Camila McHugh on Pietro Consagra

The shadow of art critic and feminist activist Carla Lonzi loomed large in “Immagini Vaganti” (Wandering Images), an exhibition of sculptures and other works by her longtime partner, Pietro Consagra (1920–2005). The show opened with two nearly life-size photographs of Lonzi taken by Ugo Mulas in a 1967 exhibition in Milan of Consagra’s cut-and-painted aluminum plates. A selection of the flat wall works depicted in the enlarged pictures were installed alongside them, including Alluminio rettangolo orizzontale (ocra) (Horizontal Aluminum Rectangle [Ocher]) and Alluminio spirale (grigio) (Aluminum Spiral [Gray]), both 1966–67, in a partial re-creation of that show. Lonzi was instrumental to Consagra’s articulation of his sculpture’s “frontality,” as he termed the use of flatness and transparency to foster a face-to-face encounter with the viewer. The show brought together a range of Consagra’s sculpture, as well as his forays into painted bedsheets, jewelry, and furniture design that reached into the 1990s, but its focus was on the late 1960s and 1970s. Nowhere did the exhibition explicitly invoke Lonzi’s own activities during this period, a decade bookended by two pivotal acts of withdrawal: Around 1970, she renounced art criticism to dedicate herself to feminism, and in 1980, she declared an end to her decades-long relationship with Consagra after concluding that she could not be autonomous within the power dynamics of a relationship that revolved largely around his work. She published the four-day conversation that led to this break as “Vai Pure” (Now You Can Go, 1980). (The pair subsequently reunited.)

The actual shadows cast by Consagra’s sculptures in the show’s second room were what got me thinking about Lonzi’s metaphorical one. The large-scale Piano sospeso bianco (Suspended White Plane), 1964—with myriad openings and inlets carved into thin, painted board—hovered like a cloud above a collection of smaller works on pedestals that resembled etchings, with their delicate tributaries cut into iron painted in vibrant purple, green, or red. By puncturing the picture plane with these trailing lines, Consagra deflated monumental sculpture’s reliance on volume. Consider the affinity between the see-through Sicofoil paintings of Carla Accardi—with whom Lonzi cofounded the feminist group Rivolta Femminile (Women’s Revolt) in 1970—and the transparent, stencil-like paths Consagra cut into his sculptures. His work interacts with its surroundings while maintaining a striking integrity. At Tommaso Calabro, his sparing abstractions stood in marked juxtaposition to the resplendently ornate Milanese palazzo that houses the gallery.

The exhibition peaked with a sequence of five early works from Consagra’s “Lenzuoli” (Bedsheets) series, 1967–92. Hung from clothesline-like wires and charting a path through the gallery’s largest room, these bedsheets—emblazoned with loose rows of multicolored, patterned shapes in washable acrylic—had previously been exhibited only once, in 1974. After that, Consagra opted to live with rather than show these “wandering images,” as he called them, draping them across walls or windows in a makeshift homemaking during an extended period of transience between Italy, the United States, and elsewhere. These inventive constellations of dashes, circles, and stripes were more whimsical and emotive than his sculpture, rendering palpable the freedom he seems to have felt in this more private practice.

The exhibition was convincing in its central argument that these domestic works were core to Consagra’s oeuvre. And while I won’t suggest that Lonzi could be found among the bedsheets, the inclusion of these pieces was certainly suggestive. By giving Consagra’s domestic works their due, the show also managed to remind us that Lonzi’s work wrestled with the tension between life and art in that same intersection of the home—their home. Lonzi found the sublimation that facilitates artmaking politically untenable. My ruminations stemmed from the hope that Lonzi’s image opened the show as more than a pretty face, not merely an accessory with late-’60s flare in a floral belted dress. I wanted to take Mulas’s image as Chekhov’s rifle instead, and read Consagra’s work as riddled with her impact.

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