Bice Lazzari’s Art Finds a Spotlight at Masterpiece

By Nina Siegal

Image“Untitled” (1973) by the Italian artist Bice Lazzari. A booth at Masterpiece London this year is devoted to her work, mostly from the 1960s and ’70s.
“Untitled” (1973) by the Italian artist Bice Lazzari. A booth at Masterpiece London this year is devoted to her work, mostly from the 1960s and ’70s.CreditCreditBice Lazzari/Richard Saltoun Gallery, London

As a young woman trying to educate herself to become an artist in the 1930s and ’40s in Fascist Italy, Bice Lazzari once said that the only resource she had was illegally imported art magazines. “For many, the only way to survive artistically was to establish a continuous dialogue with oneself: a challenging monologue to build one’s own art,” she wrote.

Despite the obstacles that stood in her way — her parents wanted her to become a musician, she was a woman in a male-dominated art world and she was painfully introverted — Ms. Lazzari became one of Italy’s most important modern artists.

Although her work has been presented in major museums, including Ca’ Pesaro modern art museum in Venice, the Vatican Museums, the Phillips Collection and the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, Ms. Lazzari, who died in 1981, still is not widely known outside Italy.

“She isn’t yet a household name,” said Niamh Coghlan, sales director at the Richard Saltoun Gallery, which is devoting its booth at Masterpiece London this year to Ms. Lazzari’s work, mostly from the 1960s and ’70s.

“She’s still coming out of the Italian market and she isn’t recognized on an international level,” Ms. Coghlan said in a phone interview. “That’s why this presentation at Masterpiece is so critical to growing her market.”

The gallery took some of Ms. Lazzari’s work to the Frieze New York art fair two years ago, and “we had a sellout stand almost immediately,” Ms. Coghlan said. “People literally walked onto the stand and said, ‘I want that.’ They didn’t know the name of the artist, or the title of the works. They just had a passionate attraction to them. It was a pure recognition of aesthetic talent.”

ImageMs. Lazzari in Rome in 1957. Despite the obstacles that stood in her way, she became one of Italy’s most important modern artists.
Ms. Lazzari in Rome in 1957. Despite the obstacles that stood in her way, she became one of Italy’s most important modern artists.CreditAlfredo Libero Ferretti

Ms. Lazzari’s reputation has been building. Last year, S2, Sotheby’s secondary gallery space in London where art that may be undervalued at auction is exhibited and sold, had the first British solo exhibition of her work, and the Phillips Collection in Washington presented “Bice Lazzari, the Poetry of Mark-Making.”

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, Sophie Tauber-Arp and Sonia Delaunay.

“It is a good moment for Bice Lazzari’s work,” said Maria Isabella Barone, executive coordinator of the Bice Lazzari Archive in Rome, where the artist eventually moved, because there is “much more attention to women artists who are less known.”

Recently, she added, the archive is “receiving a lot of requests for works to take part in group exhibition or solo exhibition in Italy and abroad,” she said in an email. “We are on a good path now.”

Born in Venice in 1900, Ms. Lazzari worked in several different styles throughout her life — first in the applied arts, making tapestries, pillows and bags. She moved on to figurative painting before turning to what is known as the Art Informel style of Abstract Expressionism. In the 1950s, she turned her focus to geometric abstraction, and in the ’60s and ’70s she settled on very simple abstract work based on lines and basic shapes.

“As a pure artist, she was humble enough to give up and start again, then give up and start again, and she did this three or four times in her life,” said Renato Miracco, an independent curator who has worked on several Lazzari exhibitions, including the one at the Phillips Collection. “She was quite blind at the real end of her life, and she continued to draw with just two little pencils, black and red.”

Ms. Lazzari was not overlooked during her lifetime only because she was a woman; she was also extremely shy, Mr. Miracco said, and even though she was surrounded by well-known artists, including Alberto Giacometti and Alberto Burri, she did not promote her work.

Ms. Lazzari’s “Superficie e Segni n.3” (Surface and Signs No. 3), from 1974. The artist, who died in 1981, is still not widely known outside Italy.CreditBice Lazzari/Richard Saltoun Gallery, London

“She lived through two world wars, and a lot of her artistic career, and her life, was broken up by these huge world events,” said Bianca Chu, deputy director of S2. “Being born in Venice, she wasn’t in the immediate centers of the art world of the postwar period.”

Ms. Chu added, “We often find with artists who dabble in different spheres, they can sometimes be underappreciated in their lifetimes.”

Ms. Barone noted that Ms. Lazzari was very prolific, making about 3,000 works of art throughout her career. “Stand in front of her paintings and look deeply, and you will find an incredible harmony, a symphony of color and signs,” she said. “Follow the line, and you will find a sound. Her remarkable control is a direct result of her method of applying color and pigment to tell a story, to create a visual poem.”

Saltoun will have eight works on display in its booth at Masterpiece, with others available on request. Prices for the smaller start at 20,000 pounds (about $25,000), with the largest paintings priced around £250,000.

“The prices are shockingly low compared to Agnes Martin or any of the minimalist painters who would have been her contemporaries,” Ms. Coghlan said.

Ms. Chu agreed that the Italian male artists of Ms. Lazzari’s era — Burri, Lucio Fontana, and Domenico Gnoli, for example — sell at auction for much higher prices. Prices for works by Fontana, who was born just a year before Ms. Lazzari, are in the millions.

“Postwar Italian art has been recognized on the masterpiece level,” she said, “and someone like Bice Lazzari should be seen in that context.”