Lygia Clark: The Abandonment of Art, 1948–1988

AS LYGIA CLARK’S current MoMA retrospective finally brings her career more fully into view, so, too, arrive overdue scholarship, insights, and revelations about her work. Devotees of the Brazilian artist already know that previous monographs were scant and expensive, and that much of the key criticism about her, as well as her own prose, hadn’t been translated from Portuguese. Offering a strong—if cumbersome—corrective, this catalogue strives to be definitive, with essays by ten authors alongside nearly three hundred spaciously arranged images of Clark’s boundary-breaking art. It begins with a vast overview by the show’s co-curator, Cornelia Butler, moving from Clark’s Neo-concretist paintings and sculptures of the ’50s to her “Bichos” (Critters) and Möbius-strip-like “Trepantes” (Climbers) of the ’60s, which were intended to be handled by the viewer, and which bled over and advanced into her body-based investigations of the ’70s. These include her performances, or proposições (propositions), and her corpo coletivo (collective body) therapeutic practices, a kind of participatory art that led her to an “abandonment” of life as an artist (in the early ’80s she became an art therapist and holistic “healer,” working from her home in Copacabana). Best of all, this volume includes English translations of her lucid writings, and her sensitive letters to friends such as Mário Pedrosa and Hélio Oiticica, as well as to her son (to the latter she wrote, in 1970, “Accept the provisional since the process can never stop”).

Lygia Clark, Trepante, versão 1 (Climber, Version 1), 1965, aluminum, dimensions variable.

What emerges is not a piecemeal portrait of the artist but a sustained consideration of the “problem of art,” which Clark described in 1964 as a “terrible presumption.” For her, this problem was mostly about how and when to present her work, a question that was not easily resolved and that she believed should be kept open. In each of her pieces, Clark presents a hypothesis of what an artwork can be—a mutable, evolving postulation. She forcefully argues these ideas in her self-critical writings, which at times also delve into intimate territory (particularly in her missives to Oiticica, wherein she discusses her traumatic childhood and later psychoanalysis).

Oiticica once wrote that Mondrian—a crucial yet underrecognized early influence on Clark—worked at the “maximum limit of representation.” For Clark, this maxing out was a variable template, an expansive, elastic, and ultimately liberating experiment that she enlarged into communal experiences. I can’t be sure, but it seems that when Clark stopped making art in 1976 and began her utopian, psychotherapeutic pieces, she believed that whatever she was doing—whether you call it art or not—had the ability to alter society, always for the better. Pretty incredible what a grid can lead us to if we let it.