PIERO MANZONI (1933-1963)
PIERO MANZONI (1933-1963)
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Un Folle Amore: The Agrati Collection
PIERO MANZONI (1933-1963)


PIERO MANZONI (1933-1963)
kaolin on canvas
21 3/4 x 25 1/2 in. (55.3 x 65 cm.)
Executed circa 1959.
Galleria La Salita, Rome
Acquired from the above by the late owner, 1969
G. Celant, Piero Manzoni, Catalogo generale, Milan 1975, p. 122, no. 62 cq (illustrated, dated ‘1959-60’, with incorrect provenance)
F. Battino and L. Palazzoli, Piero Manzoni, Catalogue Raisonné, Milan 1991, p. 319, no. 530 (illustrated, with incorrect medium).
G. Celant, Madly in Love, The Luigi and Peppino Agrati Collection, Milan 2002, pp. 166-167 and 392, no. 284 (illustrated).
G. Celant, Piero Manzoni, Catalogo generale, Milan 2004, vol. II, p. 462, no. 468 (illustrated).

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Lot Essay

Pushing art to its extremes at the height of the twentieth century, Piero Manzoni railed against the established norms by problematizing everything from the art market to Abstract Expressionism. Achrome is a heady example of his celebrated series that worked to evacuate the picture plane of all representation, pictorial structure, and color in favor of a more forthright examination of formal properties related to medium and surface. Known popularly for his subversive conceptual works like Merda d'artista (1961), the Achromes represent a firm theoretical base upon which Manzoni built a lasting legacy. He looked to strip away the trappings of emotion and representation so as to create “images that are as absolute as possible, images that cannot be valued for that which they record, explain and express, but only for that which they are: to be” (P. Manzoni, “For the Discovery of a Zone of Images”, in Piero Manzoni: Paintings, reliefs & objects, exh. cat., London, Tate Gallery, 1974, p. 17). In this way, he helped to pare down painting to its very basic building blocks so that it could be fully seen by a new generation of artists in the Post-War era.

Executed in 1959, Achrome is a pivotal example of the artist’s early forays into what he termed ‘non-paintings’ and clearly highlights Manzoni’s conceptual aptitude during his regrettably short career. The present example is notable for its grid structure. Squares of canvas have been arranged in three rows of four pieces for a total of twelve discernible pieces. Though uniform in their tonal qualities, each element is purposefully creased with a number of straight folds that run the length of the square. The artist alternates collections of horizontal and vertical pleats so that the light playing upon the work’s surface creates an ordered display of dynamic shadows. After viewing Yves Klein’s blue monochromes in all their dazzling opticality in 1957, Manzoni diverged from his nascent work with tar and oil in favor of something devoid of pictorial content and purged of anything traditionally held as painterly. He created, in his words, “a totally white – or rather, totally colourless – surface, removed from all pictorial phenomena…” (P. Manzoni, quoted in G. Celant, “From the Open Wound to the Resurrected Body: Lucio Fontana and Piero Manzoni,” in E. Braun (ed.) Italian Art in the 20th Century, exh. cat., London, 1989, p. 297). Soaking canvas in a slurry of glue and kaolin, a chalky china clay used for making porcelain, Manzoni was able to accentuate the pleats and folds of his base material while also creating an even more neutral surface.

Born in Soncino, Italy, Manzoni was largely self-taught and began exhibiting in 1956 at the age of 23. His early works were gestural and showed the influence of the Arte nucleare group. However, on a visit to Milan in 1957, the young artist witnessed Klein’s “Epoca Blu” exhibition at the Galleria Apollinaire which consisted of eleven identical canvases painted flatly in International Klein Blue. Manzoni’s Achromes are in direct response to these works both in their all-over color (or lack of color in this case) as well as their questioning of the art object and its place within a broader conversation about Modernism. The Abstract Expressionists filled their canvases with emotive vigor while relying on color and virulent brushwork to absorb the viewer into the very painting itself. Manzoni sought instead to empty his picture plane in order to more fully free it from the constraints of tradition. He asked, “Why shouldn’t this receptacle be emptied? 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). By thinking about the white of gesso, kaolin, or even fiberglass and bread as something devoid of color he asked the viewer to focus instead on the materials themselves through the perceived neutrality of his artistic additions.

As the world came to grips with the long fallout of World War II, artists increasingly questioned their practices and the place of traditional forms in a changing world. Though often cited for his more shocking or seemingly flippant projects like the canned feces or the inflated balloons that made up Artist’s Breath (1960), Manzoni at his core was an artist searching for new ways to understand. Thomas Micchelli, reviewing a recent retrospective at Hauser & Wirth, noted: “The obsessive precision with which he manipulates his objects isolates and heightens their inherent properties, edging them into a platonic realm and rendering the border between art and life at once decisive and beside the point. Surrounded by the rubble of war, Manzoni wanted to start over, and he did” (T. Micchelli, “Piero Manzoni and the Reinvention of Art,” Hyperallergic, July 20, 2019). To Manzoni, the Achromes represented an important step toward more fully understanding the surface of a work as itself and not as a plane upon which the art rests. The use of white allowed every ripple, pinch, and mar to be thrown into sharp relief as the physicality of each material was emphasized. The artist mused, “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 become pure)” (P. Manzoni, op. cit., p. 46-47). In this way, Manzoni teased out the building blocks of artistic creation in the same way Roland Barthes spoke about ‘écriture blanche’ (white writing) in his 1953 treatise Writing Degree Zero. Barthes was looking to strip writing down to its purest form so that the form itself could be seen. In the same way, Manzoni peeled away the layers of history to expose a more concentrated surface.

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