The body of work for which Manzoni remains most recognized - and notorious - came from the last half decade of his short life. Achrome, executed circa 1958, is a radiant and extremely pure example of the most lastingly influential of Manzoni's works and dates from the very beginning of this rich period in which the artist found the voice with which he was to gain such fame and infamy.
In 1958, a growing interest in the potential of the monochrome was evident throughout the Italian avant-garde and informed the work of Castellani, Burri and even the white achromatic background of the Rome-based Twombly. This prevalence of the monochrome had been reinforced in particular by Yves Klein's launch of his Epoca blu in the Galleria Apollinaire in Milan at the start of the previous year. Manzoni visited this exhibition several times and also met the artist. It was an event that would greatly influence his life and work. Klein's monochromes were almost always pink, gold or, most importantly, blue. In these colors, Klein saw the subsidization of certain qualities, of infinities, and used them in all their intensity to burn spiritual messages into people's eyes and therefore minds. At the same time, Fontana was beginning to embark upon his Attese, or Taglie, and had already explored the monochrome in other works that he had pierced and punctured.
From a general visual convention prevalent at the time and indicative of the age, Manzoni created something distinct and unique. He took the monochrome to a new level, revolutionizing an already revolutionary concept, stripping away even the color inherent in 'chrome'. Hence the Achrome came into being, a painting without color, without representation, without even paint. In his art, Manzoni sought to free himself 'from extraneous details and useless gestures; details and gestures that are polluting the customary art of our day and sometimes actually acquire such prominence that they become banners of artistic trends' (Manzoni, Art is not a true creation, Milan, 1957, reproduced in G. Celant, Piero Manzoni, exh.cat., Milan & London, 1998, p. 76). There is no brushstroke, no hint of color, no style with which to limit the painting's interpretation, and therefore nothing with which to limit its potential. By clearing away the detritus of artistic subjectivity and convention, Manzoni has created something universal, something that is true to all viewers as it has no details with which to exclude anyone, and therefore taps into the very fundament of humanity itself.
In Italy, Manzoni's Achromes made an immediate impact, adding to the culture of the monochrome that already existed and lending it further authority. This trend gained an official stamp of approval in the exhibition Monochrome Malerei, held two years later, which featured works from Manzoni, Klein and Castellani, as well as artists from other countries on both sides of the Atlantic. Like Klein, Manzoni and Fontana, other artists had found in the monochrome the perfect vehicle for their artistic explorations. Not least among them was Robert Ryman, who since the early 1950s had eschewed color and form in favor of single-color, textured canvases, allowing him to probe painting's materiality. Although this resulted in works that occasionally appear to echo Manzoni's Achromes, his work retained painting itself as its central concern.
Although there is a degree of shared ancestry in the ideas of Manzoni and many of his American contemporaries, it is important to note that,an important influence on all of them was the work of Alberto Burri. Robert Rauschenberg and Cy Twombly had already been exploring areas that were to parallel to the ideas of Burri and Manzoni, as is indeed indicated by Rauschenberg's Lily White of 1950 for example as well as his subsequent white paintings. Throughout this period there was an increasing interest on both sides of the Atlantic in the objecthood of the artwork. Twombly's sculptures bear particular testimony to this aspect of his work as indeed does the work of Jasper Johns whose Flag in many ways uses a similar artistic formula to Manzoni's Achrome, serving as an object in its own right but also confusing the viewer by asking where existence ends and representation begins. In his Achromes Manzoni took this aspect of the Flag even further by removing representation entirely and letting his kaolin-soaked canvas exist solely as a self-authoring object in its own right.
Although Manzoni died young, his torch was almost immediately picked up on both sides of the Atlantic, and in many ways the example of his brief but intense career proved more influential than that of many of his peers. In Italy, the artists of Arte Povera forged an entire aesthetic from the tabula rasa that his Achrome had created. An authorless "open work", the Achrome served as the cornerstone of much conceptual art in Europe. At the same time the emergence of conceptual art in the United States also reflected Manzoni's influence. Minimalism in particular showed itself indebted to him, for while monochromes had existed before the Achrome, it was primarily in the art of Manzoni and his Azimuth colleague Enrico Castellani that the desire to create something that exists stubbornly in its own right truly emerged. Even in the repetition embraced by some artists such as Judd owes something to the formal regularity that existed within Manzoni's oeuvre.
In addition to being a tabula rasa, Manzoni's Achromes also, in allowing the work to be self-forming, embraced the "unconscious" element of chance. Manzoni deliberate use of kaolin to both prime and, as it set, form the folds and final shape of the canvas surface kept the artist removed from being the 'author' of the work. In many of the kaolin Achromes, Manzoni did in fact dictate to some extent the final appearance of the work through the use of pleats, which themselves would shift and alter as the kaolin set. This example however, remains at its most pure in both form and effect, showing far less signs of artistic manipulation. Instead, chance, or the forces of nature and physics which dry the kaolin, have been given a free range demonstrating that through the intervention of the universe, the Achrome too enhances its universality.
What makes this a truly great work is that it is the purist manifestation of Manzoni's life long ambition to create a painting that makes itself, while maintaining a ghostly, poetic presense that nevertheless bares witness to the mark of the artist.
Robert Rauschenberg, White Painting, 1951 c Robert Rauschenberg/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY
Piero Manzoni, 1959 Photograph by Ennio Vicario c 2004 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/SIAE, Rome
Robert Ryman, Untitled, 1961 Collection of the artist