‘The image takes form in its vital function; it cannot have value for what it calls back to mind, explains, or expresses…nor for seeking or being able to be explained as an allegory for a physical process. It has value only insomuch as it is: only as being’ (PIERO MANZONI)
‘It is not a question of shaping things, nor of articulating messages… For are not fantasizing, abstraction and self-expression empty fictions. There is nothing to be said: there is only to be, to live’ (PIERO MANZONI)
‘The advent of new conditions and the posing of new problems call for new methods, new measures, and new solutions. We cannot leave the ground by running or jumping; we need wings’ (PIERO MANZONI)
Consisting of twenty squares of white canvas arranged in a gently uneven, grid like formation, Piero Manzoni’s Achrome is an early and supremely elegant iteration of the artist’s seminal and career-defining series of the same name, which he had begun in 1957. With its textured, colourless surface, Achrome is one of a pivotal and comparatively rare group in which Manzoni took a significant leap forwards in his conception of this radical series. Unlike the previous Achromes, which were made from one single canvas, in the present work the composition is comprised of sequential canvas squares that have been soaked in kaolin and then left to dry, creating the irregular pattern of folds, wrinkles, bubbles and drips that playfully distorts the geometric regularity of the composition. Initially conceived for an important one-man show in Rotterdam in 1958, these gridded Achromes marked the beginning of an investigation into the structural make-up of the colourless surface and the proportional relationships that existed within it. These explorations became one of the central features of Manzoni’s subsequent Achromes, underpinning the serial arrangements of sewn fabric pieces, cotton balls, polystyrene and bread rolls. A self-generating and self-defining work, Achrome encapsulates Manzoni’s desire to create an elemental, primal art that was purged of all representation and expression, a purified ‘tabula rasa’ out of which many of the tendencies of the Minimalist, Conceptual and Arte Povera movements of the 1960s grew. Achrome was originally in the Essellier Collection, Zurich: a distinguished and extensive collection that included works by some of the greatest artists of the post-war era, including Lucio Fontana, Donald Judd, Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol and many others. Similar works from this small and decisive moment in the development of the Achrome series are now housed in distinguished private and public collections across the world, including the Tate Gallery, London, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam and Kröller Müller Museum, Otterlo.
Executed from 1958 to 1959, Achrome dates from a period of intense, near-unprecedented creativity in the career of Manzoni. Having had a breakthrough with the inception of the Achrome series in 1957, Manzoni, who was living in Milan, found himself within a highly fertile creative and intellectual environment. In the midst of an economic, social and political resurgence, Milan at this time was a hotbed of creativity, playing host to a range of artists who sought a revolution in the visual arts. Turning their back on convention and tradition, this group of artists, including Manzoni, Enrico Castellani, Lucio Fontana, Agostino Bonalumi, Vicenzo Agnetti and others, shunned illusionism, naturalism and gestural abstraction, aspiring, in the words of Germano Celant, ‘not to possess such an object through the ego, but rather to petrify a knowledge, a process of seeing or feeling, to transform it into a thing, an autonomous, independent, immobile and durable thing’ (G. Celant (ed.), Enrico Castellani 1958-1970, exh. cat., Milan, 2001, p. 10). This desire manifested itself most prominently in a direct confrontation with the canvas itself. At the time Manzoni executed the present work, Fontana had just made what was arguably his most radical gesture: the cut, slicing through the very fibre of the canvas to transcend the boundaries of painting. Likewise, Manzoni’s friend and artistic collaborator, Castellani – with whom in 1959 the artist founded the publication, ‘Azimuth’, and Azimut, an exhibition space to display the most avant-garde work of the time – had just initiated his greatest series, the Superifici, in which he too distorted and purified the surface of the canvas to achieve his need for an art that unified the dynamic elements of light, space and time. Manzoni’s own words encapsulate the ideas behind these pioneering artistic exploits:
‘…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… 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, ‘Free Dimension’, Azimuth, no. 2, Milan, 1960, in Piero Manzoni: Paintings, Reliefs & Objects, exh. cat., London, 1974, p. 46).
With his Achromes, Manzoni found the answer to his provocative questions. Born out of the radical redefinition of painting by two of the godfathers of post-war Italian art – the Spatialist works of Lucio Fontana and the self-asserting material works of Alberto Burri – Manzoni’s Achromes built on and simultaneously subverted this quest for a new pictorial materiality. Soaking pieces of canvas in kaolin, Manzoni then left this soft form of clay to dry naturally, creating a panoramic relief of wrinkles, folds and layers that showed no trace of the artist’s hand nor of his involvement with the artistic process. All extraneous pictorial detail – descriptive, subjective, allegorical or symbolic – was purged, leaving only the surface itself, colourless, neutral and absolute. No longer was the work a painting in the traditional sense, but was instead a physical entity, self-defining and autonomous, serving no other purpose other than to exist. In Achrome, each crinkled square holds a variety of textures; the surface is alive with the evidence of its own creation, a work of raw, immediate and unmediated beauty, the embodiment of Manzoni’s 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).
Yet, although he proclaimed the need to rid art of style and liberate it from the presence of the artist, Manzoni’s gridded canvases, such as the present Achrome, appear to contradict his aim of creating self-determining objects expressive only of their innate materiality. In Achrome, Manzoni has arranged square pieces of canvas into an ordered, logical grid-like structure, creating horizontal and vertical lines that echo yet playfully subvert the austere Modernist grid seen particularly in the work of Piet Mondrian. In creating this sequential structure, which he later termed as ‘raster’, Manzoni has created a work that is able to operate as an endlessly repeatable concept within the real, physical space of the viewer and the world around it. Like Castellani’s Superfici, the rhythmic arrangement of seams and units in Manzoni’s gridded Achrome has the visual potential to continue to expand beyond the periphery of the canvas itself. In this way, the artwork becomes an autonomous object, integrated into and existing within real life, the embodiment of what Manzoni believed would be a conceptual ‘zone’ of freedom. ‘It is not a question of shaping things, nor of articulating messages’, Manzoni declared in 1960. ‘For are not fantasizing, abstraction and self-expression empty fictions. There is nothing to be said: there is only to be, to live’ (Manzoni, ‘Free Dimension’, Azimuth, no. 2, Milan, 1960, op. cit., p. 47).