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The esthetic of rupture

The 100th anniversary of the birth of Lygia Clark is celebrated by a deeper understanding of her work

Publicity The World of Lygia Clark Cultural Association In the 1968 work Máscara Abismo (Abyss Mask), the artist proposes replacing esthetic experience with sensory experiencePublicity The World of Lygia Clark Cultural Association

On the 100th anniversary of the birth of Lygia Clark (1920–1988), the work of the Minas Gerais artist, considered one of the founders of contemporary Brazilian art, continues to provoke researchers from various areas of knowledge. Initially focused on the innovations of her first paintings of the 1950s, research on the artist currently seeks to investigate the meaning and up-to-datedness of her esthetic and therapeutic experiments developed after the 1960s, as well as interpret Clark’s career from a gender perspective.

Born in Belo Horizonte to a family of judges, at 18 years of age, Clark married civil engineer Aluízio Clark Ribeiro. The couple soon moved to Rio de Janeiro, where their three children were born. In 1947, she began her career as an artist under the guidance of visual and landscape artist Roberto Burle Marx (1909–1994). In 1950, during a stint in Paris, she studied under cubist painter Fernand Léger (1881–1955), painter and printmaker Arpad Szenes (1897–1985), and sculptor and painter Isaac Dobrinsk (1891–1973). Back in Rio, she joined the Grupo Frente, which, from 1959 to 1961, brought together neo-concrete artists such as Hélio Oiticica (1937–1980) and Lígia Pape (1927–2004), intent on producing works involving geometric abstraction. Their goal was to move away from modernist paintings, which were figurative and nationalist. According to art historian Maria de Fátima Morethy Couto, from the Institute of Arts of the University of Campinas (IA-UNICAMP), both this neo-concrete group, and the group of concrete artists and poets formed in the 1950s in São Paulo, represent common axes of her work: the desire to break away from the modernist esthetic. “But while concretism is closer to design, neo-concretes seek to bring the viewer closer to the development of a piece of art,” she compares.

Immersed in this cultural context, Clark helped establish a turning point in Brazilian constructive art by promoting the expansion of geometric painting into real spaces, according to Ricardo Nascimento Fabbrini, a professor at the Department of Philosophy of the School of Philosophy, Languages and Literature, and Human Sciences of the University of São Paulo (FFLCH-USP). Fabbrini explains that Clark’s first paintings, produced between the late 1940s and early 1950s and rarely shown, contain a geometry that incorporates both the sinuosities of Burle Marx and Léger’s cubism—who were her teachers—and the translucency of the Swiss Paul Klee (1879–1940) and the straightness of the Dutch artist Piet Mondrian (1872–1944). “In this period of formation, one can clearly see her interest in moving beyond the limits of the painting, surpassing the edges or moving forward, through the contrast between colors,” he considers. As part of this movement, Clark painted Quebra da Moldura [The Breaking of the Frame], in 1954. “In it, the frame becomes the focus of the composition, while the painting, turned into a background, projects itself into the space of the world,” points out Fabbrini.

Publicity The World of Lygia Clark Cultural Association / Rodrigo Benevides Clark integrates the frame into the body of the painting in Composição no 5: Série Quebra da Moldura (Composition No. 5: The Breaking of the Frame series)Publicity The World of Lygia Clark Cultural Association / Rodrigo Benevides

The researcher mentions that, later, from 1960 to 1964, she produced Contra-relevos (Counter-Reliefs), Casulos (Cocoons), Trepantes (Climber), and Bichos (Animals). The goal was to conquer the space on the front of the piece through the overlapping of metal plates. In Contra-relevos, explains Fabbrini, the folding and unfolding of planes creates two- or three-dimensional spaces, while in Casulos the metal plates advance even further into the external space. “The ‘cocoons’ then fall from the wall to the floor. And out of these fallen cocoons, animals with beaks emerge,” he describes as he explains the process for creating Bichos, probably Clark’s best-known series. Made of aluminum or tin plates, the Bichos have hinges, allowing the viewer to move them and change their shape. “The pieces need to be activated by the handler. From the beginning, Clark’s work expresses a desire to break away from the traditional structure of the canvas. With Bichos, the canvas meets the spectator through movement,” observes professor and curator Talita Trizoli, who researched the topic for her PhD. Today, as a postdoctorate student at the Brazilian Studies Institute (IEB) at USP, she is developing a project on female art critics.

For art historian Paula Priscila Braga, from the Federal University of ABC (UFABC), Clark’s work challenges the idea that a work of art is an inert object to be contemplated. “Clark believes the pieces exist to continue to build who we are psychologically,” she says. “When the plates in Bichos are turned, they show cracks in the world that we assume to be real. Thus, these pieces represent the idea that reality is not the smooth and shiny aluminum plate, but rather what is behind it, that is, our relationship with the things of the world,” proposes the historian. In its different phases, Clark’s career is guided by an evolutionary logic based on the metaphor of the organism, considers Fabbrini. “That is, she is developing in the same way that a cell becomes tissue, tissue becomes a system, a system becomes a tract, and a tract becomes a living being,” he explains.

Publicity The World of Lygia Clark Cultural Association The artist during the 1959 National Exhibition of Neo-concrete Art, in Rio de JaneiroPublicity The World of Lygia Clark Cultural Association

In Arquivo para uma Obra-Acontecimento [Archive for an Event Piece], a 2011 box set containing 20 DVDs, interviews, and reflections from those who knew Clark, psychoanalyst and art critic Suely Rolnik, from the Pontifical Catholic University of São Paulo (PUC-SP), reports that, during a 1963 study for the development of one of Clark’s Bichos, as she cut some paper for a Moebius strip—a shape obtained by pasting the two ends of a strip together after rotating one of them—Clark realized that the piece consisted of the experience of cutting the material itself, not of the object that resulted from the cut. In one of her texts, Rolnik shares that the experience led the artist to develop a new path of investigation, involving the interference of her works in the human body. At that time, Clark called herself a “proposer,” or a “non-artist,” refusing the fetishism of art in defense of an esthetic state,” explains Fabbrini. With this perspective, from the 1960s to the 1970s, her individual or group proposals became constructive and could be freely experienced by the public. “One example is Respire Comigo [Breathe with Me], an experience in which a plastic bag filled with air with a rock on it must be pressed to reproduce the experience of breathing, reverberating throughout the participant’s body,” he describes.

In one of the texts of Arquivo para uma Obra-Acontecimento, Rolnik reports that the proposals of this phase inaugurated the series of experiences that drove the last 23 years of Clark’s life, including O Corpo É a Casa (The Body is the House) (1968–1970), which begins with Arquitetura Biológica: Ovo-Mortalha (Biological Architecture: Egg-Shroud), an installation containing a large, transparent, plastic rectangle, with sewn-on nylon or jute bags, into which two people insert their feet or hands and improvise movements. Another such proposal was Corpo Coletivo (Collective Body) (1972–1975), later called Fantasmática do Corpo (Body Phantasm), beginning with the experience Baba Antropofágica [Anthropophagic Drool], in which several people each get a spool of thread that they place in their mouths, and pull the thread, which is then deposited on one member of the group, who is lying on the floor. Many of the proposals from this phase were developed with students from the newly established Faculty of Fine Arts at the Sorbonne, France, where Clark taught from 1972 to 1976. In Trizoli’s assessment, the pieces from that period show that, for Clark, revolutionizing the artistic phenomenon did not depend solely on the making of hermetic language games, but also on breaking away from the formal structure of the pieces and their esthetic function. According to the researcher, this proposal of Clark’s took shape exactly when she self-exiled to the Sorbonne because of the military dictatorship (1964–1985) in Brazil. “In France, the artist developed psychoanalytic studies and organized workshops where the artistic objects she had previously produced were used by students in their experiments,” she shares.

Publicity The World of Lygia Clark Cultural Association On the opposite page, the installation A Casa é o Corpo: Penetração, Ovulação, Germinação, Expulsão invites the public to participatePublicity The World of Lygia Clark Cultural Association

Back in Brazil, in 1976, Clark established a kind of “experimental practice” in her Copacabana apartment, in Rio, says Fabbrini, developing experiential proposals of a therapeutic nature, based on contact between the patient’s body and the so-called “Relational Objects—pillows filled with polystyrene balls or beach sand, plastic bags filled with air, water, or seeds, and tights containing tennis balls, ping-pong balls, rocks, and broken shells. “Clark applied these objects to the person’s body to ‘eliminate its fissures and make it whole, inhabited by a true self,’ according to a paper written by Clark and Rolnik in the 1980s,” shares the philosopher. He also mentions that the artist’s clinical diaries have yet to be published, as they have not yet been fully edited—much like her letters. In one of the texts in the 2011 box set, Rolnik recalls that Clark called this a therapeutic and artistic practice. “The focus of the new research then shifted to the traumas and their ghosts inscribed in the memory of the body […]. Clark sought to explore the power of those objects in bringing those memories to the surface and treating them,” writes the psychoanalyst.

Regarding this course of action, Braga observes that both Clark and Oiticica saw the work of art as something that should provoke new understandings of reality. “Clark used to say that she and Oiticica were like a glove. He was concerned with the interaction between the outside of the glove and the world, while she cared about how the inside of the glove interacted with the person’s hand. In other words, while Oiticica focused on issues related to the malaise of society, Clark did the opposite, diving into the subject’s psyche,” compares Braga. For artist Mário Ramiro, a professor at the School of Communication and Arts (ECA) at USP, both artists were concerned with reevaluating the notion of production, authorship, circulation, and reception of the artistic object, especially as it ceases to be a tangible piece and becomes an event. In Ramiro’s interpretation, Clark’s proposals relate to the popularizing of performances—or happenings—in the 1950s, in the United States. “However, unlike the performances, Clark’s proposals call for the spectator’s participation, displacing him or her from a passive condition of contemplation,” he explains. Reviews of Clark’s participation in the history of artistic performances have shown how she moved toward diluting art into life, becoming a kind of therapist.

Publicity The World of Lygia Clark Cultural Association / Marcelo Ribeiro With different-sized balls, Luvas Sensoriais (Sensory Gloves), 1968, suggests the rediscovery of touchPublicity The World of Lygia Clark Cultural Association / Marcelo Ribeiro

Although Clark held international exhibitions since the 1960s—with an emphasis on the exhibitions of 1964 and 1965 at the Signals gallery in London, and the special room set up for her work at the 1968 Venice Biennale—her last pieces began to be recognized internationally only in 1997, after an itinerant retrospective show organized by Fundació Antoni Tàpies, from Barcelona. Today, these pieces are increasingly requested at shows and exhibitions. Ramiro believes the recognition is related to the strengthening of networks of collectors, galleries, museums, auction houses, and the specialized press since the 2000s. In his opinion, at the beginning of the 1990s, young investors in the capital market—many of whom came from families of collectors—began acquiring new forms of art, leading to the appreciation of performance records. “These new collectors did not want to buy the same kind of art as their parents,” he explains. For Couto, from IA-UNICAMP, the appreciation for works by Brazilian artists, such as Clark and Oiticica, also reflects the increased interest of large institutions, such as the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York, in works from peripheral countries. “There is a growing desire to show the work of artists that come from outside the hegemonic circuit,” he states.

Publicity The World of Lygia Clark Cultural Association The artist in the early 1970s, manipulating materials for one of her worksPublicity The World of Lygia Clark Cultural Association

A researcher on the career of women artists, historian Rita Lages Rodrigues, from the School of Fine Arts of the Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG), says that advances in gender studies have provided a better understanding of Clark’s role in the artistic context. “She has been central to the arts in Brazil since the 1950s,” she states, pointing out that this was unusual for female artists; many were only recognized for specific pieces or after death. “Tarsila do Amaral [1886–1973], for example, gained notoriety as a great Brazilian artist at the end of her life. At the height of her production, she was not considered as important as the male artists of her time,” she points out. Rodrigues shares that, much like in her professional life, Clark’s personal life was also permeated by rupture. “At just over 20 years of age, she already had three children and gradually managed to project herself as a great artist, subverting what was expected of a married woman,” she explains.

Sociologist Marina Mazze Cerchiaro, a PhD researcher in art history at the USP Museum of Contemporary Art (MAC), says that the artist had a breakdown after the birth of her third child, and used drawing as a form of therapy. “In some of the texts she wrote, Lygia Clark addressed artistic practice as a way to emancipate herself from traditional gender roles,” she shares, referencing the reality of women in the 1950s and 1960s. Trizoli points out that, having overcome the understanding, in effect until the 1990s, that investigating the artistic phenomenon from a gender perspective would diminish its impact, it was only in the last seven years that researchers began to look at Clark’s work in this way. This new perspective, she considers, has improved the understanding of her work. One of them, A Casa É o Corpo: Penetração, Ovulação, Germinação, Expulsão (The House is the Body: Penetration, Ovulation, Germination, and Expulsion), from 1968—which was part of a 2014 exhibition organized by MoMA—associates the female body with a house, capable of providing life and rebirth. “Women of that time grew up hearing that the female body was dirty, and the sexual experience dangerous. Clark challenged these ideas at a time when the feminist movement was still in its infancy in Brazil—even though she did not declare herself to be a feminist,” concludes Trizoli.