London, Tate Modern, Beyond Painting, Burri, Fontana, Manzoni, 2005-06, p. 59, illustrated
Freddy Battino and Luca Palazzoli, Piero Manzoni: Catalogue Raisonné, Milan 1991, p. 303, no. 469, illustrated
Germano Celant, Piero Manzoni: Catalogo Generale, Tomo Primo, Milan 2004, p. 87, no. 348, illustrated in colour
Germano Celant, Piero Manzoni: Catalogo Generale, Tomo Secondo, Milan 2004, p. 446, no. 348, illustrated
Exhibition Catalogue, Naples, Museo d’Arte Contemporanea Donnaregina, Piero Manzoni, 2007, p. 152, no. 69, illustrated in colour
Exhibition Catalogue, New York, Gagosian Gallery, Piero Manzoni a Retrospective, 2009, p. 26, no. 85, illustrated in colour
Constituting a primordial sign, the Achrome does not signify or represent anything but its own existence: each work possesses its own autonomy. Across the series of kaolin Achrome however, formal variations and differences in scale enliven these monochromatic entities: sometimes achieved with a single piece of canvas, and other times with individual squares to form a grid; sometimes scattering the folds throughout the picture plane, and other times – as in the present work – concentrating them within a specific area. In this regard, the present work can be viewed as a paragon of Manzoni’s production. Flanked by two horizontal bands of scumbled kaolin, the enveloping central field of taut pleats saturated with heavy kaolin is utterly mesmeric. Though Manzoni expressly eschewed referentiality, the exquisite formal harmony evident in Achrome suggests a kind of organic architecture, as though harnessing and liberating an innate beauty that lay dormant within the materials of canvas and kaolin themselves. The kaolin suspends a dialogue with chance, and in so doing captures something of the universal. Indeed, one can’t help but relate these undulating vibrato forms to the drapery of Renaissance marble statuary or the crumbling soil ridges of a ploughed field. Microcosm and macrocosm are brought together within Manzoni’s tabula rasa; his expansive field of immersive and sculptural monochrome thus becomes an empty arena or Zero ground, at once evocative, yet closed and resistant to interpretation.
By dislocating artistic agency and gesture from the canvas' surface, Manzoni aimed to evacuate representation and therein obtain an entirely self-generated metaphysical image of absolute purity. Structured as a 'non-picture', the Achrome were composed via the drying process of kaolin. This material, a soft china clay employed in making porcelain and first employed by Manzoni in 1958, is not an impasto; it does not require brushing, pouring or physical manipulation. Rather, Manzoni would first glue the canvas into a seemingly organic arrangement of self-proliferating folds and creases, before the chalky colourless kaolin solution was applied. The white kaolin not only removed the hand of the artist but also enhanced the sculptural depth and solidity of surface undulations. With its torrent of striated and sculptural folds, the resultant work harbours a dynamic energy. Ultimately it is through the self-defining drying process, without the artist's intervention, that the work achieves its final form. Seemingly white, the kaolin functions in removing colour whilst adding weight, imbuing these works with sculptural monumentality. Nonetheless if this work evokes monumental art of the past, it is testament only to the insularity of art itself, a purely visual language of resplendent luminous materiality.
As the curator Jon Thompson has elucidated, the Achrome are material tautologies: they refer only to themselves as reiterations of their own composition (Jon Thompson, ‘Piero Manzoni: Out of Time and Place’ in: Exhibition Catalogue, London, Serpentine Gallery, Piero Manzoni, 1998, p. 43). Canvas laid upon canvas, folding in on itself in self-generating monochrome pleats, the Achrome constitutes a metaphysical blank, a distillation of the picture plane to pure material characteristics. Etymologically meaning ‘without colour’ these works are unrelated to any pictorial phenomenon or anything extraneous to its surface; in the words of the artist: “It is a white that is not a polar landscape, or a beautiful or evocative material, or a sensation, or a symbol, or anything else; it is a white surface that is nothing else but a white surface (a colourless surface that is nothing else but a colourless surface). Or better still is exists, and this is sufficient” (Piero Manzoni, ‘Free Dimension’, op. cit.).
Very much in tune with the vital tenets of the Zero art movement, Manzoni sought to explore the relationship between art and nature against a new age of technological advancement emerging from the rubble of the Second World War. Chiming with the aims of Zero’s progenitors Heinz Mack and Otto Piene, Manzoni looked to overturn the boundaries of painting and supplant tangible and fixed appearances in art. Indeed, Manzoni was integral in forging the bridge between Northern European and Italian artists, travelling tirelessly back and forth to Germany, France, Italy, Belgium and the Netherlands, and functioning until his early death in 1963 as a “messenger, carrying the Zero message all over Europe” (Otto Piene quoted in: Heiner Stachelhaus, Zero: Mack Piene Uecker, Dusseldorf 1993, p. 153). Together with Castellani he published the first issue of the journal Azimuth in September 1959, followed by the second and final issue in January 1960. They opened Galleria Azimut in Milan on 4 December 1959 and during its six month lifetime they hosted twelve solo and group exhibitions that exactly summated the vital message of Zero, such as La nouvelle conception artistique in January 1960, which included the work of Mack and Mavignier as well as Manzoni and Castellani.
Alongside members of the Zero group, this rich dialogue of avant-garde artistic theories thrived amongst Manzoni and his contemporaries, particularly Lucio Fontana and Yves Klein. However, where Fontana and Klein both experimented with and relied conceptually upon colour in their art, Manzoni distinguished himself with the Achrome by utilising only the porcelain white of kaolin clay and articulated an entirely new attitude to the picture plane. Lucio Fontana’s Spatialism incited artists to pierce the canvas and access the quasi-mystical dimensions beyond while Yves Klein’s concept of colour promised access to sublime states of meditative transcendence. Manzoni, by contrast, revolted against the implication that art lay ‘on’ or ‘through’ the canvas, or within any given chromatic tone. His comments, advanced primarily in Azimuth, establish an entirely different view of painting. Manzoni wrote: “… 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 colours 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?” (Piero Manzoni, ‘Free Dimension’, op. cit.).
During a tragically brief life cut short at the age of only thirty, Manzoni adopted a revolutionary conceptual approach to making and viewing art, emphasising the surface and materials as the true subject of the work. In the creation of the Achrome, Manzoni awakened an area of creativity in which the painting's subject was its own self-generating form; in 1960 he wrote: "The artist has achieved integral freedom; pure material becomes pure energy; all problems of artistic criticism are surmounted; everything is permitted" (Ibid.). Manzoni's prescient innovations anticipated both Conceptualism and Arte Povera, while his artistic legacy, enshrined by iconic works such as the present Achrome, enduringly persists as a revolutionary and insurmountable presence within contemporary art today.
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