Carla Accardi

Italian writer and poet Italo Calvino was preparing the Charles Eliot Norton Lectures at Harvard University when he died suddenly in 1985. Published later as Six Memos for the Next Millennium, the series begins by exploring the theme of lightness. Identifying the source of his literary vocation as the urgent desire to escape the paralyzing effects of heaviness, Calvino declared, “Above all I have tried to remove weight from the structure of stories and from language.” If Calvino's enterprise was a “subtraction of weight,” the project of his compatriot and contemporary Carla Accardi has run parallel. In an attempt to conceive objects of pure light and let nothing weigh heavily, Accardi uses transparent plastic, in her own words, “like something luminous, a mixing and a fluidity with the surrounding environment: perhaps in order to take away the totemic value of the painting.” Organized by contemporary-art director Laurence Bossé and resident curator Hans-Ulrich Obrist, her recent large-scale exhibition, the first initiated by a French institution, was a praiseworthy endeavor, if belated and relatively limited.The show included only twenty-six paintings and installations, a fraction of Accardi's output, and though it featured some of the artist's most remarkable works, the “environments” of the mid-to late '60s, it left out everything she did before 1964.

Who is this famous unknown whom many young artists today, in Italy and elsewhere, adopt as a model of determination and independence? Born in 1924 in Trapani, Sicily, Accardi settled in Rome after World War II, and still lives and works there. In 1947 she cofounded Forma Uno, a group of painters and sculptors who proclaimed themselves “formalists” as well as Marxists and whose manifesto postulated the aim of the work of art as “utility, harmonious beauty, nonheaviness.” Accardi entered a phase of doubt and discouragement when Forma Uno dissolved in 1951, but two years later she resumed her abstract research, rendering fictional, often biomorphic alphabets in white on black, painting on canvases that lay flat on tables or the studio floor. Jackson Pollock, as well as Jean Fautrier, Hans Hartung, and Lucio Fontana, count among her tutelary figures during this period.

Accardi reconnected with color in 1960. Two large paintings from 1964, I Stella and II Stella (Star I and II), the earliest works shown in Paris, testify to the new intensity of her palette. Painted in fluorescent casein, they are mirror images, one red on orange ground, the other orange on red ground. Each surface is studded with rows of signs suggesting numbers or letters (or the f-holes in a violin) that come together to form the rough outline of a six-pointed star nearly filling the field of the canvas. Aspiring to produce the strongest possible retinal vibration these canvases presage the artist's quest for luminous dematerialization that would guide the work to come.

In 1965 Accardi began to paint in colored glazes on Sicofail, a supple, clear acetate. At first she added the material to the painting's traditional support: In Verde, 1966, she enveloped a green monochrome canvas in a sheet of Sicofoil marked with large S-shaped strokes, also green. But the freestanding Rotoli (Rolls), 1966–72—fragile, almost intangible columns of Sicofoil on which bright wisps of color dance-relinquish both the wall and the flat surface of inscription. One of the strongest works of this period is Ambiante arancio (Orange environment), 1966-68, an installation composed of a painting on the wall and seven panels on the floor, on which rest a miniature bed, a tall café-style umbrella, and an upright roll similar to the Rotoli—all made of shiny Sicofoil covered in squiggles of orange varnish. As the artist notes in the show's catalogue, “The tent, the parasol, the small bed, seem light in the eyes of the viewer, provided i e looks with simplicity and wants to free himself from the heavy, traditional objects piled around.” Unfortunately this climactic installation, like the exhibition as a whole, suffered from a cramped presentation that failed to do it justice.

In his meditation on lightness, Calvino takes Perseus as his hero, By cutting off the head of Medusa Perseus was able to resist the power of petrifaction. His victory, as we know, required that he avoid meeting the eyes of the Gorgon, instead looking at her reflection in his bronze shield. It is a gazelike Perseus's—a moving, scattered glance that does not focus but rather constantly slides to the margins of sight—that Accardi's works encourage. Triplice tenda (Triple tent), 1969–71, another of her masterpieces, draws its buoyancy from reflections of all sorts. Making one's way through the three many-sided Sicofoil structures nested like matryoshki, one surrenders to a total diffraction of the gaze and can abandon oneself, bathed in the pink and fleeting echoes of external appearances, to a purely intransitive pleasure of seeing.

Jean-Pierre Criqui is a Paris-based art historian and critic.

Translated from French by Jeanine Herman.