- Piero Manzoni
- kaolin on pleated canvas
- 60 by 73cm.; 23 5/8 by 28 3/4 in.
- Executed circa 1959.
Galleria Stefanoni, Lecco
Frigerio Collection, Lecco
Brerarte, Milan, Anon., 18 March 1982
Acquired from the above by the present owner
Freddy Battino and Luca Palazzoli, Piero Manzoni: Catalogue Raisonné, Milan 1991, p. 296, no. 436 BM, illustrated
Germano Celant, Piero Manzoni: Catalogo Generale, Vol. II, Milan 2004, p. 448, no. 363, illustrated
Piero Manzoni’s praxis was based on conceptual innovation and dissident subversion. In a short career curtailed by his untimely death in 1963 he completed such varied projects as canning his own faecal matter, and exhibiting balloons of his own breath. The Achromes are his best works: some were achieved with a single piece of canvas, while others are made up of individual squares to form a grid; some feature scattered rippling folds that fill the entire picture plane, while in others they are concentrated to a specific area. Works with the present composition – a central ribbon of horizontal folds in the midst of two expanses of blank space – are undoubtedly the most sought after from the series. There are similar examples in the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, the Galleria Civica d’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea in Turin, and the Museum Moderner Kunst, Stiftung Ludwig in Vienna, while another example achieved the auction record for works by Manzoni in October 2014.
The Achromes were created using the drying process of kaolin. This material, a soft clay employed in making porcelain and first deployed by Manzoni in 1958, is not an impasto; it does not require brushing, pouring, or physical manipulation. Instead, 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. As it dried, the glaze hardened and contracted, creating a pattern of sculptural depth and solidity that was entirely removed from the hand of the artist. 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.
In 1958, the year of the present work's creation, 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. Manzoni viewed his abstract peers as practitioners of rigmarole. 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?” (Piero Manzoni, ‘Free Dimension’, Azimuth, No. 2, 1960, n.p.).
Achrome exemplifies the thrust of Manzoni’s artistic endeavours. It was works of this nature that identified him so closely with artists like Alberto Burri, Lucio Fontana, and Enrico Castellani, and it was works of this nature that positioned him at the forefront of the ZERO group, alongside Heinz Mack and Otto Piene. 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 and insurmountable presence within contemporary art today.