Grey Art Gallery, New York University
Sept 12 – December 8, 2007
There is a spidered but unbroken vein feeding cannibals (Yes, I said that) into Concrete Art, snaking through the 20th century from the deepest reaches of the Amazon River in Brazil. It was there, in 1928, that Oswaldo de Andrade unleashed his bloodcurdling Anthropophagous Manifesto, declaring that “We are concrete”, while claiming kinship with the Tupi cannibals and threatening to devour all of Western art just like they eat people.
Earlier, he loosed Modern Art Week upon the exposed throat of Sao Paulo. The year was 1922, the same week that Sylvia Beach un-cuffed omnivore James Joyce; setting his Ulysses free to feed on fat and plucked Paris.
Half a century later, in a ravening embrace clawing its way back to de Andrade, the Brazilian poet and critic Heraldo de Campos published his red meat bare bones essay Anthropophagous Reason (1981). De Campos had already established himself as one of the “hardest” of the world’s Concrete poets with The Essence of Omega, in 1955.
Between these life and limb assaults, at the First National Concrete Art Exhibition postmarked Rio (1957), the Neo-Concrete movement too first bared its fangs. A Bicho or “critter” born of Lygia Clark and Helio Oiticica, thriving solely betwixt Leibniz’ “compossible” realms, it was also legitimately called both Constructivist and Conceptual. Finally (1973) in a macabre, then flat-out mortifying provocation, Clark confronted us with her Body Art/Performance fusion discretely titled Cannibal Drool.
So, straying willfully from monochromatic hardedge painting sideways towards Samba and even the baroque, Latin American Concrete Art just does not stay put. Best consider its unruliness constitutional, and its lack of boundary definition (which is a psycho-therapeutic term) definitive. Such are the very reasons we can call Concrete art abstract.
The Geometry of Hope, a historical overview of 115 works of Latin American abstract art from a half dozen cities, also charts Lygia Clark’s passage through 2 dimensions into 3, and from stasis to the “4th” dimension: time. Her Bichos (1960-61), animistic hinged standing metal plates, visibly get up then walk away from her early Counter Relief (1958), which springs to life before our eyes. While the exhibition presents works in different media by scads of stellar artists (Willy de Castro, to cite one), spanning a period from the 1930’s to the 70’s, I wish to focus here primarily on Clark, because she towers as a figure, though her works are inexcusably hard to find.
Sweep through any gallery with your eyes awry, half shut, not looking at need-to-know artists’ names or must-see artworks’ labels. Don’t power down until one calls. That will be Clark’s Bichos. These moveable, jointed aluminum fans or vanes achieve alchemy’s infinite aim: the impossibly squared circle. What halts you—with some heavy weapon’s stopping power—won’t be an exercise of sheer intelligence, however rigorously wrought in matter. For the Bichos exert animal magnetism exceeding even the organic. They are geometry both raw and cooked, the most riveting sheet metal ever to show heart. Now I hear the inanimate object’s pulse and view its hot-blooded profile.
These non-carbon based life forms resemble sails that fill, traps that shut or unfold in a canny game of hands, “Here’s the church, here’s the steeple; open the doors . . .” We watch the Bichos breathe, posing those primordial questions that still render Man pole-axed. Meant to be manipulated then passed around a group; how could such “beasts” or “creatures” come to be so resolutely moral? In later life Lygia Clark practiced trauma therapy, her interactive art having summoned her to heal.
Clark’s partner Helio Oiticica—with eight works displayed at the Grey Art Gallery—too, took the less traveled route, mapping out an itinerary from his “buzzed” High Modern minimalism through brash, pigment-filled trick boxes immodestly tagged Bolidos or “Flaming Meteors” (compare his previously more Continental avant-garde titles like Untitled, or Painting #9), on to the trance dance Samba. One of his Parangolés; capes fashioned for ecstatic dancers, hangs like the ghost of past utopias, empty and alone, in The Geometry of Hope.
For her Nostalgia of the Body series (1964-70) Clark fashioned Sensorial Hoods and Abyss Masks from bent lenses bearing bleary mirrors to direct and deflect vision. Such eerie “night-vision” goggles look like Hydra heads, often coupling people eye-to-eye. A chemical kind of visionary, Oiticica then coined the code word Supersensorial to designate his intake of hallucinogens, as well as purportedly more natural forms of intoxication.
Tracing a directionless trajectory Oiticica next devolved his lay-about aesthetic, which he termed Crelazar (lazy). To illustrate, he built an indolents’ indoor beach for the idle poor (Eden, 1969), then to institutional chagrin spent his Guggenheim Fellowship (1970) stringing “Nests” or hammocks: his definitively unfinished Cosmococa series; lounging blasting Hendrix while coked to the royal gills. To dispel all fear, however, by penning its own mind-bending masterwork of double talk/damage control, the Whitechapel gallery recently released this rear-guard defensive action to the press in 2002: “Oiticica used [cocaine] as a reference to Inca spirituality and medicinal practice—a symbol of resistance against American imperialism . . . ” I bet. That much hot air and a flight plan might get me to the moon.
Geoffrey Cruickshank-Hagenbuckle is an American poet and art critic. He lives in Paris and New York City.