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

Achrome

Details
Piero Manzoni (1933-1963)
Achrome
kaolin on canvas
19 5/8 x 27 5/8in. (50 x 70cm.)
Executed in 1957-58
Provenance
Livraghi Collection, Milan.
Anon. sale, Sotheby's London, 24 June 1993, lot 37.
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner.
Literature
G. Celant, Piero Manzoni Catalogo generale, Milan 1975, no. 60cg (illustrated, p. 139).
F. Battino & D. Palazzoli, Piero Manzoni Catalogue raisonné, Milan 1991, no. 565BM (illustrated, p. 327).
Piero Manzoni, exh. cat., London, Serpentine Gallery, 1998 (illustrated, p. 26).
G. Celant, Piero Manzoni Catalogo generale, vol. II, Milan 2004. no. 160 (illustrated, p. 418).
Special notice

VAT rate of 5% is payable on hammer price and at 20% on the buyer's premium.

Lot Essay

'I used to meet him at the Giamaica, and sometimes I would go up to his studio: a stark, bare room where he was beginning to immerse himself in the whiteness of kaolin and plaster. He would spread out the canvases and then crumple and wrinkle them into thousands of stiffened white folds'

Achrome was created in 1957-58, and therefore dates from the dawn of Piero Manzoni's development of what was to become one of his most important artistic legacies. The Achrome was theme that he would continue to explore throughout the rest of his life, before his untimely death only half a decade later, resulting in one of the most trailblazing oeuvres of the post-war period. The objecthood and the discipline of the Achrome - the so-called 'colourless' work of art - were explored in various media, were to become springboards for many other artists, both during his own lifetime and in subsequent decades. In this Achrome, the raw genesis of that concept is visible in the large, rough pleats that make up the rich, textured surface, where Manzoni has allowed a contrast between the folds and the flatter 'background' to come into play. This is a rare example of this early incarnation of the Achrome, prefiguring the more rigid, gathered pleats of the later Achrome and making it all the rarer. Achrome of this kind are few in number, and it is a reflection of their importance that examples are held in international public collections such as the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York and the Rijksmuseum Kröller-Müller, Otterlo. In Achrome and
its early sister works, the self -generating forms marked Manzoni's new, innovative mining of the forces of nature, gravity and of the raw materials of the actual picture surface to define and create itself: the kaolin-soaked canvas has been roughly arranged by the artist, but has then been deliberately left alone in order that it can determine its own final appearance. This appearance manages both to convey the sense of 'contentlessness' that was so central to Manzoni's exploration of this tabula rasa, and also to invoke a rich, sensual sense of the substantiality of the material itself, evoking the forms of drapery seen in the paintings and drawings of the Old Masters of his native Italy, as well as in Baroque sculptures of, say, Gianlorenzo Bernini.

Achrome was one of the earliest works along this line that he created, as is reflected by its early appearance in the catalogue raisonné of Manzoni's works. It was at this fulcrum in his career that he abandoned even the trace amounts of figuration that had earlier featured in his work, instead embracing the blank canvas as a zone of infinite potential. This conceptual manoeuvre was an artistic solution to some of the challenges that Manzoni felt were inherent in art during that period. Manzoni was working in Northern Italy during a period less than a decade and a half after the end of the Second World War. This was the period of Informel, of Existentialism, and of Theodor Adorno's famous dictum that to write poetry after Auschwitz was barbaric. In the folds and colourlessness of his Achrome, Manzoni found a means of creating a post-atomic landscape that also invoked a deliberately rough and ready sublime, approaching a new state of purity by paring back all details, all references.

Manzoni had originally studied law, but had been increasingly drawn towards an artistic vocation during the middle of the 1950s. Some of his works of art from that period involved pictures with stencilled
hominids, often featuring the use of emphatically materialistic gestures and surfaces. In this, Manzoni was revealing a certain indebtedness to Carl Gustav Jung, not least to his concept of the archetype. Jung's concepts permeated Manzoni's own words when he wrote, in 1957, that:

'The more physiological, organic and profound sign is, the more universal, collective and material it is. The organicist approach is the only one that makes it possible for us to keep up with the continual mutation of the archetypes, the only one, therefore, that requires the need for continual stylistic flux' (Manzoni, 1957, quoted in Germano Celant, Piero Manzoni, exh.cat., Milan & London, 1998, p. 256).

Compared to the occasionally biological ciphers of his earlier paintings, Achrome finds itself without a 'sign'. It signifies nothing, but instead emphatically exists in its own right. At the same time, the extreme economy of means that Manzoni has used here, with the dominant horizontal thrust of the drapery, means that there remains a hint of archetype: it has been pushed to the most rigorous extreme possible. And crucially, the work is the product not just of 'continual stylistic flux', but also of flux in terms of the shifting topography of the kaolin-soaked canvas itself.

The emptying-out of Manzoni's canvases that occurred during this crucial period in his career has been linked to a number of influences, each of which helped to confirm him in his direction and allowed his concepts to gestate. While he had already been linked to the Gruppo Nucleare alongside his friend Enrico Baj, he now was struck by two exhibitions that took place in Milan at the beginning of 1957: those of Yves Klein and of Alberto Burri. In January, at the Galleria Apollinaire, the French artist Klein showed eleven canvases painted only in his signature 'International Klein Blue' in his show, Proposte Monocrome: Epoca Blu. Manzoni visited this several times, even meeting Klein and striking up an important friendship with him. It was after this that Manzoni, struck by the intense power of Klein's monochrome canvases, which vibrated with their intense ultramarine pigment, decided to go a step further and to remove colour itself, creating something a-chromatic... The Achrome. Manzoni was doubtless also struck by Burri's works at his one-man show at the Galleria del Naviglio during the same month. Burri's Sacchi and other such objects are not pictures, but instead comprise elements from the real world, often stitched together, making no reference to any external reality but instead presenting a reconfigured microcosm of our own Universe. This is exemplified in Due camicie of 1957, which Manzoni would have seen there, where the two white shirts of the title have been retasked, becoming celebrations of their own sheer materiality and of the artist's own gestures.

Manzoni, emerging from the era of Informel, clearly understood the new, unconventional artistic gestures that were being made in the stitched and burnt works by Burri, in the Otages by Jean Fautrier, and in the canvases punctured by his mentor Lucio Fontana; and in creating his Achrome, he left all those artists in his own wake. Without even directing or overseeing the end result, he merely set the artistic process in motion by soaking and folding and arranging his canvas; but for the rest, the Achrome itself did all the work, becoming, in its own right. In this way, Manzoni managed to rise above the entire dialogue regarding artistic marks that was in sway at the time; while formally, the creases and shadows of Achrome may echo, say, the Abstract Expressionist pictures of Franz Kline, Manzoni had managed to remove himself entirely from the process of creation, and thereby managed to remove any element of subjectivity. In this way, he created the ultimate clean slate for art, a forum of universal relevance deliberately voided of references, pushing the notion of objecthood that had been embraced by Burri and also by Robert Rauschenberg, and which would become all the more pertinent in the age of Minimalism which was in part founded on Manzoni's legacy, to a new extreme.


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