From The Field: Lygia Pape & The Neo-Concrete Movement
Exploring the familiar and the foreign in neo-concrete art.
For our site visit this month, we were finally able to take advantage of loosened restrictions and head to one of our beloved Los Angeles institutions, Hauser + Wirth. A quiet Sunday morning trip allowed us to view the work by the late Brazilian artist, Lygia Pape, in ideal solitude. In natural order, the ability to see her work at such a scale allowed us the space to think and to wonder what inspired such a wholly authentic approach to spatial understanding. Her work felt familiar to us in a way that spoke our architectural language but was expansive and daring in such a new format. It was both immensely expressive in its storytelling and somehow pragmatic in its construction. At times we felt dwarfed not just by the sheer size of the pieces in the galleries but by the deep and immense ties to stories that felt equally as great.
Our research on Lygia Pape and the context of her work has revealed to us why we felt these things. While deeply committed to telling the stories of the indigenous people of her home country, Pape came into herself as an artist during a time of pure experimentation. She, along with artist Lygia Clark, led a movement known as neo-concrete, distinguishing itself from that of the more widespread South American concrete movement. The neo-concretes sought to reject any form of art that relied on the rational. What emerged in its place was highly conceptual, with artwork serving the purpose of human expression, and interaction with the viewer emphasized not as a form of rational communication but as an attempt to access something more metaphysical or symbolic.
In her 1960 piece, “Death of A Plane”, Lygia Clark writes,
“The plane is a concept created by man with a practical objective in mind: to satisfy his need for balance. By arbitrarily marking limits in space, the plane offers man an entirely false and rational idea of his own reality… We (the Neo-concretes) have swallowed the shards of this shattered rectangle and absorbed it… We have submerged ourselves in the totality of the cosmos; vulnerable on all sides, we form part of that cosmos; high and low, right and left; in short, good and evil: all concepts that are transformed”
This limitless approach to space comes through Lygia Pape’s artwork in the gallery. While there are finite borders that exist for practical reasons, Pape's usage of light and shadow offer an experience that shifts your perception of what exists in actuality and what could exist in concept. Her monumental piece, Tteia 1C houses a series of long silver threads within an enclosed dark area. This static arrangement of metal is illuminated light in such a way as to make the metal appear infinite, expanding and contracting as you move around the piece. In a both mesmerizing and frustrating way, one can never see the piece in its entirety. But this is perhaps the exact point. There is not one plane or surface sufficient for the existence of this artwork. You must move around it to see its full effect. Though constructed simply of cleverly placed wires and light, it becomes greater than the sum of its parts, perfectly unconfined.
The images here are of our own visit to the exhibition at Hauser + Wirth in April 2021. These are supplemented by scans from a book titled “Concrete Matters”, published by Moderna Museet in Sweden in collaboration with the Collection Patricia Phelps de Cisneros in 2018.