Over the course of the 1960s art critic turned artist and activist Carla Lonzi (Florence 1931-Milan 1982) recorded numerous interviews with with some of the most important artists of the 20th century: Carla Accardi, Getulio Alviani, Enrico Castellani, Pietro Consagra, Luciano Fabro, Lucio Fontana, Jannis Kounellis, Mario Nigro, Giulio Paolini, Pino Pascali, Mimmo Rotella, Salvatore Scarpitta, Giulio Turcato, and Cy Twombly. She transcribed these interviews and reproduced them in a montaged mash-up version, including every last utterance from her interlocutors, making it seem as if all fifteen speakers were in conversation together, across time and space and over the 300 pages of Self-portrait. Lonzi’s book was published in Italian by De Donato Editore in 1969. Below is an excerpt of my translation, the first in English and published with Divided Publishing.
This excerpt speaks to this particular historical moment for many artists (as based on my close circle of friends in conversation) and to my relationship with this beloved magazine. Queen Mob’s Teahouse, which I joined as fiction editor in 2015 and worked with on a variety of projects for a solid five years, has been a place of expanded ideas and thinking, where the apparatus of culture was never allowed to interfere with culture itself. It has been a place where ideas and forms could be experimented with and openly discussed. Carla Lonzi’s experimental interview based text will fit in well here. Like Carla Lonzi, Queen Mob’s Teahouse and this writer have found themselves spontaneously ‘carried in different directions.’ And such is the gift of truly revolutionary writing.
— Allison Grimaldi Donahue
Bologna, 21 February 2022
Excerpt from Self-portrait
Translated from the Italian by Allison Grimaldi Donahue
Published by Divided Publishing, UK 2021
Lonzi: I think that, when one is a critic, one should also examine oneself, have experiences, take in everything about this sector of activity, namely have a kind of initiation – the word came to me and I’ll hold onto it – because initiation means that you enter into a thing, get into this thing, absorb it, you transform and live, meanwhile, right? It’s not that your whole life, you got to stay passionate about something . . . artists are doing or saying in and of itself and that particular place. It’s interesting to you in a free way: in a certain period, it won’t interest you at all, and in another period it will. Now, there was a person who said to me, ‘But you, in America, did you go to the young artists’ studios?’ I said to myself, ‘How strange . . . I went to Zoos, I went to Museums of Natural History, I saw what I could about the American Indians, I saw the architecture of H.H. Richardson and of Sullivan and also their contemporaries, I’ll show you the slides of the warehouses of Minneapolis, I saw friends, I saw the bourgeoisie, or what the Americans call the middle class, I didn’t intend to see artists, it didn’t cross my mind to visit studios.’ I believe that, over the years in which I have attentively and carefully dedicated myself to this . . . now, I no longer have this anxiety, because let’s say, one wants to have the experience of what art is, then the fact of informing oneself little by little about what’s happening is another thing, understand what I mean? It’s a professional necessity not to miss a word of what’s going on. But, spontaneously, one feels carried in different directions.
Kounellis: You say ‘Abolish the craft . . .’ but that means that a painter, once the craft has been abolished, can do what, I don’t know, can be a farmer or travel or do something else. This is the abolition of specialisation, that there was, in this work, while the critic’s work isn’t the same, because they start with extremely different assumptions of what they are, they’re not the same, right? Because the critic begins from historic assumptions, I don’t know, from studies, actually he sees himself as a scholar. And a scholar, later, who becomes a critic . . . what does this mean? Scholars aren’t critics, scholars are scholars of real phenomena . . . One understands that this behaviour is very ambiguous, they are really different things. They say ‘historians’ need to have a wider perspective than that which the critic is allowed to have: if things are very crystallised and you have very fixed dates. While the critic is the mediator of actions, but this is in itself an interpretation, indeed, right? It’s a falsification of things, it becomes the interpretation of the interpretation, right? So, what does it mean, in the end, all of this? And who is the critic? A propagator of ideas? Who could he be, right? This isn’t it, it doesn’t even mean anything. They start with very different assumptions. You talk about it, in an elementary sense, I don’t know, about the critical mentality that each of us has, while they take up this mentality in a much broader way and give it more meaning, indeed, to this kind of operation. And more meaning, more meaning, more meaning that also gets to the superstructures, spiritual superstructures of all of the mentalities and, later, one arrives at the excess found today. This is a fact, this sin of presumption, because the artist, the minimum that he makes, he makes something, and the guy there that offers the criticism, he’s no one, right?
Accardi: You see this book about that school, there, the School of Barbiana . . . there are many things there, maybe also . . . but there it’s written, in order to understand what these kids want, really ‘We want a teacher who comes to us, and doesn’t automatically say – character development is independent because . . . – that today is the credo of our schools . . . no . . . we want a teacher who, doesn’t even make us study the work of Sapegno, etc. no . . . we want a teacher who is passionate, who influences us, who’d tell us . . .’ What he was, poor thing, poor Braibanti who was condemned, then. It’s right, it comes back, see, this fact about the initiation that you were saying, it’s this thing you’re attracted to in humanity, I understood you. In fact, teaching, it happened that I became a bit . . . but instead it opened my eyes, that I can do this. I can, for example, start over leading them to something that’s interesting to me. Today, it’s a moment in which the accounts of a period have been drawn . . . I see it like that, a chronological period, began in a given year and ended. And, in fact, I am trying to save . . . help save, because I am trying to involve a lot of circumstances, people, elements of life, and this seems very interesting to me, because it’s the beginning of something else, you know? I have a problem with the institution of the school, because it’s my field, and with critics, certainly, but not as much of a problem as you have. And then I take issue with, for example, with everything that is a surrogate of art, but that was always presented as art.
Carla Lonzi (b. 1931, Florence; d. 1982, Milan) was an art critic and feminist activist best known for her work with Rivolta Femminile, a feminist collective created in 1970. Following the publication of Autoritratto ('Self-portrait') in 1969, Lonzi published Manifesto di Rivolta femminile (1970), Sputiamo su Hegel. La donna clitoridea e la donna vaginale e altri scritti (1974) and Taci, anzi parla. Diario di una femminista (1977). Due to her uncodified practice, she occupies a singular position within post-war Italian politics and art, and is a crucial figure of European feminism. Allison Grimaldi Donahue (b. 1984, Middletown, Connecticut) is the translator of Self-portrait by Carla Lonzi (Divided, 2021) and Blown-away by Vito M. Bonito (Fomite, 2021) and author of Body to Mineral (Publication Studio Vancouver, 2016) and the co-author of On Endings (Delere Press, 2019). Her writing and translations have appeared in The Brooklyn Rail, Words without Borders, Flash Art, BOMB, NERO and Tripwire, and her performances have been presented in Italy at Gavin Brown's enterprise, MAMbo, MACRO and Short Theatre. She is a 2021–22 resident of Sommerakademie Paul Klee, Bern. She lives in Bologna.