In circa 1959 the global artistic zeitgeist was dominated by the machismo action of Abstract Expressionism and the painterly gesture of Art Informel. The Achromes should be read as a conscious rejection of these schools; an attempt to entirely divorce the painted surface from active participation and to vanquish the fetishism of artistic gesture from contemporaneous taste. In his own words: 'I am unable to understand the painters that, whilst declaring themselves to be interested in modern problems, even today look on a painting as if it was a surface to be filled with colour and forms in accordance with a taste which can be more or less appreciated and which is more or less trained […]. The painting is thus completed and a surface with limitless possibilities is finally reduced to a sort of recipient into which unnatural colour and artificial significance are forced and compressed. Why not empty, instead, this recipient? Why not liberate the surface? Why not attempt to discover the limitless significance of total space? Of pure and absolute light?” (P. Manzoni, ‘Free Dimension’, in Azimuth, no. 2, 1960).
The Achromes were created using the drying process of kaolin, a soft clay employed in making porcelain and first deployed by Manzoni in 1958. Manzoni would glue the canvas into a seemingly organic arrangement of self-proliferating folds and creases, before coating it with the chalky colourless kaolin solution. While the subsequent compositions are explicitly non-referential, their exquisite formal harmony suggests a kind of organic architecture, as though Manzoni had harnessed and liberated an innate beauty already inherent to his materials. Associations inevitably abound, and the viewer cannot help but be reminded of the crumbling soil ridges of a ploughed field, the expressive beauty of thick drapery in Renaissance marble sculpture or even the rumpled sheets of a post-coital bed.
Achrome exemplifies the thrust of Manzoni’s artistic endeavours. Manzoni’s prescient innovations anticipated both Conceptualism and Arte Povera, and his artistic legacy, enshrined by iconic works such as the one at hand, enduringly persists as a revolutionary presence within contemporary art today.
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