We can only spread a single colour, or rather, stretch out a single, uninterrupted surface (that excludes any superfluous gesture, any possibility of interpretation). It is not a question of "painting" blue on blue or white on white (either in the sense of composition or of self-expression). Quite the contrary: as I see it, the question is to produce a wholly white surface (nay, a wholly colourless, neutral, surface) that lies well beyond any pictorial phenomenon, that is wholly divorced from any act that is extraneous to its value as a surface. The whiteness is not a polar landscape, an evocative or beautiful material, a sensation, a symbol, or anything else; it is a white surface that is a white surface and nothing else. It is being (and total being is the pure and incessant flow of changeableness)' (Manzoni, Libera dimensione, 1960, reproduced in G. Celant, Manzoni, exh. cat., New York, 2009, p. 201).
With its relatively large, sublime and serene surface of chalky white beauty, Achrome is an expectional example of Piero Manzoni's signature series. This Achrome features a rippling surface, with pleats of kaolin-soaked canvas forming a variegated band across the central portion of the canvas while above and below are flatter areas. All of this features a radiant luminosity, the whiteness of the surface creating a zone of purity and potential while also allowing an engaging play of shadows within the various mounds and rivulets that meander across the centre. In this way, Achrome reveals the extent to which Manzoni, while creating an art that was supposed to be without any content except itself, still managed to intervene in order to create something that is inherently beautiful, and is made all the more so by the concepts that lie behind it.
During the late 1950s, Manzoni had a period during which he removed all figuration from his work, forging a disciplined artistic practice that pushed past even the monochromes, past the 'white on white' of Kazimir Malevich or even the 'blue on blue' of his friend Yves Klein. Instead, in a search for a universal artwork that would express universal truths, he created his chromes, from which even colour had been expelled. The white of the surface of Achrome is itself a fortuitous readymade, as it is the colour of the kaolin that he selected as his medium. While in part this choice was doubtless dictated by Manzoni's own search for a 'colourless' material, it also adds a conciseness to the Achrome, which in terms of its conceptuality becomes hermetically sealed, its appearance dictated largely by its own qualities. The properties of the kaolin and the canvas dominate, although Manzoni's own folding of the central portion is an elegant intervention that accentuates the work's own power.
Manzoni's desire to create an autonomous work of art, or indeed to act as midwife to its birth before allowing it to bring itself into the world, revealed his search for a fundamental base as an artform, something that would be universal enough that it would express the world, rather than merely referencing it. He was also an iconoclast, reacting against many of the artistic legacies of his age, be it the figurative modernism that had dominated the first half of the Twentieth Century or the gestural abstraction of Informel and the Action Painters. The increasing focus on the power of the brushstroke and the artist's own mark was deliberately sidestepped by Manzoni, who found his own refined Gordian Knot way of avoiding what he saw as the compromising and contaminating effect of subjective and expressive creation. Like his near-contemporaries on the other side of the Atlantic, Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, Manzoni explored the concept of the raw materials of painting and the arbitrary selection of subjects in his paintings.
Like them, he took chance and the pre-requisite components and reconfigured them, shunning the adventures in self-expression favoured by the Abstract Expressionists and modern painters as it resulted in over-narrow alleyways of interpretation, limited by their excessive content and appearance. Manzoni's kaolin and canvas was the equivalent of, say, Johns' numbers or Rauschenberg's white paintings, where subject matter was replaced instead by a strong sense of objecthood. 'I fail to understand painters who, while claiming to have an active interest in modern problems, still continue to address a picture frame as if it were a surface to be filled with colour and form, in keeping with a variably appreciable or superficial aesthetic taste,' Manzoni explained.
'They paint a line, step back, look at their work with cocked head and squinted eye. They bound forward again and add another line or colour from their palette. These gymnastics continue until they have completely covered the canvas, filled in their painting. The work is now complete; a surface of limitless possibilities is now reduced to a sort of receptacle into which unnatural colours and artificial meanings have been forced. Why shouldn't this receptacle be emptied? Why shouldn't this surface be freed? Why not seek to discover the boundless meaning of total space, of pure and absolute light?' (Manzoni, Libera dimensione, 1960, reproduced in G. Celant, Manzoni, exh. cat., New York, 2009, p. 200).
As befits the notion of a receptacle of 'pure and absolute light,' Manzoni's solution to the intrinsic problem he perceived in the art of others, Achrome is luminous. Indeed, it is beautiful despite itself, revealing the extent to which Manzoni had increasingly refined his aesthetic regardless of its supposed autonomy. Gradually, around 1958, the more gestural Achromes with their thicker pleats, which themselves had supplanted largely flat examples, gave way to shimmering examples such as Achrome, which has two areas, at the top and the bottom, of largely flat, tightly stretched canvas, sandwiching the undulations that ripple across the canvas and thrusting them into bolder relief. Manzoni had style and panache, as was clear from his performances as well as his artworks, and these qualities came increasingly to the fore in his Achromes.
The tight pleats in Achrome manage to recall, despite Manzoni's protestations to the contrary, the effect of light reflected on the surface of water, while also evoking the drapery in Old Master drawings, paintings and sculptures. Indeed, there is a restrained, Baroque quality to the surface. This perhaps recalls the fascination that his friend and fellow artist Lucio Fontana had for the Baroque period, based in part on the fact that it emerged in the period of post-Galilean thought and in part on its focus on movement, adding a new dynamism and dimension to art. In Achrome, Manzoni has taken his own spin on these two ideas. In terms of movement, this is embodied within the very fabric of the surface, which has been soaked in kaolin, pleated by Manzoni but then left to set, moving like tectonic plates as the surface dried. This slow movement, of which the Achrome displays the traces and results, is crystallised within the work itself. Likewise, Manzoni's refreshing and iconoclastic ideas of what constitute a work of art recall the destabilising and decentralising effect that Galileo's observations had on the Western world, who then had become aware of their new position in the universe. Manzoni had lived through similar cataclysmic moments of upheaval, not least the Second World War, which revealed both the horrors of the Holocaust, and man's previously inconceivable inhumanity to man, and also the incredible power of the Atom Bomb.
The post-war era was a different era, and Manzoni created an artform perfectly suited to it, presenting a raw tabula rasa, jettisoning all the accreted layers of association and belief that comprise the human mind and that fill our world. It is a tribute to Manzoni's tangential relationship with the Baroque, a period that resulted in great religious art, that Achrome so perfectly combines the emphatic materiality of Manzoni's works, which insist upon their existence in their own right, with a sense of purity and, in its elegant finesse, of the sublime.
Kaolin on canvas
'To understand a painting or any work of art does not mean to understand its subject, but to assimilate its meaning. Painting is intended to communicate, not to provide luxury dcor. Paintings are and have always been magic, religious objects. But the gods change, they change continuously, evolving as civilizations evolve. Every instant is a new step, a new civilization that is born. The artist is the herald of the new human conditions. He discovers new totems and taboos for which his age has the potential, but not yet the awareness. Hence the concept of the painting, of painting itself, and the concept of poetry, cannot have meaning for us. The artistic moment does not lie in these facts, but in the bringing to light, reducing to images, the preconscious universal myths.' (Piero Manzoni: 'Prolegomena for an Artistic Activity' 1957).
Alongside Lucio Fontana and Yves Klein, Piero Manzoni is one of the leading pioneers of the increasingly conceptual direction that much European art took during the late 1950s and '60s. His Achromes are the defining works of Manzoni's brief but groundbreaking and highly influential career. A seminal series of works initiated in 1957 and continued, in a variety of forms and often surprising new media, until the artist's premature death in 1963 they are unique manifestations of a wholly new approach to the making of art. Non-formal, non-tonal, colourless zones of material nothingness, the Achromes are works that not only mark the culmination of the existentialist direction of much of the art of this period, but also those that were to provide the creative tabula rasa out of which much of the Minimalist, Conceptual, anti-form and Arte Povera tendencies of the 1960s grew.
Both a response to and an extension of the Spatialist explorations of Lucio Fontana, Alberto Burri's self-asserting material works and the immateriality and mysticism of Yves Klein's monochromes, Manzoni Achromes were self-defining works of art that asserted only their own surfaces - surfaces from which all other extraneous detail, artifice and style had been eliminated. Described by Manzoni, who was greatly inspired by the psychoanalytical writings of Freud and Jung at this time, as 'totems', his Achromes were essentially non-pictures - demonstrably real material presences that articulated only their own formal and material properties. In this, they were works that finally, and irreparably, broke down the illusive and conceptual space that up until this point had always traditionally surrounded the picture plane. At the same time, they were works of art that began to operate as real, unaesthetic concepts within the real, physical space of the viewer and the world around them. Marking the beginning of a process of integration between art and life, the Achrome was therefore, a work that signaled the end of the idea of the art-object, and in this respect, represented the culmination of the anti-material tendency embodied in Fontana's Spatialist aesthetic and also the 'immateriality' of Klein's work. Going beyond these earlier precedents, the Achromes were works that defined what Manzoni saw as an ultimate 'zone' of freedom and the final liberation of art from style. 'We absolutely cannot consider the picture as a space onto which to project our mental scenography' Manzoni insisted. 'It is the arena 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 or express, but only for that which they are.' (Piero Manzoni, For the Discovery of a Zone of Images. 1957.)
For an artist who insisted on the liberation of art from style however, Manzoni's uniquely 'styleless' creations nevertheless often betray the artist's own magnificent and unerring sense of style. The Achromes of 1957-58 and 1958-59 here for example, are two very different manifestations of the same autonomous and self-defining, 'styleless' concept. While one, with its tight, serially-repeated kaolin-coated pleats forms a dramatic line of self-asserting material texture across the centre of the otherwise flat white canvas in a manner that anticipates the simplicity of much Minimalist art, the loose, informel-like folds of the other, slightly earlier Achrome seem to embrace a sumptuous Baroquelike eloquence. The quiet, innate and sober elegance of both these works also permeates many of Manzoni's creations even as they gradually progressed away from materiality and almost any intervention by the artist's hand altogether and eventually transcended the objecthood of art entirely to become mere gestures and/or concepts. From the endless linee (lines), his thumb-printed series of eggs, balloons of his own breath and even mass-produced tins of 'merda d'artista' (his own shit) to ever more expansive and open creations such as the signing of people as living artworks or his 'socle du monde' (a simple pedestal that transformed the entire world into a ready-made work of art), the cool elegance of Manzoni's understated 'style' remained visible within all his work.
In an eloquent and simplified echoing of the all-encompassing nature of the art of other such major figures of the period as Robert Rauschenberg and Joseph Beuys who held similar beliefs in the importance of breaking down the boundaries between art and life, Manzoni maintained that it was the purpose of the artist to reveal the world the way it is. 'It is not a question of shaping things, nor of articulating messages', he said, for ultimately, 'every discipline carries within itself the elements of its solution...Expression, fantasizing and abstraction (are) empty fictions...There is nothing to be said: there is only to be, to live.' (Piero Manzoni, 'Libera dimensione' Azimuth no. 2. Milan, 1960.)
PROPERTY FROM AN IMPORTANT PRIVATE EUROPEAN COLLECTION
Piero Manzoni , 1950s, Paintings, Italy, Post War
Lyon, Musée Saint-Pierre Art Contemporain, La couleur seule. L'Expérience du Monochrome, 1988, no. 66 (illustrated, p. 166).
Rivoli, Castello di Rivoli, Il piano nobile, 1989.
Paris, Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, Piero Manzoni, 1991-1992, no. 23 (illustrated, p. 83). This exhibition later travelled to Herning, Herning Kunstmuseum.
Villeurbanne, Nouveau Musée, La collection Mme Christian Stein: un regard sur l'Art Italien, 1992 (illustrated, p. 38).
POST-WAR & CONTEMPORARY ART
31 7/8 x 39 7/8in. (81 x 101cm.)
G. Celant, Piero Manzoni Catalogo generale, Milan 1975, no. 21cg (illustrated, p. 129).
F. Battino & L. Palazzoli, Piero Manzoni Catalogue raisonné, Milan 1991, no. 466BM (illustrated, p. 303).
G. Celant, Piero Manzoni, Milan 1991 (illustrated, p. 23).
Piero Manzoni, exh. cat., Madrid, Sala de Exposiciones de la Fundación "la Caixa", 1991, no. 23 (illustrated, p. 83).
G. Celant, Piero Manzoni Catalogo generale, vol. II, Milan 2004, no. 343 (illustrated in colour, p. 106).
G. Celant, Piero Manzoni, Milan 2007, no. 74 (illustrated in colour, p. 157).
Verdun Collection, Turin.
Christian Stein Collection, Turin.
Maximilian Stein Collection, Turin.
Acquired from the above by the present owner.
VAT rate of 5% is payable on hammer price and at 20% on the buyer's premium.