Pietro Consagra, Ferro trasparente turchese II, 1966, ferro dipinto, 60.7 x 44.7 x 9 cm. Collezione privata, Lugano. Foto: Claudio Abate.
Pietro Consagra, La materia poteva non esserci, Lugano, Collezione Giancarlo e Danna Olgiati. Foto: Agostino Osio
Pietro Consagra, Giardino viola, 1966, ferro verniciato, 130.5 x 143.5 x 0.5 cm. Museo d’arte della Svizzera italiana, Lugano. Deposito dell’Associazione ProMuseo. Foto: Alexandre Zveiger.
Pietro Consagra, Città Frontale. 40 edifici embrionali, 1968, ottone e acciaio, 21 x 225 x 100 cm
Inaugurazione della Galleria Marlborough di New York, novembre 1967, da sinistra a destra: Ceroli, Festa, Clotilde, Bonalumi, Carmi, Scarpitta, Carmen Gregotti, Carla, Dorfles, Gregotti, Colombo, Castelli, Dorazio, Simeti, Eco, Kiki Carmi, Icaro (foto Ugo Mulas)
Lo studio al quarto piano di Piazza del Popolo, 1952

12 September 2021 - 9 January 2022
Pietro Consagra. La materia poteva non esserci
Lugano, Collezione Giancarlo e Danna Olgiati

From 12th September 2021 to 9th January 2022, the Collezione Giancarlo e Danna Olgiati continues its research and presentation of their collection with a retrospective dedicated to Pietro Consagra, curated by Alberto Salvadori in collaboration with the Archivio Consagra. The exhibition is conceived as the natural continuation of the two collectors’ long acquaintance, shared interest and love for art, and their close friendship with the Sicilian artist; as long as their wish to celebrate the centenary of his birth, which fell in 2020.  

Pietro Consagra. La materia poteva non esserci is the first exhibition devoted to the artist at a Swiss state institution. The dialectical relationship with otherness, at the centre of Consagra’s research since the Colloqui series (1952), the frontal vision and its changing interpretations, and the theme of the city as a place of thought and relation with experience, are the focus of the exhibition and of Consagra’s work presented at the Collezione Olgiati.

The exhibition will draw on the artist’s work from the 1950s to the early ’70s to highlight how his contribution was not formal, but aimed at the participation –even a critical one– inside the society in which he lived and worked. The sixty-four works featured in the exhibition show how Consagra always kept at the centre of his research keen attention to the value of humanity and art– initially in a germinal, and subsequently in a well-defined form – to create a better society. Consagra is one of the rare 20th-century artists to have experimented with all aspects of artistic creation: he painted, sculpted, drew, designed jewellery, furniture and urban architecture; he tried different techniques on numerous materials and he wrote prolifically with a sophisticated and argumentative vis (strength). This path is conceptually summed up in the title of one of his works, made of reinforced concrete at the mouth of a dry riverbed in Sicily: La materia poteva non esserci. This title seems to stress the importance of the path that starts from the idea, passes through the concept and culminates in the dialogical relationship with the community. He considered all materials valid, without choosing one in particular for his artistic production. Similarly, he did not favour the relationship with matter in order to pursuit form.

The theme of frontality, which is constant in his work, banished from his sculptures traditional sculptural problems and themes, such as mass and volume, specific to the object. The exhibition features some of the most important Colloqui (Conversations) and a selection of fundamental works from the 1950s in iron, bronze, steel and burnt wood, and many ferri trasparenti (Transparent Irons). The Colloqui mark the beginning of the great and never-concluded conceptual theme in which free and imaginary form created presence – a keyword for understanding Consagra’s world. There is no process of mimesis, no lingering reality, but an echo that gradually creates the forms in his sculptures, directing us towards that humanity presented in the simplest and most complex of its relationships: a dialogue, a conversation . . . talking together . . . all while permanently abandoning any narrative or descriptive intention. The Colloqui inhabit space, their existential condition and not the frame. They are an ecological form, a presence in an environment.

The inner quest conducted on burnt wood, iron and bronze was always accompanied by superb technique, without ever a slip in the juxtapositions, assemblies, castings and variations of the material. It is a technique, which is combined with the skilled use of the blowtorch – a tool that is potentially aggressive, yet, if used like Consagra did, it is also highly expressive and poetic. 

The ferri trasparenti appear like two-sided images, no longer respecting the rectangular structure, and are dominated by a curved line that repeatedly breaks and joins up again. These works are enlivened by an unrelenting and sometimes frenzied inner rhythm and by light movements rendered graceful by imaginative, non-naturalistic colours. There is still a strong relationship between line and design, attested in the exhibition by the presence of several drawings, including precious pounces from the artist’s archive. The ferri trasparenti are an original space where germination occurs, and art reacts with its artificiality to the forms of nature and their contemplation. 

“Art is the alternative, not the refuge of nature. Art is no longer a service of Power; it is a way of life, a goal, an example, an aid. Nature can only absorb us, isolate us, take us out of the game, keep us in failure, in the frustration of human relationships. The more nature may seem a probable sanctuary, the more the city rushes towards humanity’s ruin. If we take refuge in nature, we bring with us the destructive weapons of the contemporary city and spread the corruption of our sense of what is good and righteous. We should not go towards nature, while we should go towards the city.” Consagra was already aware in the 1960s that nature could not be an alibi, an ideal refuge, a place to mythicize or define as desirable, according to the contemporary narrative on the value of small villages and the countryside, which are intended as a place of refuge or mythical innocence.

It is fundamental to start anew from the city as the most lived-in and extensive human place – as much as then as today. And this brings us to La città frontale [“The Frontal City”] in 1968. It will be presented in its entirety on the occasion of the exhibition in Lugano, with the fundamental horizon line, placed by Consagra in the exhibition at the Galleria dell’Ariete in 1969, that determines humanity’s position in relation to the landscape created by the artist\architect\urbanist. A line, a gesture of humanistic traits, for an urban definition of the setting. A materialization of emotions and ideas that find in the form of the city the most meaningful reference to the complexity of the networks that sum up individual and collective ways of living, and to the physical projection of political and economic powers. Following the American experience and the encounter with the great architectural works of Sullivan, Wright and other champions of modernism, Consagra did not proclaim an eccentric and authoritative artist proposal, but instead tackled a real problem that developed over time up to its becoming permanent: humanity’s many – mainly frustrating and conflictual – relations with the urban space, as well as the long-debated ones associated with the inevitable and direct social implications. In this area, Consagra also introduced a fundamental theme regarding the way of existing in the city: the progressive detachment of our identity from the new constructions that transform and dictate the space of urban living, leading people to a state of general resignation. The frontal city is the sign of intellectual consideration, but also the emotional attachment to the urban space. In his book La città frontale, published in 1968, he wrote “The cities have become resentment, but not of pollution, which is a reparable evil, but of the invasion of an architecture that will remain implanted, indestructible. . .”

Three painted sheets will also be displayed for the first time. They are part of a larger group produced by the artist between the late 1960s and 1970s and constitute an example of intimate, personal work on a humble, everyday material, conveying an echo of what young artists were doing at the time. This is an act of domestic politics, which never fails to represent his idea of sculpture. 

The book, produced on the occasion of the exhibition, contains previously unpublished essays by scholars and great architects, such as Mario Botta, who have probed the various themes associated with the artist’s production. In her essay, Lara Conte examines some of the fundamental elements of Consagra’s oeuvre as colour and frontality in dialogical and historical relationship to other artists of his generation and the subsequent one. Andrea Cortellessa focuses on Consagra as a writer, the author of numerous essays, books and the highly successful autobiography entitled Vita mia. Paola Nicolin reveals details of a study that examined the painted sheets and the importance of these works in Consagra’s artistic production, also with regard to the historical context in which they were made. Mario Botta has contributed to the book with a memory of his long and intense association with the artist, while Alberto Salvadori focuses on the theme of the Frontal City and its contemporary relevance. The book is published by Mousse Publishing and edited by Alberto Salvadori.