September 8 – October 9, 2010
My fundamental problem is the exercise of freedom, taking into account what I already am and that which I have been transformed into by my work.’ Lygia Clark
One of the most original artists of the twentieth century, Lygia Clark (1920 – 1988) transformed the practice of geometric abstraction with a profound belief in art as interaction. This, the first solo exhibition devoted to Clark’s work in the UK since the 1960s, offers a unique insight into her creative processes by focussing on studies, maquettes and unique sculptures, presenting a range of some of Clark’s most iconic early pieces. Through a range of works on paper, models and sculptures rendered in a diverse range of materials, the exhibition plots how Clark worked her way along a fascinating trajectory, from the rationalistic art of geometric painting to a practice focussed on the abstract interactive object, pointing finally towards a conception of art as immersive, subjective experience that animated the latter half of her career.
The earliest works in the exhibition, a series of works on paper in the Concretist tradition, illustrate the indebtedness of Clark’s early practice to the abstract traditions of Modernism that had come to be assimilated into Brazilian culture in the 1940s. Lygia Clark began making art in 1947, and the early drawings and gouaches reveal a growing confidence and the beginnings of her interrogation of geometric abstraction as a viable, meaningful aesthetic. Two graphite and gouache works from 1952, from the Planos em Superficie Modulada (Modulated Surface Planes) series, represent the artist’s original investigations into the interplay between line and colour in the construction of pictorial space, yet as this series progressed the works became bolder, simpler and more radical in their composition.
The later wall-based works, beginning with the 1954 unique collage Quebra da Moldura (Breaking the Frame), evince a growing dissatisfaction with the conventions of Concretism, the heir to European neo-plasticism, with the inviolate flatness and containment of the work that this tradition entailed. Clark’s frustration grew as the Planos em Superficie Modulada developed, and by 1958 they had become chromatically starker, often monochrome collages of card and wood, as Clark became convinced that optical ingenuity was not enough to bridge the gulf between artwork and viewer that she had come to believe was imperative. Finally in 1959 Clark felt she had reached the limits of classical geometric abstraction as she entered a new, vital phase of her career. As she wrote in 1960, ‘the plane arbitrarily marks off the limits of a space, giving humanity an entirely false and rational idea of its own reality. From this are derived the opposing concepts of high and low, front and back – exactly what contributes to the destruction in humankind of the feeling of wholeness…The square took on a magical meaning when the artist understood it as carrying a total vision of the universe. But the plane is dead.’
The rupture in Clark’s practice, as she abandoned drawing and collage in favour of interactive sculptures, such as the Bichos (Animals) and the Estruturas de caixas de fósforus (Matchbox Structures) that could be handled by the (be)holder, was rooted in her belief that art had to engage the viewer with more intimacy and totality than traditional conceptions of painting, and indeed sculpture, allowed. Extending her powerful sensitivity to the impact of art on spectators/participants, Clark developed an innovative denial of the passive engagement between the perceiving subject and the perceived object, and so made things that were meant to be touched, twisted, worn and weathered. The Bicho (1960) sculptures are among the most famous types of these works, representing as they do Clark’s early experiments with abstraction literally coming off the wall and landing in the hands of anyone who encountered her art. As Clark wrote in 1960, these works were called ‘animals’, ‘due to their fundamentally organic character…also, the hinge connecting the planes made me think of a dorsal spine. The arrangement of the metal plates determines the Bicho’s position, which at first glance seems limitless. When I am asked how many movements the Bicho can execute, I reply, “I have no idea, nor do you – but the Bicho knows….” Each Bicho is an organic entity that only reveals itself totally within its internal expressive time…It’s a living organism, an essentially active work. A total, existential integration is established between it and you. A passive attitude is impossible between you and the Bicho, either on its part or on yours.’
The Estruturas de caixas de fósforus (1964) similarly express Clark’s demand that artworks provoke more than a mere aesthetic response from the viewer. What Clark was developing was a notion of psychological engagement and transformation as the raison d’être of art, yet she still sought to pursue these ideas through the formal idioms of geometric abstraction. The matchboxes, small, delicate and intriguing, and susceptible to manipulation at will by the viewer, were a different experimental attempt by Clark to heighten the perceiving subject’s sense of their own subjectivity, and were also among the last such art objects ever made by Clark. Although, like the Bichos, these works existed to excite the viewer through the infinitely variable configurations and arrangements of the boxes made possible by moving and manoeuvring the different elements, they nonetheless retained, through their geometric composition, the possibility still of being passively regarded and contemplated as sculpture in a classical, non-tactile sense. From the late 1960s Clark came to focus on work that was concerned entirely with phenomenological and therapeutic propositions, and characterised by immersive interactive experiences which were thereby freed of any particular formal or visual conventions. The body of work gathered in the exhibition thereby offers a survey of the essential early exploratory journey made by Clark as she pushed abstraction to the limits of what it could achieve in redrawing the frontiers of the artistic encounter, and building that elusive bridge between object and subject, art and life.
Lygia Clark was born in Belo Horizonte in 1920 and died in Rio de Janeiro in 1988. A central figure in the flourishing of Brazilian culture in the 1950s and 1960s, she was one of key personalities associated with the Grupo Frente (formed in 1953) and the Neo-Concretist manifesto (1959), and also worked extensively in Europe as an artist and teacher. Important solo and group exhibitions during her lifetime included the early São Paulo Biennials (1953, 1955, 1957, 1959, 1961, 1963, 1967), the Second Pilot Show of Kinetic Work, curated by Guy Brett at the Signals Gallery in 1962, Mouvement II at the Galerie Denise René in Paris in 1964, and a retrospective at the Venice Biennale in 1968. Important posthumous exhibitions included a major retrospective at the Fundació Antoni Tàpies, Barcelona (1997; travelled to museums in Marseille, Porto, Brussels and Rio de Janeiro); The Experimental Exercise of Freedom: Lygia Clark, Gego, Mathias Goeritz, Hélio Oiticica, and Mira Schendel at LA MOCA, Los Angeles (1999); The Art of Participation: 1950 to Now at SFMOMA, San Francisco (2008); and Elles@CentrePompidou at the Pompidou Centre in Paris (2009).
Work by Clark will also be featured in MOVE: Choreographing You at London’s Hayward Gallery in October 2010.
This exhibition is the third exhibition in Alison Jacques Gallery’s 2010 season, following Ana Mendieta and Hannah Wilke, to re-present a pioneer woman artist to UK audiences, and to provoke and revive discussion around a supremely influential and perennially relevant, yet often unjustly neglected figure in contemporary art.