Lygia Pape is easily one of the three most important Brazilian artists of the 20th century. Being Latin American, her work has been largely overlooked, but Pape is arguably one of THE important 20th century artists from anywhere.
Lygia Pape is one of the mothers of performance art, and the political nature of her work gives her special relevance to our time.
“Lygia Pape: A Multitude of Forms” at the Met Breuer March 21 – July 23, 2017 is the first retrospective of the artist’s work in the United States.
Exhibitions like this take several years to put together. You have to give credit to the Met and Latin American Art Curator Iria Candela for calling this exhibition into life at the perfect moment in history. Great art is like that. Artists are always ahead of the society in which they live.
“Jeitinho” is the Brazilian way of making something from nothing – and getting things done even when you can’t. It’s the cleverness that is required to live when you are poor, or when the commercial and political institutions in your society fail.
Jeito Brasileiro is not only part of the Brazilian character. Most Latin countries suffer from the failure of their political institutions. Today our own country is suffering the same failures. That gives Pape’s work special relevance to us in this time.
The Brazilian Context
Even though Pape’s work has universal relevance, she is essentially Brazilian. To understand her work, it helps to have some background on Brazilian culture.
Before World War II, Brazil was a backwater. The 1930s were the glory years of Rio de Janeiro. It was a beautiful, unspoiled playground for the rich and famous.
Brazil went through a post-war boom that changed the country tremendously. It started the process of urbanization in a huge, very rural country. In a country that suffers from post-colonial social stratification, there was hope that everyone would benefit.
Somehow the concrete architecture that came with that has entered the Brazilian psyche. You see the influence of Brazilian architecture in both art, film, interior design, and even fashion.
Perhaps architecture’s influence comes from the optimism of the time, and the later failure of hope. There was a belief that architectural design could create a utopian future. But in a way, it only created an abstraction of life. It replaced the rich diversity of the jungle or the street with bare concrete walls.
You see it in Brasilia, the Brazilian capital built from scratch in the middle of nowhere that looks like a sci-fi movie set. By the way, Oscar Niemeyer, the chief architect of Brasilia, also co-designed the United Nations.
The post-war boom benefited many Brazilians, but left most outside the system, left outside in a way that is unimaginable for an American of the U.S.
For example, you need an education to get a job, but you need papers to get an education, but you were born in the jungle so you don’t have papers, but to get papers you need money, but to get money you need a job.
Jeitinho is the only way to survive.
Another important context is the deep social stratification left over from colonial power structures that advantaged light-skinned Brazilians with a European heritage and excluded people of color. Brazil is the Blackest country outside of Africa. It’s a big deal.
The imbalance is huge. I can’t give you an academic number, but it’s something on the order of 20% of Brazilians live inside society and 80% live outside.
Brazilians sought to rebalance society through socialist ideas. At the height of the Cold War we were looking for Communists under the bed so we helped topple the Brazilian government in 1964.
Ideological pursuits are Quixotian tasks that bring out the worst in the pursuer.
Brazil lived through a military dictatorship from 1964 to 1985. Openly complaining could make you die or disappear into a jail system where Inquisition-style sadism was updated with the latest technology.
During this time artists began speaking in code, a code that everybody understood, but that didn’t directly criticize the government. Even so, many had to flee the country.
Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso are giants of Brazilian popular music who went through the cycle of speaking in code in their music, being put in jail, and then leaving the country.
Global Youth Revolution
1968 was a year when the energy of the world’s youth reached critical mass and exploded. There was serious civil unrest and the stirrings of social change in the United States, France, Czechoslovakia, México, and also Brazil.
In the last thirty years, Brazil has been making progress. There was great optimism until the financial crisis of 2016.
Looking at Brazilian post-war history, you can’t help but see echoes of the Brazilian experience in what’s happening in the United States today. We are experiencing a failing government that wants to build up the military.
Brazil has a rich history of Indigenous art, but modern Brazilian art goes back to the Rococo style brought by the Portuguese. Rococo is way over the top, super-ornate, religious decoration. Even though it is very conservative, it’s religious ecstacy on drugs. It’s Carnaval.
One hundred years ago, Constructivism came out of Russia. The clean lines of Constructivism influenced graphic design. But it was also abstract art with a social purpose. From this we get Bauhaus and Le Corbusier, the Swiss-French architect who was a major influence on modern architecture and co-designer with Niemeyer of the United Nations.
A major legacy of Le Corusier is the cold suburban style of concrete architecture for cars that killed the humanity of street life. Think New York projects and Brazilian concrete architecture. It makes beautiful architectural models, but is horrible to live in.
In the 1930s, close to the end of the Modern period, Concrete Art rose in Europe. It’s abstraction with no reference to natural forms. It’s geometric and very architectural. It’s art for art’s sake.
Concrete Art came to Rio de Janeiro in the 1950s through Grupo Frente, an artist collective which included Lygia Pape, Lygia Clark, and Helio Oiticica. Concrete Art is the opposite of Rococo, but it doesn’t really fit the Brazilian character.
Pape, Clark, and Oiticica evolved their thinking into the Neo-Concrete Movement. Neo-Concrete art involves the viewer. Like all Latins, Brazilians are very social people, a society of groups, not of individuals. We don’t want to just look at art, we want to participate. And we want our friends and family to participate too. Let’s do art – together. We don’t want to just see art, we want to be art. We are not shy.
The Neo-Concrete artists humanized abstraction. True to their Concrete roots, they didn’t mirror natural forms, but they brought abstraction into the lives of the people.
From here Pape, Clark, and Oiticica went in slightly different directions.
Pape used her art to make political statements. Other artists left Brazil, but Pape stayed. She even went to prison for a while. Pape experimented with experiences. That made her a mother of performance art. They didn’t it that because “performance art” is a New York term, but Pape was right there at the beginning of time.
Clark used her art for therapy. She even left the art world to become a therapist.
Oiticica embraced the excluded underclass.
All three artists involved people. We don’t do things alone. And we are very tactile. We want to touch it, and feel it, and hear it, smell it. We want to taste the art.
Lygia Pape in New York City
The Met is reenacting Pape’s Divisor (Divider) on Saturday, March 25, 2017 from 11am – 12pm.
The performance is an early form of social media, Brazilian style. It cannot exist without people. The white picture plane broken by the heads of participants seems to say that what divides us can also unite us. The possibilities invited by the white canvas are up to us. The reennactment will walk from the Met Fifth Avenue to the Met Breuer. Join it and become part of art history.
A Multitude of Forms
The exhibition walks you through the arc of Pape’s always expanding thinking about what art is. It begins in Pape’s Concrete period when she translated Constructivist geometric abstractions in familiar planes, but with a Brazilian eye.
The exhibition ends with Pape’s Neoconcretist ideas that made her art experiental and took it out of the picture plane. Pape is really one of the mother’s of performance art.
During the year’s of Brazil’s dictatorship (1964 to 1985), Pape was one of the voices who critiqued what was happening through the indirect language of art. Unlike many other artists, she stayed in Brazil.
The exhibition shows a surprisingly broad range of experimentation that is threaded together by the primary forms and colors of Constructivism. Pape’s playfulness is essentially Brazilian.
It has to be said that the Met Breuer is the perfect venue for a Lygia Pape exhibition. The building itself, designed by Bauhaus-trained architect Marcel Breuer, is a modernist statement.
One leaves the show with the realization that our Euro-centric point of view caused us to overlook, until now, really strong and important work being done in the Americas.
Pape and other artists in her framework rejected elitist ideas of art. They believed that art was for everyone and should connect people together.
Their point of view begs the question of what we as Americans should be doing now to protect and preserve our democracy.
The main image is courtesy of the Met.
Lygia Pape (Brazilian, 1927–2004)
Performance at Museu de Arte Moderna, Rio de Janeiro, 1990
Photo by Paula Pape
© Projeto Lygia Pape
For more information, visit www.MetMuseum.org