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Enzo Mari and Lea Vergine (1937–2020, 1932–2020)

Enzo Mari and Lea Vergine. Photos: Leonardo Cendamo/Getty Images.

I SAW THEM FOR THE LAST TIME a few months before the lockdown. I went over to give Lea a copy of my book on Mario Merz, which she wanted as a gift, and with a dedication. They weren’t well. Enzo was still suffering the aftereffects of an operation on his head necessitated by a fall from a ladder on which he was trying to prune some wisteria on the terrace; Lea, by contrast, had “blundered,” resulting in a nasty sunburn on her legs. Daily life had betrayed them, in short. I left their beautiful Milanese home in a state of sadness at the fact that such two strong personalities, two leaders in their respective fields—always dynamic, polemical, passionate—now seemed to be shutting down.

Enzo began his career in the ’60s as a spokesperson in the realm of kinetic art, and then became a hero of Italian industrial design, where he was known to everyone as a pugnacious activist for a democratic design not limited to the production of luxury objects for the wealthy. Two years ago, I invited him to give a lecture in my course at La Nuova Accademia di Belle Arti, in Milan, and I still remember his vehemence in exhorting students to never lose faith in their own personal utopias, to believe in a work ethic, in its morality. Enzo considered the work of the craftsman equally important to that of the great designer or the artist, and considered contemporary design to be poles apart from these ethics. He remained alert to his profession’s dangers of redundancy, banality, and commodity culture, demons he vigorously combated in his conversations, in his polemics, and, obviously, in the designs he realized for furniture, tableware, toys, ashtrays, and panettone street bollards that will prove his most joyous legacy.

If design creates beautiful and useful things, art creates beautiful and useless ones. My interest tends toward this felicitous uselessness, so I found myself siding more with Lea, who ironically always made this distinction. I got to know her in 1976, while I was working on my dissertation on body art, a subject on which she had published a book that had garnered a cult following. From then on, we never ceased seeing each other, although there were often long pauses between one encounter and another. I too became an art critic, and used to go to her shows, beginning with the momentous one on women of the avant-garde, and then one on kinetic art that was not without controversy. As a curator, I invited her to give lectures at Castello di Rivoli, and she invited me to participate in her conferences or to join her in public conversations at her book launches, up to Il bello e le bestie (Beauty and the Beasts, 2004), a large-scale historic exhibition we organized together at MART in Rovereto. Lea was a teacher for me and, I believe, for many of my colleagues. As Gillo Dorfles has said, her texts are among the few by art critics that are not boring. Her writing was brilliant, sophisticated in language, animated by a verve that led her to compile resounding hatchet jobs, and yet an expression of a culture that goes beyond the specifics of art and its histories.

Enzo and Lea had very different personalities, a difference that could be seen beginning with their appearance. I always felt somewhat in awe of him, tall and severe, his very person emanating a sense of authority. I felt more at ease with Lea, a minute figure, an extremely beautiful woman throughout all stages of her life, funny, self-deprecating and ironic enough, indeed, to inspire (without exaggeration!) witticisms and laughter. They left together, just one day apart, undergoing treatment at the same hospital and for the same reason: complications due to Covid-19. Knowing this comforts me and, I believe all, those who loved them: The sadness at seeing them together, elderly and a bit run-down, has given way to the thought of the passion that sustained them up to the end. The passion that tied them to one another for fifty years was such that they left this world together, as if by tacit agreement, certain that neither one would have been able to continue living without the other.

 

Translated from Italian by Marguerite Shore.

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