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Alicia Penalba 
b. 1913, San Pedro, Argentina
d. 1982, Paris, France

Clay is my preferred material. It does not impose any beauty of expression a priori. It yields to my quests more than stone does.

— Alicia Penalba [1]

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Born in Argentina in 1913, Alicia Penalba’s artistic journey was marked by personal challenges from her early years. Growing up in a turbulent family environment, she faced a violent and oppressive relationship with her father. Despite these challenges, in 1939 Alicia Penalba sought solace and a path to self-discovery through her art, enrolling at the Escuela Superior de Bellas Artes in Buenos Aires.

Upon completing her art education, Penalba began exploring traditional forms and techniques, and her growing artistic curiosity and ambition hinted at the transformative journey that awaited her. Her creative practice, characterized by its evolving forms and spatialist influences possibly ignited by Lucio Fontana’s 1946 Manifesto Blanco (or “White Manifesto”) – whereby “existence, nature and material form a perfect unity” – began to garner attention, signaling her potential as an emerging artist. However, little is known of the artist during this time. [2] Simultaneously, Argentina's complex and polarized political environment underwent significant changes with the appointment of Perón’s populist, right-wing regime, to which Penalba was fervently opposed. This, the scholarship Peanalba received, and her overall thirst for increasing stimuli, laid the groundwork for her eventual move to Paris in 1948, which is largely considered the turning point in her life and artistic career.

Alicia Penalba’s interactions with acclaimed sculptors Constantin Brâncuși and Alberto Giacometti, along with her own explorations and inclinations, led her to broaden her artistic horizons, moving away from traditional forms and embracing abstraction and innovative materials. Under the guidance of Russian sculptor, Ossip Zadkine, Alicia Penalba refined her sculptural techniques and cultivated a deeper understanding of the medium, contributing to her transformation as an artist. Drawing from the vibrant life encapsulated within the natural landscapes from her youth in Patagonia, various Argentine provinces, and Chile; Penalba crafted works that embrace the human connection to nature and the essence of life. Moreover, her initial encounters with European Gothic Cathedrals during this period left a profound mark on her oeuvre. 

In 1957, she marked a significant milestone by presenting her inaugural solo exhibition and in May 1960, she held a solo exhibition at the Galerie Claude Bernard in Paris, a pivotal moment from which exhibitions in private galleries, prominent museums such as the Guggenheim Museum in New York, the Museum of Modern Art in Paris, among many others, as well as major international shows and private collections with her works, proliferated. Her transition into architectural sculptures commenced in 1959, and soon after in 1961, she was awarded the International Grand Prize in Sculpture at the VIth Biennale of São Paulo in Brazil. In May 1968, her retrospective exhibition titled Totems et Tabous at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, where she shared the spotlight with artists like Wifredo Lam and Roberto Matta, solidified her standing on the international art scene. 

Throughout the 1970s, she continued crafting monumental sculptures destined for sculpture parks in various countries including France, Belgium, Germany, Luxemburg, Switzerland, Italy, Argentina, and the United States. Concurrently, she explored smaller sculptures and delved into various artistic endeavors such as lithography, collages, tapestry, porcelain design, and jewelry creation, as well as introduced flying elements directly affixed to walls in her Formes volantes series, all in pursuit of evoking an impression of weightlessness and lightness.
Alicia Penalba tragically lost her life in a traffic accident on November 4th, 1982 alongside her partner, Michel Chilo. Her innovative sculptures, characterized by lyric abstraction, spatialism, primitivism, and organic forms and infused with the emotional depth of her personal experiences and encounters in Paris, continue to transcend conventional boundaries today.

[1] Casanegra, Mercedes. “Alicia Penalba.” Artnexus, Accessed 6 Nov. 2023.

[2] Idem. p15

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