As the visitor to the Museum of Modern Art walks across a swarming fifth floor this summer, she will find Lygia Clark: The Abandonment of Art, 1948–1988, the first comprehensive retrospective of the Brazilian artist’s career in America. The show is organized chronologically, starting with Clark’s early works from the 1950s and moving through her more radical experiments with participation and the sensorial awareness of spectators. Clark was known for being an innovative, daring artist, and for pushing the boundaries between art and life, something she used to call “the outside into the inside.” But as I try to apply these words to the show at MoMA, they suddenly lose their meaning: the visitor can see Clark’s retrospective, but it’s much harder to feel it. The passionate and intense way in which Clark lived and led her artistic practice is barely visible at MoMA, as other critics have noted.
The first rooms present Clark as a Modernist painter (she declared her love of Mondrian) who also had a genuine interest in architectural space. Brazilian architecture — a shelter for Modernist tendencies — was a fertile field, and Clark trained under Roberto Burle Marx, one of the most important Brazilian architects of that time. Her first abstract geometric paintings, Compositions (1952–54) are clearly bound to European influences, with their squares, lines and planes of color distributed with precision over canvas. At MoMA, the juxtaposition of these early paintings with Clark’s architectural models and a series of tiny, colorful, gouache-painted matchboxes, Matchbox structures (1964), reaffirms her inclusion within the Western idea of Modern art.
But for Clark, architecture would become a conceptual bridge to the space outside of the canvas. This process was crowned by the discovery of what she named “the organic line” — not a graphic line, but actual space, a few centimeters of distance between two wooden boards that was incorporated into her work. As she wrote:
In 1956, I found the relationship between this line (which was not graphic) and the lines of joining doors and frames … It was a space line, a fact which I would only come to understand later on.
Thus, although her practice began with Modernist paintings, Clark quickly moved beyond the canvas, looking to outside space as a means of reaching her spectator. Nonetheless, the show at MoMA positions Clark as an unambiguous Modernist figure while tracking, linearly, her “artistic progress.” This decision may reflect the goal of the exhibition: to endorse her importance as a perhaps overlooked Latin American artist in the canon of art history. But such a pragmatic idea as linear progress seems utterly limited in comparison with what she was up to. The stakes were high for Clark when she discovered she could use her viewers’ senses as material for her work. She plunged into a universe in which lines, planes, and Modernist conventions were not enough.
The linearity of the show works well with her trajectory up until Critters (1960), her first participatory works. From the Breaking the frame (1954–56) series to these pieces, the transformation is clear: paintings such as “Planes on modulated surface no. 5, version 01” (1957), which consists of seemingly three-dimensional geometric planes formed by organic lines, and “Cocoon, version 01” (c. 1959), which looks like something between painting and sculpture with its intersecting triangular pieces, both explore movement and the idea of shelter. These works anticipate the Critters: metallic sculptures with folding joints that are meant to be handled by the spectator, who is not passive anymore.
Even if each of them has a pre-determined form — their main structures often based on triangles — the Critters need our hands to become whatever they can become: they are geometrical combinations that change, planes that not only suggest movement but can be moved. Clark used the term Bichos (Critters) as an allusion to the pieces’ animal-like behavior; at MoMA, however, spectators can handle only two replicas — the original pieces occupy the center room of the show and cannot be touched, triumphantly gleaming in their metallic elegance while sitting passive.
After Critters, Clark continued to explore how the art object could stimulate our awareness of our senses. Her discovery of an everyday object as a healing tool led her to create relational objects:
One day, by chance, something that doesn’t exist, I grabbed the little plastic bag [that she was using for physiotherapy after she had suffered a car accident] and I breathed into it, and then I put an elastic to keep it full of air. On the exterior part of the plastic bag I placed a stone, and then I slowly started to squeeze the stone against the bag with my hands … It was the first object I made of this series, and the most beautiful as well. … With the pressure, the stone went up and went down above the bag of air. Then, I suddenly noticed that something was alive. It looked like a body. It was a body. [Translated from Roberto Pontual interview, “Lygia Clark: a fantasmática do corpo,” Jornal do Brasil, September 21, 1974]
The relational objects were not ready-mades but, rather, mediators. Clark used pebbles, plastic bags, little seashells, seeds, mirrors, and gloves to help us tune into our senses, to have experiences that offered a kind of psychological and sensorial healing. “Stone and air” (1966), described above and re-created at MoMA, is a simple sealed plastic bag with a stone on its surface. The actions performed with those two objects help us rediscover the fundamentals of breathing: we become the stone; we are at the center of our breath.
In the 1970s, Clark moved to Paris to teach a class at the Sorbonne, and there she invented two psychoanalytic methods involving art: the structuring of the self, individual therapeutic sessions in which she used the relational objects; and phantasmagoria of the body, collective exercises — called “propositions” — experienced by a group of students. Clark was in therapy herself, with the psychoanalyst Pierre Fédida (who had been a student of Gilles Deleuze and was influenced by Jacques Lacan’s work), and the propositions she was developing explored the frontier between art, therapy, and life.
Although they may look like what we today know as performances, Clark’s propositions were created in a specific context and for a particular group of people; she did not plan them beforehand, though during the sessions she encouraged allusions to ancient rituals and myths. For this reason, scholars have often been puzzled by this last phase of her career. In fact, Clark was emphatically abandoning art — yet it’s through experiencing her last works that I feel I re-encounter it. Simple exercises, like building a net made of elastics in a group, have made me reconsider social behaviors; in Clark’s propositions, the blending of aesthetic pleasure with the discovery of the art object in relation to the unconscious can elicit a conceptual and physical awareness — a complete kind of experience.
In the last room at MoMA visitors can handle most of Clark’s relational objects as well as see some of her propositions being presented in videos and live reenactment, but these efforts barely transmit the excitement with which Clark described the experiences in letters to friends, or the truly experimental nature of her collective practice: the life within those works depends on us. In this sense, the retrospective, although exemplary in its representation of Clark’s formalist side, misses emphasizing the most singular phase of her career: when she completely surpassed Modernism.
During the opening of the show, I was glad to watch a performance of one of her most famous propositions, “Anthropophagic Slobber” (1973). In the piece, a group of people surrounds a person lying on the floor with her eyes closed. Kneeling, they start pulling colored threads from their mouths and, as if they were spiders, build a web of literal slobber that’s deposited on the lying person’s body. The room at MoMA was packed and noisy and, although I knew the participants were trained, a strong energy filled the air. Perhaps because of its messiness the work resisted becoming a spectacle: it was too raw to be completely enacted. When presented in museums this way, Clark’s propositions lose a great part of their purpose, as lived healing experiences, but they also offer a chance for viewers to feel their power — the extreme potential of the intermingling of art and life, even if it is just a sample.
Lygia Clark: The Abandonment of Art, 1948–1988 continues at the Museum of Modern Art (11 W 53rd Street, Midtown, Manhattan) through August 24.