ZA hundred years ago, Brazilian writer Oswald de Andrade made a memorable proposition about cultural appropriation and how to defend against it. In his “Anthropophagous Manifesto”, he advocates cannibalism as a method of self-assertion against colonial occupation: Eat what eats you! A threatened culture can in turn assimilate and digest the culture of its adversary, rather than simply rejecting it. The maxim found resonance, also among the painters of strict abstraction of Grupo Frente in Rio de Janeiro. This avant-garde front group was founded in 1954; its members Lygia Clark, Hélio Oiticica and Lygia Pape devoured models from the Dutch De Stijl movement around Piet Mondrian to post-war concretes like Max Bill in order to establish their own modernism. The retrospective of Lygia Pape at the Art Collection of North Rhine-Westphalia in Düsseldorf shows it well: it is the first monographic exhibition in Germany of the artist, born in 1927 and deceased in 2004, and which makes logically following previous exhibitions of abstract art on Carmen Herrera or Charlotte Posenenske.
She built a “Book of Time” with blocks
Certainly, concrete art was once more popular than it is today, and with it a canon of forms which, as has been touted for decades, stands only for itself, does not even mean that itself, that is, it appears completely autonomously. For Pape, geometric abstraction initially meant a rejection of figurative conservatism. Whatever the surprise and irritation that the pure form, with clear contours, often serial, reserves for the simple gaze, the autodidact underlined it in his first works by letting the image project itself in the room like a relief. with small blocks. The view does not rest on the surface, it fades into a subtle disorientation of the gaze. With the purity of the right angle and the colors red, yellow and blue, Mondrian wanted to banish chance from the image, that immeasurable that shapes our existence. Pape, for his part, set out to capture this contingency, as in 1961 in a colorful and shimmering “Book of Time” on a giant wall with 365 small reliefs representing the days of the year.
It’s worth a try, but the black-and-white woodcuts in which Pape designs twisting, sharp-edged structures are more compelling, even captivating. Not only does she print striped patterns on the rice paper, which inevitably recall the later and revolutionary “Black Paintings” of Frank Stella – Pape activates the grain of the printing block as a graphic element and thus in her own way the differentiation of the existence: that of the mirrored point and axis “Tecelares” (weavings) are the highlight of the exhibition. Later, Pape would stretch the lines of these sheets like silver threads in darkrooms and, theatrically and sacredly staged with spotlights, thus drawing neatly in space, forming virtual volumes – no doubt the eye-catcher in the arsenals of the 53rd Venice Biennale in 2009.
During the military putsch in Brazil in 1964, however, abstraction alone can no longer represent an adequate reaction. Lygia Pape decided to expand her repertoire – entirely in the spirit of contemporary art at the time – and came up with her own aesthetic solutions for different ideas. Discover the video and the performance to enter the public space. In 1967, on the beach of Barra de Tijuca in Rio, she allowed herself to be filmed escaping from a white cube, a “square egg” as she called it, perforating a membrane and symbolically being reborn. In the political galley, it reflects more nostalgia, but for her personally it also symbolizes the exit from neo-concretism and the white cube. She threads a large white cloth with circular cutouts over a group of children so that only their heads stick out – and creates an ambiguous image of innocence, friendliness, imprisonment, a powerful symbol of the social situation that the Pope also brings to life on the streets of Rio trample: realistic and abstract at the same time.
On the sidelines of the carnival, Pape films the junta mingling with the crowd. Aligns postcard motifs of the indigenous population, intended to give tourists an exotic touch; creates a sculptural monument to the Sandinistas in the new Arts Gallery, after they overthrew the Somoza dictatorship in Nicaragua in 1979: Pope calls the barricade made of plastic bags and rubber bullets, which is effectively lit from l inside by a red light , “eggs of wind”, there must be a little irony. After all, as an architecture professor, she visits the favelas with her students to discuss the wealth of invention that has proven successful here.
The exhibition describes an artistic life that apparently begins in an orthodox way, then gradually opens up and takes all the liberties that contemporary art opened up in the sixties to confront an aggressive reality. Means of abstraction are also good, as can be seen if they are intelligently thought out.
Lygia Pope. Everyone’s skin. North Rhine-Westphalia Art Collection, Düsseldorf; until July 17. Catalog (Verlag Hatje Cantz) in preparation.