Seen after a tour of the Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection, “Lygia Clark: The Abandonment of Art, 1948-1988” inspired a sense of déjà vu. Born in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, in 1920, Clark took the historical avant-garde as her point of departure, and its legacies ramify throughout her art. Her angular, abstract oil paintings of the 1940s and ’50s evince de Stijl’s drive to integrate surface and support; her articulated metal sculptures, “Bichos” (Critters), 1960-63, echo the Russian avant-garde’s spatial constructions; her six-lensed Óculos (Goggles), 1968, resemble a Surrealist prosthetic. Rich and ranging, Clark’s art demonstrates a rare ability to cannibalize the lessons of her (predominantly male) artistic predecessors and make them her own.
After studying painting in Rio de Janeiro, Clark migrated to Paris in 1950 where she absorbed the lessons of the European avant-garde under the tutelage of Fernand Léger. The late years of the decade found Clark back in Brazil and involved with Neo-Concretism, a Rio-based movement formed in response to the programmatic abstraction of Max Bill and his Concretist coterie. Penned by critic Ferreira Gullar, the group’s 1959 manifesto spoke of the artwork “not as a ‘machine’ or as an ‘object,’ but as a ‘quasi-corpus’ (quasi-body).” Though Clark would soon disidentify with the movement, her commitment to a brand of abstraction at once machinelike (her paints are generally industrial, her lines rigid) and organic (the compositions feel integrated and vital) would remain.
The “Bichos” mark Clark’s transition from the canvas to the lived, three-dimensional space of the viewer. Spiny and crustaceous, the tabletop sculptures, three of which were available to handle at MoMA, are composed of hinged metal plates that can be twisted and rotated into various polygonal structures. Conceived as vehicles for tactile experience, the “Bichos” dramatize a problem of morphology, their geometric forms at once provisional and improvisatory, reached through the manipulations of what Clark called the “spectator-author.” Less playful than combative, the structures force certain moves and restrict others, resisting fixed configurations.
Though excerpted from one of Clark’s statements, the show’s subtitle, “The Abandonment of Art,” implies a troubling teleology. If art’s abandonment is the endpoint, then Clark’s preceding work becomes merely an antecedent to her turn, post-1966, to a performative brand of psychotherapy, grounded in the collective manipulation of what she termed “sensorial” or “relational” objects. Formed from everyday materials—rubber, seashells, sawdust, string—these objects gain meaning through their contact with the human body. Pedra e ar (Stone and air), 1966, is a loosely inflated plastic bag on which a single stone is poised. When the bag is squeezed, the stone either rises or sinks, in a rhythmic mime of either penetration or birth.
As Allan Kaprow, with whose Happenings Clark’s late work is often compared, assayed in the early 1970s, non-art is a fleeting and ephemeral thing: a paradox to be prolonged but never definitively sustained. Taken as a whole, Clark’s oeuvre belies the binary logic of “art or not,” in part because her focus on corporeal experience is evident from the very start. Clark’s turn to psychotherapeutics reads not as an “abandonment” but as a utopian fusion: an attempt, as she phrased it, to dissolve her body into a “collective corpus.”
Such concerns with fusion permeate Clark’s early engagement with abstraction. Central to her approach to painting was the notion of the “organic line,” which she first developed in relation to architecture, melding Le Corbusier’s understanding of the building as an “organism” with her interest in Mondrian’s conception of the canvas as a complex unity. Consider Clark’s “Unidades” (translatable as both Units and Unities), 1958-59, a series of square wood panels coated in industrial paint and furrowed with thin white perpendiculars. Clark intended these vertical or horizontal incisions to integrate the panel’s compositional plane with the surrounding space. In contrast to the line’s conventional status as a contour or bound, Clark’s organic line embodies the drama of continuity and separation that she deemed definitive of human experience, as exemplified in the fetus’s passage from womb to world.
If geometric and biomorphic abstraction are typically opposed, Clark’s work reveals the tenuousness of their divide. Projected on a screen in the exhibition’s final room, a recording of Canibalismo (Cannibalism), 1973, reads not as the outcome of art’s abandonment but as an elaboration of a conceptual thread present from the beginning. In this “proposition” (to use Clark’s term to denote a hybrid act of performance and therapy), a group of blindfolded participants surround a supine figure, her body covered with tropical fruits that the others ritually ingest. As with the organic line and the Möbius strip, a geometry which fascinated Clark for its ability to fold interiors out and exteriors in, Canibalismo escapes binary plottings of inner and outer. Clark’s oeuvre congeals in spite of itself, the rhetoric of painting structuring her psychotherapeutics, the specter of the body haunting her object-bound abstractions.