Los Angeles

“The Experimental Exercise Of Freedom”

This exhibition offered the perfect opportunity to overturn clichés about modernism in the periphery. Featuring the work of five of the most relevant South American avant-garde artists of the postwar period, Lygia Clark, Hélio Oiticica, Gego, Mira Schendel, and Mathias Goeritz, the show included about one hundred pieces from the late ’50s to the ’90s. But what the curators hoped to demonstrate—that the South American avant-garde developed in close dialogue with the legacy of Constructivism; and that through “the creative experience” the artist reconstitutes “his or her own subjectivity” and reconnects art and life (an idealism more typical of the historical avant-garde than the troubled and fragile humanism of postwar art in South America)—was inconsistent with the work on view.

The Constructivist premise holds only for Clark, Oiticica, and Gego. The first two were part of the Neoconcrete group in Rio de Janeiro, which aimed to destabilize the mechanism of the gestalt-based abstraction favored by São Paulo’s Concrete artists. Gego, who fled Nazi Germany for Caracas in 1939, emerged in the ’60s with a practice critical of the banal monumentality and optical games of Kinetic art. Her seminal piece, Reticulàrea, 1969, a large environment of delicate, irregular meshes of metal that hang from the ceiling, is meant to disrupt the idealized Cartesian space of rationalism (the work was unfortunately not included in the show). Like Clark’s Bichos (Beasts), 1960–63, hinged metal plates that the spectator manipulates, and Oiticica’s Grand Nucleus, 1960, labyrinths of colored wood panels for viewers to navigate, Gego’s Reticulàrea introduces the body into Constructivism’s utopian spaces.

But the show, by forgoing these artists’ early works, failed to establish such connections. Clark’s mid-’60s and ’70s “propositions” were participatory projects intended to be carried out by the viewer. These pieces, like Rede de elàstico (Elastic net), 1973—a gridded rubber structure that becomes distorted as participants move through it—embody her concern with the dynamic interactions between inside and outside, self and other. The ’90s reenactment/exhibition of such works, which are meant to be manipulated by what Clark called the “collective body” and which are clearly linked to the political and social turmoil of the late ’60s, runs the risk of becoming a didactic demonstration. The propositions look like misplaced objects, unexpressive residue of a once-radical practice. Oiticica’s reinstallation of Eden, 1969/1999, an environment of sand and tents for viewers to enter, addressed the status of leisure in society. Though beautifully produced, it was difficult to relate this work to the curatorial premises or to the rest of the show, partly because of the exhibition’s organization: A separate section was accorded each artist.

Schendel, who came to Brazil from Zurich in the ’40s, and Goeritz, a German émigré in Mexico, stand at almost polar extremes from one another. During the ’60s Schendel developed a powerful body of work that, like those of Gego, Clark, and Oiticica, was predicated on contingency and the precariousness of structures. Her Droguinhas (Little scraps/nothings), 1964–65, are bands of rice paper twisted and knotted to create nonstructures that—like the aluminum rods that zigzag and cascade toward the floor in Gego’s 1970 Chorros (Streams)—emphasize accumulation over construction. Goeritz’s Torres de Ciudad Satélite (Satellite city towers), 1957–58, five giant isosceles prisms made of reinforced concrete painted in different colors, is representative of his expressionist, rather than Constructivist, aspiration for a colossal architecture.

The show was laudable in assembling some crucial works. But especially for viewers unfamiliar with the South American avant-garde, the associations among the artists remained loose, the curatorial proposal unclear. It will be left to other exhibitions to address the category more astutely.

Mónica Amor