IN MARCH 1947 IN ROME, Carla Accardi, the only woman in an otherwise entirely male group, signed the Forma manifesto, immediately joining a debate that was animating the postwar art world, on “figuration/nonfiguration” and on whether or not to be “politically engaged.” Born in Trapani, Sicily, in 1924, she studied at the Accademia di Belle Arti in Florence and then, in 1946, went to Rome, where she would live until her death on February 23, 2014, in her studio-home on the Via del Babuino a few steps from Piazza del Popolo.

Photos from those early years in Rome depict a very young, slender woman with short hair and huge eyes filling a tiny face—an eternal adolescent, with a beauty all her own, outside the usual canons, decidedly ahead of her time, not just in the way she looked, but in her choices in life and work. She had just settled in Rome with Antonio Sanfilippo, her future husband, when she went to Paris, courtesy of an international exchange organized by the Fronte della Gioventý Italiana and by the Union Nationale des …tudiants de France. Her time there was spent visiting museums and galleries, one of which, “in the Place VendŰme . . . I only later learned was directed by Michel Tapiť,” the critic who soon would become a strong supporter of her work. Her early work, characterized by a formalist/Concrete art emphasis on color and geometric shapes, resulted in an invitation to participate in the 1948 Venice Biennale. (In 1952, in that same city, she would visit the Peggy Guggenheim collection.)

Around 1953–54, Accardi began working in a new direction, making her first black-and-white paintings, created with the canvas spread out on the floor, because “I couldn’t imagine drawing these signs in conjunction with easel painting. . . . 1954 was a decisive year, it’s true, but 1953 saw the birth of my first works with the sign.” These struck Tapiť, who from that point on supported her pictorial research, including her among the leading practitioners of art informel and writing a text for her first solo show in Paris (in 1956 at Galerie Stadler). Pierre Restany and Michel Seuphor also followed her development as an artist, and her career during this period was marked by her inclusion in the inaugural exhibition of the Rome-New York Art Foundation (1957), the Carnegie International Exhibition (Pittsburgh, 1958), “Painters of Rome” at the New Vision Center (London, 1959) and the Moholy-Nagy Scholarship Auction (Chicago, 1960); in 1961 she had her first solo show in New York at the Parma Gallery.

In the mid-’60s she made a radical material change, abandoning the use of tempera in favor of fluorescent colors, applied to sicofoil, a transparent plastic material. The result was plastic/pictorial compositions that were strongly environmental in nature, such as the Rotoli (Rolls), 1965, and Tende (Curtains), 1965–66, Triplice tenda (Triple Curtain), 1969–71 (now at the Centre Pompidou in Paris), and Ambiente arancio (Orange Environment), 1976. A similar impulse also persists in certain works from the ’70s, such as Lenzuoli (Sheets), 1973–74 and Ambiente origine (Origin Environment), 1976. It was during this period that Accardi somewhat withdrew from art-making to work in the militant feminist movement, along with the critic Carla Lonzi. From the ’80s on, she gradually returned to a traditional pictorial structure, employing a broad, distinct chromatic range, applied to works on canvas and in ceramic and to three-dimensional works in Perspex, as well as her spectacular “floors,” conceived at the turn of the new century.

She participated in major exhibitions during this period, including at Castello di Rivoli (1994), the Kunstverein in Ludwigshafen (1995), the Villa Medici in Rome (1977), the Kunstmuseum in Bonn (1999), MoMA PS1 in New York (2001), the Musťe d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris (2002), Museo d’Arte Contemporanea Roma (2004), the marta Herford (2007), and the Museo Bilotti in Rome (2010). A catalogue raisonnť by Germano Celant was published in two volumes in 1999 and 2010. Until just hours before her unexpected death, Accardi continued to work with the energy of a young artist, creating new wonders, always capable of astonishing younger generations, to whom she never ceased relating. Proof of this can be seen, for example, in her recent exhibition with Paola Pivi in London (Carlson, 2013). Indeed, Carla Accardi was fundamentally an artist of the twenty-first century who, only by chance, was born in the twentieth.

Translated from Italian by Marguerite Shore.

Pier Paolo Pancotto is a curator and critic based in Rome.