Piero Manzoni: The Idea of Achrome

By Flaminio Gualdoni
Piero Manzoni in front of an Achrome canvas sewn in squares, Milan, 1960 © Archivio Giancolombo, Milan
1 Feb 2019

‘We cannot accept any manifestation of color that is meant to be a medium,’ wrote Piero Manzoni in his theoretical text ‘Una nuova zona di immagini (A New Zone of Images)’. The year was 1957, and Manzoni was working on his first Achromes. Early the following year, the critic and expert on aesthetics Luciano Anceschi wrote about Manzoni’s ‘mesmerized surfaces of absolute white, entrusted to the [artist’s] sensitivity in the way the material is treated and broken up by plastic reliefs and their shadows.’ This was Duchamp’s idea of ‘indifférence visuelle’ applied to painting; Manzoni was nullifying the idea of ‘quality’ and the dimension of the artifice. The artist’s application of material to the canvas was a physical act that remained purely physical, devoid of any aesthetic courtship, and the absence of color – which differs substantially from Yves Klein’s concept of the monochrome – producing what Manzoni initially referred to as Achrome Surfaces. By giving them this name, Manzoni was indicating the primacy of the physical nature of these works and the objectivity of their surface. Soon Manzoni was using the term Achrome to refer to all of his works.

The painting is an elemental physical structure, assumed in all its concreteness, inhabited by visual occurrences that declare their indeterminate presence: appositions, superimpositions, changes in the direction of the material, partitions that are fundamentally insignificant—the horizontal line, the surface divided into squares—produced within the material itself and not superimposed artificially.
The theoretical surface is reabsorbed in the concrete fragments of support soaked in china clay, which solidifies in strong and random sculptural motions whose creases are like signs bearing directions that do not respond to any reason; they enunciate object- hood without implying components of ‘visibilism,’ as was the case for almost all the artistic exploration going on in that same period, in Europe as well as in the United States.

Piero Manzoni, Achrome, 1961 - 1962 © Fondazione Piero Manzoni, Milan. Photo: Agostino Osio

Piero Manzoni, Achrome, c. 1958 © Fondazione Piero Manzoni, Milan. Photo: Jon Etter

For Manzoni, the artwork is a body with a high degree of autonomous objectivity; there is no distinction — whether by reflection or impression – between the body of the artist and the body of the work. Here, the artist’s gesture is the essence of the process, not the functional go-between linking the intention and the outcome. The crease is an objective sign, as is the geometric grid that divides the surface into squares. These signs institute a presence, a vision fueled above all by the sense of touch, physically determined yet potentially in- finite by way of its indeterminacy. The notion that such indeterminacy carries the stigma of the iteration, of the neutralized multiplication of the same act, asserts the work’s quality of non-intentionality, its essence as a project without a destiny or a proposed outcome.

A surface that simply is: being (and complete being is pure becoming).

The geometric reverberation of the sign must also be interpreted according to this meaning. Contrary to the rational, meta-physical, knowledge-related moods that the century had broadly distilled, for Manzoni geometry was the source – a profanely ametaphysical one—of being; a minimalization of his process, which focused on art-making without implication, without premeditation, without intention. In the varyingly creased Achromes – as well as in those with minimal materiality, in which subdivision was achieved by overlapping portions of the canvas, or directly intervening with neat machine-made stitching—Manzoni focuses on a kind of ‘materiology.’ This relates to what Michael Fried would refer to as ‘the minimal conditions for something’s being seen as a painting’ — the configuration of a presence that is objectified as a thing among things, but which visibly claims its otherness.
The general form of the Achrome corresponds, in the eyes of the viewer, to the rhetorical pattern of the painting, but its substance is pure; it has an unqualified physical presence, reduced to its primary, indifferent essence. The work can thus be an object in itself and, at the same time, an abstract manifestation of thought. Photo-graphs taken in 1959 in Manzoni’s studio on Via Fiori Oscuri, Milan, show that the artist was working on a series of works of similar dimensions, reflecting Manzoni’s ongoing interest in his works’ impressive concrete presence.

Piero Manzoni, Achrome, 1960 - 1961 © Fondazione Piero Manzoni, Milan. Photo: Agostino Osio

Piero Manzoni, Achrome, 1961 © Fondazione Piero Manzoni, Milan. Photo: Søren Krogh

In 1959 Leo Paolazzi, a poet and traveling companion of Manzoni’s, wrote that the artist’s work, ‘having abolished even the taste for painting, tends to become an object, a desolate presence in itself, with its mesmerizing material (canvas and gesso), the portion of a large white void.’ When presenting the Achromes (accompanied by a statement of intent) in January 1960 in the exhibition ‘La nuova concezione artistica’ at the Azimut Gallery in Milan, Manzoni wrote:

‘The question, as far as I’m concerned, is that of rendering a surface that is completely white (actually, colorless and neutral) far beyond the pictorial phenomenon, beyond any intervention extraneous to the value of the surface. A white that is not a polar landscape, nor is it an evocative material or a beautiful one, and neither is it a sensation or a symbol or anything else: just a white surface that is simply that (a colorless surface that is simply a colorless surface). Or rather, a surface that simply is: being (and complete being is pure becoming).’
While the notion of the corporeal can be found in Manzoni’s subsequent works—from his Impronte (Fingerprints) to his Sculture viventi (Living Sculptures) to his Merda d’artista (Artist’s Shit) – white became a central concept for the artist, detached from any pictorial idiom; evident in his decision to radically alter his approach and exclusively pursue the Achromes. Manzoni’s use of unconventional materials – from cotton to cloth, to polystyrene, to stones – allowed him to emphasize the immediacy of the Achromes’ surface; with no element of their form or materiality dictated by pictorial motivations.

‘Piero Manzoni. Materials of His Time’, the first exhibition in Los Angeles devoted to the seminal figure of postwar Italian art, will be on view at Hauser & Wirth Los Angeles from 14 February – 7 April 2019.

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