'The question as far as I'm concerned is that of rendering 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 than that: a surface that simply is to be complete and pure' (P. Manzoni, quoted in 'Free Dimension', Azimuth, no. 2, Milan, 1960, unpaged).
In Piero Manzoni’s entrancing Achrome, 1962, white pebbles are elegantly scattered along the middle of a canvas – giving rise to perpetual, undulating movement as light passes over the hard surface of the pebbles. Shadows are cast onto the pristine and pure white surface and drawing attention to the properties of its surface and of its creation. While distinguishing itself with its rich texture and shadow play of these pebbles, Achrome is an elegant and definitive example of the eponymously named series that Piero Manzoni had embarked upon in 1957 and would relentlessly pursue until his untimely death in 1963. With the radical ambition to conceptually re-define the very essence of painting, Manzoni lent autonomy to the artwork by allowing it to express itself through its own physical properties. To this end, the artist would steep raw canvas in a chalky kaolin solution, a clay particularly sought after for its qualities of hardness, whiteness, and purity after firing. Imbuing the canvas with a raw internal energy, the properties of this material and depersonalisation of the process transforms the apparent neutral whiteness of the canvas into a multitude of gradations of luminous values. Freed from the weight and burden of chromatic and figurative representation, in Achrome the canvas seems to tremble back to life as the oscillations of the canvas introduce into the painting subtle shadows and bright point of lights. As Manzoni indeed urged, ‘why not seek to discover the unlimited meaning of total space, of pure and absolute light?’ (P. Manzoni, ‘Free Dimension’, in Piero Manzoni: Paintings, Reliefs and Objects, exh. cat., Tate Gallery, London, 1974, p. 47).
Manzoni developed his Achromes during a period in post-war Europe when a small group of artists were looking to re-write the rules of artistic expression in direct contrast to the prevailing emotional outpouring of such movements as Abstract Expressionism or Art Informel. It was upon the encounter with Yves Klein’ virtually identical monochrome blue paintings in the revolutionary exhibition Epoca Blu at the Galleria Apollinaire in Milan in January 1957 that Manzoni began to create the series of all-white works, which he called Achromes. Breaking away from the convention of subject matter in a similar manner to Lucio Fontana and Alberto Burri, Manzoni aimed to produce ‘images which are as absolute as possible, which cannot be valued for that which they record, explain and express, but only for that which they are: to be’ (P. Manzoni, quoted in ‘For the Discovery of a Zone of Images’, in Piero Manzoni: Paintings, Reliefs and Objects, exh. cat., Tate Gallery, London, 1974, p. 17). The autonomy and purity of Manzoni's Achromes belonged to a daring new genre of conceptual art, one in which existential themes were brought to the fore and which acted as a precursor to some of the most exhilarating genres of the late-twentieth century art historical canon, such as Arte Povera, Zero and Minimalism.