Offline: Lygia Clark and the Original Social Media
Lygia Clark: The Abandonment of Art, 1948-1988 at The Museum of Modern Art
May 10 to August 24, 2014
11 West 53 Street (between 5th and 6th Avenues)
New York, 212 708 9400
Born in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, in 1920, Lygia Clark was deeply influential in her native country, but remains lesser known internationally. Trained under the modernist landscape architect Roberto Burle Marx, Clark’s early abstract, geometric paintings plot a trajectory that increasingly corrupts the unity of two-dimensional imagery. The 1960s saw her producing sculptures aligned with Neo-Concretist and empiric principles, and her later output coincided with a period of psychoanalysis, focusing on various objects intended as conductors of direct experience with participants, as well as the performative application of materials directly to the body. MoMA’s current exhibition, “Lygia Clark: The Abandonment of Art, 1948-1988,” is organized around these themes.
1952 marks a rapid progression from Clark’s heavier Cubist tendencies — seen in the comparatively cumbrous Composição (“Composition,” 1952) — to a more precise approach, employed in a series of gouache works on cardboard and paper and an oil on canvas, including Composição, versão 01 (1953). The latter consists of layered triangular planes in greens, blues and oranges, bisecting each other in a multiplicity of harmonious shards that bristle with dynamism, leading the eye beyond the edge of the work. The balanced, interlocking grids of Composição no. 2 (1954), and the spectral grace of Composição 1 (1954), illustrate the subsumption of Clark’s architectural influences, and the legacy of her modern predecessors, such as Malevich, Tatlin, Mondrian and Braque, within the concerns of her own emerging visual language.
In her series Quebra da moldura (“Breaking the Frame”), Clark eschewed structural standards by including the frame as an element of the painting, at once collapsing and revealing the space between them — what she called the “organic line” — by breaching it with abstract motifs extended across the gap. In doing so Clark achieved a kind of pictorial hydrostatic equilibrium exemplified in the stark joists of Quebra da moldura (P x B), versão 01 (“Breaking the Frame [P x B], version 01,” 1954).
The remainder of the ‘50s was largely devoted to the series Superfície moduladas (“Modulated Surfaces”)and Planos em superfície moduladas (“Planes on Modulated Surfaces”). Through the use of juxtaposed geometrical forms and the constancy of the organic line, these works further rupture the flat surface. Several pieces of the former series depict jagged patterns of industrial paint on wood, tightly set against each other like a puzzle. Typically in blues, greens and black, they are redolent of the dazzle camouflage found in naval deception, with Superfície modulada no. 20 (1956) being a particularly compelling example.
The latter series consists primarily of black-and-white paintings and studies, often formed by cutting and pasting larger paper elements onto paper backgrounds. Optically, these works appear wholly three-dimensional, while their unfolding angles can be seen as predecessors of her later Neo-Concretist sculptures. Several pieces from 1957 are presented in Plexiglas mounts perpendicular to the wall, so that both sides can be viewed. Noteworthy is a suite of similar works called Study for Espaço modulado (“Study for Modulated Space”), collages that are totemic in nature, emanating spiritual gravitas through the confident simplicity of their design.
In 1959, Clark was a signatory of the Neo-Concretist Manifesto, published in the Jornal do Brasil newspaper, which rejected the mathematical Concretist principles of non-referential abstraction, denial of the natural world, and machine-like detachment from sentiment. The Neo-Concretists claimed instead that the art object could only be fully understood by a tactile, phenomenological approach and a relationship with the audience. Her Bichos (“Critters”) from the early 1960s were her invitation for the viewer to engage directly with her work. Dozens of these aluminum sculptures are assembled, often evoking animal or plant forms. Each piece consists of multiple reflective shields, hinged across the still-present organic lines between them and capable of being manipulated into different iterations. Relógio de sol (“Sundial,” 1960), with its eons-evoking gold patina, and Projeto para um planeta (“Project for a Planet,” 1963) are standouts.
From the mid-sixties, coinciding with an increasing interest in psychotherapy, Clark rejected the effectiveness of conventional artworks as modes of expression, radically relocating her intellectual focus toward the dissolution of emotional and actual space between sensorial vessels and the human body, through what Clark termed “Propositions.” They include Diálogo: óculos (“Dialogue: Goggles,” 1968), a pair of connected goggles for two people, with reflective surfaces causing an altered sense of surrounding and connection, and A casa é o corpo: penetração, ovulação, germinação, expulsão (“The House is the Body: Penetration, Ovulation, Germination, Expulsion,” 1968), a thrilling and consuming fusion of Clark’s aims, in which visitors pass through various chambers — including darkened sections where one initially cannot see — furnished variously with balloons, soft fabrics, blown air and rubber balls, in a manner intended to evoke the birthing process. Baba antropofágica (“Anthropophagic slobber,” 1973) is one of several works recreated by facilitators, here involving reels of thread unraveled from their mouths and dropped upon a near-naked decumbant participant. The resultant cobweb is then torn up in an act of physical separation and social conjoining.
By her transference from the individual object, to public, emotive connectivity between multiple participants, Clark can be seen as a progenitor of the shared feelings, reactions and perceptions of reality, disseminated today through social media. A difference is that the bodily locus of her interactive works ensures that their experiential efficacy cannot yet be imitated by the immaterial nature of Internet-based relationships as one sits alone at a computer. Clark retains profound resonance, in part because the intimacy and physicality through which she operated speak to opposing concerns about detachment and isolation, allied with loss of control and privacy over ourselves, in an increasingly virtual arena.
While the title of the show is dramatic, it would be unrealistic to say that artistic production was absent entirely from Clark’s later endeavors; rather her practice evolved drastically upon the shifting emotional sands of her personal experiences, to a point where in her words, “The work is the act.” Also, without any works originating after 1976 — only a couple are listed as “1976-1988” — the neat 40-year span of this exhibition seems a stretch. Either Clark abandoned art making as she claimed, or she did not. The organizers’ position on this is confusing. Almost 300 works, in combination with the immense breadth and scope of Clark’s oeuvre, make this retrospective an enlightening trove, but its presentation is exceedingly dense and would have benefitted from more space. Constraining an artistic legacy as abundant as Clark’s, within such modest volume, underserves this riveting artist.