I entered the Museum of Modern Art’s Lygia Clark retrospective at the wrong end, which shouldn’t have mattered, because the Brazilian artist’s epiphany came when she learnt to love the infinite loop. The first piece I encountered was “Caminhando” (Walking), from 1963, in which she invited viewers to construct their own Möbius strip out of paper and glue, then keep cutting along its length until the band narrowed to nothing. This arts-and-crafts project seemed like a reasonable starting point for a life in art, but I soon realised I had begun at the climax of Clark’s career: the moment when she handed off the work of creation to the viewers themselves. A few years later she finally abandoned art-making for a kind of anarchic therapy. She settled in Rio, treating patients through a process she called “structuring of the self”, until her death in 1988.
MoMA’s show is a curiously hermetic affair, following the interior progress of an artist who is practically unknown in the US. A little context might have alleviated the sensation of wandering into an advanced seminar on a rarefied and not terribly interesting topic. Clark’s various phases, discoveries, and retreats resolve themselves not into a Möbius-like loop but a more or less linear trajectory, from prim modernism to wacked-out, body-based improvisation. An alternative story remains untold: Clark’s native country went through spasms of cultural and political turmoil during her career, but for curators Luis Pérez-Oramas and Connie Butler she might as well be a lone visionary on a deserted planet.
Lygia Pimentel Lins was born in 1920 in Belo Horizonte, Brazil. Married at 18 to a civil engineer named Aluízio Clark Ribeiro, in 1950 she took off for Paris to study painting, with three children in tow. By the mid-1950s she was producing standard modernist abstractions. “Composition” (c.1952) echoes Klee in its delicate colours and gridlike structure. “Discovery of the Organic Line” (1954) stars a floating red square straight out of El Lissitzky. Shades of Mondrian haunted her through the mid-1950s, forcing her shapes into strict geometries.
At that time, North American artists, disgusted by the carnage of the second world war and the bankruptcy of all ideologies, turned inward, pioneering a kind of free-form abstraction derived from surrealism. Clark reached further back, to leftist visions dreamt up in prewar Russia and Germany. She briefly found hope in the strict rationalism of mathematics and in the broken promise of modernism.
By the late 1950s though, Clark was no longer satisfied with airless geometries. She began to open up her abstractions by inserting linear breathing spaces between panels. Two floating black squares are separated by what she calls an “organic line”, an inviting white fissure in an otherwise forbiddingly pristine plane. Similar incisions appear in other works from this period, too. Some planes are divided into puzzle-like pieces that fit snugly together, leaving only the slenderest cracks. Other paintings extend into frames that are flush with the painted surface. Clark simultaneously draws our attention to the image’s edge and its boundlessness.
She kept trying different tactics to yank in the viewer. She cut and pasted papers into optical experiments, where black and white areas alternately recede and jut forward. The collages depend on the viewer’s willingness to wrestle with their shifting architecture. They’re fun, but shallow. If Clark’s career had ended in the 1950s, I doubt we’d be hearing much about her now. It was only after she enlisted the audience’s active participation that her work leapt into another dimension. She began to unfold the layers of her paintings into sculptures called “Bichos” (Critters), seriously playful objects that pried viewers from their passivity, obliging them to interact with artworks as if they were living, breathing organisms.
Clark translated the vital lines that had erupted through her paintings into hinges, while two-dimensional planes became steel and aluminum sheets that participants could manipulate and recombine, like metallic origami. MoMA has appealingly recreated a number of these for us to play with, while Clark’s originals wistfully look on from their sacred plinths. She may have wanted people to manhandle her work, but it’s far too valuable these days for such destructive high jinks.
This period culminated in “Caminhando”, which marks the beginning of the end of her involvement with art – and also of MoMA’s exhibition. “From here on I attribute an absolute importance to the immanent act carried out by the participant,” she announced at the time. “‘Caminhando’ has all the possibilities connected to action itself. It allows choice, the unpredictable, and the transformation of a virtual into a concrete event.” That “choice” presents itself as a series of limited decisions: to cut down the centre, or at the side, or gradually guide the scissors left to right? There are echoes of the way Fluxus artists toyed with the public too: Yoko Ono commanded audiences to “Light canvas or any finished painting with a cigarette at any time for any length of time”, and Ken Friedman mischievously ordered viewers of his 1963 “Fruit Sonata” to “Play baseball with a fruit.”
Clark lacked that wry humour, though. Her antics married the rhetoric of self-help to hippie spirituality. She concentrated on making “sensorial objects” such as cloth masks with distorting eye holes and snouts stuffed with herbs, or glasses equipped with adjustable mirrors – things that would, she hoped, boost awareness of our own bodies. At MoMA, a team of “facilitators” helped me navigate a table stocked with replicas of Clark’s contraptions. One demonstrated how to float a rock on a plastic bag filled with air. Another tied her hand to mine with a kind of twisted elastic bandage, extending the Möbius strip into the realm of human relationships.
Videos around the room broadcast some of the sessions Clark led among her students. In “Baba antropofágica” (Anthropophagic slobber), participants slowly disgorge saliva-laden filaments that they lay across a prone colleague, covering him in a moist, wispy web. They then proceed to massage him. “It is the first act in a ritual of phantasmatic exorcism for the emancipation of the body,” Clark explained, unhelpfully. The encounter group meets the neo-primitive ritual, giving birth, as it were, to a groovy mysticism. That shaggy ethos has not aged well and, like almost everything else in this arid show, seems almost brutally dated.
‘Lygia Clark: The Abandonment of Art’, to August 24, moma.org