Exhibit of the week
Lygia Pape: A Multitude of Forms
Met Breuer, New York City, through July 23
Even in a time of repression and censorship, Lygia Pape could do just about anything, said The New Yorker. The Brazilian artist (1927– 2004) “worked in every medium—or so it seems in this wonderful, overdue retrospective.” Her output included paintings, woodcut prints, movable sculptures, film, room-size installations, and participatory experiments, all charting a path from Europeanstyle hard-edge abstraction to freewheeling, “anything-goes independence.” And when in the 1960s Brazil fell under a dictatorship that enforced censorship and tortured dissidents, Pape’s work became playfully subversive, emphasizing the irrepressibility of people power. Her first solo museum show in the United States, arriving 13 years after her death, finally lets Americans appreciate the full range of her achievements.
Pape’s early work conveys “the buoyant mood of a nation on the move,” said Jason Farago in The New York Times. Born outside Rio de Janeiro to a middle-class family, she came of age as the overthrow of Brazilian strongman Getúlio Vargas was ushering in a new age of democracy and cultural vitality. Her prints and reliefs from the 1950s arrange colorful squares and stripes into compositions whose formalism reflects a faith in modernization. But then she co-founded Brazil’s neo-concretist movement in the late 1950s, and her art became more mystical. In Book of Creation, she presented key events in prehistory in a series of square boards whose simple triangles and discs could be manipulated by the viewer. In Book of Time, completed in 1963, she turned the 365 days of the year into a calendar of hieroglyphs. Her signature work arrived four years later, as a response to the military junta that took over Brazil in 1964. For Divisor, Pape coaxed giggling children from a Rio favela to poke their heads through the slits in a massive white sheet, creating one large living, breathing, moving organism that evoked both the people’s power and the government’s limits on their freedom. Footage of the 1967 performance stands at the heart of this retrospective and offers a model for effective political art.
Unfortunately, the latest re-enactment didn’t generate the same power, said Elisa Wouk Almino in Hyperallergic.com. Last month, I was one of the 225 people who gathered on New York’s Madison Avenue to stage Divisor once more. But we were allowed only one traffic lane for our short march, so only 60 of us could fit as police and museum staff guided our progress. This was a disappointment: “We were supposed to take over the street, not be dictated by its laws.” Still, we did become a single organism, each part adapting to the others’ tugs and pulls, and I left with a heightened awareness of my relationship to my surroundings, and of my right to be there. “This is what Pape’s work reminds us of and, when fully experienced, enables.” ■