Museo de Bellas Artes

“Gego” impresses itself on the memory: two short syllables and a single, repeating consonant (pronounce it halfway between Geh-go and Gay-go). With “Gego,” Gertrudls Goldschmidt (1912-94) converted her German name into sounds appropriate to her adopted Venezuela. Both witty conceit and tough professional strategy, this was only one of her many acts of engineering. Her four-letter fabrication connotes a structural efficiency befitting her identity as an architect trained in Stuttgart, she practiced in Caracas after emigrating in 1939.

Gego claimed she never regarded herself as an “artist,” yet she had turned to “art” by 1953, encouraged by her companion, painter Gerd Leufert. After a brief period working in an expressionistic idiom, she devoted herself to line, drawing in either two dimensions or three: with graphite and ink on paper; with wire and metal rods in space. Her sculptural abstractions were stimulated by Alejandro Otero and Jesús Rafael Soto, whose optical, kinetic, ultramodern work suited the International Style architecture of Caracas during its 1950s oil boom. Gego aligned her art with aesthetically progressive forces in a country undergoing such rapid environmental change that any official aesthetic policy had real consequence for everyday life in the city.

Despite her sophisticated knowledge of architecture, engineering, and structure, Gego increasingly worked in a happenstance, low-tech manner. Geometric without geometric precision, Gego’s forms often seem to grow organically; she nevertheless stated that her art had nothing to do with principles of nature. Her forms, she said, were “autonomous.” The autonomy Gego sought may simply have been her own. To this end, she devised systems of sculptural construction that could generate works of ambitious size without requiring any technical help or extra muscle. Some of her largest sculptures are extremely light; they virtually float, consisting of thin wire and fishing line. Gego designed them to fold and collapse for storage. In lieu of welding, she devised ingenious methods of fastening. To create volume and mass, she traced the edges of prismatic solids with rods, leaving the volume itself open. Her sculpture can be dense, but with air. Yes, she was autonomous: Her studio workshop had one proficient worker—herself. Her engineering came from the garage, the neighborhood hardware store, the industrial recycling bin.

Gego created an art much like her name: rods and wires set to odd angles (the syllabic units), linked by standardized plastic sleeves (the punctuating consonant, repeated). Both the name and the construction are no-nonsense versions of nonsense—hers is formally tight art hovering on the edge of structural disintegration. You can view Gego’s work as whimsy, but this misses its critique of the idealist pictorialism of any cleaner systematic structure. Gego was an undeclared, one-woman, anti-idealist revolution.

Line was her means. She materialized it. Like line itself, which stretches and bends, Gego’s materials favor tensile over compressive strength: wire, plastic tubing, thin strips of metal, nylon cord, bead chain, paper that can be folded and even woven (as in late works that reflect Gego’s remarkable dexterity, the Tejeduras, or “Weavings,” 1988-91). Her art invites the viewer to smile at her optical and technical wit, to think, to argue, to smile again. It reminds anyone who’s made something by hand (haven’t we all?) that we can think abstractly, but we can’t make abstractly. When real lines cross, they don’t form an infinitesimal Euclidean point. When Gego’s rods link or cross in her sculptures, the joint becomes thicker than the lines that extend between, materially and optically thicker, often accented by colored sheathing that encases a juncture or knotting in the web of wire.

Gego’s lesson? Any thought must meet the physical test of real materials, the dexterity of real hands, the capacities of real tools and machines. Our thinking, our abstraction, is regulated by what materials allow. Gego’s abstract art displays neither thoughts nor materials; pragmatic, it uses materials to approach thinking. It stretches the limits of materiality. In turn, her line extends our line of thinking. And sometimes knots it.

Staff curator Iris Peruga decided to show as much of Gego’s mature “abstract” oeuvre (from 1955 on) as could be held by Caracas’s roomy Museo de Bellas Artes. Despite the generous space, a relatively crowded display resulted. But because Gego’s art tends to draw viewers close to its fine lines, muted colors, and tiny elements of metal, plastic, and paper, you become oblivious to works on your right and left. The final level featured Gego’s Dibujos sin pupel (“Drawings without paper”), 1976-89, self-sustaining metal constructions hung against a wall—assemblages in relief that mimic the illusionistic structuring of drawing but with no illusion. Here I felt especially grateful for the abundance of work rather than annoyed at being cramped. Perhaps crowding is consistent with Gego’s productiveness. She worked, tinkered, all the time. Work, don't talk, was her message. Materialize, don’t idealize.

One of her early drawings (untitled, 1962) has a textured layer of colorless glue spread irregularly over a surface of ink The glue creates a transparent ribbing, nearly invisible—parallel streaks slightly askew in relation to the parallel lines of black ink (as in a moiré pattern). In this case, Gego succeeded in altering a drawing in color by drawing in no-color. You sense something beyond the ink, not an intellectual but a material extra, however faint. With Gego, materials precede and dominate ideas. This strikes me as antithetical to current artistic belief and posturing, which is all too often self-centered and Egoist: You declare your idea of yourself and your art follows. We would do better to be Gegoist.

Richard Shiff is Effie Marie Cain Regents Chair in Art at the University of Texas at Austin.