Lygia Clark - Biography and Legacy
Brazilian Painter, Sculptor, Installation and Participatory Artist
Belo Horizonte, Brazil
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Biography of Lygia Clark
Childhood and Early Life
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.
At the age of eighteen she married Aluízio Clark Ribeiro, a civil engineer, and moved with him to the then-capital, Rio de Janeiro. By the age of twenty-five Clark was a mother of three: Elizabeth (1941), Álvaro (1943), and Eduardo (1945); her experience of maternity would later help to inform important works such as The House is the Body (A Casa é o Corpo, 1968), a participatory installation that was exhibited to critical acclaim in the Brazilian Pavilion at the 1968 Venice Biennale.
Early Training and Work
Between 1947 and 1949, Clarke studied under the painter and landscape architect Roberto Burle Marx, an important figure in Latin American Modernism, and painter and sculptor Zélia Salgado in Rio de Janeiro. Her fascination with the European avant-garde led her to Paris, where she and her children lived between 1950-51, allowing Clark to pursue her training under the tutelage of the abstract painters Árpad Szenes, Isaac Dobrinsky, and Fernand Léger. On her return to Brazil, Clark was given her first solo exhibition and awarded a prestigious prize for best new artist of the year. With professional success came personal difficulties as her marriage broke down, leading to divorce in 1953. The separation would ultimately allow her to pursue her chosen career: as her son Eduardo observed, "My mother was born rich, married a rich man, and, upon her separation, received 86 apartments, which she sold off one by one to support her work."
The 1950s in Brazil were marked by an intense optimism, derived from the economic prosperity and political stability enjoyed under the presidency of Juscelino Kubitschek (1956-61). Rio de Janeiro was an exhilarating place to be: the strains of Bossa Nova were in the air, daring experiments in modernist architecture were being realized, and visual artists were adapting Constructivism to create something inexorably Brazilian - the Concrete and Neo-concrete movements. Clark's early abstract compositions are definitive examples of visual art produced at this time.
In 1954, she joined the Grupo Frente, an artists' collective led by Ivan Serpa and which included Lygia Pape and Helio Oiticica among its members; Oiticica became Clark's life-long friend. The group initially embraced the ideals of Concrete art (which emphasized geometrical abstraction), but by 1959, Clark and Oiticica had joined their names to the signatories on the Manifesto Neo-concreta, which criticized the overly dogmatic approach of some Concrete artists, and called for a Concrete art with greater sensuality, color and feeling. The Neo-concretists were influenced by the phenomenology of French thinker Maurice Merleau-Ponty, who had pioneered a subjective, embodied approach to philosophical investigation. Around this time, Clark was starting to adopt a similarly corporeal and sensorial approach to her work, which had started to break with the orthodox Modernist canon as her paintings developed from two-dimensional abstractions to three-dimensional structures such as Breaking the frame (Quebra da mouldura, 1954), and participatory objects such as the Critters (Bichos, 1960-63).
By the mid 1960s, Clark's work was fully corporeal, participatory, and performative, with no trace of her earlier geometric abstraction. She was now an internationally celebrated artist, with a string of critically acclaimed exhibitions, including a major solo show in London in 1965, and the opportunity to represent Brazil at the Venice Biennale in 1968, where Clark presented a participatory installation simulating the experience of gestation and birth, The House is the Body: Penetration, Ovulation, Germination, Expulsion (A Casa é o Corpo: Penetração, Ovulação, Germinação e Expulsão, 1968). This deeply Freudian work exemplifies Clark's desire to arrive at a spatial and psychological understanding of the body, and to facilitate this process of exploration for her participants.
In 1964 a coup in Brazil established a repressive military regime that would last until 1984. After the passing of a decree which suspended many constitutional rights, Clark, like many other artists, writers and intellectuals, moved to Europe, arriving in Paris in 1968 to find a city deeply affected by the student uprisings of earlier that year. Clark's highly embodied, participatory work of this period is often understood as a response to the tense political situation in Brazil, as well as to the recent unrest in Paris.
Her work during this period was echoed in the development of broader creative movements, such as the Brazilian Tropicália movement, an optimistic anti-authoritarian project that brought together visual artists like Clark and Oiticica, with musicians such as Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil, and filmmakers such as Neville de Almeida. Internationally, Clark's interest in the participatory environment resonated with the emergence of early forms of performance art such as Allan Kaprow's Happenings in the United States, although Clark did not consider her practice to be performative as such. The art historian Yves Alan Bois, a lifelong friend of Clark's, recalls a conversation between the artist and a museum curator who had made the mistake of comparing her work to Body art and Happenings. The curator received "a torrent of furious abuse: her work had nothing to do with any performance whatsoever nor with the offering on a platter, for the secondary benefit of a voyeur, of her fantasies and her impulses".
In 1972 Clark was invited to teach a course on gestural communication at the Sorbonne, enabling her to shift from individual practice to collaborative group activities, exploring collective sensorial experiences with large classes of students. She became increasingly critical of art institutions, particularly museums, and began to think of her work in terms of an abandonment of traditional art-making. Her writing from this time suggests that she experienced a series of psychological and sexual crises, and during this period she underwent psychoanalysis with Pierre Fédida (a former student of Gilles Deleuze), terminating treatment in 1974 in favor of a new alternative therapeutic regime.
Clark returned to Rio de Janeiro in 1976, where she established a practice as a therapist and healer, treating individual patients at her home. These sessions involved the application of self-designed props or relational objects (objetos relacionais) to her patients' bodies. She called her therapeutic method Estruturação do Self (Structuring of the Self), and by the early 1980s was training psychologists, artists, and therapists in its application. Clark's therapeutic methods are still in use today, practiced by her former colleague Lula Wanderley at a clinic housed within the psychiatric ward of the hospital the Instituto Municipal de Assistência a Saúde Nise da Silveira in Rio de Janeiro.
Brazil in 1976 was a very different place to the radical cultural environment that Clark had left in 1968. A new government-sponsored cultural programme prioritizing entertainment for the masses has replaced the atmosphere of experimentation and dialogue that had shaped the art scene in the 1950s and 1960s. Several key cultural figures were dead, among them the former leader of the Grupo Frente Ivan Serpa (d.1973). Clark's close friend Hélio Oiticica (seventeen years younger than Clark) died suddenly of a stroke in 1980. These final years were particularly difficult for Clark: she was struggling financially and emotionally, and her health was deteriorating, exacerbated by heavy drinking. In 1988, Clark suffered a fatal heart attack and died in her apartment in Copacabana.
The Legacy of Lygia Clark
The scholar and curator Guy Brett has remarked that "her work did not borrow existing concepts of art ... on the contrary, she transformed notions of art and the artist." By breaking down the barriers between art and life, Clark challenged received ideas about what art could or should be. Accordingly, she is a major reference point for contemporary artists dealing with the limits of conventional forms of art.
Clark's influence has been both global and local; as noted by the artist Carlito Carvalhosa, "her legacy is everywhere". In particular she has inspired a generation of Latin American artists. Her fascination with dichotomies and dualisms informs the work of artists such as Doris Salcedo and Marta Minujin, while her interest in the active spectator has been important for Ernesto Neto. Clark's utopian and political use of the body resonates in the work of artists Jeanine Oleson, Emily Royson, and choreographer Jérôme Bell.