BEYOND THE MONOCHROME: WORKS FROM AN IMPORTANT PRIVATE EUROPEAN COLLECTION
‘Paintings are and always have been magic, religious objects. But the gods change, they change continuously, evolving as civilisations evolve. Every instant is a new step, a new civilisation that is born’
Executed in 1957-1958, Achrome is a spectacular early example of the radical, colourless ‘non-paintings’ that Piero Manzoni made throughout the six years of his mature practice. Moving beyond the blue monochromes of Yves Klein that he had seen in Milan in early 1957, in November that year Manzoni began to create completely white works by soaking creased and folded canvas in a mixture of glue and kaolin, a liquid china clay. He designated these works Achrome to signify their total absence of colour and of subject matter, as well as a withdrawal of the artist’s hand. Left to dry naturally, the Achrome’s final form was in effect self-directed, determined by the inherent properties of its materials rather than by any act of artistic intervention. Brushstrokes had been eliminated, and content sacrificed. No longer a mere vehicle for the communication of external references, the painting, Manzoni claimed, was returned to its atavistic virgin state, and born anew as a zone of liberation and discovery. The present Achrome’s surface is a seductive scape of horizontal pleats, giving way to an area of looser vertical folds at the foot of the canvas; these radiate gently outward from the lower centre, as if swelled by a gust of wind or deposited by the wash of an ocean.
As ‘natural’ as this Achrome’s form may appear, and as much as it departs from the norms of hierarchical composition in favour of (potentially infinite) seriality, its elegant, iterated folds were of course initially directed by the artist himself. There is a smiling paradox inherent in Manzoni’s Achromes. Although born of a seemingly austere and rigorous conceptual program, they cannot be said to embody the absolute purity of white monochromes like Malevich’s 1918 Suprematist Composition: White on White, or the tabulae rasae of the ZERO group. Instead, the Achromes are bold presentations of material characteristics – tangible qualities that are deliberately laid out and heightened by Manzoni, in these early canvas Achromes in particular, in ways that retain hints of gesture and emotion. Although the present work’s folds of canvas are fossilised in kaolin, their sensuous allure is undeniable. The Achrome holds no narrative content, but it remains powerfully allusive. Manzoni’s statement of transcendence is in fact laced with bathos: his search for what he called man’s ‘primal’ or ‘primary’ images, the essence which lies beneath all that is superfluous and superimposed, is haunted by matter. The Achromes, so metaphysical in conception, are also decidedly, specifically physical. Some later examples would be made from Italian bread rolls entombed in kaolin, while others were made of already-white materials including rabbit fur, cotton wool and glass fibre. As Martin Engler has put it, ‘If the end of painting consists of supple, physically palpable surfaces, then the question as to its end is shifted in a completely new direction, towards the domain of the body and its senses’ (M. Engler, ‘The Body: Its Image, Actions and Objects’, in Piero Manzoni: When Bodies Became Art, exh. cat. Städel Museum, Frankfurt 2013, p. 20). In the billowing surface of kaolin-and-canvas Achromes like the present work – deliberately orchestrated, and inevitably evocative of shrouds, of bedsheets, of the carved fabric draped over marble bodies in classical sculpture – that sensual shift was already taking place.
Manzoni’s entire oeuvre can be seen as a thoroughgoing critique of the traditional separation between art and life, with the body as its interface. The very literal expressions of the body in his famed Artist’s Breath (1960) and Artist’s Shit (1961) are only the most provocative among his varied engagements with the conferral of value upon the artistic product. He performed a communion-like ceremony where audience members ate boiled eggs inked with his thumbprint; he signed people’s bodies to turn them into works of art; he made plinths for people to stand on that transformed them into living sculptures; his Socle du monde (1961), a plinth inverted as if to support the earth, declared the entire world an artwork. These performative and conceptual statements – which, like the Achromes, were to have an immeasurable impact on artistic practice over the ensuing decades – were at once utopian and nihilistic. Manzoni posited the artist as a magical consecrator, and the base products of his body as holy relics, but he also, with Duchampian wit, effectively destroyed the artwork as it had been traditionally conceived. In the Achromes, Manzoni made rarefied ‘ghosts’ of paintings, sealing them off in depersonalised, tautological closure, but at the same time he directly emphasised their corporeal objecthood. Even as he negated painting, furthermore, Manzoni fundamentally remained committed to its wall-bound and canvas-based format. In much the same way that Lucio Fontana needed to make paintings in order to slash them – only in the action of breaking through that framework could he discover the spatial infinity beyond – Manzoni could only search for his existential ‘area of freedom’ in objects that were, in the broadest sense, still paintings. The present Achrome is a captivating embodiment of the manifold complexities and contradictions of Manzoni’s project. Colourless, petrified and non-referential, it begs to be seen as a zone of unmediated nothingness; yet it is also a richly responsive object, alive with potential, and ultimately, irrevocably beautiful.
BEYOND THE MONOCHROME: Three Masterpieces by Klein, Fontana and Manzoni
A radiant trio in red, white and blue, the present three works represent the seminal achievements of a trailblazing triumvirate of postwar art: Lucio Fontana, Piero Manzoni and Yves Klein. United by their far-reaching innovations in relation to the picture plane, the artistic process, materiality, spirituality and transcendence – as well as a shared sense of irreverent humour – Fontana, Manzoni and Klein together forged a new era. Their works of the 1950s and early 1960s broke radically with tradition and paved the way for movements as diverse as Minimalism, Pop, Conceptual and Installation art that were to follow. Concetto spaziale, Attese (1959) is a stunning early example of Fontana’s tagli or ‘slashes’, which ruptured the canvas as part of his Spatialist mission to introduce an infinite fourth dimension into the work of art; made in the same year, Untitled Blue Monochrome (IKB 276) exemplifies Klein’s no less iconic ‘International Klein Blue’ monochromes, which sought to conjure a transcendent ‘Leap into the Void’; Manzoni’s Achrome (1957-58), again from the artist’s most celebrated series, takes the monochrome to ecstatic absolution, creating a colourless surface of pure, limitless potential.
Klein died in 1962, aged thirty-four. Manzoni was only twenty-nine years old when he died one year later. Both accomplished extraordinary things in their brief and meteoric careers. It was arguably Fontana, however – who outlived both younger artists to pass away in 1968, aged sixty-nine – who paved the way for their explorations. In works like Concetto spaziale, Attese, with its fifteen balletic cuts dancing across a vividly corporeal rust-red surface, Fontana escaped centuries of art history by slashing open the canvas. Neither destructive nor violent, these incisions were an act of creation. Fontana transcended the canvas to reveal an enigmatic space beyond: with this apparently simple gesture, he invited the viewer to be consumed by the dark infinity beyond the picture plane. In doing so, Fontana opened up, both literally and figuratively, a whole new dimension of possibilities to advance the course of art in what he saw as a new ‘spatial’ era, in line with mankind’s explorations of the universe. ‘As a painter,’ he said, ‘while working on one of my perforated canvases, I do not want to make a painting: I want to open up space, create a new dimension for art, tie in with the cosmos as it endlessly expands beyond the confining plane of the picture’ (L. Fontana, quoted in J. van der Marck and E. Crispolti, La Connaissance, Brussels 1974, p. 7).
There was a key element of ritual in Fontana’s process. After carefully preparing the canvas to be free of any evidence of brushstroke or human intervention, he would spend a long period contemplating the blank surface before making his decisive cuts. This performative, action-based aspect of creation was also central to the work of Klein, whose Anthropométries took art very literally off the wall, with the artist directing or ‘conducting’ nude women to paint with their bodies on a floor-bound canvas arena. During the performance, musicians played Klein’s Monotone Symphony – a single note played for twenty minutes, followed by twenty minutes of silence. Klein also shared Fontana’s fascination with the void, though his conception of infinity was rooted more in Eastern philosophy that in notions of space travel. His famous 1957 exhibition at Milan’s Galleria Apollinaire, Proposte Monocrome, Epoca Blu (Monochrome Proposition, Blue Epoch), saw the grand debut of his International Klein Blue pigment in works much like Untitled Blue Monochrome (IKB 276): a stunning field of pure, boundless colour. Klein preserved his pigment’s ultramarine brilliance by suspending it in a synthetic resin, creating these works’ distinctive, almost impossibly vivid hue, and a surface – like Fontana’s – free of any sign of the artist’s hand. Unlike his forebears Kazimir Malevich and Ad Reinhardt, who considered the monochrome the logical conclusion of painting, Klein saw pure colour as a portal to an undiscovered spiritual dimension. By limiting himself to a single, highly-concentrated pigment, devoid of expression, Klein sought a new, experiential purpose for art. His monochromes were no longer windows onto the physical world, but rather gateways to the invisible spatial realm that underpinned our very being. Fontana himself famously purchased a work from the 1957 show; he later proclaimed that ‘Klein is the one who understands the problem of space with his blue dimension ... He is really abstract, one of the artists who have done something important’ (L. Fontana, quoted in T. Trini, ‘The last interview given by Fontana’, in Lucio Fontana, exh. cat. Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam 1988, p. 34).
Another enthusiast of Klein’s monochromes was Piero Manzoni, who, after repeatedly visiting that same 1957 exhibition in Milan, embarked on his own series of Achromes in November that year. A true conceptual pioneer as well as an instigator of Arte Povera, Manzoni is notorious for works like Fiato d’Artista (Artist’s Breath) (1960) and Merda d’Artista (Artist’s Shit) (1961), which, like Klein’s installations and happenings, played gleefully with the role of the artist and the transubstantiation of matter in the creative act. It is his Achromes, however, that are perhaps his most enduring series. Emptying his works of colour entirely, in the Achromes Manzoni found the perfect solution to his quest to return art to a primal, virgin state, completely expunging the presence of the artist and transforming the work into a singularly self-defining and self-referential entity. This was a radical redefinition of the possibilities of painting: the canvas was now an empty receptacle, liberated from representation, narrative and the artist’s ego, waiting instead to be activated by the mind of the viewer. These ‘non-pictures’ were startlingly autonomous presences that articulated only their own formal and material properties. In early Achromes like the present work, Manzoni used fluid kaolin, a white clay used in porcelain manufacture, to petrify the folds and pleats of wrinkled canvas surfaces. The clay’s enigmatic, chalky texture and colourlessness fixed the canvas into a permanent sculptural form that severed all ties with figurative reality. As Manzoni explained, ‘the question as far as I’m concerned is that of rendering a surface completely white (integrally colourless and neutral) far beyond any pictorial phenomenon or any intervention extraneous to the value of the surface. 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 (a colourless surface that is just a colourless surface). Better than that: a surface that simply is: to be’ (P. Manzoni, ‘Free Dimension’, Azimuth, no. 2, Milan 1960, in Piero Manzoni: Paintings, Reliefs & Objects, exh. cat. Tate Gallery, London 1974, pp. 46-47).
There are complex exchanges of influence going in all directions between the work of Fontana, Klein and Manzoni. Not only was Manzoni inspired by Klein’s monochromes, and Fontana a collector of Klein: Fontana would also become an admirer of Manzoni’s work, and something of a mentor, sponsoring Azimuth, the short-lived gallery and journal that Manzoni launched with Enrico Castellani in December 1959. Fontana and Manzoni exhibited together as early as January 1958 in ‘Fontana Baj Manzoni’ at the Galleria Bergamo; Manzoni wrote later that year that ‘I have recently taken part in an exhibition with Fontana, the founder of Spatialism, and with [Enrico] Baj, the founder of the Nuclear Movement. I am a kind of symbol of the union of the three initiators of the three Avant-garde movements in Milan’ (P. Manzoni, letter to Valentino Dori, Milan, November 1958, in F. Battino and L. Palazzoli, Piero Manzoni. Catalogue Raisonné, Milan 1991, p. 35). Along with Baj and others, both Manzoni and Klein had signed the Gruppo Nucleare’s manifesto Contro lo stile (‘Against Style’) in September 1957, which declared ‘The last stylistic works that we recognise are the “monochromes” of Yves Klein (1956-1957)’. Fontana, Klein and Manzoni also all worked with Heinz Mack and Otto Piene’s ZERO group, a European collective founded in 1958 and dedicated to a direct, tabula rasa exploration of light and space without representation or illusion. Born in the midst of this brilliant creative period, the present three works stand as an exceptional trinity. As beautiful and radical as the day they were made, each by itself represents the pinnacle of its maker’s unique practice; taken together, the rich formal and conceptual conversations between all three display the profound significance of Fontana, Klein and Manzoni’s combined legacy in twentieth-century art.
This lot has been moved from the Post-War & Contemporary Evening Auction as lot 14 to the Thinking Italian Auction as lot 119A, immediately following lot 119: Lucio Fontana Concetto Spaziale.
BEYOND THE MONOCHROME: WORKS FROM AN IMPORTANT PRIVATE EUROPEAN COLLECTION
Piero Manzoni (1933-1963)
Paris, Galerie Mathias Fels & Cie, Piero Manzoni, 1969-1970 (illustrated, unpaged).
Piero Manzoni, exh. cat., Munich, Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus, 1973, no. 10 (illustrated, unpaged).
G. Celant, Piero Manzoni. Catalogo generale, Milan 1975, no. 61cg (illustrated, p. 139).
F. Battino & L. Palazzoli, Piero Manzoni, Catalogue Raisonné, Milan 1991, no. 572 (illustrated, p. 329).
G. Celant, Piero Manzoni. Catalogo generale, Milan 2004, vol. II, no. 162 (illustrated, p. 418).
Galleria Notizie, Turin.
Galerie Mathias Fels & Cie., Paris.
Galerie Onnasch, Cologne.
Annely Juda Fine Art, London.
Acquired from the above by the present owner in 1974.