The sculptures of Brazilian artist Lygia Clark’s are meant to be gripped and handled. It’s challenging for viewers, to say nothing of museum guards, writes Jason Farago.

First rule of the museum: don’t touch. Unless you’re at an exhibition of the art of Lygia Clark – in which case, prepare for an experience that requires more senses than just vision. One of the giants of Brazilian postwar art, Clark produced objects and designed experiences that challenged some of the most basic assumptions we have about art, and at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, a magnificent and overdue retrospective of Clark’s work – her first ever in North America – is challenging viewers, to say nothing of the museum guards. Surreal helmets and rubber suits, kinetic sculptures that can be endlessly refashioned, a room full of balloons: this is one show that requires you to look and to touch at once.

Lygia Clark: The Abandonment of Art, 1948–1988 is the capstone to a remarkable season of Brazilian art in New York, one that’s spanned museums and commercial spaces and embraced both historical and contemporary avant-gardes. Mini-retrospectives of the São Paulo modernists Geraldo de Barros and Anna Maria Maiolino are now on view in private galleries, while the International Center of Photography is presenting the first American exhibition of Caio Reisewitz, whose large-format images of Brasília and the jungle overwhelm the viewer’s field of vision. Tunga, a leading artist from Rio de Janeiro, is presenting a seductive and surprising exhibition of terra cotta sculptures freighted with crystals and pearls. The International Print Center, a space for graphic arts, has just closed a major show of Brazilian printmaking, and Broadway 1602 is presenting what I’d call the city’s best gallery show of the year so far: “Ultrapassado,” an extraordinary assembly of ten female artists – five Brazilian, five from elsewhere – whose art has been inspired by Clark and other figures of Brazilian modernism.

But the MoMA show, which features nearly 300 works and is accompanied by a superb catalogue, is a particular achievement, and one that comes at an especially auspicious moment. The curators, Connie Butler and Luis Pérez-Oramas, take us through the geometric abstraction of her early years to her innovations in kinetic sculpture to her eventual ‘abandonment of art’ – against the backdrop of Brazil’s military dictatorship. They position Clark not as a Latin American outlier to the museum’s by-the-numbers narrative of modernism, in which European geniuses are inevitably succeeded by a heroic American postwar avant-garde. Instead, they make it clear that Clark was a true innovator, one who might have even more relevance to contemporary artists than the historical masters downstairs.

Abstract thinking

Clark was born in Belo Horizonte in 1920, and although she exhibited an early talent for drawing, she came to art late. Only at age 27, after the birth of her three children and her relocation to Rio de Janeiro, did she begin formal art study. Her first professor was Roberto Burle Marx, who’s best known now as a landscape architect and garden designer: think of the undulating mosaics on the sidewalk abutting Copacabana Beach, or the verdant grounds of Brasília’s Itamaraty Palace. But Burle Marx was a polymath, and Clark would become one too. Unlike in the US, where at the same moment abstract painting was presented as a nearly holy endeavor that had to be decontaminated of outside influences, in Brazil abstraction was always a more plural affair. An abstract composition could be artistic and decorative at once; art and architecture could bleed into each other.

The MoMA show is full, maybe even overstuffed, with Clark’s early paintings. Some are severe, black-on-white, rectilinear compositions with only the slightest variations. Others are jazzier and more colorful, counterpoising angular forms of blue, green and red. “The work must demand an immediate participation on the part of the viewer,” Clark wrote about her paintings in 1957 – and, very soon, she would take that stipulation to even greater depths.

The late 1950s in Brazil were an era of political and cultural acceleration. Juscelino Kubitschek, president from 1956 to 1961, led a program of rapid economic development and urban modernisation, epitomized by the construction of Brasília, the new capital – and it was against this backdrop that Clark made some of her most iconic art. Her bichos (‘critters’, in Portuguese) consist of panels of stainless steel, aluminum and even gold, connected by hinges and meant to be refashioned by viewers at will. She made about seventy in all, and the majority of them are here in New York. You can’t touch the originals, though MoMA will let you twiddle replicas, and you’ll quickly see that they stubbornly refuse to settle into a ‘natural’ or ‘resting’ state. They’re stiff, resistant compositions, and handling one of them feels a bit like a wrestling match. “Pollock has his ritual, but it only serves for him to express himself,” said Clark in 1960. “While the bichos offer ritual to the viewer as the first experience.”

Human touch

The bichos are some of the most important artworks of the mid-20th Century, prefiguring trends in American and Western European sculpture by a decade or more. Yet Clark’s breakthrough, which shifted the competence to create geometric compositions from the artist to the spectator, led her to ask just why she was making discrete art objects at all. And so, in the mid-1960s, her art underwent an even more radical shift. In a series she called proposições (mere ‘propositions’, rather than finished works), she invited viewers to interact with eccentric objects ranging from a simple spool of white paper to gloves, helmets, plastic bags, knitted wraps, and distorting goggles. Visitors to MoMA can handle many of the smaller ones, while facilitators in the gallery demonstrate some of the clunkier proposições, such as a pair of rubber suits linked by an industrial hose. Her art, now, took the form of experience and participation; the objects were just components, the audience much more than spectators.

This part of Clark’s career, too, should be understood against the backdrop of a changing Brazil. The coup d’état of 1964 ended the period of liberal democracy and installed a military dictatorship that held power for two decades and killed or tortured thousands of opponents – including Dilma Rousseff, now the country’s president. Clark, like most artists an antagonist of the regime, went into exile in 1968, returning to Rio in 1976. For her Brazilian ‘clients’ – her preferred name for participants – Clark imagined that her proposições could have a therapeutic effect, in both psychological terms and political ones. Instead of agitprop that would have little effect or abstraction that could be easily absorbed by the regime, Clark’s propositions removed themselves from the realm of aesthetics. Yet that didn’t mean they were indifferent to politics. They were a direct reaction to a stifling political moment, and it’s no coincidence that her helmets look like gas masks and her goggles like instruments of surveillance.

A collection of shells, a glove and a ball, water in a plastic bag: Clark referred to these relational objects as her “abandonment of art.” Yet today it’s clear how thoroughly she prefigured the artistic tendencies of our own day, especially the participatory interventions grouped under the designation of relational aesthetics. That’s one of the many reasons this belated retrospective is so essential. In Clark’s career we see the role of the artist transformed herself from a creator of discrete objects into a cultural figure who creates experiences, produces relationships, invites participation, and emancipates the spectator. It’s a momentous shift in art that, from this distance, it looks inevitable. But art history always does.

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