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Lygia Pape: A Multitude of Forms

Lygia Pape, Ttéia 1C, 2001-16

A Multitude of Forms recently opened at the Met Breuer in New York. It unfolds like a story and clearly shows the evolution of Brazilian artist Lygia Pape as she explored the theme of abstraction. OK, but if it’s abstract art then what is the story??

Without trying to make it too complicated, let’s rewind back to Kazimir Malevich and Piet Mondrian.

In 1915, Malevich came up with his Black Square, or total abstraction. A bit of a struggle to come up with a story (although you’d be surprised, if you tried!).

In 1930, Piet Mondrian had by then established his abstract style whereby he organised pure colors, lines and basic forms on the flat surface of the canvas so that they seemed to recess in or project out, creating a sense of space beyond the canvas and in front of the viewer.

Piet Mondrian, Composition 1: Lozenge with Four Lines, 1930, Guggenheim Museum, NYC.

Try to focus on Composition 1: Lozenge with Four Lines for a few seconds and you’ll see that Mondrian achieved a 3D effect on a 2D medium without using any relief as his paint application remains thin. With the use of the square and circle, Mondrian was entering his Abstraction-Création phase.

All very good then: geometric forms and primary colors provide a visual experience formally challenging the medium. Yet, take this to the 1950’s in politically repressive Brazil and you get Lygia Pape. Here, you get a sense that she has a lot more to say (or scream about) as an artist. Except she couldn’t do so in any openly visual reference because of the surrounding political climate.

Lygia Pape, A Multitude of Forms, Met Breuer, NYC

Building on Forms. She started exploring forms and playing with relief. Gone is the limitation of the canvas, she’s part of new form of abstraction called Concrete Art. Adding elements of shapes and varying colored edges, Lygia Pape seems to initiate a move, even a dialogue, towards the viewer’s space. How black is her square?

No addition, no subtraction yet a multitude of forms. It’s her evolution towards the Neo-Concretism movement she founded that delivers her most striking artworks. It’s as if she decided to “milk” shapes out of forms, highlighting their relationship as parts to a whole until it becomes clear she’s expressing a socially-oriented commentary through her artistic vision.

In Book of Day and Night (1963-1976), she restricts herself to squares and explores the infinite expressions of forms while mainly keeping to visual abstraction.

Lygia Pape, Book of Night and Day, 1963-1976.

These squares are all whole even if they don’t look this way. The bits you think are missing are actually on top of the residual larger shape. They are permutations of squares with bits cut out and reassembled. No addition and no omission yet they all look different.

Are these parts cut and reattached like badges of honour, emotional baggage? The unsaid? The unsayable? With a climate of censorship and torture, suddenly geometric forms and abstraction sound a lot like people’s lives, don’t you think?

We are whole, all there, simply different and rearranged at times, reinvented, morphed from square to something taking on a bit of relief, even some elevation as we venture on a small grid-like world.

Clearly Lygia Pape wanted her abstract forms to become more expressive so she added temporality in Book of Time. One permutation of a square for each day of the year: a multitude of forms for a life well-lived despite any imposed constraints such as the square, only 5 colors or…a world gone mad.

Lygia Pape, Book of Time, 1961-63

Have we left abstraction by now? Not really. Pape’s evolution of forms gets accelerated rhythm in Divisor, where the social commentary is at its loudest.

Lygia Pape, Divisor

A large white sheet enacts the social body: it’s the square (the original canvas) with limits individuals can’t escape or go past. No freedom. Beneath the sheet, the group moves as one collective will but not always in an organized fashion.

Lygia Pape, Divisor and Book of Paths (1963-76)

Individuals may go in different directions until pulled back by the group (the undulating sheet…or is it governance surveillance?). Individual movements are still noticeable as are the individual expressions of the faces poking through the slits. Participation of the “parts” is key to keep the “whole” together.

And then comes Ttéia 1C. Still the same theme of “parts versus whole” but revisited with light. Made of gold threads running as shafts fixed from floor to ceiling, light is always there, even if at times you can’t see it. You just have to move around it to make it appear or change perspective to make it disappear.

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In Ttéia 1C, ethereal abstract art turns philosophy of life. The forms are still pure and whole, nothing has evaporated: you simply can’t see it all so you have to choose your focus on what’s fitting, bearable or aesthetic while knowing the whole is rooted in who you are.

Lygia Pape: A Multitude of Forms is on view at the Met Breuer from March 21 until July 23, 2017.

© 2017 Ingrid Westlake

All pictures by Ingrid Westlake, unless otherwise stated.

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