"The artist has achieved integral freedom; pure material becomes pure energy; all problems of artistic criticism are surmounted; everything is permitted"
Piero Manzoni, 'Free Dimension', Azimuth, No. 2, Milan 1960
Executed in the year in which Piero Mazoni first employed his revolutionary medium of kaolin, which precipitated new possibilities for his artistic creativity, Achrome is an exceptionally early and major paragon of this revered artist's output. Having executed the first of his legendary corpus of Achromes just two years before in 1956, Manzoni initiated a fundamentally conceptual approach that transformed the making and viewing of art. With the present work at the centre of his pioneering investigation he sought to invest new significance in surface and material as the true subjects of his work and radically extended the boundaries of aesthetic practice. Radiating energy and resplendent in its white incandescence, Achrome is among the most strikingly beautiful works from this renowned body of work ever to appear at auction.
For Manzoni the Achrome rejected history and became a mute surface, devoid of narrative, description, symbolism and allegory. The Achrome stood alone as an entirely elemental entity, signifying nothing but its own existence. The role of kaolin was crucial to the realisation of this as it enabled the painting's surface to be autonomous and free from the interfering hand of creation. In an era dominated by Abstract Expressionism in America and Informel in Europe, Manzoni disassociated the painted surface from the active participation of the artist. While the artist declared: "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...Why shouldn't this surface be freed. Why not seek to discover the unlimited meaning of total space, of pure and absolute light" (the artist in: 'Free Dimension' in Azimuth no. 2, Milan, 1960), Germano Celant has described the Achrome as "the maximum magnification of the visible, which expresses itself with blinding candour, undressing and depersonalising the painting, as if it existed of its own light" (Exhibition Catalogue, Naples, Museo d'Arte Contemporanea Donna Regina, Manzoni, 2007, p. 30).
In the present work the canvas is organised into a systematic play of texture and surface by geometric compartments of pleats, formed by the self-generating action of the kaolin. First used by Manzoni in 1958, this material is not an impasto that requires brushing or physical manipulation, but rather takes shape during the drying process. Manzoni first glued the canvas into folds and creases before applying the chalky kaolin solution over the top. Whiter and purer than the canvas ground beneath, the kaolin not only removed the trace of the artist's hand, but also enhanced the depth and plasticity of the surface undulations. Ultimately it is through the self-defining drying process, without the artist's intervention, that the work achieves its final form. Manzoni transfixes painting, suspending the compositional elements rather than transforming them and the resultant work harbours an enigmatic and dynamic energy within the gathers of its tightly wrought canvas folds.
The magnificently rich and chromatically homogenous surface evokes the powdery fragility of plaster as well as the cold solidity of marble. The absorption and reflection of natural light by the kaolin folds, accentuated by their angular striated ridges, evoke the tactile creases of sculpted Renaissance drapery, while the intricate surface complexity creates dramatic chiaroscuro to seduce our eye, as light and shadow are strikingly juxtaposed. During a tragically brief life that was cut short when he was only thirty, well ahead of his time Manzoni's innovations anticipated both Conceptualism and Arte Povera, and his artistic legacy, emblematised by iconic works such as the present Achrome, became hugely influential to an array of international art trends throughout the second half of the Twentieth Century.
Kaolin on canvas
Paris, Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville; Herning, Kunstmuseum; Madrid, Fundación La Caixa; Turin, Castello di Rivoli, Piero Manzoni, 1991, p. 76, no. 19, illustrated
London, Serpentine Gallery, Piero Manzoni, 1998, p. 67, illustrated in colour
100 by 80cm. 39 3/8 by 31 1/2 in.
Germano Celant, Piero Manzoni Catalogo Generale, Milan 1975, p. 115, no. 36 cq, illustrated
Freddy Battino and Luca Palazzoli, Piero Manzoni Catalogue Raisonné, Milan 1991, p. 323, no. 547 BM, illustrated
Barbara Spahn, Piero Manzoni (1933-1963). Seine Herausforderung der Grenze von Kunst und Leben, Munich 1999, p. 4, no. 4, illustrated
Renate Wiehager, Zero out of Germany. 1957-1966. And today, Ostfildern-Ruit 2000, p. 49, illustrated (incorrectly)
Germano Celant, Piero Manzoni Catalogo Generale, Milan 2004, Vol. I, p. 97, no. 457, illustrated in colour
Galleria Il Punto, Turin
Private Collection, Turin (acquired in 1965)
Sale: Sotheby's, London, 26 June 1997, Contemporary Art, Part 1, Lot 2
Acquired directly from the above by the present owner