The ‘Abandoned Art’ of Lygia Clark

Libby Dierker
Lygia Clark, Diálogo: óculos, 1968. Courtesy Associação Cultural “O Mundo de Lygia Clark,” Rio de Janeiro

If you’re a thrill-seeker yearning to feel something different, something new, something a little strange, Lygia Clark (1920-88) should be on your list of artists to know. Out-of-body experiences, heightened awareness and even hallucinations could be side effects of her pioneering art that’s on view until August 24 in Lygia Clark: The Abandonment of Art, 1948–1988 at the MoMA. Unlike other artists of the 1960s and 1970s who were sheltered under the umbrella term ‘Body Art’, Clark’s radical approach resulted in her alienation from the art community amidst accusations of ‘abandoning art’.  

Lygia Clark, Clark’s proposition Diálogo de mãos, 1966. Courtesy Associação Cultural “O Mundo de Lygia Clark,” Rio de Janeiro

Clark’s most iconic works comprise elaborate body attachments often resembling scuba masks, goggles, hazard suits and other medical paraphernalia. These attachments sometimes stand alone and sometimes force bizarre interactions between two or more people. In Máscara abismo com tapa-olhos (Abyssal mask with eye-patch, 1968), the viewer is expected to wear a bulky prosthesis over her head which creates the illusion of an awkwardly contorted or deformed “imagined body.” The setups in pieces like Diálogo: óculos (Dialogue: goggles, 1968) or  Diálogo de mãos (Dialogue of hands, 1966) could start a new wave of holistic blind dating.

Lygia Clark, Diálogo: óculos, 1968. Source unknown

Upturning interpersonal interactions of all scales, Clark also produced works for large groups of people. Estruturas vivas (Live Structures, 1969) and Rede de elásticos (Elastic Net, 1974) amplify awareness to the effects of weight and movement. Ten people, or even more, are physically attuned thanks to the tensioning and slackening of the artworks’ stretchy interwoven members. Judgment and understanding are thrown out the window and replaced by a visceral thrill, while the resulting landscape of webs and bodies makes for a provocative and photogenic landscape.

Lygia Clark, Clark’s proposition Estruturas vivas, 1969. Courtesy Associação Cultural “O Mundo de Lygia Clark,” Rio de Janeiro

Astounding and even entertaining perceptions are abundant in Clark’s work, but they aren’t stunts; her work is free of one-liner gimmicks. This may have to do with the years of careful personal exploration and study that went into the development of Clark’s early “relational propositions.” From the churning graphics of paintings like Planos em superfície modulada no. 2, versão 01 (Planes on modulated surface no. 2, version 01) to the spiralling metal in sculptures like “The Inside Is the Outside,” her early work is controlled and precise, foreshadowing her carefully calculated sensorial confusion. 

Lygia Clark, Planos em superfície modulada no. 2, versão 01, c. 1957 Photo credit: Eurides Lula Rodrigues Cardoso.

Connections can easily be made between the kaleidoscopic nature of her more conventional work, and the mind-bending qualities of her body art. But the obsession with rationalising the distinct locations between body and artwork often plagued Clark, as did the accusation that she had abandoned art. Her body art tapped into non-rational experience, which was what she was really after. It might be more accurate to say Clark embraced her craft by living with abandon rather than accusing her of abandoning anything, least of all art.

You've got 5 days left to catch Lygia Clark: The Abandonment of Art 1948-1988 at the MoMa, New York. 

Unconventional by Tradition

Discover how urban creatives helped us design our new packaging.

Read more