THE POETRY OF MARK MAKING
“I choose the mark … because I can more clearly formulate a discourse that may easily be read. The mark because it traces a vital tension in relation to other marks, which collectively become more significant and complete an inner process … The mark because it determines alternative spaces that could appear interconnected, creating the possibility of perceiving various planes, conceptually ordered and with a non-objective rigour that I would define as the ‘objective of reduction” - Bice Lazzari
Although something of an introverted character, Beatrice “Bice” Lazzari (1900-1981), was one of the most innovative Italian abstractionists of the 20th century. Described as the “Agnes Martin of Italy”, despite her significant contribution to minimalist abstract art, Bice was yet another of the seemingly endless number of under-recognized women modernists, largely unknown outside her country of birth. Born in Venice on 15 November 1900 into a family of merchants and builders, like most girls of good family of the period, she trained as an instrumentalist at the prestigious Benedetto Marcello Conservatory; this imbued her with a lifelong passion for music that would inform her artistic practice in the years to come. Exposed to painting en plein air through an uncle, an architect and distinguished professor at the Venice Academy of Fine Art, the young Bice immediately enrolled at the institution in 1916, attending classes for a year until the war forced her to continue her studies in Florence. As a woman, she was advised not to pursue figurative drawing and instead to become a designer. For most women in Italy at the time, the possibility of forging a career in the fine arts was limited; Lazzari however was determined to find her own voice.
Initially painting landscapes influenced by Venetian vedutism, Lazzari’s work had affinity with the Burano school of painters who, in the 1920’s, dedicated themselves to the lagoon atmosphere of the island of Burano, incorporating light effects reminiscent of the French Impressionists, that recalled the works of twenty years early. As Lazzari matured as an artist, she gradually dissolved her links with the figurative tradition, and began experimenting, demonstrating her affinity with the interpenetrating colours and compositional order of Futurism — and in particular the works of Enrico Prampolini (1894-1956) — and turning to the Art Informel style of Abstract Expressionism. It was during these years her first exhibited works were created, including Nature and Colours, Black Trace, and Squares; manifesting the crispness of her mature abstraction, these poetic compositions, departing from geometric orthodoxy, are an investigation into paint and colour. In 1935, after suffering two years of bitter disappointment in love, Lazzari moved to Rome which, although the centre of the Italian art scene, was also the capital of fascist Italy. The aesthetic culture of the regime meant artists like Lazzari were restricted from working beyond the city’s borders; she once said that the only resource she had was illegally imported art magazines. “For many, the only way to survive artistically,” Lazzari said, “was to establish a continuous dialogue with oneself: a challenging monologue to build one’s own art.” Single-minded and strong-willed, Lazzari made a living working with architects and decorators; commissions from Gio Ponti (1891-1979) and Carlo Scarpa (1906-1978) (who would later marry her younger sister Onorina “Ninni”) acted as an entrée into the city’s avant-garde movement.
In the immediate post-war period, Rome was an intellectually vibrant city: no longer restricted by the Fascist state, Lazzari returned to her own painting, exploring the possibilities of geometric expression, creating abstract compositions that encompassed the gestural techniques of informalism. Her paintings of the 1950s are expressive and abstract, but from the early 1960’s, Lazzari began to research and refine what would become for her a “poetry of mark-making”, through which she sought to distill soul and feelings into the simplest possible set of lines and colours. Increasingly reductive, yet deeply meditative, her works of this period are refined webs of simple marks, resonating with utmost control and minimal gesture. Often compared to American artist Agnes Martin (1912-2004), through subtle variations of line and tone Lazzari invented shapes and forms that conveyed complex emotions.
Abandoning her traditional materials and palette in order to find a more simplified means of expression, using graphite, ink, and pastel, Lazzari drew lines (often over washes of soft color) in rhythmic formations to form poetic compositions that recall graphs, maps, and musical scores: “I choose the mark … because I can more clearly formulate a discourse that may easily be read. The mark because it traces a vital tension in relation to other marks, which collectively become more significant and complete an inner process … The mark because it determines alternative spaces that could appear interconnected, creating the possibility of perceiving various planes, conceptually ordered and with a non-objective rigour that I would define as the ‘objective of reduction’.” Lazzari worked with oil paint until 1964, when she was forced to stop due to the damaging effects to her eyes; she began to explore new materials, such as glue, sand, tempera and, later, acrylic. In paintings such Acrilico No. 5, her linear, ordered markings in columns with touches of colour testify to the lessons of Joan Mirò (1893-1983) and even more so, of Paul Klee (1879-1940), but have the unique lyricism of a musical manuscript.
By the 1970s, Lazzari’s compositional vocabulary had been reduced further still, to rows and blocks of straight lines, sometimes set against bold, flat colours. In comparison with Wasily Kandinsky (1866-1944), who also sought to express “visual music” through his work, Lazari’s compositions are infinitely more orderly, her marks more exacting, more rigorous; yet, despite this, Lazzari drew by hand, freely, thus managing to maintain her personal touch. Her spare compositions create interacting linear rhythms, imbued with lyricism and often whimsy, a symphony of color and signs, marking Lazzari as one of the most innovative abstract painters of the 20th century. At the end of her life, almost blind, Lazzari continued to draw, just with two little pencils, black and red. Although her work has been presented in major museums, including Ca’ Pesaro, the Vatican Museums, the Phillips Collection and the National Museum of Women in the Arts, this protagonist of post-war Italian avant-garde, never quite received the level of international recognition she deserved.
When the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice presented some of her work in 2002, a press statement described her as “one of the greatest female protagonists of 20th-century abstraction,” mentioning her along with artists like Anni Albers (1889-1994), Sophie Tauber-Arp (1889-1943) and Sonia Delaunay (1885-1979). Lazzari was undoubtedly overlooked, but not only because she was a woman. Never a member of any group or school, a life of solitude and non-conformity kept her from the world of art criticism and trade; art for her had always been poetry rather than methodology. In 1980, the year before her death, she reminisced: “As I got older I realised that I was holding onto too many useless things; that one mark could be more sufficient than three.”