A sprawling exhibition now at Museo Reina Sofia (through October 3, 2011; then traveling), “Magnetized Space” looks at the work of the junior partner of the Brazilian Grupo Frente. Pape was a co-founder of that 1954 initiative with the better known Hélio Oiticica and Lygia Clark. Pape is by way of being an avatar of social practice art – although, like her compatriots Clark and Oiticica, she comes out of a rigorous practice of abstract art. In a moment when social practice work is increasingly seen as a kind of media art or meta-theater,* this strain of its past is particularly intriguing.
The show opens with Pape's untitled mid-1950s panel paintings, austere but colorful, even bouncy rehearsals of Russian constructivist forms. This is followed by roomsful of abstract prints (long cold empty galleries, something of a specialty of many Reina Sofia exhibitions), which are hard to absorb. Some of these reprise Frank Stella's black stripe paintings of the day, tiny white lines dominated by the ground, reminding us of the concurrent strains of internationally dominant American art which the “neoconcretists” both resisted and absorbed.
Some of these prints – “xylographic” woodcuts as I read in the brochure – are exquisite white on whites in which rectangular shapes dislocate out of an overall grid. (These appear later as templates for room-scale installations – “Knife of Light,” extended gossamer rings of glistening metal wire running floor to ceiling.) Many of these are extensive and sensitive material explorations of the texture of the material, the wood, which gives forth as she wrote “Pythagorean flowers.” In the later '50s, Pape experimented with mobile paper elements in a book-like format – wheels held down by metal brads, folded and flapping shapes – and poems (Portuguese, of course).
In 1958-59, Pape produced “neo-concrete ballets” with two collaborators. A room in this show contains four colored cylinders (tubes) and four obelisks (boxes), and a sonorous musical clanging and pinging. A video animation shows these forms moving in relation. In fact it's obscure what is going on, and the labelling doesn't really tell us. I was reminded of Santiago Sierra's box forms enclosing undocumented workers as a latter-day Marxist riff on exactly this kind of work– who moves the forms? (The brochure says ballet dancers are doing it.)
This was the dominant mid-century academic aesthetic, as artists got back to the formal aesthetics interrupted by the propagandistic interlude of global war. Artists tried to break things down to basics, and the visible world to to basic forms. This strain persists, as if there were some secret in formal language alone – transcendence? I forget, never having really been spellbound by that meditational buzz. Pape herself would soon transcend this kind of Bauhaus-inflected depersonalized performance aesthetic.
I think the excitement of Pape's work, the arc of her career, is in the dynamic of her movement from and with abstraction in a social direction – this is precisely the thrill of Russian constructivism. The Russians were also a source for U.S. minimalism, and perhaps one might discern the same motion in U.S. minimalism. But so far this argument has not been made (except to some extent in Julia Bryan-Wilson's book “Art Workers”).
By the middle 1960s, Pape's work starts busting loose. Ants, cicadas and people all appear at once. A grinning musician, beating “Crazy Rhythms” on a piece of sonic metal, bursts out of a box on the beach, covered in red, white and blue paper. In a 1967 film, the white-clad artist herself(?) emerges from a white box on the beach – it's the purity of a new birth, a human body from an abstract form.
Then, in 1968 comes the grand work “Divisor,” a bunch of people under a big white sheet, marching along with only their heads emerging. A video of this project restaged for the 2010 Sao Paulo Bienal is shown here. (Also a video of the 1967 event which seems to be all children, and fewer of them; the Museo Reina Sofia also restaged the event earlier this year, and the video is on YouTube.)
She also filmed her “Wheel of Pleasures,” a kind of face painting with colors pulled from an array of bowls of color. On the floor in the gallery was a ring of bowls filled with colored liquids, and set beside them dishes and pipettes. The video shows a man dripping colors on his extended tongue. (I tried a few – a very mild flavor, I didn't see what color was my tongue.)
Lygia Pape, finally, is a difficult artist. She was a theoretician, and the bedrock of her work is generally not crowd-pleasing. (“Divisor” was done as an experiment, not a spectacle.) Here her film work has here been shoe-horned into a contemporary exhibition format. Some fit – like “Comeme” (eat me), a film of giant greasy lips, smacking viscous substances, shiny hairy mouths opening to interior blackness. While it more broadly restates a curt idea from the Fluxfilm, it looks very much like a now-time video installation.
Really it seems she did more investigations, and working projects. There is a slide set of rural hut-building (she taught semiology in an architecture school). It's a highly sensualized utilitarian experiment. Another set of photos show publics and performers gathering around street vendors, investigating the topology of pedestrian attention. (These are the “Magnetized Spaces.”) Some other clips are more like goofing with friends, and seem overblown in a museum context.
In the great exhibition “Tropicália: A Revolution in Brazilian Culture,” some of Lygia Pape's books were shown as replicas that could be manipulated by visitors, as were the participatory works of Clark and Oiticica. While the “Tropicália” show was as much cultural history as art show – (more of the posters for the great Brazilian B-movies Pape also worked on) – this show of Pape's work could have benefited from a little more of this kind of playing to the audience, and a lot more explanation.
* A good article from 2004 that considers Clark and Oiticica's work (not Pape's) is by Simone Osthoff, “Lygia Clark and Hélio Oiticica: A Legacy of Interactivity and Participation for a Telematic Future” (Leonardo online); at http://www.leonardo.info/isast/spec.projects/osthoff/osthoff.html. Osthoff struggles to wrestle the two Neoconcretists into precisely the territory I am complaining about (again, not Pape, because she doesn't fit).