"We absolutely cannot consider a painting to be a space in which we project our mental sets, but rather as our area of liberty, where we can go in search of our first images. Images that are as absolute as possible, which cannot be valued for what they recall, explain, express, but only inasmuch as what they are: being."
P. Manzoni cited in G. Celant, Piero Manzoni Catalogo generale, Milan, 2004, p. LIII
Reaching artistic maturity in the late 1950s, at the height of Abstract Expressionism in America and Informel in Europe, Piero Manzoni rejected the idea of painting as an existentialist outpouring of the artist's soul. He sought to employ a new strategy for the pictorial surface that eliminated all subjective emotions and social interests, and endowed the surface and materials as the cites of fundamental value. A trailblazer in his conceptual approach to art and his rebellion against conventional artistic practices, Manzoni greatly influenced international art trends in the 1960s. His prescience anticipated Minimalism and Art Povera.
Producing his first Achrome in 1956, Manzoni made a black slate of all existential questions, and began to think of painting as an "area of liberty", which freed itself from all chromatic or figurative implications, becoming Achrome--without color, a mute surface and canvas, freed of all allusive and descriptive, allegorical and symbolic input. The Achrome constituted an elementary sign, signifying or representing nothing but its own existence. It recognized the individuality of the canvas and the material that covers it as an autonomous being in its own right.
To create the Achromes, Manzoni steeped canvases in raw plaster. Emerging as wrinkled square surfaces of canvas impregnated with kaolin, these works were left to dry and assume their final form. Tapping into the inherent energies and expressive properties of the materials, Manzoni allowed the Achromes to evolve through a self-sufficient, organic process. Since each congealed and crystallized according to its own dictates, the Achromes could be repeated to infinite variation. Indeed, Manzoni repeated these works using various "colorless" mediums such as cotton, fiber, bread, stones, rabbit fur, fiberglass and polystyrene as supports. Acting merely as a facilitator, the artist removed his first-person involvement with the works, and allowed them to stabilize by themselves. No longer subsumed under the notion of authorship, these "living" works expressed themselves as independent beings. In what constituted a radical departure from standard artistic practice, Manzoni closed the surface of the painting from the invasion of any extraneous action, gesture or deed.
Achrome (1959) is an outstanding masterpiece that epitomizes Manzoni's best known series. Beginning in 1958, the artist pleated and glued the canvas into a seemingly organic arrangement of deep ridges and folds before soaking it in the chalky kaolin solution. The kaolin not only renders the work even whiter and purer than the original canvas, but also emphasizes the depth of the surface undulations to suggest a vital, dynamic presence. Most importantly, it removes all traces of the artist's hand from its final sculptural form. Manzoni seems to freeze painting into a "non-picture" that essentially suspends its composing elements in a moment of imprisoned energy. The undulating expanse of rhythmic grooves flow effortlessly across the surface of the picture in poetic self-perpetuation. The seemingly endless waves in Achrome exude a therapeutic sense of absolute space, light and purity. Dynamic and vital, the blank slate of Achrome suggests the limitless possibilities of life itself.
Manzoni sought to touch upon the universal germ of existence through his art. He stated, "An artwork does not speak, it does not explain, it simply is" (cited in G. Celant, Ibid, p. LIII). While achieving his conceptual objective of declaring art as an object that co-existed with the artist and viewer, he nonetheless created a work of sublime aesthetic beauty. Contemplative and spiritual, Manzoni's Achromes provoke meditations on the nature of existence even as they boldly declare their corporeality.