Lygia Clark. performance
Performance "Biological Architectures II" (1969). Photo by Alécio de Andrade/ ADAGP.

*By Yve-Alain Bois

O French curator and art historian Yve-Alain Bois, currently a professor at Princeton, in the United States, confesses in Some Latin Americans in Paris that Lygia Clark was one of her mentors, alongside the Mexican Mathias Goeritz. In this text, he recounts his first intense encounter with the Brazilian artist, when he was just 16 years old, in the bustling Paris of 1968.

The essay was prepared for the book being published by Cultural Pinakotheke on the occasion of the show Lygia Clark (1920-1988) 100 years, in its headquarters in Rio de Janeiro until October 9, 2021 and in São Paulo until January 15, 2022.

A arte!Brazilians publishes here a reduced version, even so quite ample, of these very affective impressions.


The following notes are unabashedly impressionistic—subjective, even—given that they are largely based on my recollections of early encounters with various Latin American artists in Paris. In short, this is not a grand synthesis – the time is not yet right for that, at least on my part – but something more like an autobiographical fragment. It was a time, in the late 1960s, when postcolonialism was still a nascent concept, although the issues it encompasses had already become pressing. The fact that so many geometric abstract artists from Latin America lived in Paris did not strike me as peculiar at the time, perhaps because I did not yet know that New York had “stolen the idea of ​​modern art”, to use Serge Guilbaut’s catchphrase. [1].


But enough of the generalities. Let's move now, as promised, into the autobiographical mode – not that I have any particular attraction to the genre, but because I simply cannot separate my thoughts on two artists and their particular “influence anxiety” from my personal interaction with them. One is Lygia Clark; the other is Mathias Goeritz. I met them long before my intellectual and artistic tastes were fully formed – indeed, they played an important role in my formation and especially in my awareness of modern art in Latin America. I have met many artists in my life, but only these two have worked for me as mentors. I met them both through a newspaper called Robho, published in Paris in the late 1960s (the title is an acronym; no one knows what it means). It was one of those little avant-garde magazines that quickly disappear, and it was edited by Jean Clay, a man who had considerable influence at the time as an art critic. Years later, Jean and I would start a much more serious and in-depth journal called Macula (this didn't last long either), but when I first crossed paths with Jean, I was a teenager.

Here's the full episode, presented as a period soap: it was 1967 and I was in the French equivalent of the tenth grade. I lived in the beautiful city of Toulouse in southwest France and went to Paris whenever I earned enough from my various small jobs to cover the train trip – students take a lot of short vacations in France. I'm not sure where this idea came from, but I wanted to become an artist and spent all my time dreaming about my next trip to Paris, where I would visit as many galleries and museums as possible. I stayed at my uncle and aunt's house, but they only saw me at dinner, after which I passed out, having been kicking around all day. Then there was a break in this routine: I was invited to a party at night, in celebration of the opening of an art gallery – the new Galerie Denise René branch on the Rive Gauche, Boulevard Saint Germain, to be exact, right next to the gallery of Alexandre Lolas (representatives of Magritte and Fontana) – and my uncle allowed me to go, as long as Jean Clay, whom he knew superficially, was there to accompany me. My uncle took me to the gallery while I crossed my fingers in the car: Jean greeted me and, as the youngest figure on the block, I was immediately welcomed by a whole illustrious roster of artists. Jean became my friend and I learned a lot from him (he also put me to work immediately: I sold dozens of editions of Robho at my provincial school). It was Jean who told me about Lygia Clark for the first time, showed me pictures of her work. He also gave me some of her texts to read, which he had translated, in preparation for a special profile of her in his publication (something that would not come out until late 1968). I was so intrigued by this work that I was moved to publish my first article – a short (and, as you can imagine, quite rudimentary) essay on Lygia, published in the March 1968 issue of a Huguenot weekly called Reform, since my father was a Protestant pastor. (I ask for your understanding for using only Lygia's first name from now on, as this familiar treatment, for someone I knew so well, comes more naturally to me).

The year 1968, remember, was a tumultuous year in France. High school kids were just as politically involved as college kids, and I believed, like everyone of my generation, that we were going to change the world. Of course, there was a lot of talk about the possibility of a “revolutionary art”, but thanks to the little I already knew about Lygia’s phenomenological conception of art, I could not accept the idea of ​​an engaged art that would leave the observer in a state of passive consumption. Political art, to be effective, had to allow for a different role; I knew that, but I didn't quite see where to go from there. My own attempts – some published later by Jean Clay in Robho with Lygia's totally undeserved encouragement – ​​did not satisfy me.

It was after the dramatic summer of 1968, just after Russia’s intervention in Czechoslovakia, that I met Lygia – in the apartment she had just acquired at the Cité des Arts, in a hideous building on the banks of the Seine, where the city of Paris hosts foreign artists. , in keeping with the pre-World War II French dream of a Paris world capital of art. She had just returned from the Venice Biennale, where she represented Brazil with a great retrospective of her work that ranged from her first works to her various Sensory masks e clothes-body-clothes, from 1967, as well as the large installation/environment the house is the body [2]. The studio was packed with boxes of all sizes, and Lygia was visibly depressed (in addition to having to process a retrospective, always a bit traumatic for a mid-career artist, she had been deeply disgusted by the Bienal hype. , had just learned of the death of her ex-husband). She agreed to see me thanks to the kind words of Jean Clay and Camargo, and because she knew I was in Paris just passing through and wouldn't bother her for long.

When she started showing me her things – letting me touch them, manipulate them, inhabit them under her guidance – I witnessed a kind of transfiguration. I literally watched her dark melancholy fade, and I always thought, in retrospect, that our friendship was sealed during that long afternoon: by pure chance, by being there at the right time, I helped her get rid of her depression.

First, there were a few things strewn about the tables – stones connected with little rubber bands tied together, one or two stones at each end. Lygia showed me how to use those precarious setups: you pull a pebble or a group of pebbles towards you and, at a given moment, always unpredictable, you will follow the mass at the other end of the rubber band, either with a jump, or moved by a spring, or creeping feebly like a snail. It was the interplay between different forces that moved her – her own traction, the extensibility of the rubber band and the weight of the stones – and the fact that the immeasurable act generated can only be perceived as a phenomenological metaphor for her body's relationship to others in the world. world.

So she started unpacking the boxes and handing me older stuff. One of the “objects” I remember most was his hand dialogue, from 1966, which she created with her soulmate, Hélio Oiticica. This work, or rather “proposition”, as she already called her works, consists of almost nothing, like many of her pieces – that is, it really is nothing if you don’t use it: materially, it consists of a small Moebius tape made of elastic medical gauze. Each of our right hands was wrapped around the Moebius tape in opposite directions, and when we brought our hands together or released them, we experienced the resistance of matter (for our gestures were restricted by the limited elasticity of the fabric). If the “dialogue” goes on long enough, the visual and tactile sensations seem to separate, reaching a moment when the impression arises that the hands are dancing alone, separated from the body. This moment can be extremely disturbing, almost hallucinogenic.

Lygia Clark "Bicho" (1960). Photo: Jaime Acioli.
“Bicho” (1960). Photo: Jaime Acioli.

At this point in my visit, Lygia began to recall the beginnings of the neo-concrete movement in Brazil, and the deliberate attack she had plotted with Oiticica (whom I would never meet) against geometric abstraction, a tradition in which both had formed. She revealed to me the importance of Max Bill to Brazilian art in the early 1950s, especially after his retrospective at the São Paulo Museum of Modern Art, in 1950, after which he received the international sculpture prize at the first São Paulo Bienal, in 1951: enthusiasts of Bill's “Concrete Art” (as he called his production, in which everything had to be planned by arithmetic calculations) suddenly flooded the tiny world of Brazilian art, until then quite resistant to modern art. She gently made me understand that her Dialogue from 1966, this little piece of bandage that didn't look like much actually represented the conclusion of a long battle against Bill's brand of art. For the Moebius ribbon had been one of the favorite geometric figures of the Swiss artist, who planted his image of polished granite in many sculpture gardens around the world. Bill made the Moebius ribbon an icon of the autonomy of the modernist art object; Lygia turned it into support for an experience that aims to abolish any idea of ​​defined and closed identity. In Dialogue, a “sculptural” object is no longer sacred as an autonomous and formally perfect piece, but the dialoguing and falsely symmetrical hands become, so to speak, autonomous performers.

As you can imagine, we talked a lot about abstract art that afternoon (mostly about Mondrian, my first love in art – and what she said to me then definitively ended my teenage reading of her art, standard at the time, as a kind of Neoplatonic hymn to the pure form). I learned a lot about Lygia's earlier involvement with geometric abstraction, enough to understand that it was her foreignness to the European tradition of abstract art that allowed her to creatively misinterpret it.


One of the propositions I remember most from that opening afternoon is stone and air (1966). She placed in my hand a small clear plastic bag that had just been blown up and sealed with a rubber band. It was hot with her breath (the plastic was too thin). She set a rock in one corner, which balanced precariously and sank into the corner of the bag. She hung there, almost fell, but the slightest change in the pressure of my hands sent her up again, like a fishing float. My feeling was that I was clumsily helping a very delicate animal to give birth (a feeling certainly reinforced by the fact that I had just performed on myself the “cesarean section” prescribed by one of the uncomfortable latex coveralls in your series. Clothes-body-clothes, Cesarean [1967]). The contrast between the nothingness of the support and the intensity of my perception when playing yo-yo/hide and seek (vaguely reenacting the famous Fort-da game described by Freud in his account of infantile sexuality), this gap between the simplicity of the gesture and the kind of generic memory of the body that the work awakened in me is something I have never forgotten. It is as if a pre-human body had been rescued from an archaic bank of sensations stored somewhere in the memory of my species, as if Lygia's work was opposing Darwin's evolution. There is the tactile aspect: the skin of the hand, redoubled by the plastic skin that shapes it, becomes a kind of autonomous organ. Then there is the dissonant visual aspect: the pretension/retention movement of the stone (which Lygia related specifically to the Structural Constellations by Albers), the inflating or deflating of the plastic bag, the pointed or curved corner – all this clearly referring to the sexual act, but without us being able, at any time, to assign a specific role (or gender) to any of the elements.

The following “proposal” I received was breathe with me, whose support is a simple rubber tube used by underwater divers to breathe. I quote Lygia here: “By joining the two ends of the tube – thus transformed into a circular ring – and by stretching it, we are destabilized by a suffocating breathing noise: in this way, the first time I heard that sigh, consciousness of my breathing left me obsessed due to an asphyxia that lasted for several hours” [3]. as you observe Guy Brett, we have “the sensation of taking out our own lung and working with it like any other object” – which can be terrifying or inspiring [4].

I didn't realize the frightening implications at the time. I was hooked, so to speak. Lygia became the most important part of my “support group” as a teenager, and I was with her on each of my trips to Paris during the following school year. So, after graduating from high school, I came to the United States as an exchange student for a year, and we began a correspondence that lasted until I came to live in Paris in the fall of 1971—when it stopped for the simple reason that I saw her almost every day until she returned to Brazil in 1976 (her psychoanalyst lived just a block from my tiny study room to begin with).

Performance "Biological Architectures II" (1969). Photo by Alécio de Andrade / ADAGP.
Performance “Biological Architectures II” (1969). Photo by Alécio de Andrade / ADAGP.

When I arrived in Paris, she had moved into a larger apartment/studio in an equally hideous building near Porte de Vanves – a meeting point for every Brazilian artist, singer or filmmaker passing through Paris (there were many, especially during the years of the military dictatorship). The musician and composer Caetano Veloso, at the time exiled in London, never failed to appear if he was on tour in the French capital (he celebrated one of his visits with a song – If You Hold a Stone - composed in honor of stone and air). 


[1] Serge Guilbaut, How New York Stole the Idea of ​​Modern Art: Abstract Expressionism, Freedom, and the Cold War (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983). As I recall, the French art world was completely oblivious to what was happening on the other side of the Atlantic – American art was virtually absent from the walls of galleries and museums. An exception such as the exhibition The Art of the Real, in which the French public discovered minimalism, was met with complete incomprehension. It is true that the timing was unfortunate, having occurred in November-December 1968, at the height of anti-US sentiment.
[2] The full title of this work is The house is the body. Penetration, ovulation, germination, expulsion.
[3] Lygia Clark, “L'art, c'est le corps”, in Proofs 13 (1973): 142.
[4] Guy Brett, “Lygia Clark: The Borderline Between Art and Life,” Third Text, issue 1 (Autumn 1987): 84.

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