Bice Lazzari, Multigrafia e nero (Multigraphy and Black), 1972, acrylic on canvas, 56 3/4 x 76 1/8".

Bice Lazzari, Multigrafia e nero (Multigraphy and Black), 1972, acrylic on canvas, 56 3/4 x 76 1/8".

Bice Lazzari


Bice Lazzari, Multigrafia e nero (Multigraphy and Black), 1972, acrylic on canvas, 56 3/4 x 76 1/8".

Those who appreciate the art of Nasreen Mohamedi or Agnes Martin—artists whose pursuit of simplicity led them to probe the endless vibrations of space rather than the construction of form—might want to start looking into the work of Bice Lazzari, yet another of the seemingly endless number of underrecognized women modernists whose work is ripe for reconsideration. Born in Venice in 1900 and trained as a figurative painter, she began working abstractly in the late 1920s, first as a practitioner of the applied arts—fabric designs, decorative panels, and the like—but her abstract drawings from this period stand as fully autonomous works. It was only in the postwar period (by which time she had moved to Rome) that Lazzari really came into her own as an abstract painter—but with two decades of experience in the basics of line, form, and color to rely on.

Lazzari’s career was a long one—she died in 1981—which means that this exhibition of thirteen paintings and four works on paper from 1967 through 1976 could give only a partial idea of her range; in particular, it omitted a detour into a more broadly painterly approach, and at times a denser material texture, under the influence of informalism, in the 1950s and early 1960s. The materially spare, gesturally restrained works in this show, by contrast, manifest a partial return to Lazzari’s roots in what Paola Ugolini, in the catalogue to this exhibition, calls “the decidedly avant-garde product of a functional modern furnishing, albeit still decorative, consistent with the ‘total art’ experiments of the Italian Futurists, the German Bauhaus and the French modernism of Le Corbusier”—though the artist herself claimed to dislike Futurism and to have been totally isolated from developments in abstract painting outside Italy during the long decades of Fascist rule. In her late work, the essentially structural and architectural idiom of her early abstraction has been almost entirely subjectivized, its geometry dissolved, reflecting what Lazzari herself would call the realization “that the achievement of a certain ‘quid’ requires silence and secrecy.”

What’s perhaps most surprising is how the mysterious silence embodied by these late works of Lazzari’s—which has more in common with that of Giorgio Morandi’s still lifes than with the clamor of the Futurists or even the industrious bustle of the Bauhaus—feels innately musical. Lazzari’s compositions float freely but with an internal pulse, a scansion, a distinctly rhythmic character that can give them, at times, the appearance of visual scores à la Morton Feldman or Cornelius Cardew. Her working method? “Listening carefully to a day’s rhythm is what works best,” she said. She recorded these inner rhythms in patterns of mostly vertical and horizontal lines, marks replete with differences and divergences of weight, tone, thickness, intensity, and so on. Color might seem beside the point in most of the works, but that impression would be mistaken; it’s simply that in Lazzari’s hands, the infinite nuances of gray and white in both the ground and its inflections (acrylic, tempera, and graphite) somehow subsume all hues—and then a sudden shaft of red occurs as a glorious shock, like a cymbal clash underlining the structural solidity of what had seemed a gentle pulsing. But even the most emphatic mark seems to emerge from, rather than having been imposed on, the painting as a whole. For Lazzari, the danger in her pursuit of the elusive essence of experience, of what she disarmingly called—quoting Jean Fautrier—the mieux que rien, or “better than nothing,” was that somehow “the very canvas itself” would “disappear with the image.” It hasn’t happened yet. Lazzari’s canvases endure, unwavering.

Barry Schwabsky