"I don't care whether my art is beautiful or ugly, but it must be true."
(Piero Manzoni in Jens Jørsen Thorsen, 'Han scelger ideer på dåser', in: Aktuelt, Copenhagen, 20 June 1960, p. 144)
"Why not liberate the surface? Why not attempt to discover the limitless significance of a total space, of a pure and absolute light? Allude, express, represent are nowadays nonexistent problems, whether we are talking about the representation of an object, a fact, an idea, a dynamic phenomenon, or not."
(Piero Manzoni, 'Free Dimension', in: Azimuth, No. 2, Milan 1960)
The artistic inventions of Piero Manzoni played a critical role in the redrawing and extension of the map of artistic practice in the years following the devastating impact of the Second World War. The 1950s and 60s saw radical changes sweeping the creative world, as artists responded to the pervading atmosphere of anguish and guilt. As the pillars of history crumbled amid economic and social breakdown, conventional practices, thoughts and perceptions were dissolved. All that remained was splintered, fragmentary and irretrievable, a fertile ground for an entirely new and profound creativity.
Out of this fractured landscape emerged American Abstract Expressionism and the Informel painters in Europe, movements where actions and gestures transformed the canvas as artists employed their bodies in the act of creation. Painting and sculpture became gestural and magmatic: Pollock abandoned himself to the gravitational drip, Fontana penetrated the canvas with his buchi and tagli and Burri absorbed himself in exploring such diverse materials as cement, sacking, plaster and paint. Against this backdrop, Manzoni tried to define a new method with which to approach the pictorial surface. His aim was to divest the painted surface of its obligation to exist as a reservoir for artists' existentialist outpourings. In rebellion against the personal and social responsibilities ascribed to the painting process, Manzoni emphasised the autonomy of the surface and its materials as the true subject of the work. He wrote: "We absolutely cannot consider the picture as a space on to which to project our mental scenography. It is an 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: to be." (Piero Manzoni, For the Discovery of a Zone of Images, Milan 1957, n.p.)
In 1957, the same year Fontana slashed his canvases, Manzoni created his first Achromes. A body of works which are free from the constraints of colour, form, representation and narrative, the Achromes reject imagery, embracing instead a purely monochrome abstract surface, executed in white. Manzoni built the surface from layers of rough gesso, scratching and marking the pigment with tools and his own hands. In 1958, he discovered the medium of kaolin, a substance which allowed him to create the perfect Achrome surface with minimal intervention from his own hand. Dousing the canvas in kaolin, Manzoni allowed the work to emerge from the ground, the viscose colourless opacity of the kaolin seeming to enhance the sense of dynamic self-assertion from the canvas.
Manzoni continued to experiment with different materials throughout the early 1960s, including substances as disparate as bread rolls, rabbit fur, gravel and wool. However, it is kaolin which most effectively expresses his aim: to eradicate any sense of his personality or gesture. Opposed to Yves Klein's transformation of materials to his signature blue, and disinterested in the expressive application of fire and sulphur, Manzoni's fascination lay in the distillation of energy and dynamism within the crystallized folds. The canvas was not painted or moulded, but pleated and folded before kaolin was applied over the top. The Achrome takes its final form as the kaolin dries: free from any intervention by the artist, the last and crucial stage of creation is left to the canvas itself.
The present work is a sublime example of Manzoni's fundamental contribution to art history. The pure monochrome ground hosts mellifluous horizontal pleats which flow in parallel folds across the central axis of the composition. Mesmerizing in its lyrical simplicity, the sumptuous textures of Achrome lead our eye across the gently undulating plane; highlights dance across the rising summits of the folds before melting into shadowed recessions. A masterpiece in the creation of depth and plasticity, Achrome perfectly embodies Manzoni's creative vision. Rejecting associative, symbolic and representative meaning, the entire attention of the viewer is finally absorbed by a serene field of purity.
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