Piero Manzoni’s evolution of the Achrome
The body of work for which Piero Manzoni remains most recognized came from the last half decade of his short life. Of this extraordinarily diverse and insurrectionary oeuvre, it is the Achrome ‘paintings’ that forged his reputation. With these works, Manzoni presented the viewer with a new and pure visual language, where a painting could be virtually untrammelled by the artist’s hand and their surfaces need not even feature colour. Between 1957-63, Manzoni created this extensive series of all-white paintings from a wide range of unusual materials, including kaolin, polystyrene, cotton balls and batting, fiberglass and fur. Each variation was in effect a tabula rasa, designed to strip away anything that would contain associative references or prompt emotive interpretations. ‘We absolutely cannot consider the painting as a space on which we project mental stage sets,’ the artist once wrote. ‘We must consider it as the ‘area of liberty’ in which we set out on the discovery of our primal images. Images as absolute as possible, that will not be valid for what they recall, explain, or express, but only for what they are: being’ (P. Manzoni, ‘For the Discovery of an Area of Images’, 1957, reproduced in, exh. cat., Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, 1991, p.55).
Manzoni's practice developed in the 1950s in dialogue with the prevailing post-war movements of the time such as Art Informel, the European equivalent of Abstract Expressionism. Being considerably younger than the associated artists he moved rapidly through the Informel mode of painting, railing against what he perceived as a misguided focus on artistic and expressive style. The severe break Manzoni made with the traditional attributes of painting, including the abandonment of colour, mark-making and even paint itself, came after a revelatory encounter with the work of Yves Klein in January of 1957. Manzoni had been electrified by Klein’s display of eleven virtually identical monochrome blue paintings at the Galleria Apollinaire in Milan and he was compelled to engage in an act of conceptual one-upmanship with the French artist. Where Klein sought to express the Immaterial, Manzoni sought a far more tangible means of tapping into fundamental aspects of human existence. He set out to counter Klein’s mystic approach to art with a critical and materialist response. If Klein’s monochromes were a painting of a single uninterrupted colour bound to a spiritual vision, then Manzoni had to go one step further: his Achromes were, he claimed, colourless, neutral and absolute.
Achrome of 1958 (Lot 71 ) is an early, radiant example of Manzoni’s desire to create a 'virgin space', where the canvas could no longer be subordinated to image and external stimulus. It was created from squares of raw canvas that were soaked in liquefied kaolin, a soft china clay used in making porcelain. Manzoni then allowed them to set slowly, a process that resulted in the work ultimately defining its own appearance. Although initially these squares appear to be bereft of detail, closer inspection shows the surface to be alive with the evidence of its own creation. Each crinkled square harbours a variety of textures, where the drying kaolin left bubbles and drips; memories of the medium in its liquid form. With its clean and unmediated aesthetic, the work radiates a raw energy, an unconscious beauty that refers only to the process of its own making. In 1959, Manzoni began to push the visual possibilities of his Achromes further into the territory of the tabula rasa. He began to produce an even more economical type of Achrome, where he abandoned the use of kaolin to shape the picture plane and instead constructed the surface out of machine-sewn panels of fabric. The stitched Achrome displayed here (Lot 9) is a particularly fine version of this new repertoire, its delicate, wavering structure evoking the softly delineated graphite grids that would eventually define the work of Agnes Martin. This intimate work is closely aligned to the mechanizing nature of Manzoni’s Linea series, 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.
The stitched canvases point to a serial conception of the art object as well as unlimited possibility, for their seams and units possessed the potential to be endlessly repeated. They are entirely devoted to the inherent graphic qualities of the pure, unadulterated surface, with only the means of their construction visible. For Manzoni, this was a logical progression towards the most simplified yet essential form of visual communication. He had freed the surface from any obligation towards both image and index, affording the viewer an opportunity to delight in ‘the limitless significance of a total space, of a pure and absolute light’ (P. Manzoni, quoted in G. Celant, ‘In the Territory of Piero Manzoni,’ G. Celant (ed.), Piero Manzoni, exh. cat., Naples, 2007, p. 30). Three further Achromes in this collection demonstrate the continually radical and highly influential strategies by which Manzoni achieved this aim. In 1960 the artist took his concept of minimal intervention to its next logical step, introducing readymade materials to form the expanse of his paintings. In one work (Lot 77) a vertical arrangement of cotton balls is contained within a white box frame, its orderly rows expanding on the seriality evident in the sewn canvas. Another cotton wool grid (Lot 76) is adhered to an expansive background of black velvet, lending these ubiquitous bathroom staples the aura of something sacred or precious. Having taken these objects out of everyday circulation and turned them into a kind of spectacle, Manzoni invites us to examine the soft, tactile roundness of their unique, yet familiar materiality. His materials have been given the space ‘to be’, rather than to fulfil some utilitarian purpose, or to symbolize something else, thereby granting an autonomy hitherto never existing in an artwork. This was a formal self-sufficiency that proved to be extremely important to many later art concepts and movements, not least Minimalism and Arte Povera.
The wildest looking Achromes are those Manzoni referred to as being ‘furry like clouds’. These were his fibreglass works, in which he pierced a support with a grid of holes and then teased through a billowing mass of synthetic fibres. The curled fibreglass in the 1961 work here (Lot 4) has distinct bodily connotations, indeed it almost appears to be a living thing, but it is also wispy and ephemeral, floating above its dark velvet ground like a vapour. Despite the prevalence of the monochrome, especially amongst artists close to Manzoni such as Fontana and Klein, these works embody the Duchampian playfulness that lay at the heart of his practice. Representation was removed from Manzoni's art, but he saw no reason to remove fun. The Achromes were both the daring extension, and brazen parody, of the monochromes of his friends. In their folds, seams and assemblages of found parts, we can discern the invitation to contemplate the universal, but we are never far from the artist's wry smile.
For me, this is one of Manzoni's most incisive works: the horizon line (his, that of the artist) enclosed in a cardboard cylinder.
Each line has a different measurement, right up to the one that is of "infinite length". The world of Manzoni's ideas is always victorious, original, unpredictable, yet incredibly consistent with his artistic development, sometimes expressed in a provocative manner, but always with an intellectual consistency and a truly extraordinary capacity for invention.
With my line, I thought I had brought home a piece of his horizon.