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Visual arts

The importance of Lygia Clark

Exhibit at MoMA places the Brazilian artist at the center of a process of reflection on the repercussions, limits and breakthroughs of modern and contemporary art

View of installation A casa é o corpo [The house is the body] (1968), part of the exhibition Lygia Clark: The Abandonment of Art, 1948-1988, at MoMA, NY (May 10 – August 24, 2014)

THOMAS GRIESEL © 2014 THE MUSEUM OF MODERNView of installation A casa é o corpo [The house is the body] (1968), part of the exhibition Lygia Clark: The Abandonment of Art, 1948-1988, at MoMA, NY (May 10 – August 24, 2014)THOMAS GRIESEL © 2014 THE MUSEUM OF MODERN

In May 2014, after five years of research, New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) opened an anthological exhibition dedicated to the work of Lygia Clark. Featuring more than 300 works, accompanied by a voluminous catalog and a lively parallel program, the exhibition Lygia Clark: The Abandonment of Art, 1948-1988 is being presented as confirmation of the considerable importance of her work. It is true that Clark has been the focus of growing interest since the 1990s, with major exhibitions and retrospectives organized in Europe and Brazil that have brought steadily-rising market values, and it is also true that this is her first exhibition in North America. But the exhibition is much more than a natural consecration on the part of one of the world’s most prestigious museums. In a conspicuous effort to shine a brighter spotlight on that legacy, curators Luis Pérez-Oramas—head of the Latin American art group at MoMA and Chief Curator of the 30th São Paulo Biennial (2012)—and Connie Butler—currently Chief Curator at the Hammer Museum (Los Angeles)—have examined Clark’s work in detail, clearly demonstrating why the artist was a rarity on the international scene in the second half of the 20th century. Indeed, from within the process of artistic creation itself she profoundly questions and breaks the bounds of aesthetic presentation; she destabilizes canons, questions the notion of art and introduces a human dimension into it, which places her at the center of a process of reflection on the repercussions, limits and breakthroughs of modern and contemporary art.

The exhibition is organized chronologically around three main themes: early paintings and abstractionism; involvement with Neo-Concretism; and sensory experiments associated with the field of psychotherapy. The first group brings together works from the late 1940s, when Clark studied under Burle Marx, and the early 1950s, when she lived in Paris, frequented the studio of Fernand Léger and developed a deep connection with the work of Piet Mondrian, a central influence in her career. In the words of Connie Butler, it was “classic training, from the legacy of European influence.”

The exhibition goes on to present several key moments in her career. These include the transition from studying the centrifugal movement of staircases to geometric and abstract construction of form; an energetic, ready participation in movements such as the Frente Group and the Neo-Concretist Movement; discovery of the “organic line” in the mid-1950s, when she radically extends her painting beyond the boundaries of the frame; an intense dialogue with architecture and the study of space (“What I seek is to compose a space and not compose in it,” she would say); an ever-deepening investigation of the status of objects of art, the artist and the spectator—until she arrives at what she herself defines as “a state of art, without art.”

Lygia Clark wearing Máscara abismo com tapa-olhos [Abyssal mask with eye-patch], 1968. Fabric, elastic bands, nylon bag, and a stone

SERGIO GERARDO ZALIS, 1986 / COURTESY THE WORLD OF LYGIA CLARK CULTURAL ASSOCIATION, RIO DE JANEIROLygia Clark wearing Máscara abismo com tapa-olhos [Abyssal mask with eye-patch], 1968. Fabric, elastic bands, nylon bag, and a stoneSERGIO GERARDO ZALIS, 1986 / COURTESY THE WORLD OF LYGIA CLARK CULTURAL ASSOCIATION, RIO DE JANEIRO

Despite this temporal succession, the exhibition is not just an evolutionary display of the trajectory from her still-figurative paintings of the 1940s to the therapeutic experiments of the 1970s and 1980s. By adopting the strategy of eliminating partitions between exhibit spaces and promoting a dialogue between works from different moments in her career, the curators have emphasized the internal connections—both formal and conceptual—between the different groups of works. “Our idea was to look at Lygia Clark progressively and regressively at the same time,” Pérez-Oramas explains.

One of the curators’ main points of departure was to make it clear that they do not share the idea—which, they say, has been canonized by the current interpretation based on the critical reading by Ferreira Gullar—that there were two stagnant moments in Clark’s production, one of them artistic and the other simply therapeutic. It would be a mistake, therefore, to focus on a discontinuity by looking at her work as the product of two distinct aesthetics. “It does not matter how radically different her work might be from the phenomenon we usually call (or used to call) art; she remains a part of art,” the curator writes.

From a museological perspective, the artist’s increasing radicalism—especially in the case of transitional objects and relational propositions, developed starting in 1976 in particular when she began her therapeutic work—poses a challenge. After all, how can you present experiences in a museum when they clearly break with the notion of a work of art as a final, unique object intended to be passively observed? Objects of striking simplicity, made of plastic bags, stones or elastic bands that were conceived not as definitive works, but as tools of transition meant to stimulate greater sensitivity and creative liberation, that serve to promote immersion in subjectivity, to release what Clark called “phantasmagorias of the body”?

Trepante, versão I [Climber, version 1], 1965. Aluminum, dimensions variable (approximately 263 x 146 cm)

JONES BERGAMIN / COURTESY THE WORLD OF LYGIA CLARK CULTURAL ASSOCIATION, RIO DE JANEIROTrepante, versão I [Climber, version 1], 1965. Aluminum, dimensions variable (approximately 263 x 146 cm)JONES BERGAMIN / COURTESY THE WORLD OF LYGIA CLARK CULTURAL ASSOCIATION, RIO DE JANEIRO

One interesting aspect of the MoMA retrospective is that it appears to have wisely drawn upon prior experiences with exhibiting Clark’s work. In the past two decades, her work has been the subject of retrospectives and special engagements at international events, and the topic of the difficulty of exhibiting her work comes up for discussion more often than not. There has been much criticism of the tendency to fetishize experimental acts by condemning to the confines of immovable display cases the objects that are to be activated, or to turn them into an empty performance, a playful game that sterilizes the transformative character intended by the artist. This time, the curators embrace and confront that problem through various strategies, such as generous use of replicas and specially trained facilitators in the exhibition space, a series of workshops, and creation of a program under the MoMA Studio project so that visitors can explore a few transitional objects in greater peace and with the needed concentration.

Reception
Although works such as Bichos [Animals] (of which she made more than 70) and the tiny maquettes made with matchboxes (matchbox structures) appear to have unanimously delighted critics, and her early paintings earned a certain detached admiration, the relational objects that Clark created beginning in the mid-1970s as a way to establish an affective, liberating and therapeutic connection with her patients seem to have elicited a mixed reaction. According to Pérez-Oramas, while such experiences seem to fascinate a segment of the public interested in art-therapy and relational aesthetics, and while they reaffirm Clark’s coherence and radicalism for a public already accustomed to the internal dynamics of the Latin American art of the period, a segment of the public that is still closely connected to the idea of art as spectacle finds them startling. This was true, for example, in the case of Ariella Budick, a critic with the Financial Times (FT), who harshly summarized her impression of the exhibition as follows: “The Brazilian artist progressed from primly modernist abstraction to messily hippie improvisation.” That censure elicited a sarcastic direct response from Simon Watson of the Huffington Post, who said his colleague at FT had exhibited “the worst sort of smug provincialism,” and had failed to understand the exhibition’s enormous tour de force. And in an indirect response, Spanish researcher Estrella de Diego declared in an article in El País that the exhibition achieves a “moving coherence”.

Relógio de sol [Sundial], 1960. Aluminum with gold patina, dimensions variable (approximately 52.8 x 58.4 x 45.8 cm)

SERGIO GERARDO ZALIS, 1986 / COURTESY THE WORLD OF LYGIA CLARK CULTURAL ASSOCIATION, RIO DE JANEIRORelógio de sol [Sundial], 1960. Aluminum with gold patina, dimensions variable (approximately 52.8 x 58.4 x 45.8 cm)SERGIO GERARDO ZALIS, 1986 / COURTESY THE WORLD OF LYGIA CLARK CULTURAL ASSOCIATION, RIO DE JANEIRO

This kind of clash serves to fittingly illustrate Pérez-Oramas’ oft-stated idea of the importance of a re-examination of hegemonic historiography, and of seeking to achieve more inclusion of Latin American experiences. In his view, the Brazilians had a better understanding of European constructive tradition, and they offer “a new key to the understanding between geometric thinking and conceptual art, given the fact that American art moved from abstract expressionism directly into minimalism.” That greater openness can already be felt in the museum’s permanent collection, as well as in parallel projects such as the translation into English of the work of the critic Mário Pedrosa, who coined one of the most precise definitions of the work of Lygia Clark, calling it an “experimental exercise of freedom.”

Walking
As Connie Butler explains in her text, this kind of construction seems to synthesize the profoundly revolutionary nature of works such as Caminhando [Walking], a crucial moment in Clark’s career that assumes a central focus in this retrospective. By giving a spectator a simple Möbius strip of paper and a pair of scissors, and proposing that he cut it around and around its length, creating increasingly narrow strips, she promotes a fundamental change in his relationship with the object of art, transforming him from spectator to agent. The act of cutting requires choices and turns a negative gesture (cutting) into one that produces physical material (the scraps of paper that accumulate in disorderly fashion, somewhat akin to a random sculpture). Once again the relationship between line and space comes to the fore, just as in other important constellations of works. A person (no longer the “author”) performs a cutting operation, “but the result is additive, a prodigious accumulation and proliferation of material diversity contained in the unity of the plane,” Pérez-Oramas adds.

Caminhando thus becomes like a metaphor for that fine, persistent line of questioning that ties together the nearly 40 years of Clark’s work. One might think that the emphasis on great moments and phases could give a false impression of genius, of creative sparks that illuminate without much effort. It is perhaps for this reason that one of the greatest merits of the MoMA exhibition is precisely the fact that it demonstrates, through the enormous number of works and an impressive assemblage of studies, maquettes and compositional schemes, that each step, attack or extension of boundaries arises not just from a radical spirit, but also from the effort of a tireless investigation into what she regarded as her themes: space and time.

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