Featured in
Issue 218

The Everlasting ‘Vital Impulse’ of Carla Accardi

At Museo del Novecento, the artist’s first retrospective since her passing in 2014, reveals her feminist beginnings and continued liberation through abstract art 

BY Thea Hawlin in EU Reviews , Reviews | 01 MAR 21

‘My purpose’, the Italian artist Carla Accardi declared in an interview with Paolo Vagheggi in 2004, ‘is to represent the vital impulse that is in the world.’ ‘Contexts’ at Milan’s Museo del Novecento, the first retrospective dedicated to the painter since her death in 2014, is a rich survey that pays homage to one of Italy’s seminal, postwar artists.

Accardi’s artistic practice emerged from the energy of a creative community in postwar Rome and the show opens with a colourful group display contextualising her early works from the 1940s. As a founding (and lone female) member of the collective Forma 1, Accardi resisted popular figurative styles and, instead, found liberation in abstract art. Drawn to experimental practices and embracing the methods of art informel, she soon began painting canvases laid flat on the ground.

Carla Accardi, Great Integration, 1957, tempera on canvas. Courtesy: Museo del Novecento, Milan

In the 1950s, Accardi developed a monochrome artistic language of signs in which negative and positive spaces were delineated by interwoven forms and rhythmic loops of paint abruptly enclosed by the canvas edge (e.g. Great Integration, 1957). However, she soon recognised the potential of colour to enhance her complex compositions. In Stripes (1963), the colours divide areas into self-contained stacks filled with symbols. The sea of reds, pinks and greens only adds to the play between light and dark, order and chaos, design and chance, with Accardi’s mark-making foregrounded in arresting and mysterious configurations reminiscent of warped hieroglyphs. Homage to Matisse (1964) explodes in a pool of citrus orange covered in gatherings of thick blue circles, which alternate with areas of vertical brushstrokes in verdant green. The effect is dizzying, reminiscent of an optical illusion while hinting at a thread of figuration: the curves of a female body, perhaps, or the outline of a couple kissing? The joy of Accardi’s work is that her cyphers are left uncoded, open to interpretation.

Carla Accardi in front of Tenda at Galleria Notizie, Turin, 1966. Courtesy: Museo del Novecento, Milan

After experimenting with sicofoil in her ‘Transparent’ paintings in the mid-1960s, Accardi developed a growing interest in architecture, which manifested in works such as Triple Tent (1969), a circular plastic tent painted with a pale pink design. While this seminal piece only features in the exhibition in archival footage, smaller examples – such as Cones (2004) and Rolls (1965–69) – fill the gallery. These totems of choreographed colour rising from the ground testify to Accardi’s continual expansion of her artistic language. Here, the audience is no longer merely decoding Accardi’s signs, they inhabit them.

This shift in Accardi’s practice coincided with an increase in activism. In 1970, she co-founded Rivolta Femminile (Women’s Revolt), Italy’s first female-only feminist group, alongside journalist Elvira Banotti and art critic Carla Lonzi. They later opened Cooperativa Beato Angelico, a feminist art gallery in Rome. Though Accardi would later distance herself from Rivolta Femminile, just as she had from Forma 1, these connections with communities informed her works, which themselves can be seen as animated collectives.

Carla Accardi, Rolls,1965–69, installation view, Galleria Salvatore Ala, New York, 1989. Courtesy: Museo del Novecento, Milan

As many of us begin to emerge from lockdown isolation, it can be hard to resituate ourselves within our communities, despite the vital role these networks have played in sustaining us during this time. ‘Contexts’ reflects upon this same eternal tension between individuality and shared dependency within Accardi’s life and work. That her art speaks to our current moment attests to how, although reflective of the eras in which they were created, her works resonate beyond their origins. The marks she made, in whatever material she used, radiate with energy. The ‘vital impulse’ she sought so hard to capture endures.

Carla Accardi, ‘Contexts’ is on view at Museo del Novecento, Milan, until 27 June 2021.

Main image: Carla Accardi, For Narrow Spaces 1 (detail), 1988, vinyl on canvas, 160 × 220 cm. Courtesy: Museo del Novecento, Milan

Thea Hawlin is a writer, artist, and cultural critic based in Italy.