When thinking of Brazilian artists of the 20th century it’s difficult to overlook Lygia Clark – a woman who embodied the notion of modernism, dismantled expectations for female artists and was at the nucleus of one of Brazil’s most persuasive art movements, Neo-Concreto.
Lygia Clark was born in the year 1920, in the metropolitan city of Belo Horizonte, Brazil, which she called home until relocating to Rio de Janeiro in 1947 to study under celebrated landscape architect and artist, Roberto Burle Marx.
Her early works are reflective of Burle Marx’s influence and Clark’s interest in psychoanalytic theory – a passion that grew whilst studying in Paris in 1950 to 1952 – with warm hues and geometric formations decorating the canvas optimistically.
Following her time in Paris, Lygia Clark moved back to Rio de Janeiro where she became acquainted with the artists that would form the influential coalition, ‘Grupo Frente’.
Grupo Frente was a small coalition of artists, led by geometric expressionist artist Ivan Serpa. The coalition consisted of artists from a manifold of disciplines; Hélio Oiticia produced mostly monochromatic and sometimes naïf paintings, Lygia Pape devised 2D sculptures and engraved formations, while Lygia Clark erected convoluted sculptures – however, no artists worked in an exclusive or singular manner.
The coalition was at the nucleus of the illustrious Neo-Concreto, an art movement that rejected the strict, rationalist approach to anti-figuration created by the former Concrete Art movement, a faction that had flourished under the country’s former repressive regimes – geometric abstraction and non-figurative expression was free of political message or meaning, and so the authorities had no qualms about its production or promotion.
The Concrete Art Movement was built upon a notion of rationalism. It theorised that Concrete Art was free of meaning and the restraints of what is observed in reality, expressing in the Manifesto of Concrete Art that,
‘the art must be entirely conceived and shaped by the mind before its execution. It shall not receive anything of nature’s or sensuality’s or sentimentality’s formal data. We want to exclude lyricism, drama, symbolism, and so on.
The painting must be entirely built up with purely plastic elements, namely surfaces and colours. A pictorial element does not have any meaning beyond “itself”; as a consequence, a painting does not have any meaning other than “itself”.
The construction of a painting, as well as that of its elements, must be simple and visually controllable.’
‘Grupo Frente’ explored abstract forms with a fervour parallel to that of the artists of the Concrete Art Movement but with prerogative, flexibility, and individuality. The ‘Grupo Frente’ wanted poeticism and fluidity to inform their works. They didn’t shy away from imbuing pieces with meaning and political conversation, unlike the former Concrete Art Movement, who were obligated to do so by the political climate of which they worked in to rebuff diplomacy.
As ‘Grupo Frente’ matured, ideas, motifs, and notions that were common within the varied works of the artists in the coalition were reinforced and the group established a new art movement, which they named ‘Neo-Concreto’.
In 1959 Brazilian writer and poet Ferreira Gullar wrote the Theory of the Non-Object, which philosophised the movement and the Neo-Concreto Manifesto, which was signed by artists Theon Spanudis, Lygia Pape, Amilcar de Castro, Lygia Clark, Franz Weissmann, Reynaldo Jardim and Gullar himself. Like the Concrete Art Movement’s manifesto, the Neo-Concreto’s outlined the principals of their art movement. It stated that,
‘We use the term “neo-concrete” to differentiate ourselves from those committed to non-figurative “geometric” art (neoplasticism, constructivism, suprematism, Ulm School) and in particular the kind of concrete art that is influenced by dangerously extreme rationalism.’
The manifesto continued on, exploring the intentions and influences of the movement. It was published in the Journal do Brazil on the 22nd March 1959, solidly certifying the movement created by a small group of eclectic Carioca artists into the art establishment. At a time when European and North American artists were questioning the notion of ‘modern art’, the Brazilian artists of the Neo-Concreto Movement were embracing ‘modern art’ and trailblazing a refreshing, avant-garde inclination of fine art practice that stepped outside of the confinements of previous modern art movements whilst maintaining a sense of considered integrity, making the Neo-Concreto Movement one of the 20th-centuries’ most influential.
Lygia Clark’s monochrome paintings and kinetic metal sculptures were unlike the sculptural works of her predecessors, in some cases systematic and symmetrical, in others organic and naïve.
As the Neo-Concreto Movement progressed it further ruptured the Concrete Art notion, with its artists embracing physical language and experience through divergent practices such as performative and spatial art. The Neo-Concreto artists approached art in a similar manner to subjective and figurative painters, minus either the canvas, paint or subject that a traditionalist would require. Instead, Neo-Concreto artists looked to audience participation, in, interaction and involvement; allowing the viewer or engager to become the subject of the conceptual pieces.
Lygia Clark’s well-documented pieces Máscara Abismo (Abyss Mask), Sensorial Masks and Dialogue Goggles are apt examples of how performance art pieces can transcend the duration of the performance itself, living on as a piece of art both visually and conceptually.
The work of Lygia Clark and the Neo-Concreto Movement still holds ascendancy over contemporary artists, not exclusively in Brazil but also internationally. New York-based Alice Quaresma and Rio-based Fernanda Gomes both cite the movement as an influence on their practice, and so, qualities of an art movement that was unhindered by politics and societal expectations continue to subsist in present-day art realms.