‘art is not true creation…the difficulty lies in freeing oneself from extraneous details and useless gestures…with it we are able to get back in touch with our origins, eliminating all useless gestures, all that there is of a personal and literary nature within us in the worst sense’
(Manzoni, ‘L’arte non è vera creazione’, quoted in G. Celant, Piero Manzoni Catlogo generale Tomo primo, Milan, 2004, xxxiii)
Executed circa 1960, Piero Manzoni’s Achrome belongs to a radical, experimental series of works of the same name, with which the artist fundamentally expanded and redefined the concept of painting. Initiated in 1957 and abruptly cut short by Manzoni’s premature death in 1963, the colourless Achromes focused on the primacy of the material itself, transforming the canvas from an instrument of representation into an autonomous artwork. Conceived in a period of immense change in Italy, when economic success aided modernisation and industrialisation that transformed the social and cultural landscape of the country, this series of works, like Lucio Fontana’s punctured or sliced canvases and Alberto Burri’s self-asserting use of industrial materials, presented a radically new form of art which attempted to move beyond convention and explore the materiality and physicality of the canvas itself. Divided into 12 soft, cloudlike white cotton wool squares, Achrome demonstrates the full range of this seminal series, as Manzoni extended his exploration of material to include readily available, commercial objects in his work. Resonating with an elegant simplicity, Achrome is a self-defined, material object purged of representational qualities.
Manzoni executed his first Achrome in 1957. At first the artist soaked pieces of canvas in kaolin – a soft form of clay – which, when left to set, with the most minimal of intervention, formed natural layers, wrinkles and folds. By 1959, the artist had begun to join pieces of white canvas or white fabric together, creating a stitched, sequential grid-like structure, and in 1960, Manzoni extended this concept further by incorporating other, often banal objects and materials into his Achromes, including stones, fibreglass, felt, bread rolls and polystyrene balls. In the present work, the artist has used cotton wool – an inherently white, highly tactile material – and has presented the pieces in neatly aligned rows. Freed from their utilitarian function and presented without symbolic association, these objects become autonomous forms admired for their innate texture and soft, material qualities. It is not just the artwork itself that functions as an autonomous object, but these commonplace objects also become self-referential as they are placed within a new context, stripped of their original role.
In assembling readymade objects as in Achrome, Manzoni reduced the artist’s role in the act of art making to the bare minimum. In the present work, there is no evidence of the artist’s hand; the surface appears untouched, devoid of expressive markings or spontaneous artistic gestures that would belie the presence of the creator himself. Manzoni believed that art should not be mediated by the artist or made to be the image of something else; instead, he felt art should exist in an absolute, pure state, unfettered and autonomous. In 1960, at the time that the present Achrome was executed, Manzoni, in an artistic statement entitled ‘Dimensione libera’ (‘Free Dimension’), which was published in the second issue of Azimuth, the magazine the artist published with Enrico Castellani, bemoaned the practices of contemporary painters, explaining,
‘…I am quite unable to understand those painters who, whilst declaring an active interest in modern problems, still continue even today to confront a painting as if it was a surface to be filled with colour and forms according to an aesthetic taste which can be more or less appreciated, more or less guessed at. They paint a line, step back, look at their work with head on one side and half-closed eye; and these gymnastics continue until the painting is finished: a surface of unlimited possibilities is now reduced to a kind of receptacle into which unnatural colours and artificial meanings are forced’ (Manzoni, ‘Free Dimension’, Azimuth, no. 2, Milan, 1960, in Piero Manzoni: Paintings, Reliefs & Objects, exh. cat., London, 1974, p. 46).
Believing that the traditional illusionistic treatment of the canvas was artificial and limited the expressive possibilities of the canvas itself, he asked, ‘Why shouldn’t this receptacle be emptied? Why shouldn’t this surface be freed? Why not seek to discover the unlimited meaning of total space, of pure and absolute light?’ (Manzoni, ibid. p. 46). With his Achromes, Manzoni can be seen to be answering his provocative questions, returning art to a primal, unadulterated state and so realising his desire for a pure visual language that is unhindered by narrative or gesture.
The abiding characteristic of Manzoni’s Achromes is their colour or indeed their absolute absence of colour. Unlike his contemporaries who were experimenting with monochrome, Manzoni eschewed colour altogether. He has not painted the surface of Achrome white, rather chosen a naturally white material. In draining his works of colour Manzoni sought to eliminate possible figurative interpretations of the Achromes and therefore create a painting that referred only to itself. He explained in ‘Dimensione libera’: ‘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 then that: a surface that simply is: to be (to be complete and become pure)’ (Manzoni, ‘Free Dimension’, Azimuth, no. 2, Milan, 1960, in Piero Manzoni: Paintings, Reliefs & Objects, exh. cat., London, 1974, p. 46-7). As the components of painting – colour, line and form – were reduced to the bare minimum, the limitations of the painted, mimetic canvas were abolished, opening up new possibilities for painting and paving the way for Conceptual art. In this way, with works such as Achrome, Manzoni achieved his desire for, ‘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 ‘ (Manzoni, ‘For the Discovery of a Zone of Images’ 1957, in ibid., p. 17).