Carla Accardi: A Desire for Contradiction

New York


Three imposing diptychs completed in 2004 presided over Sperone Westwater’s selective five-decade survey of paintings by Carla Accardi. Each measures 86 1⁄2 by 126 inches, a scale used only rarely by the octogenarian artist and achieved by abutting modular canvases. All were rendered in two colors (a hallmark, if not an apodictic rule, of her work for half a century), with solid fields against which limber graphic elements arc, squirm and drift. The reductive marks plainly evoke the graffiti-based imagery of Keith Haring, but there are no squawking TVs or copulating couples to be seen—just gymnastic linear fragments that seem about to stretch and reconfigure themselves even as they momentarily suggest the partial contour of a leg, a derrière, a swimmer, a sickle, a piano lid, a creeping worm. LEFT: PUNTO CON RAGGI, 1972

The installation wisely ensconced the two more searingly high-keyed diptychs-fuchsia on radiant yellow, Christmassy green on red—in discrete spaces, but the third, a sober white on black, occupied an end wall, adjacent to a sequence of earlier works. Indeed, the diptych’s close neighbor, Negativo no. 8 (1955), was the earliest painting in the show and likewise restricted to white on black. In this assembly of paintings, Negativo no. 8 represented the beginning of Accardi’s creative independence. Less than a decade after her 1947 debut at age 23, an abstract painter employing the bright palette and angular, Cubist-inflected forms that were pervasive in European art at the end of the war, Accardi set off to work almost exclusively in black and white, developing a distinctive family of forms and gestures, and reintroducing color only at the start of the 1960s.

The gallery’s alpha-and-omega pairing made a point that might have been lost in a purely linear chronology: the generally biomorphic language of 1955 evinces something of the loose, cartoony pep of the hip diptychs of 2004. Freely brushed and intertwined, Accardi’s first invented forms are elastic—mobile—and fleetingly evoke a bug, a knot, eyes open in the dark. In other words, this seems less a psychic realm accessed via automatism than the demotic world, encrypted and animated by artistic intention. Although the international wave of black-and-white abstraction that swelled from the late 1940s through the 1950s was largely an existentialism-freighted rebuke to reference and pleasure, within it, Accardi found her own way to an adventurous if fundamentally untroubled art that is grounded in the vernacular and seriously playful at heart.

Born in Trapani, Sicily, in 1924 and trained at the fine art academies there and in Florence, Accardi moved to Rome and captured attention in 1947 as a founding member of Forma 1. Refusing, as leftists, to forgo artistic experimentation (abstraction and realism being the mutually exclusive options allowed in the politically polarized postwar environment), the eight signatories of the group’s manifesto famously declared themselves to be both “formalists and Marxists.” The association dissolved in a few years, but Accardi remained true to her rejection of either/or. She chose both/and—and then some—as she expanded her formal vocabulary, the pliant, looping curves growing more spiky and attenuated, sometimes suggesting tools or fish or Arabic script. The work never yielded to legibility while never completely suspending a connection with shared experience.

It was left to four small casein paintings at Sperone Westwater-their slender brush marks vivid on ripe orange or red grounds-to summarize the years 1961–64, when Accardi reintroduced color and her pictorial elements resolved into fewer shapes and more regular strokes. The more or less even registers of recurring, hieroglyphic shapes on two pagelike canvases, Memorie della Sicilia (memories of Sicily), 1963, and Rosso turchese (Red Turquoise), 1964, come as close to suggesting a surface inscribed with a private alphabet as the artist ever permitted. She also began using fluorescent colors during the period spanned by these hot little paintings (in 1963, to be precise, five years before the birth of a later fan of fluorescents, Haring), intending those chemical pigments to be as emphatic a flouting of expectation as her long season of chromatic abstention had been. For Accardi, fluorescent colors served not so much as a specific reference to consumer products, as they did for some Pop artists, but as yet another means to embrace the social, through a palette that was insistently of the present moment in origin and association. As she explained to an interviewer in 1964, today “there can be no landscape without neon and phosphorescent lights, and that is why I came to use these contemporary colours.”1

Accardi followed this with an even more consequential change in 1965, the introduction of Sicofoil, a clear plastic sheeting used in commercial packaging, as the paint-bearing surface. The material had first been given to her as part of a project to design a fabric. The commission was never realized, but Accardi, fascinated, was prompted to purchase an entire roll of the transparent material. Sicofoil remained central to her practice until 1981, when it ceased being manufactured.

Like a scientist limiting the variables of an experiment, Accardi reverted to monochrome in the first plastic works, using one color at a time on Sicofoil over canvas in the Manzoniesque Bianco su bianco (White on White), 1965, and, in the Sperone Westwater show, Bianco oro (White Gold), 1966, a crisp white field wrapped in plastic brushed with a mandala of pastry-chef swirls in metallic-looking varnish. In time, canvas was jettisoned, leaving the transparent Sicofoil as the only support and exposing the stretcher and the wall behind, as in Bianco bianco (White white), 1969, where Accardi’s relaxed S-marks seem to undulate in free space.
Cut into strips and interwoven, as in Verde (Green), 1975, Sicofoil achieves a frankly material grid. In the bluntly magnificent Punto con raggi (Point with Rays), 1972, a 61 1⁄2-inch-square stretcher, braced by one vertical and two horizontal crossbars, is repeatedly crisscrossed by broad bands of plastic that bear darting swipes of varnish. A nestlike density cancels the transparency at the work’s core. Here and elsewhere, Accardi’s swift, repeated little strokes recall Giacomo Balla’s beams of electric light and soaring swallows. Not represented in the show were Accardi’s most extremely reductive works, from which paint is banished altogether, and those in which raw plastic fields are juiced up by brightly painted stretchers. LEFT: NEGATIVO NO 8, 1955

Alberto Burri had preceded Accardi by using draped plastic in his art beginning around 1960, but, as with his burlap sacks, wood and iron, these works-frontal, wall-bound, brutalized yet majestic-keep a careful eye on tradition. With her Sicofoil pieces, by contrast, Accardi joined a company of artists who were more intent on rattling painting’s cage. The penetration of the picture plane and the engaging of real space with unorthodox materials and transparency enlivened a legacy that stretched from the Futurists to Lucio Fontana, the latter an early admirer of Accardi who was responsible for her having a solo room at the 1964 Venice Biennale. The plastic works endeared Accardi to a younger generation as well. They were shown in Turin at Galleria Notizie by Luciano Pistoi, who represented several Arte Povera artists. Indeed, it is hard to imagine that Accardi was not responding in part to the work of Giulio Paolini, who had done a series of conceptually probing works with exposed stretchers in the pre-Povera early ’60s. One in particular, from 1961, consists of a modest stretcher, only about 8 inches square, on whose lower, shelflike edge Paolini placed a little can of white paint. A sheet of clear plastic covers the understated yet eloquent ensemble.

Beyond the scope of the exhibition at Sperone Westwater lie what are argu­ably Accardi’s boldest works, freestanding forms with Sicofoil that launched her painting into three dimensions. The first was Tenda (Tent), 1965-66, a pitched-roof enclosure, tall enough to enter and wrapped in Sicofoil that has been painted all over in closely spaced yet buoyant strokes of green and red. Much has been made of the domestic and nomadic connotations of the tent (as with Mario Merz’s igloos, which that artist introduced in 1968), but Accardi has disclosed that she intended to evoke a small temple in the wake of a visit with the curator-critic Carla Lonzi to the mausoleum of Galla Placidia in Ravenna. The wall-dissolving mosaics of the 5th-century monument inspired her own challenge to the boundary between painting and architecture.2 The rosy-toned Triplice Tenda (Triple Tent), 1969–71, offers a multisided structure akin to a circus tent, and a total of three concentric elements surround the visitor. (3)

Tenda was also followed by Ambiente Arancio (Orange environment), 1967, a sly, sunny-toned installation of stretched and painted plastic whose principal elements rest like mats on the floor. A Sicofoil um­brella and baby-size pad with a Sicofoil sunshade complete the evocation of a family’s seaside outing. The environment further includes one of Accardi’s earliest painted rotoli, the freestanding Sicofoil cylinders that return the plastic to the roll-shape in which it was sold. It’s worth noting that rotolo also means “scroll,” a pun that allowed the painter to court-without commitment—the connection between her abstract marks and writing.

Accardi and canvas reunited in 1981, and in the course of the next two decades, her palette expanded and intensified once again, the paint sometimes brushed on in a manner flirting with spontaneous gesture, more often expertly guided to generate an assortment of grille-like patterns, fields within fields, figure/ground reversals and, well, shapes of boundless eccentricity, occasionally outlined by contrasting ribbons of color. Around 2000, she resumed her work with transparent surfaces, fashioning a “labyrinth house” and a series of “wardrobes” out of painted Perspex. But don’t call these sculptures. Accardi corrected one interviewer who referred to her having “returned” to painting, interrupting him to observe tartly, “I have always used painting as an inspiration for anti-painting; it is a desire for contradiction.” (4)

These key developments were absent from the Sperone Westwater presentation, which regrettably leaped from 1975 to 2003. The exhibition was a sort of milestone nevertheless: Accardi’s first solo show in New York since 1989. Audiences in Paris, Brussels, Frankfurt and Bonn, not to mention two dozen Italian cities from Turin to Sicily, have been more fortunate during the last 15 years. Indeed, Accardi doesn’t lack for admirers in Europe, but only a handful of artists-Fontana, Manzoni, Merz and Boetti come to mind-have penetrated New York’s ingrained indifference to Italy’s postwar avant-garde to claim more than cursory attention. It would be a good idea to add this dedicated contrarian to that brief list.

1. Interview cited by Simonetta Luxe in “Forma 1. Saggio Pittura,” Forma 1 e suoi artisti, Rome, Galleria Comunale d’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea, 2000, p. 16.
2. Paolo Vagheggi, “Intervista Carla Accardi: La vita non è arte. L’arte è vita,” in Danilo Eccher et al., Carla Accardi, Rome, MACRO, 2004, p. 120.
3. Triplice Tenda was shown in New York at P.S.1, May 20-Sept. 3, 2001.
4. Vagheggi, p. 120. This author’s translation.

Carla Accardi’s paintings were shown in New York at Sperone Westwater [Jan. 8–Feb. 19]. A concurrent exhibition of her gouaches from 1962 to 2004 was on view at the Casa Italiana Zerilli-Marimò, New York University [Jan. 10-Feb. 25]. A survey of the artist’s career was presented in Rome at MACRO [Sept. 19, 2004-Jan. 9, 2005].