Museu d'Art Contemporani de Barcelona (MACBA)

This first European retrospective of the German-born Venezuelan artist known as Gego (Gertrud Goldschmidt, 1912–1994) located her work at the intersection of international modernism and local vernacular, adding her name to the list of postwar Latin Americans—among them Mira Schendel, Lygia Clark, and Hélio Oiticica—whom recent art history has vindicated. Like that of Clark, Gego’s work teeters in a fascinating way between improvised materiality and styleless, eternal forms that involve spectator interaction and the surrounding space.

After a relatively conventional practice of geometrical sculpture, Gego trumped modernism in the late ’60s by formulating new artistic systems that set her free from constructivist and kinetic canons. Her “Reticuláreas,” 1969–77, are more or less irregular nets or webs made out of wire, marking and reorganizing space transparently, and inside which spectators can move about. Somewhere between drawing and sculpture, their uncalculated grids are force fields teeming with the promise of unexpected change, evolutionary mutation. More unitary and solid are the “Troncos” (Trunks), 1974–77, geometric volumes that take the shape of columns or skeletal cocoons. The jumbled “Chorros” (Streams), 1970–88, are vertical flows of small steel and aluminum rods, each part articulated and connected with others in small loops, and suspended from the ceiling like so many pick-up sticks about to crash; some seem to grow from the floor as much as fall from the ceiling. Every installation of these works is unique, as the uncontrollable, willowy mass of loose-jointed metal bits always arranges itself anew.

Vastly different from the authoritarianism of scale and place that underlie much of high modernism, Gego’s random, antiheroic grids and structures develop a rhythmic understanding of space that is more organic than monumental. Her “Esferas” (Spheres), 1976–77, for example, welded spheres that occasionally intersect with each other, look like geodesic domes liberated from functionalist pretense. Space is as significant for Gego as the forms in it, and her slight but dynamic structures convey a sense of infinite potential and growth, ebbing and flowing through a rhizomatic distribution of connections that erodes hierarchies of frame and composition. One could argue, though, that hers is ultimately as utopian a position as the modernist domination of space. As Gego said, “The net is life”: The structure is an artistic DNA that—beyond historical space and on the brink of chaos—mutates between geometry and formlessness.

In Gego’s late works color makes an unexpected return, as in the small wall objects “Dibujos sin papel” (Drawings without Paper), 1976–91, made with bits and pieces of metal and other everyday materials, which push representation to its limit through sheer playfulness; in a truly absorbing series of watercolors; and in the “Tejeduras” (Weavings), 1988–91, not included in this show, which she composed from found materials. These series open up an otherwise chromatically austere visual economy.

The fragility of Gego’s work and its acute and flexible sense of space provide an interesting corrective to Minimalism’s industrial sublimity and masculine rigor. However, for all their modesty, her (micro)cosmological models make no less universal claims. But instead of the modernist technorationalist utopia, Gego proposes an organic model that is open to the possibility of new developments.

Lars Bang Larsen