‘When a painting is finished: a surface of infinite possibilities is now reduced to a sort of recipient into which unnatural colors, artificial significances have been forced and compressed. And why, instead, should we not empty this recipient? Why not liberate this surface? Why not attempt to discover the limitless significance of a total space, of a pure and absolute light?’
‘We can only spread a single colour, or rather, stretch out a single, uninterrupted surface (that excludes any superfluous gesture, any possibility of interpretation). It is not a question of “painting” blue on blue or white on white (either in the sense of composition or of self-expression). Quite the contrary: as I see it, the question is to produce a wholly white surface (nay, a wholly colourless, neutral, surface) that lies well beyond any pictorial phenomenon, that is wholly divorced from any act that is extraneous to its value as a surface. The whiteness is not a polar landscape, an evocative or beautiful material, a sensation, a symbol, or anything else; it is a white surface that is a white surface and nothing else. It is being (and total being is the pure and incessant flow of changeableness)’
With its elegant, repetitive and gently uneven sequence of twelve squares of white canvas laid out in a gridlike formation, this Achrome is one of a comparatively rare group of fabric Achromes in which Piero Manzoni explores and expresses the open and potentially endless repetitive nature of his concept. In September 1958, the format of Manzoni’s canvas Achromes underwent an important change. For a solo show held in Rotterdam, he exhibited new works that were now comprised not of single sheets of canvas, but of separate square sections stitched or laid out in sequence. The serial play of rectangular and square forms – which Manzoni subsequently came to refer to as a structural ‘raster’– marked the beginning of an investigation into the proportional relationship of his achromatic white surfaces in a way that was ultimately to extend throughout many of the cotton, polystyrene and bread-roll Achromes that were to follow. Alongside Alberto Burri, Lucio Fontana and Yves Klein, Manzoni is one of the leading pioneers of the anti-painterly and increasingly conceptual direction that much European art took during the late 1950s and ’60s. Forming the central thrust of his creative research, Manzoni’s Achromes are the defining icons of his tragically brief but groundbreaking and highly influential career. Begun in 1957 and continued in a variety of forms and often surprising new media right up until the artist’s premature death in 1963, they are unique manifestations that mark a wholly new approach to the making of art.
Both a response to and an extension of the Spatialist explorations of Lucio Fontana, Alberto Burri’s self-asserting material works and the immateriality and mysticism of Yves Klein’s monochromes, Manzoni Achromes were self-defining objects that asserted only their own surfaces – surfaces from which all other extraneous detail, artifice and style had been eliminated. Non-formal, non-tonal, colourless zones of material nothingness, the Achromes are works that not only mark the culmination of the existentialist direction of much of the art of this period, but that also provided the creative tabula rasa out of which much of the Minimalist, Conceptual, anti-form and Arte Povera tendencies of the 1960s grew. Described by Manzoni, who was greatly inspired by the psychoanalytical writings of Sigmund Freud and Carl Gustav Jung at this time, as ‘totems,’ his Achromes were essentially non-pictures – demonstrably real material presences that articulated only their own formal and material properties. Kaolin, a white clay used in porcelain manufacture, was a frequent element with respect to the unique self-defining materiality of his canvas Achromes. Applied in a fluid form to the folds and pleats of the works’ surfaces, its enigmatic, chalky materiality and colourlessness fixed the canvas into a permanent sculptural form. In the present Achrome, however, Manzoni employed non-kaolin-coated canvas, its sequence of squares machine-stitched together to create a friable surface completely removed from the artist’s hand, breaking down the borders between art and industry. This logic is itself subverted and overrun by the subtle surface irregularities and self-asserting material forms of the squares, which establish their own textural and organic order.
In their overt and manifest display solely of their own materiality and surface, Manzoni’s Achromes were works that finally and irreparably broke down the illusive and conceptual space that up until this point had always traditionally surrounded the picture plane. At the same time, as these new grid-based works showed, the Achromes were works of art that were also able to operate as individual, unaesthetic and even endlessly repeatable concepts within the real, physical space of the viewer and the world around them. Marking the beginning of a process of integration between art and life, therefore, they were works that signalled the end of the idea of the art-object and its extension into what Manzoni believed would be a conceptual ‘zone’ of freedom and the final liberation of art from style. ‘We absolutely cannot consider the picture as a space onto which to project our mental scenography’ Manzoni insisted. Instead, the picture offered a conceptual ‘arena 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 that which they record, explain or express, but only for that which they are to be’ (P. Manzoni, ‘For the Discovery of a Zone of Images,’ Azimuth, Spring 1957, reproduced in Piero Manzoni, exh. cat. Tate Gallery, London, 1974, pp. 18-19).
For an artist who insisted on the liberation of art from style, however, Manzoni’s uniquely ‘styleless’ creations nevertheless often betrayed the artist’s own unerring stylistic flair and wry wit. The inherent elegance of many of his Achrome canvases carefully pleated into lines or sewn into rhythmic fields of white, for example, often seems to undermine the aim of creating self-determinate entities expressive only of their own innate materiality. In this Achrome of 1960-61, the artist has further developed the sequential rhythm found in earlier Achromes and translated it into the more formal, structural and intellectual logic of a grid-like progression. This is a significant structural alteration that openly asserts more strongly the conceptual nature and potential of his Achromes by marking the distinct contrast between the idealised nature of such angular geometry and the apparent disorder or disruptive chaos of the organic material forms of nature. Some critics have compared such grid-structured Achromes as this work to the paintings of Piet Mondrian, but the logic of Manzoni’s works runs very much counter to the strictly rational pictorial organising principles of Mondrian’s paintings. Here, tackling the materiality of Alberto Burri’s Sacchi with pure colourlessness and a Duchampian sense of ‘the law of chance,’ this Achrome is instead a work that actively encourages the notion of the eventual dissolution of the art-object itself into an intangible concept. It is in this respect that this work anticipates the later grid-like works of Carl Andre and Sol LeWitt, or the sequential exploration of the blank canvas by Giulio Paolini and the permutational aesthetics of Alighiero Boetti – or, indeed, of the landmark series of Linee or ‘lines’ that Manzoni was to make soon after this series of works.