‘When I went to the collector’s house to view this work, I had no idea what I was going to find,’ says Renato Pennisi, Christie’s Senior Specialist in Post-War and Contemporary Art in Italy. ‘I had been told only that the clients had acquired amazing works, but were very secretive. It was sort of like a blind date: you don’t know what is going to happen. But I arrived at the clients’ house and immediately understood that I was dealing with very serious collectors with perfect taste; they had chosen only the best of the best from each artist.’
In one corner, wrapped in a blanket, was this painting — Achrome, by Piero Manzoni. ‘At first I couldn’t believe it,’ recalls Pennisi. ‘When I started as a specialist nearly two decades ago, the white, immaculate Manzoni with folds in this shape was one of the works I dreamed about finding. I fell in love with Italian art because of Manzoni, so finding this piece touched me very much.’ On 11 April, Achrome achieved the highest ever price for a Post-War work sold at auction in Italy when it sold for €2,970,000 in Christie’s Milan Modern and Contemporary Art sale.
‘I love the fact that there’s a real three-dimensionality to it,’ Pennisi continues. ‘I became more impressed as I learned more about its provenance. The piece has essentially been with the same collector since 1976, and as I later learned, one of the collecting couple had actually met Manzoni himself. The work has also been well documented in all of the relevant literature since 1972, three years before Manzoni's first catalogue raisonné was published.’
Executed circa 1958, Achrome is one of the earliest works in Manzoni’s seminal series of the same name. Never before seen at auction, it was a highlight of the landmark retrospective of the artist at Milan’s Palazzo Reale in 2014.
With Lucio Fontana, Manzoni was one of the first post-war Italian artists to become popular with an international audience. In his Achromes, Manzoni overturned painting’s traditional conventions, seeking to liberate art from representation and narrative. ‘Achrome means no colour,’ Pennisi explains. ‘This was Manzoni’s revolution: the idea of putting the artistic focus on the canvas. Rather than colour, he centres the material itself, transforming the canvas — which traditionally, of course, is the basis of a painting — into the subject of the piece.’
As Manzoni himself explained, he wanted to produce ‘a white that is not a polar landscape, not a material in evolution or a beautiful material, not a sensation or a symbol or anything else: just a white surface that is simply a white surface and nothing else (a colourless surface that is just a colourless surface). Better than that: a surface that simply is: to be.’
‘From a commercial point of view, this is exactly what is in high demand in the present market for post-war Italian art’
Experimenting first with the use of gesso, Manzoni had begun a series of paintings in which he scratched or marked the white plaster; this led him, in the autumn of 1957, to conceive the Achromes. As part of his practice, he also soaked pieces of canvas in kaolin, a soft clay which formed natural layers, wrinkles and folds when left to set.
‘Kaolin is a very simple material. That’s another reason why his work was so revolutionary: it was not only about the rejection of representation, but about his innovations in the medium,’ Pennisi continues. ‘Thanks to Manzoni, new generations of artists could start to think about the possibility of using everyday materials to make art.’
In Achrome, Manzoni has almost entirely succeeded in removing the hand of the artist from the work, which was his ultimate goal. The folds that flow down the surface of the canvas are what Pennisi calls ‘self-forming’; what colour is present is due not to the artistic intervention of the artist, but the tones of the plaster itself.
‘From a commercial point of view, this is exactly what is in high demand in the present market for post-war Italian art,’ says the specialist. ‘Beyond that, its large scale, exceptional provenance and important exhibition history give it a rarity that made it particularly appealing. For those who appreciate Italian art, this piece is an icon, like a Warhol Marilyn or a Pope by Bacon. It was a very rare opportunity for collectors.’ A fact that was born out by the price it went on to achieve.