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Gego and Sarah Sze both studied architecture and chose visual art. Sze studied painting too, though it’s not what she later pursued at New York’s School of Visual Arts. Like Gego, Sze builds enveloping spaces that defy the tenets of architecture to create something more open and disorienting. A house contains us within its walls; Gego’s and Sze’s installations spill into our path as we move around and with them. Born continents and nearly six decades apart, these two artists, currently having shows of their work in Manhattan, quietly communicate across time.
Gego, a nickname for Gertrud Louise Goldschmidt, was born into a Jewish family in Hamburg and moved to Caracas in 1939 at the age of 27, where she remained until her death in 1994. A practicing architect and designer, she didn’t pursue art until 1953. Though she’s been loosely affiliated with the Abstract Geometry, Op, and Kinetic art movements in South America, Gego didn’t consider herself a part of any movement. Autobiography of a Line, at Dominique Lévy, displays the range of the artist’s work including drawings, prints, collages, handmade books, and sculpture — though she would’ve resisted that definition. “Sculpture: Three-dimensional forms of solid material. Never what I do!” she wrote in one of her notebooks.
As the title of the exhibition implies, Gego’s work experiments with lines, in space and on paper, that are at turns fluid, shaky, and broken, so that they barely keep their shape. Lines form dense bundles in some places, and open and breathe in others, allowing for, in her words, “transparency.” In some drawings, wobbly horizontal lines are met by waves, like an interruption in the wind or a change in sound. Several of the sculptures that she called “drawings without paper” have a musical quality, with metal tubes combining to form triangles, or knots building along parallel wires like notes. In all of her sculptures, Gego used everyday materials like rods, buttons, tubes, and screws. She delicately connected each of these seemingly clumsy objects by hand, as in the installation of her “Chorros” (“streams” or “waterfalls” in Spanish): tall, cascading sculptures that hang from floor to ceiling, alternately floating and forming roots on the floor like trees. Critics often refer to the works’ expansive metal networks that jumble and loosen as “chaotic,” though they are clearly deliberate.
It is with Gego’s larger installations that the connection to Sze becomes most apparent, though the artists’ smaller processes are equally intriguing to compare. Sze, an American of Chinese descent, uses mundane materials, like Gego, but her range is vaster: bulbs, bottles, plants, pliers, wire, string, milk cartons, sand, and even cake. At Tanya Bonakdar, Sze has assembled and connected disparate objects in two characteristic floor-to-ceiling installations and on two desks that host strange microcosms. We encounter arrangements, such as one of calm, purposefully placed stones, very low to the ground, while ascending ladders and mirrors extend the space and elude our grasp. Much like Gego’s sculptures, objects here seem to cascade like waterfalls. They are messy and delicate, cluttered, and minimal. Like Gego, Sze leaves openings, ripping paper and cutting objects, including rocks and bundles of aluminum, into halves.
“I want you to be located when you walk in the door and then dislocated and then relocated as you move through the work, to create this constant experience of teetering,” Sze once said. In other words, her structures are unpredictable. Gego’s works, some of which she called “bichitos” (“little animals”), similarly take on lives of their own, and she wanted to locate us in “the nothing between the lines,” or in the empty space that oscillates between forms.
In each of these artist’s exhibitions, our gaze and path are always split and guided by lines, which at once bind and keep the space active. This is not the first Gego show that highlights this fact (for instance, Line as Object), and it’s no coincidence that Sze has had exhibitions with titles like Infinite Line. Whether they’re slivers of dry paint, flimsy string, or looping lamp wires, the lines in Sze’s installations never recede — these artists aren’t trying to recreate our perspective but challenge it — instead, they waver, tangle, and get in the way. A line that is suspended leaves an open connection; there is no start or finish.
This wandering experience and sense of surprise are a result of the artists’ shared process: Gego, like Sze, built as she went, never premeditating or planning her designs. For her current exhibition, Sze composed the installations on-site, claiming: “The pieces are telling me what to do.” And each piece is capable of being handled; like Gego, Sze uses her fingers as her tools, shaping one gentle contraption and then the next. Later in life, Gego would primarily make collages, on view at Dominique Lévy, called “Tejeduras,” where she wove together photographs, magazines, and cigarette packets. The control and wave of the weave, which she began practicing when she was a teenager, seem to underlie much of her work.
In a recent op-ed for the New York Times titled “What Art Unveils,” the philosopher Alva Noë asks: “Why are artists so bent on making stuff? To what end?” In responding to the trend of using neuroscience to understand art, Noë argues the opposite: that we can use art to understand ourselves. Artists make “stuff,” he says, because it is in our human nature to create — “making stuff is special for us.” (“My work is based on doing,” Gego wrote in one of her notebooks, and brings “delight by making it.”) But what makes an artist’s creation different, according to Noë, is that it makes the ordinary strange. (“You see things that are familiar to you, but you see them in an unfamiliar way,” Sze said of her work in a 2013 interview.) Noë concludes: “Art is itself a research practice, a way of investigating the world and ourselves.” Indeed, observing Gego and Sze’s works feels a bit like research, as their multiple parts appear to unfold into intricate analyses and systems. Each artist is of course distinct — Sze is more concerned with the observable world, while Gego’s language was more abstract and formal — but both make plain our impulse to create and tinker. Perhaps it is this very human presence that makes these artists’ habitats inviting, even though their architecture doesn’t intend to offer shelter.
Sarah Sze continues at Tanya Bonakdar (521 West 21st Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through October 17. Gego: Autobiography of a Line continues at Dominique Lévy (909 Madison Avenue, Upper East Side Manhattan) through October 24.