Lygia Clark’s ouvre evokes the word subversive. Why? Because her work reminds one why the word is meaningful at all. When it’s more familiar today as a commodified grab for attention, subversive, like so many other modalities, has been absorbed into a blasé sludge of buzzwords. But Clark truly subverts. She both tests the lines of art and psychology (the more obvious legacy of her later interactive works, which is helpfully narrated by the museum’s curators) and, more subtly, she describes a narrative of steps by which to arrive there.
I focus on this second subversion because it demonstrates nearly a century of art history. It is subversive today because in many ways aesthetic objects and the attitudes of viewers have changed little. Lygia truly follows the breadcrumbs farther than most of her contemporaries, and since her work arrives at performance, perhaps one day that really avant-garde thing you really have to check out called a “happening” (it’s sooo cutting edge!) and “have you heard about Alan Kaprow???” can be replaced by Clark’s work as the apparently timeless source of interactive performative work.
This refreshing shift in emphasis is both heartwarming and comically embarrassing to watch. That’s because this show sits in a context in which the formerly ignored innovators of the 20th century are one by one being trotted out by curators thrilled to refocus the lens. Suddenly women artists sit in the spotlight. The somewhat recent Kusama show at the Whitney is a previous iteration of this trend. I’m overjoyed to see it happen, yet I cannot help but be sensitive to the contrivance of it. The Guerrilla Girls were not such a long time ago, and there’s something that smells slightly of collecting political correctness brownie points.
These incidentals aside, how is Clark’s ouvre subversive? It’s all about the steps. She begins by mimicking the contemporary classics of the day — the first work in the show is a knockoff cubist work, immediately after is a Kandinsky/Mondrian knockoff. Influenced by architecture and her mimimalist Neo-Concretist peers, she plays with simple geometry. Until she finds the organic line and the nested frame, she’s working through decades of aesthetic history.
Then there’s the break. After reaching the tropes of sixties contemporary art, the cut lines become folding spaces and she begins the series of Bichos, at once firmly moving into sculpture, creating a flexibility antithetical to prevalent flat and static geometry, and finally, by inviting the participant to meet the work. The demand for reverence (care of one Mr. Greenberg) becomes prop and toy. Clark writes, “When asked about how many moves a Bicho can make, I reply, ‘I don’t know, you don’t know, but it knows.’”
This hint of animism in her description perhaps foreshadows her next leap, which is to lose the hard edges of the Bicho in favor of the sinuous and lyrical curves of the Trepante series, which are frequently draped on trees and people (in the exhibit they are presented clinging to natural wood). At this point the aesthetic object as occupying a discrete space ends and the viewer stops being a passive afterthought (here she truly diverges from contemporary tradition). The sensorial with the poetic begins in earnest with Caminhando, a meditation on life and its decisions as voiced though a directed physical act. As Clark says, “This notion of choice is decisive — within it lies the experiment’s only meaning.”
As the art is left behind so too does the poetic become unneccessary as it is replaced by the laser beam focus of decades of precise minimalist artworks. The specificity provides meaning, and the majority of attention can then rest purely in sensuous relationships. Household objects, strange costumes and contraptions, group involvement — in all these moments of her later work, the stiffness of the art context is replaced by joyous group participation.
This narrative is subversive because it subverts literally; as water can be redirected, so she pulls into her world. She shows the journey from a static modernist visual language all the way to what basically amounts to ritual devoid of a cultural context to cushion it. Today it would be ahead of its time. Today we watch a video of her rubberband net being used and we see video art – an object atarms length. Today it is still performance, and it’s done by professionals with graduate degrees who vie for most humorless bored — seeming person ever in front of an audience. Lygia’s work is subversive today because, excuse my presumption, basically no one sees this exhibit and makes a rubber band net, then takes ittoo some secret grassy field and actually experiences the Lygia Clark exhibition. She asks us to sincerely engage with our senses in simple and profound ways, but we don’t hear her. We are busy looking at art.
First published in Arteidolia