Like Lucio Fontana's Concetti Spaziali and Yves Klein's monochrome paintings, Piero Manzoni's Achromes are a seminal and perpetually ongoing series of totem-like works that run like a constant throughout the artist's career encapsulating and epitomizing his oeuvre as a whole. With its elegant, repetitive and seemingly ruptured rectangular sequence of separate sheets of white canvas pleats laid out in a near grid-like pattern, this kaolin-coated Achrome is one of a comparatively rare group of canvas Achromes that Manzoni began to make around 1959 whose structure explores and expresses the open and potentially endlessly repetitive nature of his Achrome concept.
Alongside Alberto Burri, Lucio Fontana and Yves Klein, Manzoni is one of the leading pioneers of the anti-painterly and increasingly conceptual direction that much European art took during the late 1950s and '60s. Forming the central thrust of his creative research, Manzoni's Achromes are the central and defining works of his tragically brief but groundbreaking and highly influential career. Begun in 1957 and continued, in a variety of forms and often surprising new media, right up until the artist's premature death in 1963 they are unique manifestations that mark a wholly new approach to the making of art.
Both a response to and an extension of the Spatialist explorations of Lucio Fontana, Alberto Burri's self-asserting material works and the immateriality and mysticism of Yves Klein's monochromes, Manzoni Achromes were self-defining works of art that asserted only their own surfaces - surfaces from which all other extraneous detail, artifice and style had been eliminated. Non-formal, non-tonal, colourless zones of material nothingness, the Achromes are works that not only mark the culmination of the existentialist direction of much of the art of this period, but were also ones that provided the creative tabula rasa out of which much of the Minimalist, Conceptual, anti-form and arte povera tendencies of the 1960s grew.
Described by Manzoni, who was greatly inspired by the psychoanalytical writings of Sigmund Freud and Carl Gustav Jung at this time, as 'totems', his Achromes were essentially non-pictures - demonstrably real material presences that articulated only their own formal and material properties. As Enrico Baj has recalled, the 'hardened folds' of Manzoni's canvases 'were the opposite of Fontana's slashes'. 'I used to meet him at the Giamaica (bar in Milan),' Baj remembered, '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 canvases and then crumple and wrinkle them into thousands of stiffened white folds. ' (Enrico Baj, 'Scatalogcial White', in Piero Manzoni, New York, 1990, p. 5)
Kaolin, a white clay often used in porcelain manufacture and which Manzoni had probably first encountered during holiday visits to Albisola, was the crucial element with respect to the unique self-defining materiality of his canvas Achromes. Applied in a fluid form to the folds and loose pleats of the canvas surface of the work, the chalky enigmatic materiality of kaolin along with its colourlessness fixed the canvas into a permanent sculptural-like form that both allowed and enhanced a sense of the material nature of the canvas to be actively expressing itself and its own material reality.
In September 1958, the format of Manzoni's kaolin-soaked canvas Achromes underwent an important change. For a solo show held in Rotterdam, Manzoni exhibited new works that were now comprised not of single sheets of canvas, but of separate square pieces of canvas soaked in kaolin and glue arranges in a sequence. This sequential play of rectangular and square forms of irregularly folded canvas - which Manzoni subsequently came to refer to as a structural 'raster'- marked the beginning of an investigation into the proportional relationship of his achromatic white surfaces in a way that was ultimately to extend throughout many of the cotton, polystryrene and bread-roll Achromes that were to follow.
In their overt and manifest display solely of their own materiality and surface, Manzoni's Achromes were works that finally and irreparably broke down the illusive and conceptual space that up until this point had always traditionally surrounded the picture plane. At the same time, as these new grid-based works showed, the Achromes were works of art that were also able to operate as individual, real, unaesthetic and even endlessly repeatable concepts within the real, physical space of the viewer and the world around them. Marking the beginning of a process of integration between art and life, therefore, they were works that signaled the end of the idea of the art-object and its extension into what Manzoni believed would be a conceptual 'zone' of freedom and the final liberation of art from style. 'We absolutely cannot consider the picture as a space onto which to project our mental scenography' Manzoni insisted. Instead, the picture offered a conceptual 'arena of freedom in which we search for the discovery of our first images. Images which are as absolute as possible, which cannot be valued for that which they record, explain or express, but only for that which they are.' (Piero Manzoni, For the Discovery of a Zone of Images. 1957.)
For an artist who insisted on the liberation of art from style however, Manzoni's uniquely 'styleless' creations nevertheless often betrayed the artist's own unerring and sense of style and wry wit. The innate elegance of many of his Achrome canvases carefully pleated into lines or rhythmic fields of white for example, often seems to undermine the aim of creating self-determinate entities expressive only of their own innate materiality. In this Achrome of circa 1959, one of a series of grid or raster structured works that Manzoni began in late 1958, the artist has further developed the sequential rhythm of pleats found in earlier Achromes and translated it into the more formal, structural and intellectual logic of a grid-like progression. This is a significant structural alteration that openly asserts more strongly the conceptual nature and potential of his Achromes by marking the distinct contrast between the idealized nature of such angular geometry and the apparent disorder or disruptive chaos of the organic material forms of nature. It is a move that was echoed around the same time with a series of non-kaolin-coated canvas Achromes that Manzoni created in which a sequence of squares were machine stitched together to create a surface completely removed from the artist's hand and also breaking down the borders between art and industry.
Here, in this clearly hand-made, kaolin-coated Achrome laid out in a grid, a dialogue between the concept and the innate materialness of the Achrome has been deliberately manifested. In creating a sequential progression or rectangular form - through the use of roughly square-cut sheets of canvas laid in a rough grid across the surface of the work - Manzoni appears to have attempted to subordinate the freeform material self-determinacy of his earlier Achromes to the rule of logic. At the same time however, this apparent logic is itself subverted and overrun by the irregular rhythms and self-asserting material forms of the randomly arranged kaolin covered pleats which establish their own textural and organic order.
Some critics have compared such grid-structured Achromes as this work to the paintings of Piet Mondrian for example, but the innate logic of these works runs very much counter to the strictly rational pictorial organizing principles of Mondrian's paintings. Here, imbuing the materiality of Alberto Burri's Sacchi with a monochrome colourlessness and a Duchampian sense of logic and of 'the law of chance', this Achrome is instead a work that actively encourages the notion of the eventual dissolution of the art-object itself into an intangible concept. And it is in this respect that it is a work that is as anticipatory of the later grid-like progressions of Carl Andre and Sol Le Witt or of the sequential exploration of the blank canvas by Giulio Paolini and the permutational aesthetics of Alighiero Boetti as it is of the series of Linee or 'lines' that Manzoni was to make soon after this series of works.
In the same way that this Achrome is comprised of a series of segregated but interconnecting squares, Manzoni's Linee were also segregated but endlessly repeatable concepts that Manzoni chose to physically enclose in a purchasable box.
'The nature of the Linea is eternal and infinite, the concept is everything', Manzoni said of these works whose origins lay in just such grid-like Achromes as the present work. 'I put the linea in a container so that people can buy the idea of the Linea. I sell an idea, an idea closed in a container.' (Piero Manzoni quoted in G. Celant, Piero Manzoni, London, 1998, p. 110)