'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 then that: a surface that simply is: to be (to be complete and become pure)' (Manzoni, quoted in G. Celant, Piero Manzoni, exh.cat., Milan & London, 1998, p. 27).
Achrome dates from 1958-59, and is the perfect expression of that search for a universal artwork that drove Piero Manzoni in his tragically short career. It was only in 1957 that he created the first Achromes - as opposed to the monochromes of other artists such as Yves Klein, Manzoni presented 'colourless' pictures, removing all the pictorial references that make pictures too specific and instead creating something utterly fundamental and inclusive. Within a short time, he had begun to develop the Achromes in several variations, sometimes pleating or stitching the canvas, and indeed in later years even presented 'colourless' found objects under that banner; however, the kaolin-soaked canvases such as this Achrome remain the artistic apogee and crucial breakthrough of Manzoni's quest, which in turn would come to influence an entire generation of artists, be it those grouped under the label Arte Povera in his native Italy, or the conceptual and Minimalist developments abroad.
Manzoni's Achrome is a form of tabula rasa. In it, he has removed all the extraneous features that he believed cluttered up traditional painting. Rather than presenting figurative scenes, or even abstract scrawls, against a background, he has let that background become the focus in its own right. Indeed, one could argue that there is not even a background: that instead, he has presented the surface as a virgin space of infinite potential.
Manzoni has pleated the canvas, which was soaked in kaolin, a form of clay used in the production of porcelain, and left it to dry. In this way, the work of art has determined its own eventual appearance, allowing Manzoni to stand back from the entire creative process, to remove himself entirely from the process. In a sense, Manzoni was a mere catalyst at the beginning of the process.
This emphasis on allowing Achrome to come into existence of its own accord, according to the pressures of nature and the environment - in short, of the world - marked a strong contrast with the increasing gesturality of some of Manzoni's immediate predecessors and contemporaries. Rather than stitching or burning the surface like Alberto Burri or vigorously puncturing the canvas like Fontana, whom he had already known during his childhood visits to Albisola, Manzoni placed himself in the role of a spectator, bearing witness to the creation of a new, unique, self-propelled and self-contained artwork, the Achrome. No gesture has been involved, no artistic decision making, no subjective impulses. By banishing all those aspects traditionally associated with art and the artistic impulse, Manzoni was allowing something universal to come into existence, a blank zone of pure potential. In Achrome, he has stood boldly back in order to allow the world to express itself in artistic form.
In this sense, Achrome is the distant cousin of the work of John Cage, whom Manzoni admired. Like Cage's music, which made use of such elements as radio, prepared pianos, the I Ching and silence, Achrome allows the viewer to perceive the beauty of the world by appropriating its own forces. His Achromes, as he explained, are, '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', reproduced in Piero Manzoni: Paintings, reliefs & objects, exh. cat., London, 1974, pp. 16-17).
Manzoni was trying to remove all signifiers from the surface of his paintings, to create a sort of highest common factor that would allow him to present the world with a universal artwork that could be appreciated by anyone and which expressed a new mythology appropriate to the age of existentialism. At the same time, the horizontal pleats hint at the fact that Manzoni himself could not depart so entirely from the path of aesthetics. While he claimed to have removed all subjectivity and aesthetics from his work, the Achrome reveals a failing which is in itself a strength: its own undeniable beauty. The rippling horizontal pleats become a veil of vibrating lines that recall the reflection of light upon water, invoking the entire landscape tradition. This was in part deliberate: the horizon, after all, is one of the most common and basic elements in the visual world, as was embraced by Piet Mondrian in the first half of the Twentieth Century, and Manzoni has used it in his Achrome to allow an echo of figuration to grab our attention and stimulate our imagination. This horizontality evokes the landscapes of Caspar David Friedrich and Ferdinand Hodler, though, and as such cannot avoid touching upon notions of the Romantic and the sublime.
At the same time, Achrome's sumptuous pleats recall the drapery of Old Master paintings and Baroque sculptures, for instance the Saint Theresa of Gian Lorenzo Bernini. In retrospect, now that the initial shock felt by some viewers in the late 1950s at the absence of colour from the surface Achrome and its sister works has passed, now that we are more attune to the notion of conceptual art and abstraction, the parallel with the Baroque seems mysteriously apt. After all, Manzoni was tapping into new mythologies, presenting his own highly conceptual, organic idea of immaculate conception within the self-shifting forms of the pleats of Achrome. This virgin surface thus takes certain aspects of tradition which may have seeped into Manzoni almost by osmosis, and reconfigures them in a new way that turned the entire notion of art on its head while also presenting a visionary solution to allow it to remain relevant in the post-war era.