Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
November 23, 2016
Cornelia Butler and Luis Pérez-Oramas Lygia Clark: The Abandonment of Art, 1948–1988 Exh. cat. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2014. 336 pp.; 400 color ills. Cloth $75.00 (9780870708909)
Exhibition schedule: Museum of Modern Art, New York, May 10–August 24, 2014
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Lygia Clark: The Abandonment of Art, 1948–1988. Installation view. The Museum of Modern Art.

In 1977, when she was 57 years old, artist Lygia Clark decided to abandon art. For thirty-odd years she had been working through a series of questions concerning space, time, ontological perception, and experience, slowly refining each in a quest to “unite art and life” (Lygia Clark, “Lecture at the Escola Nacional de Arquitetura, Belo Horizonte, Fall 1956,” quoted in the exhibition catalogue, 54). Although not the first, or the last, avant-garde artist to arrive at this conclusion, Clark seems to have legitimately reached this decision after three decades of systematic research, in which she believed she had exhausted all avenues of artistic exploration. However, questions remain as to whether or not her renunciation was an artistic gesture, and if what she produced afterward should still be considered part of her artistic practice.

Curators Connie Butler and Luis Pérez-Oramas organized the Museum of Modern Art retrospective dedicated to Clark by making this watershed the focal point of their exhibition. In titling the show The Abandonment of Art, they divulged the conclusion by way of introduction. Visitors not yet familiar with Clark’s works would have entered the galleries with this abdication ringing in their ears. This inevitably oriented the experience of moving through the exhibition because everything was then weighed against this inevitable outcome. Like Gabriel García Márquez’s Chronicle of a Death Foretold (1981), the climax is revealed at the outset, but we do not yet know how, why, or what it will look like. That dramatic process of discovery is what Butler and Pérez-Oramas delivered with this retrospective.

The curators organized the works chronologically and by type so that in each gallery viewers were treated to multiple works oriented around a formal strategy and period. Across four rooms the exhibition displayed the richness and breadth of a career that is too frequently reduced to a few iconic pieces—the black-and-white Neoconcrete paintings from the late 1950s and the sensorial works from the late 1960s. And although the overall square-footage was modest, especially for an artist of such significance, the curators infused the space with drama by punctuating the galleries with areas of densely installed works.

Indeed, the highlight and most memorable part of the show was their installation of Clark’s Bichos (1960–63) and Trepantes (1964–66). Placed at the exhibition’s physical center, Pérez-Oramas and Butler clustered more than two dozen of the small metal sculptures on several large wooden boxes. These pedestals, which were assembled out of seemingly commonplace sheets of unfinished wood resembling shipping crates, provided the perfect stage on which to group the aluminum and stainless steel objects. Because of their physical location and the reflective nature of their materials—installed en masse at various heights—these works could be seen from the other galleries and served as a constant visual reference point. The effect was further enhanced by the reproduction of two Bichos that the public could handle and manipulate. As soon as you pick one up, you immediately feel the weight of the cool and smooth metal plates in your hands. Then, as you start to flip and turn the elements, you realize how playful and unruly these little creatures are, frequently collapsing on themselves when you attempt to balance them in a new position. This precarious experience changes our perception of these objects in fundamental ways; yes, they are polymorphic, but they are also tactile objects that refract light into different directions as they metamorphose. What is gained by handling versions of the Bichos, and seeing so many others amassed, is the understanding that this was not a brief experiment or minor phase for Clark. Instead, she worked the question of transformation over and over, varying the scale, the materials, and the mode of manipulation, with alternating simplicity and complexity. This was the type of research that led her to abandon art.

Walking through the galleries, visitors witnessed Clark’s aesthetic and philosophical transfigurations. Her deliberate play with artistic conventions, batting them around before she did away with them, was evident. Stretched canvases, oil paints, fine horsehair brushes, and experiments with one-point perspective are some of the formalities discarded by Clark during her meandering path of aesthetic investigation. While this curatorial strategy reinforced the title of the show, it also risked shoehorning her entire career into a teleological march to the moment of abandonment in 1977. Butler acknowledged the pitfalls in making such predeterminations in curatorial practice, and the catalogue avoids it with several rich texts, translated writings, and an exceptionally valuable chronology. However, teleology need not always be a dirty word, and I found the approach worked quite well in the galleries, offering the visitor a rich and nuanced view of Clark’s trajectory, even if the conclusion was already known. The tables of Bichos were a perfect example of how experimentation and variation can animate and bring life to teleology. Even the installation architecture, with open pathways offering a range of options about what visitors could see first, next, and last, helped to undermine the notion that Clark followed a singular course. Whereas the curators of many retrospectives painstakingly march the viewer step by step through an artist’s career in linear progression, Pérez-Oramas and Butler provided a version of the experimental, looping, often indecisive process of Clark’s artistic exploration.

Another high point was the generous amount of space devoted to Clark’s early experiments with geometric abstraction since they are almost all in private collections and therefore practically unknown to the public. Indeed, there are many with underlying grids that give the impression that Clark was already pushing against painting’s two-dimensionality and exploring new compositional strategies. For example, looking at these early works through the lens of architecture, as suggested by the wall labels, caused the forms to practically spring from their supports and into three dimensions. The painted trapezoids, lozenges, and parallelograms became perspectival compositions casting shadows or revealing shards of light as though they were piercing between the louvers of a window.

Clark famously worked in the spaces between traditional media and disciplines, merging tools and skills from one and applying them to another. Indeed, the poet and critic Ferreira Gullar used her works from 1959 to illustrate this very point. In his seminal essay “The Theory of the Non-Object,” (Ferreira Gullar, “Teoria do não-objeto,” Jornal do Brasil [Rio de Janeiro], sec. Suplemento Dominical [December 20, 1959]) he presses on the narrow definitions of what constitutes painting and sculpture, instead advocating for an alternative category that is simultaneously both and neither. Surprisingly, many of Clark’s iconic Neoconcrete paintings from the late 1950s were relegated to a side gallery and not integrated into the meandering routes through the main exhibition spaces. This may have been a deliberate curatorial strategy intended to destabilize what has become one of the dominant narratives of art history in Brazil. By physically marginalizing these works, Butler and Pérez-Oramas prevent them from becoming the through-line between the early stages of her career and what came later. This small gallery, though, also lacked the dynamism of the others. With its rectangular shape and three vitrines, it possessed none of the energy or liveliness of the other installations.

The final gallery featured artworks from the end of Clark’s career and related most closely to her practice of psychoanalysis. It was at this point, when she began using her creations in her therapy sessions, that she reached an impasse with her artistic practice and began to understand her objects through the lens of this other field of study. Therefore her abandonment cannot be seen as an unequivocal rejection, but rather it marks a moment of transition, or crossing over, to another type of intellectual practice. This distinction is important because it sets her apart from other avant-garde artists who also disassociated themselves from art. Her decision was not rash or emotionally fueled, neither a rupture nor a break. Instead, it was made in incremental, methodical, and carefully considered steps. The objects from this phase are especially challenging in their open-endedness, even for those familiar with them. Draped limply across tables and counters in the last gallery, they are mostly made of different types and shapes of fabrics and essentially function as props for semi-scripted performances.

Despite the fact that many of the most famous and successful artists in Brazil of the last century have been women, gender is rarely addressed in the literature, and, disappointingly, this publication and exhibition did not address it either. In her essay, Butler does forge connections between Clark and other women artists working contemporaneously across the West, but the topic was completely absent in the galleries. Nor was the issue of labor and production—and by extension class—addressed. Looking at all of these technically complex works, I found myself wondering how Clark physically produced all of these objects. How did she achieve those precise crevices in her early experiments with the organic line? How did she paint the various metals with which she made her Casulos, and bend the planes so perfectly? How did she accomplish all of the stitching required to make her sensorial objects? It is hard to imagine the artist, despite what a few photographs show, taking on the physical and technical labor required for this level of execution. Had this been addressed, I think her decision to abandon art would have been much more shocking. If, in fact, she did not physically execute her works after she embraced industrial materials in the late 1950s, then the abandonment could be said to have happened then—or was at the very minimum initiated then—when she stopped physically producing many of her own works and instead relayed specifications to technicians. Thus, the exhibition title can be seen as a spoiler to the show’s conclusion, but I would like to propose an alternative interpretation. What if instead the title is understood as a question, or provocation, to the visitor, to determine whether or not art is indeed abandoned, and if so, when and how does this materialize.

Aleca Le Blanc
Assistant Professor, Department of Art History, University of California, Riverside

Please send comments about this review to editor.caareviews@collegeart.org.