The Lydia Pape exhibition at the Met Bruer through July 23 is a revelation. Altogether, every aspect of its catalog demonstrates the artist’s originality, her ways of championing Brazil’s indigenous cultures and architecture – such as the impoverished seaside Favela da Maré built on stilts, and her geo-philosophical ways of making art.
Lygia Pape lived from 1927 – 2004. Her art was widely respected but not widely sold or exhibited outside of Brazil in her lifetime. Her range as a sculptor, printmaker, poet, filmmaker, and installation/performance/mixed media artist are notable. Equally important was her base as a wife and mother, her close friendships with Mario Pedrosa; with Hélio Oiticica and his brothers César and Cláudio, and her ongoing acts as a teacher, including getting a Master’s degree in Philosophy in 1980 (around age 53).
The catalog barely goes into Brazil’s oppressive politics, including the 1964 military coup supported by the United States that deposed its elected President. Oppressive rule continued through 1985. The artist’s 1973 arrest, solitary confinement, and torture in a nondisclosed location is one example of horrors she lived through to stay with her family, friends, and students in Brazil — instead of choosing exile as many did.
The catalog is beautifully-printed and designed, and its 278 illustrations, including many in which the smiling artist is participating in an art performance — popping out of a paper cube or under Divisor, a white tent-like form with openings for human heads— complement the main essays, two interviews, Chronology and Bibliography. Pape’s aesthetic, her main achievements, and her stance against having her art become a commercial commodity are clear. The cover image Livro do tempo (Book of Time), 1961-63 shows 365 constructions based on the square that use only bright red, blue, yellow, and white hues in a range of geometric variations. Her series of geometric forms are only one aspect of Pape’s intermedia experiments.
The artist’s own words are key:
I only make a work when I deem it ready to be made. So I’m not usually disappointed. I never do work related to a particular period but rather to a specific form of knowledge that I seek to materialize. For example, I think the Livro da criação (Book of Creation, 1959-60) is as fresh today as it was the day I made it. It hasn’t aged. It isn’t dated. Why? Because I believe I did a really good job solving some of the problems I was setting for myself at that moment; these problems were actually conditions for the making of the work. It wouldn’t have been worthwhile doing it any other way. The Livro da criação needed to leave the plane, move into three-dimensional space, and return to the plane. That was an extremely complicated problem and required a great effort of invention because it had to represent fire, water, the hunter, and the stilt house, and certain elements had to have the ability to be manipulated and rotated. I obtained a maximum level of systhesis and expression there. Whereas to me the Livro da criação “narrates” the creation of the world, it could have another meaning for someone else, in keeping with his or her own sensibilities or experience…It is, simultaneously, a poem and an art object. (p. 20)
The Book of Creation is among the important works discussed and shown throughout Lygia Pape: A Multitude of Forms. Iria Candela, the Estrellita B. Brodsky Curator of Latin American Art in the Department of Modern and Contemporary Art at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, calls Livro da criação “a book without words” in which “the body’s interaction with the abstract work” is central (p. 7). Contributor Dr. Sérgio B. Martins points out Pape’s Book of Creation uses a square as the point of departure, has a nonlinear unfolding, and its incisions fragment the plane virtually and actually (p. 30). It exemplifies ways the Neoconcrete movement challenged figure/ground relations and subverted the picture plane. The Book of Creation starts with “Light,” a yellow square with a tiny square cut into its center. Another work titled A quilha navegando no tempo (The Keel Navigating Through Time) is a white square with an erect double red triangle that interacts with its base. These singular meditations about ultimate creation interact with each other and the viewer.
In her essay “the risk of invention,” Curator Iria Candela discusses the growth of Neoconcretism in Brazil in relation to international developments and Pape’s roles in visually and literally articulating the new Gestalt strategy of letting figure/ground relationships engage dialectically, starting with a woodcut series called Tecelares. For a Neoconcrete ballet collaboration with poet Reynaldo Jardim, Pape built four white cylinders that each hid a dancer. As the lit cylinders moved to an austere score (no dancers were seen), the idea was to energize space. Some Pape works address the body, public spaces, shared identities, and culture. One graphic photograph lingua apunhalada is a Stabbed Tongue, 1968; an “Eat Me” installation of 1976 and Caixa da baratas (Box of Cockroaches), 1967, were shown at MAM-RJ, Rio di Janero’s new contemporary museum. Pape discusses Caixa das baratas: “…the starting point is a clear concept: … criticisms of dead art locked up in museums. I wasn’t working toward a merely discursive result; I was looking to create a situation of repugnance, of actual disgust…I made a box with cockroaches. And it really was loathsome.” Pape and Helio Oiticica were among the organizers for the “New Brazilian Objectivity” exhibition at MAM-RJ. Her later geometric work includes Ttéia 1, 1976-2004 (Pinacoteca do Estado, São Paulo, 2012) , an installation of straight, intersecting columns made of thin gold wires. This is dramatically recreated at the Met Bruer.
In “birds of marvelous colors” and “outside the frame of the screen,” excerpts from 1997 and 1998 interviews, the artist discusses her art influences, her teachers, her travels, and her nontraditional approaches to making, showing, and curating art, and the contexts for her films. Dr. Sergio B. Martins’ essay “an anticlass in avant-gardism” points out that Pape called her unorthodox classes “anticlasses.” Martins contextualizes Pape’s geo color series, the social and psychoanalytic underpinnings of her films, and Pape’s embrace of Brazil’s indigenous heritages. In “lygia pape’s vital ideas,” John Rajchman explores some literary and formal sources, including Mallarmé’s famous “coup de des” poem (with its differing typefaces, spacings, and type sizes) and Ferreira Gullar’s scrambled letters pieces that showed Pape new ways to free letters and objects from their moorings.