View of “Paul Neagu” 2021. Photo: Sandra Maier.

View of “Paul Neagu” 2021. Photo: Sandra Maier.

Paul Neagu

The Paul Neagu retrospective at the Kunstmuseum Liechtenstein opened with a leap—a looped clip of the artist’s repeated attempt to run up a wall from a film of his 1976 Hyphen-Ramp performance at the Serpentine Gallery in London. Neagu’s feet tapped the wall with each jump, as a blindfolded Perry Robinson, a student of his at the time, marked the end point of an invisible ramp delineated by his split-second ascent. The video introduced the exhibition’s emphasis on the way in which geometries mapped by and onto the body formed the core of Neagu’s abstraction as he moved between drawing, sculpture, and performance. The Romanian artist was motivated above all by the construction of a cosmological vision, which he began to conceptualize as a student in Bucharest in the 1960s and continued to develop in London, where he lived from 1971 until his death, at age sixty-six, in 2004. By dedicating the show’s first room to the artist’s notebooks and manifestos, the retrospective—curated by Georg Schöllhammer, Magda Radu, and Friedemann Malsch—positioned Neagu as a thinker and poetic philosopher who saw art as a vehicle for ideas. One illustrated word web was titled The World as Metaphor, 1975–80, while an undated sketchbook page with a collage of photographs of works by artists including Constantin Brancusi, Yves Klein, and Barnett Newman under the header MODERN ARTISTS ON FLIGHT was reminiscent of Aby Warburg’s Bilderatlas Mnemosyne (1924–29).

Known for sculptures that engage multiple senses, such as taste and touch, and that were intended to spur interaction, Neagu aligned himself closely with the logic of metaphor, working in a symbolic register that kept his abstraction closely tethered to meaning and entangled with childhood experiences of Christianity as a cultural system in Romania. In his works related to the “Anthropocosmos” series, which he began in 1965 (and returned to again and again into the 1990s), for instance, Neagu conveyed his sense of a cosmos that exists within humanity by segmenting outlines of the human body into “cells” in a grid-like array, initially in ink and pencil on tracing paper. From there, Neagu developed his 1971 Cake Man performance, in which participants were invited to eat waffle “cells” arranged within a generic human form. No waffles were on offer in Vaduz, but video documentation, invitation cards, and preparatory sketches of this remixed Eucharist gave an impression of Neagu’s foray into participatory art as a playful and earnest attempt to facilitate an alternative Communion and push his practice into new sensory realms.

Among the strongest works in the exhibition were the early “Tactile Objects” and “Palpable Objects,” which Neagu made in Bucharest in 1968 and 1969 and in London in the early 1970s. Meant to be touched and handled, they were presented here on shelves and atop a long white plinth, as Neagu had displayed them in 1973 in a solo show at the Serpentine Gallery. An untitled piece from 1972 had a particularly mysterious air, with its irregular bits of wood bound in leather, silk, and felt or cut from the corners of furniture and puzzled together in two rectangular boxes. You could almost feel Neagu thinking via material here: The pieces fit together, but remain delightfully unresolved, particularly in the context of the increasingly clarified cellular structures he was developing in other works of the time. The dangling Untitled Box (Tactile Object), 1969, was similarly dynamic: Wooden beams adorned with metal tacks and thin leather strips extend out from a rectangular centerpiece like limbs caught mid-cartwheel; a squiggle of wire threaded through the legs forms a misshapen circle. This work is a germinal state of the “hyphen,” the delicately balanced tripod form with one extended leg that Neagu developed in 1975 and to which he dedicated most of the 1980s and 1990s. Crafting the hyphen in a wide range of scale and materials, he considered it the consummation of his symbolic and formal quest for the interconnectedness of things. Though seventeen iterations were on view, the retrospective told a different story, as the hyphens appeared not as the pinnacle of his oeuvre, but instead as one of many formal and intellectual revelations, like sparks propelling Neagu’s four-decade career and leaving ample room for discovery today.