For more than three decades, Lygia Clark (b. Belo Horizonte, Brazil, 1920; d. Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, 1988) created works that proposed a radical reassessment of the role and function of art. Primarily working in painting, sculpture, performance and, later, psychoanalytical experiences, Clark intended to break down traditional ideas concerning the artist, artwork and viewer. Her pioneering practice questioned the relationship between art object and spectator, through corporeal and organic forms that encouraged physical encounters and sensorial experiences.
Clark's formal training began in Rio de Janeiro in the 1940s where she was taught by Roberto Burle Marx and Zélia Ferreira Salgado, key figures in Brazilian modernism. Her interest in European painting, particularly the work of Paul Klee and Piet Mondrian, led her to Paris (1950 - 1952) where she made her first oil paintings under the mentorship of Fernand Léger and Árpád Szenes. In 1954, following her return to Brazil, Clark joined the Grupo Frente which enabled her to associate and exhibit with other avant-garde artists, including Hélio Oiticica and Lygia Pape. By 1959, Clark had played a critical part in establishing Neo-Concretism. This movement had evolved from the prevailing trend of Concrete Art, which favoured precise, geometric forms detached from reality. The Neo-Concretists pursued a more personal form of abstraction, that allowed for sensuality, colour and expression.
During the 1950s, Clark continued to develop her intimate, geometric paintings but was already beginning to question the notion of space. Her preoccupation with creating a dynamic environment was first evident in a series of gouaches titled Planes in Modulated Surface (1954-58). In these intimate compositions, forms are placed together at various angles, emphasising the significance of the canvas as a structural component in itself. Clark also started to make architectural models of interior settings that looked like paintings to be entered, indicating her desire to rupture the two-dimensional surface. The artist's intricate series Estruturas de Caixas de Fósforos [Matchbox Structures], created a few years later, resemble models for imaginary modernist buildings. Describing her goals during this period, Clark reflected: "What I seek is to compose a space and not compose in it." The artist would cease painting by the end of the decade. This important transitional moment was marked in 1959 by an imaginary letter Clark wrote to Mondrian, whose consideration of space and structure had influenced Clark's own vision. "You are more alive today for me than all the people who understand me, up to a point."
By the early 1960s, Clark's interest to "find an organic space - places that open up to the viewer" resulted in a series of small metal and wood sculptures. Her Bichos, meaning 'critters', revealed hinged plates that could be manipulated into various arrangements. Reminiscent of insect-like creatures, these were the artist's first wholly participatory works, intended to be realised through physical interaction. "It is a living organism," Clark wrote. "What happens is a body-to-body between two living entities."
In 1963, the artist created Caminhando, a breakthrough work that led Clark from the art object to what she called a "proposition" - an art work, or "act", that would be conceived through action and process - in this case, cutting a twisted cylindrical strip of paper with a pair of scissors. "From there on I attribute an absolute importance to the immanent act carried out by the participant … It allows choice, the unpredictable, and the transformation of a virtuality into a concrete event."
Clark's practice would eventually conclude with her abandoning art altogether. Questioning the purpose of conventional works of art, Clark spent the 1970s developing collective activities and ritualised interactions that relied on others, after being invited to teach a course on gestural communication at the Sorbonne, Paris, in 1972. Upon her return to Rio de Janeiro in 1976, Clark devised her own method, termed Estruturacao do Self (Structuring of the Self). Informed by items such as plastic bags and balls, these therapeutic tools were used for evolving her artistic processes. This final episode in the artist's career signals how vital the human body was to her practice overall, and underlines Clark's belief in the value of art as social practice.
Clark's work is held in museum collections including Centre Pompidou Musée National d'Art Moderne, Paris; Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, Madrid; Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Texas; Museum of Modern Art, New York; MAM Museu de Arte Moderna, Rio de Janeiro; Museu de Arte Moderna de São Paulo, Brazil; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, California; and Tate Modern, London.
An important survey, Lygia Clark: Painting as an Experimental Field, 1948 - 1958, opened at Guggenheim Museum Bilbao in March 2020. In 2014, the Museum of Modern Art mounted the first comprehensive exhibition in North America of the artist's work, Lygia Clark: The Abandonment of Art, 1948-1988. The gallery has represented Lygia Clark since 2010.