Although born in Chile in 1942, Carmengloria Morales came of age as a painter in Italy, where she has lived since the 1950s. As an art student in Milan, she absorbed the then-emerging monochrome work of Lucio Fontana and Piero Manzoni. In 1961, she moved to Rome, where the monochrome took somewhat different direction in the work of Francesco Lo Savio and Mario Schifano. More important for Morales was a big Rothko show at the Galeria Nazionale d’Arte in 1962. (I take these details from Giovanni Maria Accame’s 1991 monograph Carmengloria Morales: Presenza e Totalità.)
Throughout the 1960s she practiced a stripped-down abstraction of large ovoids against solid grounds (similar to Ray Parker’s “Simple Paintings”), with shapes that sometimes morphed into undulating bands or thin stripes. She began exploring diptychs, and then in 1971 produced her first painting in the format that she has stayed with ever since: a diptych in which the left panel was monochrome and the right panel was an unprimed stretched canvas. The panels were of identical dimensions, hung an inch or two apart.
As the 1970s progressed, the painted left panels began to acquire more activity, first with striated graphite, then with more and more visible brushstrokes. Morales also began mixing metallic pigments into her acrylic paint, giving the painted panels a Byzantine intensity. (In the mid 1980s, she also began to make tondos, while continuing to concentrate on diptychs.)
Morales arrived at her painted/unpainted format in the wake of 1968, a tumultuous year in many places around the world but one that in Western Europe saw a radicalization of culture. Many artists felt they had to rethink their mediums and their relationship to their audience. Painting was already in crisis, of course, under attack by new mediums, new attitudes, and in Italy by the emergent Arte Povera artists who (it just now occurs to me) may have constituted the first major 20th century art movement in which painting played almost no role.
One has to learn to look at Morales’s work; it took me years of encountering her paintings, in Italy and in New York, where she has spent a lot of time, to accept what she calls her “asymmetrical symmetry.” The opulence of the layers upon layers of glittering, pulsating brushstrokes next to these untouched, untouchable zones of pure immanence offers an irreconcilable, almost unthinkable opposition. It is painting and its impossibility; painting at its most corporeal, vulgarly physical, and painting at its most ascetic and conceptual.
In the end, it was only by ceasing to paint (in the right half of every work) that Morales could continue to make paintings. Each of her diptychs reenacts Samuel Beckett’s famous “I can’t go on. I’ll go on” dilemma, and rediscovers the post-1968 death of a medium and its unexpected survival.