Brazilian Painter, Sculptor, Installation and Participatory Artist
Belo Horizonte, Brazil
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Summary of Lygia Clark
Aspiring to break down the barriers between art and everyday life, Lygia Clark radically reimagined what art could be. By facilitating an engaged and embodied relationship between the art object and its audience, Clark's work anticipated the development of participatory art, and has influenced generations of artists pushing the boundaries of sculpture, performance, and art-as-pedagogy. Clark's early abstract canvases were supplanted by constructions that attempted to rupture the pictorial frame, challenging the separation between the artwork and its surrounding environment, and announcing a shift from the two- to three-dimensional plane. These were followed by increasingly organic or corporeal sculptural forms designed to be physically activated by viewer participation, and interactive 'relational objects' which were later incorporated into the therapeutic practice that Clark established in the final phase of her working life.
- Clark believed that art should be experienced not just with the eyes, but as a total bodily encounter. Through her pioneering efforts to arrive at a corporeal and 'organic' form Clark hoped to eliminate the perceived boundary between the artwork and the viewer's perceptual experience in relation to it. By positing the notion of the abstract painting as a 'quasi-body', Clark was able to imagine an interaction between viewer and artwork akin to a meeting of two bodies, thus emphasizing the viewer's embodied, sensorial and emotional response.
- Clark pioneered a shift from the art object as something intended to be merely looked at, to the art object as something that demanded to be touched and physically interacted with, effectively requiring the body of the beholder to create or complete the work. This engendered a conceptual shift from audience as passive viewers to audience as active participants.
- The body was central to Clark's practice, but instead of simply depicting corporeal experience, Clark invited the participant to feel it. The encounter with the art object was intended to give the participant a heightened sensory perception of their own form and its relationship with the surrounding environment. Clark's practice can be differentiated from the category of Body art, which typically implies a performance addressed to an audience; in contrast, Clark's work entails an essentially private psycho-sensory experience that takes place inside the participant.
- Clark saw her therapeutic practice as an 'abandonment of art', but recent accounts of her work have understood this not as a relinquishment of art in itself, but as a critique of art's institutional constraints, and as an embrace of the potential value of art as a social practice.
Biography of Lygia Clark
Lygia Clark was born Lygia Pimentel Lins to an upper-class family in the town of Belo Horizonte, Minas Gerais, Brazil. She was educated by nuns at the Sacre Coeur Catholic School, where she displayed an interest in drawing from an early age. Her childhood was one of small-town privilege mixed with bourgeois repression: her father was often violent and abusive, and Clark felt stifled by the limitations dictated by her traditional upbringing. As an adult, psychoanalysis would unleash many painful childhood memories, often centred on a feeling of not belonging that grew more pronounced with the onset of puberty; as she recalled, "I grew up feeling outside the family, trying every night to tear out my little clitoris, which I experienced as a sign of marginality." As this revelation suggests, Clark's gender and sense of sexual self-discovery would play an important part in shaping her ideas about art-making.
Important Art by Lygia Clark
Composition: Staircase is one of Clark's earliest works, completed while she was studying with the painter-turned-landscape-architect Roberto Burle Marx. It is part of a series of staircases painted around the same time; Clark believed that they were the only memorable works she produced while she was still a student. Its subject matter recalls two key works of European Modernism: Férnand Leger's drawing The Staircase (1913) - Clark would later study with Leger, and Marcel Duchamp's celebrated painting, Nude Descending the Staircase No. 2 (1912), which translates the moving human body into a set of linear picture planes. This second association in particular suggests Clark's early interest in the relationship between body and space.
The composition is effectively set in motion by the downwards movement of the eye, the spirals creating a whirling energy that suggests an opening up of time and space within the picture, as well as hinting at the potential of this gyratory force to spin free from its axis and rupture the surface of the painting. As curator and scholar Paulo Herkenhoff notes, "Clark's staircases are passageways, the ambivalent flux of going up and down. They shape the genesis of the dualities that will concern the artist in the future." The relationship between interior and exterior, recto and verso, were central to Clark's practice; more than a decade after painting these staircases, Clark would acknowledge that throughout her entire career she had been constantly searching for what she described as the 'empty-full' (vazio pleno), a term which suggests the metaphysical significance of the abyss-like interior space.
Discovery of the Organic Line recalls the work of Dutch abstract art pioneer Piet Mondrian, as well as that of Russian Constructivist El Lissitzky and Suprematist painter Kazimir Malevich. Mondrian co-founded the De Stijl movement, which in turn had a profound influence on the development of abstract art in Brazil in the form of Concretism and Neo-concretism. However, the Discovery of the Organic Line aims beyond mere geometric abstraction, marking the beginning of the artist's exploration of three-dimensional space and constituting a starting point for her ongoing efforts to situate her work in relation to human bodily experience.
The word 'organic' requires elucidation: Clark did not intend this term to refer to something resembling a biological form: her organic line is not sinuous, undulating or otherwise life-like. In her writings Clark refers to a number of other lines that she described as 'organic', including the functional lines of doorframes in an architectural space; this analogy can help us understand how the organic line in a painting was intended to function as an opening through which the viewer could approach the artwork. In the artist's own words, "I began with geometry, but I was looking for an organic space where one could enter the painting."
The Critters (sometimes translated as Beasts, or Animals) were produced between 1960 and 1963. The pieces are small enough to be held in two hands, and are made of flat aluminium circular and triangular sheets attached to each other by hinges. The works have no predetermined form: instead, the hinges allow them to assume a variety of three-dimensional configurations in response to handling by a viewer-participant. The artist envisaged a physical, mutually responsive interaction between art object and user; each Critter has the potential to react to manipulation in a multitude of unpredictable ways, forcing the user to adapt and respond in turn. Although this interaction is playful, it is not entirely without risk: one user described his experience of handling a Critter as akin to 'engaging in combat', and indeed, the artist did not think of these works as passively malleable toys, but as naughty, mischievous creatures capable of unexpected or unwanted reactions.
The Critters are groundbreaking in their rejection of the static qualities of sculpture. Unlike a traditional museum object, they are designed to be handled, with the meaning of the work ultimately residing not in the fixed form, but in the dynamic relationship between object and user. The activation of the work completes it; without handling the Critter remain inchoate and unfinished. The artist was extremely disappointed whenever a Critter was transferred from a public to a private collection, where it would generally be looked at but no longer touched.
As noted by Guy Brett, writing in Art in America, the Critters "are exactly poised between the cerebral schematism of geometry and the pulse of life." They mark both Clark's abandonment of painting, and her turn from geometric work to a corporeal and participatory practice.
Influences and Connections
Useful Resources on Lygia Clark
- Lygia Clark: The Abandonment of ArtEdited by Cornelia H. Butler and Luis Pérez-Oramas, with essays by Antonio Sergio Bessa and others / New York: The Museum of Modern Art, New York (2014) / 1948-1988
- The Experimental Exercise of Freedom: Lygia Clark, Gego, Mathias Goeritz, Helio Oiticica, And Mira SchendelEdited by Susan Martin and Alama Ruiz, with essays by Rina Carvajal and others / Los Angeles: The Museum of Contemporary Art / 1999
- Visualising Feeling: Affect and the Feminine Avant-GardeBy Susan Best / London: I.B. Tauris / 2011 / Chapter three "Participation, Affect and the Body: Lygia Clark" focusses on Clark's work
- Lygia Clark at MoMA review - playing cat's cradle at the edge of artBy Adrian Searle / May 29, 2014
- The Radical Brazilian Artist Who Abandoned ArtBy Tatiane Schilaro / August 11, 2014
- Lygia Clark: Nice to look at, lovely to holdBy Jason Farango / October 21, 2014
- What You Won't Find at MoMA's Lygia Clark Show: Lygia ClarkBy Ben Davis / July 10, 2014
- See Me. Feel Me. Maybe Drool on Me.By Roberta Smith / May 15, 2014
- Bicho by Lygia ClarkWalker Art Center curator Peter Eleey discusses Lygia Clark's Bicho and the Walker's exhibition The Quick and the Dead.
- Lygia Clark and her "Abandonment" in MoMACurator Luiz Pérez-Oramas elaborates the triptych axes of Clark's career that made her one of the most daring artists of the later 20th century.