'The concept of the painting, or painting itself, or poetry in the common sense of the word, is no longer meaningful today' (Piero Manzoni, Prolegomena for an Artistic Activity, Milan 1957, reproduced in G. Celant, Piero Manzoni, exh. cat., Milan & London 1998, p. 69).
Discarding all such concepts of poetry, Piero Manzoni swept into the artworld with a refreshing and complete iconoclasm. Gone are image and figuration, expression and feeling. Instead, Manzoni created his Achrome, a forum in which even colour was absent. There is no artistic meddling, no mediation from the artist. Instead, we are presented with a post-Nuclear tabula rasa, a free zone devoid of association in which we can contemplate the most fundamental, universal common grounds of existence.
The notion of the tabula rasa is central to Manzoni's Achrome, which was executed around 1958-59. The lack of drawing, of artistic contribution, removes any sense of narrowing autobiography. Manzoni has removed all the vestiges of representation in order to create something: 'The difficulty lies in freeing oneself from extraneous details and useless gestures; details and gestures that are polluting the customary art of our day' (Manzoni, Art is not a true creation, pp. 76-77, in Celant, op.cit., 1998, p. 76). Manzoni has achieved this freedom, creating an artform that is not hampered by associations with anything specific, but is instead a window into fundamental elements common to all humanity and to all creation: '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' (Piero Manzoni, Prolegomena for an Artistic Activity, loc.cit., 1998, p. 69).
Achrome has been created using kaolin on canvas, which has then been loosely pleated in different directions, forming segmented squares. Kaolin was a substance that Manzoni considered essentially colourless, that allowed him to remove from the equation an entire level of potentially self-defeating information, a pitfall of specificity. Because of its thickness, kaolin takes time to set. It has more in common with clay than paint, again showing Manzoni refuting artistic tradition: he has deliberately left the kaolin-soaked to dry, allowing each pleat to set into a form of its own determination, a process that has created a miniaturized version of geological processes of landforming and that avoids all but the initial influence of the artist's hand. The kaolin has interacted with the elements in order to dictate its own final form, the artist having removed himself at an early stage. The inner energy of the work has led to its own creation. Manzoni minimized his participation in making Achrome, allowing it to become instead a direct product of physics, of the Earth. Entire aspects of human creation have been eschewed as a refutation of traditional art forms and the role of the artist, and also to harness something truly fundamental in the Achrome. In this, and the lack of images, he completely fulfilled his stated aims:
'Abstractions and references must be totally avoided. In our freedom of invention we must succeed in constructing a world that can be measured only in its own terms.
'We absolutely cannot consider the picture as a space on to which to project our mental scenography. It is the area 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 what they record, explain and express, but only for that which they are: to be' ('For the Discovery of a Zone of Images', undated but presumably 1957, reproduced in Piero Manzoni: Paintings, reliefs & objects, exh. cat., London 1974, pp. 16-17).
Manzoni's Achromes, the perfect embodiments of the above image-free zone, were self-formed. They had been granted an autonomy hitherto never existing in an artwork. They had been given the space 'to be', rather than to represent. Achrome does not rely on the world of signs, the world of the viewer, but exists, self-reliant, in its own right, a formal self-sufficiency that was to prove important to many later art concepts and movements.
Infamous for the affrontery of much of his work, not least his scatological Merda d'artista, it is only apt that his Achrome too retains a healthy and even sceptical wit and playfulness. Despite the prevalence, especially amongst artists close to him such as Fontana and Klein, of the monochrome, it is with a Duchampian playfulness that Manzoni takes it to the next step, a development that is art historically logical and necessary, yet here accomplished with a wry sense of irony. Representation was to be removed from Manzoni's art, but he saw no reason to remove fun. The Achrome is both the daring extension, and brazen parody, of the monochromes of his friends. In its pleats and creases we can discern the invitation to contemplate the universal, the lowest common denominator of humanity and art, but we are never far from the artist's wry smile.