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


Piero Manzoni (1933-1963)
canvas and kaolin
27 ½ x 39 ¾ in. (70 x 100cm.)
Executed in 1958-1959
Galleria del Milione, Milan, 1974.
Galerie La Boetie, Paris.
Mm Blanche Lamm George, Geneve.
Mario Polli, 1978.
Marina Giani Polli.
Aldo Ferraris Collection.
Acquired from the above by the present owner.
G. Celant, Piero Manzoni, Catalogo Generale, Vol. II, Milan 2004, no. 228 (illustrated, p. 427).
A. Walleston, “Now Showing: Zero Rising,” in New York Times, Style Magazine, 5 December 2008
(illustrated in colour).
S. Maine, “ZERO & Friends”, in Art in America, June-July 2009, p. 146 (illustrated in colour).

New York, Sperone Westwater, ZERO in New York, 2008 (illustrated in colour).
London, Robilant + Voena, WHITE: Marble and Paint from Antiquity to Now, 2012 (illustrated in colour, pp. 30-31).

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Alessandro Diotallevi
Alessandro Diotallevi

Lot Essay

In Achrome (1958-1959), delicate folds ripple across the surface. The work belongs to Piero Manzoni’s Achromes series, a group of radical, experimental works through which the artist sought to conceptually re-define the essence of painting. Liberated from the contrived limits of the stretchers, the canvas in this work shows its vitality, its folds creating a sense of perpetual movement and repetition on the surface. While in previous Achromes the folds had been casually displayed on the surface, then widely spread across it, in the present work their recurrence intensifies, thus achieving a more graceful effect.

Embracing the material dimension of the painting, in Achrome Manzoni has returned the canvas to its origins as fabric. Evoking a drapery, or the creases of a bed sheet, Achrome points to the material properties of the canvas, here shown in full fluidity. Despite the visual associations the work may inspire, however, Manzoni wanted his works to transcend any possible reference to the visible world. His Achromes posited a new mode of existence for painting, based entirely on its physical existence. The work’s morphology was not dictated by Manzoni’s wish to evoke a particular image, but rather by the objective encounter of two materials. In order to create Achrome, Manzoni steeped the canvas into Kaolin – a soft china clay used to make porcelain – subsequently leaving the imbued cloth to dry and stiffen according to its own physical properties. Kaolin thus appears as a triggering factor, unlocking the canvas expressiveness and giving painting that plastic freedom which until this time it had been denied. At the same time, this process removed the artist from the creative equation, lending autonomy to the work and allowing it to assume a life on its own.

Works such as Achrome – and their creative process - were born out of Manzoni’s refusal to accept painting as the mere repository of representation, be this figurative or abstract. ‘Why’, the artist asked, ‘shouldn’t this receptacle be emptied? Why shouldn’t this surface be freed?’ (P. Manzoni, ‘Free Dimension’, pp. 46-47, in Piero Manzoni: Paintings, reliefs and objects, exh. cat., London, 1974, p. 46). For the artist, painting had thus to be restored to its primal state, it had to be protected from extraneous elements such as lines and colours that had until then cluttered its form. The name Manzoni eventually chose to describe this series of works – ‘Achrome’, meaning ‘non-colour’ – reiterates this total renunciation of intrusion into the pictorial field. The whiteness of this works is not to be understood as a colour, but as its complete absence. Manzoni explained: ‘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’ (P. Manzoni, ibid., p. 47). Freed from the weight and burden of representation, in Achrome the canvas seems to tremble back to life, transforming his rediscovered lightness into a frozen, eternal quivering.

Expelling all external references, with the Achromes Manzoni wished to bring painting to its pure origin. Through this radical position, the artist gave painting a new, philosophical dimension. By eliminating from the pictorial field any finite element – such as colours or lines - the medium was thus open to a limitless dimension. Manzoni urged: ‘Why not seek to discover the unlimited meaning of total space, of pure and absolute light?’ (P. Manzoni, ibid., p. 47). In their specific form, works such as Achrome underline the radical complexity of Manzoni’s paintings and their conceptual significance because of their unique interaction with a 'pure and absolute light'. By folding the canvas into creases, Manzoni allowed light to enter the picture. The oscillations of the canvas introduce into the painting subtle shadows and bright point of lights, which transform the apparent neutral whiteness of the canvas into a multitude of gradations of luminous values. Light – and consequently shading – constituted the crucial element of painting’s illusionism which Manzoni so adamantly refused. Figurative painting, as well as abstraction, if one is to understand colours as products of light, based their forms on a finite, fixed and ultimately imagined light. While previous generations had strived to represent the effects of light onto the flat surface of painting, in Achrome Manzoni directly, physically incorporated the luminous effect into the work, letting the canvas express it itself, through its physical properties. Light, in Achrome, becomes then a ‘pure and absolute light', as Manzoni defines it, as it is not reduced to describing any time of the day or capturing any particular atmospheric effects or the precise shape of an object. It is used in a pure, almost material way, to plainly cast itself onto the work, interacting with it in absolute terms. By emphasising such interactive materiality, with Achrome Manzoni effectively brought painting into the world.

Embedded in Manzoni’s Achromes is an idea of absolute origin. Already in 1957, Manzoni had declared that art was not ‘a descriptive phenomenon, but a scientific process of foundation’ (P. Manzoni, quoted in G. L. Marcone, ‘Achrome: ipotesi linguistico-filosofica’, pp. 31-38, in Piero Manzoni 1933-1963, exh. cat., Milano, 2014, p. 32). This idea that painting – under the absolute, infinite form of the Achrome – had achieved its ultimate form resonates strongly with certain philosophical schools of thought, in particular with the Ionic school, embodied in the work of the philosophers Talete, Anassimandro and Anassimene (G. L. Marcone, ‘Achrome: ipotesi linguistico-filosofica’, ibid., p. 37). It was with those three philosophers that a non-religious idea of origin of all things took shape. Anassimandro defined this origin as an ‘ápeiron’ – a concept defined by the Greek privative alpha and the word ‘péras’, meaning ‘limit’, ‘end'. Echoing Manzoni's 'Achrome' terminology, Anassimandro conceived an origin of all things that was ‘limitless’, an infinite dimension form which all the rest could be derived.

Just before embarking in his intense artistic career, Manzoni had attended university. In 1955, he had specifically directed a request to enrol in the ‘History of Ancient Philosophy’ course to the dean of the University of Rome. It is thus possible that Manzoni may have studied the work of the Ionic school philosophers, later adopting their philosophical position to shape his drastic renewal of painting. In his writings, Manzoni stressed the particular infinite quality of the Achromes: ‘Even if this indefined surface (uniquely alive) cannot in fact be infinite because of the material contingent of the work, it certainly is unfinishable, repeatable to infinity, and has a continuity that remains unresolved’ (P. Manzoni, ibid., p. 47). Freed of any spatial or temporal reference, Achrome could indeed be expanded ad infinitum, perpetually extending its material existence with no interruption. As for the Ionic philosophers, for Manzoni the infinite dimension of the Achromes meant a moment of full potential and creation. He concluded: ‘The artist has achieved integral freedom: pure material becomes pure energy’ (P. Manzoni, ibid., p. 47). With works such as Achrome, Manzoni aimed at restoring painting to its primordial, absolute form, opening the medium to infinite new possibilities. Within the series of Achromes, the present work stands out for its subtle interaction with light: as the canvas is brought to the fore, the painting comes into the world, interacting directly with the atmosphere surrounding it.

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