View of “Maria Lai,” 2019. Background, from left: Una finestra sul mondo (A Window on the World), 1966; Una finestra sul mondo II (A Window on the World II), 1966; Telaio (Looms), 1965. Foreground: Oggetto paesaggio (Landscape Object), 1967.

View of “Maria Lai,” 2019. Background, from left: Una finestra sul mondo (A Window on the World), 1966; Una finestra sul mondo II (A Window on the World II), 1966; Telaio (Looms), 1965. Foreground: Oggetto paesaggio (Landscape Object), 1967.

Maria Lai

On the centenary of Maria Lai’s birth, this exhibition groups more than two hundred of the artist’s works, most seen for the first time, into sections organized around ideas such as mending, storytelling, playing, disseminating, and encountering. Often considered isolated, though by no means an unknown artist, Lai received a surge of international attention in 2017, five years after her death, when her work was included in both the Venice Biennale and Documenta. Curated by Bartolomeo Pietromarchi and Luigia Lonardelli in collaboration with the Archivio Maria Lai and the Fondazione Stazione dell’Arte in Ulassai, the artist’s hometown in Sardinia, this retrospective focuses on Lai’s experimental period, from the 1960s on. The near-complete absence of her drawings and paintings from the ’40s and ’50s might lead viewers to make a clear distinction between the artist’s more “modernist” period and her shift to textiles in the mid-’60s with the first works from the series “Telai” (Looms), 1965–2010. This apparent change in direction can, however, also be seen as bringing to fruition her earlier formal investigations both of line—now embodied as thread—and of Sardinian culture and traditions.

Beginning in the ’60s, Lai recovered materials and memories related to the popular culture of Sardinia, especially the craft traditions—bread and thread, weaving as writing—that allowed women to express themselves in a patriarchal society. In her incorporation of these practices into her work, Lai performed a critical act of translation that shared in postwar Italy’s growing awareness of the political impact of confrontations with the archaic and the vernacular. Oggetto paesaggio (Landscape Object), 1967, for example, is a wedged structure of wooden frames and twine that calls to mind the function of the loom, which it is based on and deconstructs. The title of this work invites interpretation of the loom as simultaneously concrete presence and psychogeographical vista, as a vehicle for narrative and as a conceptual device. The thread within this structure, meanwhile, serves as rhythm, metaphor, and memory.

Several examples of Lai’s Libri cuciti (Sewn Books), ca. 1975–2011, are shown here alongside small works in terra-cotta, sand, bread, velvet, and other materials, condensing the artist’s view of art as a gift and a relationship. These pieces often pay homage to beloved authors: Borges “Trattato” (Borges “Treaty”), 1979, for example, delineates a labyrinthine geography of threads and knots, weaving writing that is minute and intimate, preliterary and silent. Other works in the series are engulfed in hairlike tangles (Libro scalpo n. 3 [Scalp Book No. 3], 1987) or weave lines that seem to dissolve like ink in water (Untitled, 1978).

With Legarsi alla montagna (To Tie Oneself to the Mountain), 1981, Lai turned from the private world of the book to a form of writing-as-weaving that was urban and choral. She asked the inhabitants of Ulassai to tie their houses together with blue ribbon, a gesture that revealed conflict as much as it did community. Participants attached traditional Sardinian ceremonial breads to the ribbon where it ran between houses; their absence signaled animosity.

Throughout her oeuvre, Lai dialectically probed light and shadow. The exhibition emphasizes this effort, drawing its subtitle, “Tenendo per mano il sole” (Taking the Sun by the Hand), from the first of the artist’s “Sewn Fables,” 1984–96, an embroidered fabric book that shows a path from darkness to illumination. Presented in the section “L’arte è il gioco degli adulti. Giocare e raccontare” (Art Is Adult’s Play: Playing and Storytelling), the book also serves as a marker of the persistence of Lai’s investigation of play as art and pedagogy. In Legarsi alla montagna, the artist had taken the legend of the “celestial ribbon” as a matrix for action and a metaphor for art that can indicate new possibilities of collective living, a way out from the shadows, to be constructed with the imagination. And indeed, for Lai, play frees the potential of the imagination, but it nevertheless has a function—that of generating social relationships.

Translated from Italian by Marguerite Shore.