To understand Ugo La Pietra’s work and his research in the 1960s, we need to consider various factors that had influenced him since the late 1950s. These include his passion for jazz, his interest in the brutalist art and architecture movement – as seen in Umberto Milani’s sculptures and Vittoriano Viganò’s architecture (La Pietra enrolled on an architecture degree in 1957) – and the powerful appeal of the informal for any young artist.
His initial direction became clear at the end of the decade. On one hand, the young La Pietra was working with Alberto Seassaro and Marcello Pietrantoni on formulating research methods in the Faculty of Architecture, developing the theories of the “models of understanding” and showing the way to overcome “les integrations des arts” in favour of the synesthesia of the arts. On the other, he frequented the Giamaica bar in Brera, forming a web of contacts with artists of the time (Fontana, Manzoni, Sordini, Castellani and Dadamaino) that would lead him to found the Cenobio Group with Ferrari, Sordini, Verga and Vermi in 1962/63.
Supported by the theoretical essays of Alberto Lucìa, the group would be short-lived but vigorous. It would leave early 1960s Milanese culture with one of the many tokens that would represent the green shoots of the profound renewal of art in that decade.
The Cenobio Group would imbue him for the rest of his life with a profound, inexhaustible passion for developing gestural art, which would gain impetus as early as 1964 from his collaboration with Vittorio Orsenigo. Together, they organised the series of five exhibitions La lepre lunare (The lunar hare), drawing on the early publications of Jorge Luis Borges, covering various themes that would occupy the Cenobio gallery for nearly a year.
He was a driving force and often an organiser in that gallery throughout the 1960s. Exhibition venues were hard to find in Milan in those days, and many artists used it (including Agnetti, Grignani, Ballocco, Meseus, Gambone, Scheggi and Calderara), and La Pietra would always continue to work closely with them. The gallery often pursued research and collaborative ventures, such as the synesthetic projects of ’63/’64 with sculptors Marchese, Benevelli and Azuma, or with Nanda Vigo for the competition to design the Monument to the Resistance in Brescia.
The first signs of a maturing approach were discerned in ’64/’65 by Gillo Dorfles, who, in introducing La Pietra’s works for an exhibition, was the first to term some of his chaos-infused signs random; they decomposed an acquired equilibrium into easily recognisable gestural signs within a predetermined schema. Dorfles would often give La Pietra the opportunity to participate in many exhibitions and festivals in what was then known as the “nuova tendenza” (new wave).
By the mid 1960s, this disruption in the predetermined schema would become a theme that recurred in a series of his architectural and furniture studies and works (the Altre Cose boutique in Milan being an exemplar). The awareness of these theories and their application, not only in two dimensions but also with objects and environmental installations, led him in 1967 to formulate what would become known, especially in radical-design and architectural circles, as the Theory of the Disequilibrating system. This theory would inspire La Pietra’s works, studies and writings until the end of the 1970s; it existed, in effect, to enable him to work unencumbered by a “system”.
To work, yes, but outside or at least on the margins of a system, that of a subjugated art or architecture profession. His refusal was prompted not only by a cultural and political position that was widespread among the art avant-garde of the time but also, as would become clear, by a desire to reclaim a sufficiently independent space for exploration and experimentation within the creative disciplines that operate in a production-for-profit scenario.
In the name of these experimental explorations, from as early as the 1960s, La Pietra experimented with a whole host of innovations: new materials (building an “art/craft” workshop to work with methacrylate); new types of furnishing, bringing together a boutique (Altre Cose) and a disco (Bang Bang) in Milan; new electronic technologies (using a dimmer for the first time in his Globo tissurato (textured globe) lamp or his luxofono applied to the audiovisual spaces presented at the Toselli gallery and in the audiovisual space at the Milan Triennale); new technologies for architecture (the inflatable pavilion for the Osaka Expo or the silicalcite prefabrication systems); new kinds of object (viz. the Uno sull’altro – One on top of another – bookshelf produced by Poggi); and new fields of research and experimentation in studying suburban areas (initially with Livio Marzot), exploring aesthetic interventions on an urban scale (see Campo Urbano in Como or Zafferana Etnea near Catania).
Towards the end of the 1960s, he contributed to cutting-edge artistic developments (conceptual art) and to the environmental experimentation that would later be termed radical design and architecture.