ in objects that were, in the broadest sense, still paintings. ‘Why shouldn’t this receptacle be emptied?’, he asked. ‘Why shouldn’t this surface be freed? Why not seek to discover the unlimited meaning of total space, of pure and absolute light?’ (P. Manzoni, ‘Free Dimension’, Azimuth, no. 2, Milan 1960, reproduced in Piero Manzoni: Paintings, reliefs & objects, exh. cat. Tate Gallery, London 1974, p. 46). The present Achrome gracefully embodies the manifold complexities of Manzoni’s project. Colourless, petrified and non-referential, it begs to be seen as a zone of unmediated nothingness; yet it is also a richly responsive object, alive with possibility, and spellbinding in its rippling, enigmatic beauty.
Lot Essay Header Image: The present lot illustrated (detail).