The twelve stitched squares of canvas that comprise Piero Manzoni’s Achrome are a spare and supremely elegant advancement in the development of twentieth century painting. Executed in 1960, the work harnesses the lexicon of the modernist grid yet eradicates any kind of mark-making or additional medium. Instead the bare, divided canvas highlights the fundamental nature of the picture plane, its traditional support and its rigidly rectilinear contours. With this work, Manzoni acknowledges the history of monochrome and formalist painting from Malevich to Mondrian, as well as his contemporaries Yves Klein and Lucio Fontana. But in typical trickster fashion he upends their use of canvas as a receptacle for the projection of utopian and transcendental hypotheses by interpreting that surface as already dynamic in its pure form. Once in the renowned collection of Helga and Walther Lauffs, which included masterpieces by the leading artists of post-war European and American art, Achrome encapsulates the unprecedented and revolutionary artistic development that Manzoni made with this series of works.
Through his widely varied practice, Manzoni consistently questioned the nature and definition of art—whether writing manifestoes, signing the bodies of individuals, supposedly filling tin cans with his own excrement or applying his thumbprint to the shells of boiled eggs. These deliberately egocentric activities were tempered by the continual development of the Achrome series (1957–63), which allowed him to abandon the self in favour of a fully autonomous art. With these works, Manzoni sought to eliminate spontaneity, expressiveness, individual experience and psychological intent from the function of art and its means of procedure. He dipped canvas in kaolin liquid and let it set with only minor intervention, or chose materials such as cotton wool, straw, felt and fur that all possessed a distinctive tactility in themselves. The Achromes created in effect a ‘virgin space’, or tabula rasa, designed to strip away anything that would contain associative references or prompt emotive interpretations.
Manzoni explained that the Achromes provide, ‘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)’ (P. Manzoni, ‘Free Dimension’, Azimuth, no. 2, Milan, 1960, reproduced in Piero Manzoni: Paintings, Reliefs & Objects, exh. cat., Tate, London, 1974, pp. 46-7).
This project took monochrome painting to a new level, revolutionizing an already revolutionary concept by stripping away even the colour inherent in ‘chrome’. Hence, the Achrome came into being, a painting without colour, without representation, without even paint. This uncoated Achrome, with its tessellated patchwork of fabric squares not only exists in a perfectly self-contained fashion, it also explores the idea of endless repetition. The stitched-together canvas points to a serial conception of the art object as well as boundless possibility, for the seams and units hold the potential to extend far beyond the confines of the stretcher frame. Its structure is closely aligned to the mechanizing nature of Manzoni’s Linea series developed in 1959, where he discarded the notion of artistic originality through the repeated action of drawing a single, uninterrupted line on rolls of paper—lines that he considered to be fragments of the infinite.
Manzoni’s early explorations into the modular machine-sewn Achromes were made of bed sheets given to him by Esa Rossello of the Mazzotti ceramics family, while he was her houseguest in Albisola during the summer of 1959. The present Achrome, in its overt and manifest display of its own materiality, continues and develops these investigations. This is a particularly fine version of Manzoni’s new repertoire, its delicate, wavering structure evoking the softly delineated graphite grids that would eventually define the work of Agnes Martin. It is entirely devoted to the inherent graphic qualities of the pure, unadulterated surface, with only the means of its construction visible.
For Manzoni, this was a logical progression towards the most simplified yet essential form of visual communication. He has freed painting from any obligation towards both image and index, affording the viewer an opportunity to delight in the ‘significance of the surface which is unique, limitless and absolutely dynamic’ (P. Manzoni, ‘Free Dimension’, Azimuth, no. 2, Milan, 1960, reproduced in Piero Manzoni: Paintings, Reliefs & Objects, exh. cat., Tate, London, 1974, p. 46). In doing so, he also managed to introduce a notion of objecthood and conceptual process that would pave the way for many subsequent developments in contemporary art, not least Minimalism.