"We absolutely cannot consider the picture as a space on to which to project our mental scenography. It is the area 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 and express, but only for that which they are: to be." (Piero Manzoni, Per la scoperta di una zona d'immagini, 1956, quoted in Piero Manzoni, Serpentine Gallery, London 1998)
Less than a year after making this declaration in the manifesto For the Discovery of a Zone of Images, Manzoni had rid his work entirely of the dialogue between artist gesture, the image and the material, moving instead towards a completely new way of making art. He had been experimenting with the application on canvas of kaolin, the white clay used by potters in the production of porcelain, to create a work of more radical purity, stripped of any residual elements of memory or personal association and most importantly, of the artist's intervention: "...Art is not true creation - the difficulty lies in freeing oneself from extraneous details...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. (Piero Manzoni, L'arte non è vera creazione, Milan, May 1957, manifesto signed by Piero Manzoni, Ettore Sardini and Angelo Verga, translated as: Art is not true creation, in The Italian Metamorphosis, 1943-1968, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York 1995, p. 717).
The canvas, structured into extended squares or left exposed with horizontal or vertical grooves or creases, as in this work, was covered in kaolin and left to harden and crystallize, with no further action from the artist. This process created no more than a rough undulating surface, relating to nothing but itself. But the resulting achrome owed less to a search for spiritual inspiration that characterized other experiments at the time by the European artist groups Nul and Zero and the Japanese group Gutai, or even the alchemical transformation of material into blue in the monochromes of Yves Klein, whose first exhibition in Italy in 1957 Manzoni visited many times. Manzoni's interest was rather to freeze painting, to imprison energy, his goal being to render a surface completely white, integrally colourless and neutral, far beyond any pictorial phenomenon or any intervention extraneous to the value of the surface. He sought to create:"...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." (Piero Manzoni, Libera dimensione, in Azimuth, no. 2 Milan 1960, trans. Caroline Tisdall and Angelo Bozzola as Free Dimension in Piero Manzoni: Paintings, reliefs and objects, Tate Gallery, London 1974, pp. 46-47).
The Achrome were a definitive break with the past, with art history; like a shedding of skin, Manzoni declared: "As the forms and ideas of one cultural period (including painting) become sterile, another period begins. This happened around the beginning of our century. Not only was a new language born; our whole culture changed. And it is not just a matter of seeing differently: we see other things. Painting and painterly problems (the last Post-romantic residuals) are not part of the modern cultural cycle. They are long dead. Where they survive, they survive only as bad literature. Reshufflings and modifications remain a part of the past. A new language and a total transformation are needed. The old language must be abandoned altogether. An artist can only use the materials (ideas and forms) of his time." (Piero Manzoni, Investigation of Painting, 1960).
As far as possible, he sought to absent himself as the artist and author of the work: "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 in, step back, look at their work with head on one side and half-closed eye, then jump forward again and add another line or colour; and these gymnastics continue until the painting is filled in and the canvas is covered: 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?." (Piero Manzoni, ibid.)
The unorthodoxy of Manzoni's approach is still very much in evidence today. It wasn't that he 'used' cloth, fibres, canvas and so on in his paintings. What he did was present these materials in either random or orderly arrangements as his paintings, with the minimum of interference from the artist's hand. Naturally enough though, the mind of the spectator remains far from empty when viewing the achrome. The expanse of white brings to mind the rich metaphorical resonance of white and whiteness: the Zen-like nothingness is inevitably reminiscent of both a new beginning, a tabula rasa, and of oblivion and death.
Ironically, Manzoni's memory was later kept alive for years in the work of the Zero and Zero-related artists from Düsseldorf to Milan, from Paris to Buenos Aires. With its suppression of style and handmade quality, the achrome inspired countless white reliefs: it became a prototype for many artists of the 1960s. Manzoni did in fact work hard to reinvent the achrome again and again: the squarely divided stitched surfaces and creased canvasses gave way to cotton or synthetic fibre surfaces, sometimes treated with cobalt chloride, causing them to change hue with atmospheric changes. These chemical agents guaranteed that the work would not remain the same, exactly the inverse of the traditional painter's concern.
But his true heirs were not those artists who created an endless variety of white and silver surfaces. Manzoni's exploration of the material reality and self determination of painting and his rejection of the art historical legacy of both symbol and allegory, which in his brief career developed into an increasing preoccupation with the conceptual over the visual, is his real legacy. The primary forerunner of the Arte Povera movement in Italy and of the body and concept artists of the late 1960s, Manzoni's idiosyncratic experiments continue to inspire the work of many contemporary artists working today. He transcended the concern for purity of medium with a total autonomy of viewpoint and a great sensibility to life.
"I don't care if my art is beautiful or ugly, but it must be true." Piero Manzoni.