On ViewThe Met Breuer
March 21 – July 23, 2017
Months of political unrest and now the question of art—its role, responsibilities, and possibilities—weighs on New York. Addressing both currents, the Met Breuer houses Lygia Pape: A Multitude of Forms, the first major retrospective of the artist in the United States. Honoring the five-decade career of the pivotal Brazilian artist, this timely survey brings forth an alternative tale of the evolution of Modern art, one that functions independently from New York, and presents a moving practice that is both determined by and bluntly audible under political oppression.
Recognized as prominently for abstract geometry as for performance art, Lygia Pape’s practice—expanding across painting, print-making, video, performance, installation, architecture, poetry, and teaching—bloomed in Brazil’s hopeful postwar years and leftist 1950s government, and was later shaped by the horrific dictatorship brought by the 1964 military coup. Curated around what has defined and bound Pape’s multifaceted practice together, this retrospective underlines her unwavering social engagement through—and not in opposition to—a passion for form.
Consuming the entirety of Breuer’s fourth floor, A Multitude of Forms has a predominantly chronological approach, with each of its constructed galleries dedicated to an era of the artist’s work. The narrative begins with postwar Brazil and Pape’s early work as a member of Grupo Frente—a movement enchanted by Europe’s Concretism—and the start of a career-long devotion to the language of abstract geometric art. But to understand the movement and Pape’s formal language requires moving beyond the dominant narratives of art history, centered around Europe and the United States. For Grupo Frente, the exploration of abstraction is a protest against the muralist movements saturated by propaganda; geometry is homage to similar Soviet movements; rationality is a celebration in accordance with local achievements of modernity (the capital Brasília, founded in 1960, is a masterwork of modern architecture and urban planning). The exhibition eloquently offers the context needed.
Entering the Cold-War era, history unfolded to challenge modern civil society’s hopes for the future. Dismantled by disagreements around the limits of rationalism, Grupo Frente ended, and Neo-Concretism was formed. With artists such as Lygia Clark, Hélio Oiticica, and Pape, this new movement emphasized experimental approaches: “the expressive possibilities opened by these experiences”—as put by Ferrieira Gullar, poet and the author of their manifesto. The show unravels this transitory time in Pape’s work, from her early compositional Reliefs (1953 – 54), to her optical Weavings (1955 – 60), to her Neo-Concrete heights, when she explored language, form, space, and time—breaking barriers between print-making, sculpture, video, book-making, poetry, and even opera. Her Book of Creation (1959 – 60) is a profound example of this. Sixteen replicated pages are freely displayed for museumgoers to investigate and interact. On each, Pape combines a simple sentence with one of her non-objects. One reads, “Man began to measure time”—a white square with a circular red disk in its center. Rotating around a center-point, the circle can be completed or entirely hidden; it is upon the viewer to activate it in time and space. Truly, Pape and her peers exceeded their time; long before Minimalists, they used forms to interrupt space and time, and before the conceptualists, they shifted authorship to the audience.
It was at this stage that the Coup interrupted her work. In the late ’60s, in the height of oppression and the resultant oppositional protests in Brazil, Pape abandoned the confines of prescribed artist spaces to enter her society. In her short film The Egg (1967), the artist emerges out of a white cube placed on a beach. The work is part of a series of performances where the artist and her peers exited abstract forms into the public sphere. Central to the gallery is Pape’s iconic Dividor (1968) in which dozens of people bound together by a large white sheet march on the street. They at once become a unified social body, while the sheet separating their heads from the bodies—hidden beneath—evokes the surveillance of the autocratic regime. The performance—brought to New York this March—remains shockingly poignant today.
With the majority of the remaining gallery space devoted to earlier interactive and large scale work, the exhibition loses its depth in discussing Pape’s later practice, the works from which are cramped in side rooms and hard to grasp. In the 1970s—when she was briefly imprisoned and tortured—Pape dedicated herself to art education, architecture and its politics, and in the following decades—from her “Amazoninos” series (1989 – 92) to her “Tupinambá” series (1997 – 2007)—she dug into the country’s haunting colonial history.
The exhibition’s final central work is the spectacular installation Ttéia 1, C (1976 – 2004/2017), a large black room in which monumental columns of golden thread interrupt the utter darkness. The luminous lines simultaneously mimic beams of sunlight and recall prison-cell bars, entirely moving. Closely in conversation with her early Weavings, the piece unravels Pape’s at her best: a tireless poet fluent in the language of form and determined to address our politically disturbed world.