White 1: the uncolour, the total space, the achrome of Piero Manzoni (1933-1963)

With his interest in the retreat of the author, the disappearance of direct artistic expression, the erosion of personal gesture (1, p7) Manzoni has been described as aiming to arrest and block the creative power of his own participation (2) and remove narrative content from his works with a concern to expunge everything but the immediate materiality of the work (3).  Manzoni’s efforts at retreat signify perhaps only a partial withdrawal; Martin Engler, Head of Contemporary Art at the Stadel Museum, Frankfurt (where a major Manzoni retrospective was assembled in 2013) takes the view that in avoiding the severe objecthood of Stella and Judd it is the remnant of individual gesture that Manzoni is repeatedly capturing and cultivating (4).

Piero Manzoni: Achrome 1958 (30cm x 35cm creased canvas and kaolin – Mazzoleni)

Following Burri and Fontana in questioning foundations of painting, Manzoni addressed tension between the value of the informal gesture and desire to eliminate the impulse.  To eliminate, to evidence a lack of colour and a lack of any property beyond materiality, Manzoni settled on the neologism Achrome for a series (eventually extending to nearly 600 works) that started out as white textured images simply formed of canvas, gesso and a liquid kaolin and glue mixture (2). The canvas was soaked with the kaolin and glue mixture and simply left to dry, the raw materials transforming through a self-generating process.

In Manzoni’s view, the picture created was absolutely not a space on to which to project human mental scenography. His aim was for “Images which are as absolute as possible, which cannot be valued for that which they record, explain and express, but only for that which they are: to be” (5, p56). For Manzoni “There is nothing to explain: just be and live” (6, p724).

So Manzoni’s white is emphatically not the white of polar realms, of the bride, of the rose or of the shroud.  Termed “Superfici acrome” (colourless surfaces) the images are ‘a total space, a tautological area repeatable to infinity, and infinitely unresolved’ (2). The pictures do not want to be white, they want to be nothingof colour, they refuse to be classified, to participate in the scheme. The white stands for nothing, represents nothing except itself, direct, unmediated materiality.  Engler suggests that in turning from paint towards material ground (kaolin) the works ‘move from wall into space, laying claim to real physical objecthood without abandoning the field of painting’.

White 2: the visceral, the sensual, it is the activation of real light, it is the veracity of the material, not the why or the what but the how to paint of Robert Ryman (1930-2019)

Robert Ryman is best known for his persistent use of what he termed a ‘neutral palette’ of white, serving his artistic enquiry into ‘what paint can do’ (7, p10). For the former MOMA curator and critic Robert Storr, Ryman discovered an aesthetic continent where others thought there was a tiny island.   Ryman’s transformative oeuvre repeatedly shows how highly reductive forms of painting can generate complex worlds.

For Ryman, gesture served the paint, not the artist; Ryman could experience the material properties but the paint was to represent itself and in a considered manner.  His close association with the performative act of painting, and relative distance from the visual, at least in his early stages, is exemplified by his offhand comment “Oh, is that what I’ve been doing?” when wearing spectacles for the first time (8, p41). Nevertheless while acknowledging the openness of his work and the readability of his process, for Ryman it was not a message he was particularly seeking to convey.

Ryman untitled-1965.jpg!Large
Robert Ryman: Untitled 1965 (28.4cm x 28.2cm oil, linen – MOMA)

Ryman was always concerned with how his tools and raw materials behaved, and his decisions were based on the results of experimentation, trial and error and getting to understand what the paint is going to do.  His predominant approach was not to work the paint, not to cover mistakes, and was not a rejection of others, but a desire to ‘discover something else… a new way of seeing’ (9, p89)

Ryman’s focus on white occurred once he’d realised that it didn’t interfere, that its neutrality clarified nuances. ‘It makes other aspects of painting visible that would not be so clear with the use of other colours‘ (9, p90). Although generically termed white, Ryman’s artist whites, and later house paint and other whites, offer a wide range of substance and tonality, in effect creating a database of white’s variety and its paradoxical non-neutral relationship to itself (7, p16). Ryman’s interest is not in white as a colour, but with light ‘softness, hardness, reflection and movement… whiteness is not the work’s subject or essence’. (7, p17).  Although painting in artificial light, Ryman was particular that his work be exhibited under natural light, light ideally coming from opposite the painting, reflected off something and into space (10).

The critic Mark Godfrey has aligned Ryman’s interests with those of Carl Andre, in their shared direct, non-allusive handling and expectation of the materials.  Ryman’s variables were type of white paint, means of application and ‘the square support, and its exact disposition and scale’ and expression through time (7, p18: 8, p31).

Ryman was insistent on the ‘realism’ in his work, its space ‘is real, the surface is real and there is an interaction between the painting and the wall plane’ (8, p31). It was non-illusionistic, non-symbolic, non-metaphorical, non-narrative, such that it co-existed with, was continuous with and registered with its surroundings.  His work predominantly was of square, or near square format, a shape that through its symmetry is inherently composed (Robert Ryman in taped conversation with Robert Storr, June 1992).  He was also concerned that his work was recognised as an environmentally responsive three dimensional object, and not merely as an assumed ground for an abstracted image.  (8, p29-30).

White 3:  the denial of the material, an essential fiction, my white is about the what of the world

My practice is a skeptical engagement with materiality in the world.  With implicit understanding that humans continually synthesise a false sense of reality about the world, a synthesis that central to our existence, what is the real in the world?  Both Manzoni and Ryman professed intrinsic faith in their materials; their concern was to reveal the real through calibrated artistic engagement.  For Manzoni there is nothing to explain: just be and live and for Ryman its space is real, the surface is real.  Yet, feeding into longstanding a priori philosophical uncertainties about human understandings of the world, recent empirical evidence shows that humans have a highly tenuous relationship with any reality in the world (11, 12).  So how to understand Manzoni’s just being, Ryman’s real?

I’ve detailed elsewhere how I came to my white (13, 14).  My white comes from the world but is terra incognita, it is explicitly not the red-iron clay that speaks of earth, but the white kaolin clay that endows porcelaneous translucency, that evokes pellucid illusion.  Subjectively one of the worlds whitest clays, this is no harmless white truth, but a persistent reminder of delusional senses.  In a universe without time my white is illusory witness to tangibly deep geological events, extreme duration of process and site-specific ephemerality.  My white is allusion without compass, a gesture to something perhaps intrinsically beyond human comprehension.

Detail from Promissory Things (canvas) 2019 (5m x 2m kaolin and canvas – DEMO Auckland)

Both kaolin, and interest in simplicity of practice found me before Manzoni and Ryman did.  Understanding something of Manzoni and Ryman’s histories offers new ways to think about my practice.  One very specific example: on first reading of Manzoni’s Achromes I was struck by how the materials he is generally described as using (kaolin and canvas, e.g. reference 3 below) appeared to respond entirely differently to closely similar materials in my hands.  Manzoni’s kaolin Achromes appear to have relatively flat, untroubled, stable surfaces, in comparison to the cracked, distorted, fragile surfaces my processes engender.  The Fondazione Piero Manzoni web site (2) clarifies the fact that Manzoni, in fact, combined glue with the kaolin, providing a more tractable, permanent material than kaolin and water alone.  Rather than just an acceptance of being, it is perhaps through the fragility, the freedom of movement, the recording of material histories with give and take, push and pull, and in the transience of the combined materials I am working with that assumptions about materials in the world can be approached.

Recently, one way of making has involved applying a relatively even layer of a thick kaolin and water slurry to various surfaces, using, for instance, a screed or a trowel, and allowing the materials to interact on their own terms as the water evaporates.  Like Ryman, the process I use results from extensive experimentation with material and tool.  In retrospect, I note that I have not been overly concerned with the nature of any trace or gesture left in the application process.  Whatever marks are evident have been marks left in obtaining a relatively even layer in the simplest way possible under the exigency of a drying material.  What has been interesting is to note how the visual impact of marks, marks that are initially very evident on the smooth wet surface, become subsumed and feed into the complexity of surface that emerges during the drying process.  Perhaps by neither deliberately negating nor placing particular value in the traces and gestures, the objects are more open to questioning on their own terms, as things placed in the world to catalyse contemplative scrutiny.




1) Max Hollein (2013) Foreword In: Piero Manzoni: When Bodies Became Art, exhibition catalogue Martin Engler (ed.), Städel Museum, Frankfurt

2) http://www.pieromanzoni.org/EN/works_achromes.htm

3) https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/manzoni-achrome-t01871

4) Martin Engler (2013)The Body, Its Image, Its Actions and Objects. Piero Manzoni and the Biology of Art. In:Piero Manzoni: When Bodies Became Art, p13-64 exhibition catalogue Martin Engler (ed.), Städel Museum, Frankfurt

5) Germano Celant (1998), Piero Manzoni, Edizione Charta Srl, Milan

6) Harrison C. and Wood P.  (2003) Art and Modern Life. In:  Art In Theory 1900-2000 New Edition

7) Robert Storr (1993) Simple Gifts In: Robert Ryman. Retrospective exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London and MOMA, New York

8) Vittorio Colaizzi (2007) ‘How It Works’: Stroke, Music, and Minimalism in Robert Ryman’s Early Paintings.  American Art, 21, 28-49

9) Nancy Grimes (1986) White Magic, Art News, Summer 1986.

10) Robert Ryman in Conversation with Phong Bui (2007) https://brooklynrail.org/2007/06/art/ryman

11) https://alanthomasart.wordpress.com/2019/03/26/on-being-hidden/

12) https://alanthomasart.wordpress.com/2018/11/16/pursuing-unknowing/

13) https://alanthomasart.wordpress.com/2018/05/29/material-process-object-and-influence-an-enduring-secret/

14) https://alanthomasart.wordpress.com/2019/01/13/material/

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