22 April 2018


Judith Lauand, Concreto 61/Concrete 61, 1957. The Museum of Modern Art (promised gift of Patricia Phelps de Cisneros). © Judith Lauand..

This revolution in form (and politics) manifested itself in the displacement of attention from the pictorial plane – painting as a container and object of contemplation – to the edge of the canvas and beyond.

– Mónica Amor, Theories of the Nonobject: Argentina, Brazil, Venezuela, 1944–1969

“Devo is about that clean face of the future,” explained the group’s guiding philosopher Gerald Casale in the early 1980s when he talked about the need to get rid of “the self-destructive characteristics of beliefs that are no longer applicable or humane in the world situation” and to replace them with some new traditions: “We picked the happy astronaut as a symbol. An astronaut keeps his troubles behind him.” In 1935, shortly after his return to Montevideo after tens of years in the company of the fizzy historical avant-garde in Europe, the Uruguayan artist Joaquín Torres-García published his manifesto illustrated with a map of South America turned on its ear. It was as if he was emptying a whole continent’s garbage can of political and artistic entropy and flabby beliefs. Out went the prospect of a grimly uncertain future.

As Mónica Amor argues in Theories of the Nonobject, “These semantic negotiations speak to a crisis of mediums and representations that stimulated a series of aesthetic investigations by artists in Argentina, Brazil, and Venezuela – investigations that departed from the trajectories of Soviet Constructivists and European geometric abstract art that influenced the cultural landscapes of those countries in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s. At that time and in those places, myriad international references – Kazimir Malevich’s Suprematism, Soviet Constructivism, Bauhaus, Parisian Concrete art, Swiss Concrete art, and the work of such artists such as Alexander Calder and Max Bill – shaped the efforts of South American artists to negotiate local cultural realities and construct an avant-garde practice based on the pure forms of geometry.”

That’s right, the pure forms of geometry. In the forth issue of their Purist magazine L’Esprit Nouveau in 1920, Le Corbusier and Amédée Ozenfant summoned “for an art free of conventions which will utilise plastic constants and address itself above all to the universal properties”, concluding that “The highest delectation of the human mind is the perception of order, and the greatest human satisfaction is the feeling of collaboration or participation in this order.” Ten years later, Theo van Doesburg’s “Concrete Art Manifesto” devised this new term for the art world in his single-issue magazine Art Concret, in which he declared that it was time to endorse “concrete and not abstract painting because nothing is more concrete, more real than a line, a colour, a surface” – everything else was disregarded as “illusionistic, vague and speculative”.

These painters, designers and architects were in many respects the early explorers of space, with a variety of ideas that decades later started to converge in the minds of a new avant-garde of bright young artists who were working in various fields of applied arts in Latin America – specifically in Brazil, Venezuela and Argentina – in the midst of World War II. Enormous energy was poured into this grand inquiring call to order.

The meat of the matter for these radical social theorists was a quest for certainty by way of a concretisation of thought and a scientific perception of space. In her book on Hélio Oiticica (Folding the Frame), Irene Small explains how this art – “As opposed to being ‘abstracted’ from the world” – “was self-referential and nonrepresentational – a ‘concrete’ reality in and of itself. Compositions were meant to operate according to an internal rather than illustrative logic.” Nonetheless, the acuity and coherence of these methodically derived compositions were positively aimed to resound without delay in the notional (“universal”) mind of the viewer.

“In my case, this period of anguish began in 1943 and lasted for several years. My reflections and anxieties at the time revolved around that very urgent need we felt to enter history so that we might be saved from oblivion.” This is the voice of Carlos Cruz-Diez in Ariel Jiménez’s conversation book about this Venezuelan artist who after the war moved to Paris to join Los Disidentes (The Dissidents) in order to catch up with the modern world (and to experience works of art in more vivid forms than in scarce art books in black and white), and from there surge into the future: 

“Anyone with even the slightest historical consciousness, who is able to gauge the immense inequalities in our country, cannot help but be pained by them. Dissatisfaction with the present inevitably awakens a desire for change and, among some of us, a desire to contribute through our work to help make that change possible. It makes perfect sense, then, that at the close of one of the longest dictatorships in Venezuelan history [in 1935], that of Juan Vicente Gómez, young Venezuelans would feel a need to transform the reality they had known.”

Matilda Olof-Ors talks about Mid-Century Latin American Concretism as a time when much of the inspiration traversed and vanquished all sorts of borders, confines, frontiers, verges. Concrete Matters, her wonderfully originative and most exquisitely effectuated show at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm, is made of star stuff. “When you face the show, the artworks may at first glance look quite similar,” she explains. “However, behind these idioms there are different agendas. There are artists who used this concrete language to shape a mathematical reality. And there are others who more acquired a spiritual perspective, approaching this on the basis of discernment and perception. What is also interesting to see is how many artists saw this as an idiom whereby they would formulate their ideas about how to transform the world with fairly related political agendas.”

Concrete Matters is designed in association with architect Albert France-Lanord and the show is like a better-arranged universe. “What we talked a lot about were practical issues because many works are quite small,” says Olof-Ors, “so I wanted an architecture that both creates intimate meetings between the works but where there is also an openness. We also talked a lot regarding this thing about movement, the visitors’ movement in terms of experiencing the works. We were talking about shapes of course, about the importance of colour. When he came back with a suggestion, one of the overall thoughts was also to slightly modify the shape of the room. It is basically a very straight square and through this solution he wanted to make a more rectangular shape and find a rhythm and a way to stage the works. And I noticed that the works did not have to be displayed on the same wall to be seen together.”

The curator was not the innate Hispanist that one would assume when this curious opportunity landed on her desk at the Moderna. “It is always the same names that are taught at universities and institutions, and that you often meet in museums, so a closer look at names and places that we have not done before is extraordinary satisfying. I also had several blind spots in regard to this material.” There are twenty-six artists in the show and some eighty pieces (mostly paintings) of concrete greatness, predominantly from the Colección Patricia Phelps de Cisneros that kept the works for Stockholm before they will be permanently domesticated at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. “And I can only congratulate the MoMA, really,” smiles Matilda Olof-Ors with infallible mirth in her voice.

Patricia Phelps de Cisneros, according to Olof-Ors, “has always worked to change the image of Latin American art. Donating is a step in this work, and that is very effective of course if you want to widen or nuance the historiography. She is an incredible art lover, she feels for these works. She collected in the 1970s, 80s and 90s, and I think the first artist she started with was [Jesús Rafael] Soto because they are both from Venezuela.” Last year señora Phelps de Cisneros expressed that, “I think we can say that Latin America has finally arrived at its rightful place in global art history.” Inversely, what this reassessment of Concrete art with its true beauty and powerful deep resonances evocates is an urgent need to enter history where this movement once revolved.

In Mapping Latin America: A Cartographic Reader, Jennifer Jolly writes about the conviction to start afresh in the New World in her chapter on Joaquín Torres-García: “Exploring pre-Columbian art in Paris’s museums, he realised that the basis of art’s order and structure did not have to stem from ancient Greek classicism, but had precedents in ancient American art forms. Such archaic traditions provided formal structure and symbolic content and evoked a time when art provided a ritualistic social unity […] Thus when Torres-García returned to Uruguay, he had already began a process of intellectual inversion, rethinking traditional and avant-garde European ideals, even before reacquainting himself with his homeland.”

The earliest piece in the Concrete Matters show – Locomotora con casa constructiva/Locomotive with Constructive House (1934) – is by this Uruguayan artist who disfigured the European paragon of Neo-Plasticism – straight black grids filled with primary colours on crisp white grounds – with slack rectangles and muffled colours in accordance with his concept of “Constructive Universalism” in which the global permeates the local and the local permeates the global.

“We have two works by Torres-García, who lived in Paris and knew Mondrian and Theo van Doesburg, and was in that context, but at the same time chose not to completely embrace it but made it his own. It is also exciting how he after forty years abroad, working with Gaudí in Barcelona, returned to Montevideo and started an art school and attempted to enforce this combination of the new with the native culture. He had a spiritual attitude towards the form that the new artists in Argentina did not have. It is interesting how close they are in some aspects, but so incredibly far in others,” says Olof-Ors – and adds, “He was the person who many could oppose.”

Torres-García’s Escuela del Sur (School of the South) – mind the inverted South American map with Uruguay sunny side up – and “the second renaissance” of his art journal Círculo y Cuadrado, a great remainder of his thrilling European history and the short-lived Cercle et Carré (Circle and Square) group that he cofounded in Paris in the late 1920s, and other related matters made him a figure of wide-ranging influence for a younger generation of artists in the Rio de la Plata.

“One of the most sweeping of the several implications arising from the destruction of conventional modes of representation was the idea that painting should be an absolute entity with no relation to the objects of the visible world, and that it should be composed of completely abstract forms whose origins were in the mind,” writes Hershel Chipp in Theories of Modern Art about Cubism, this angular ism that sprouted in the first decade of the 1900s. “Art constructed according to this ideal, having avoided all taint of the material world, and being free of any personal influence of the individual artists, would be completely autonomous and obedient only to universal laws. Because of this belief art was often considered as a sort of idealist model for the harmonious relations which were believed ultimately possible for both individuals and for all of society.”

The problem for many of his students was that Torres-García’s embryonic art looked liked ironed Cubism drizzled with sensuousness and emotion, and that it was rooted in the past. The Latin American vanguard wanted only colour, line and space – the pure elements of painting, the clean face of the future.

The Argentinian wall (facing Torres-García’s two oil paintings) begins with a Dadaesque and two-and-a-half dimensional rendering of a “Mondrian” by Juan Alberto Molenberg, Compsición/Composition (1946), one of the rare pieces in the show that utilises the Dutch painter’s palette of colours. This wall displays the irregular shapes of these playful and highly beautiful works from the Madí and AACI groups in Buenos Aires that pursued the dictum of Rhod Rothfuss’s manifesto “The Frame: A Problem in Contemporary Art” – published in the scanty yet very important one-issue journal Arturo in April 1944 – which stated that “the edge of the canvas is made to play an active role in plastic creation. It is a role it should always play. A painting should be something that begins and ends in itself. Without interruption.” These artists adopted the anatomy of European geometric abstraction while turning its principled hegemony on its ear. In addition, out went the legacy of the rectangular illusionistic “window” for a framework of rationality and intellect.

Matilda Olof-Ors affectionately calls the Argentinian works “hardboiled” and remarks that, “Many of these artists were members of the Communist Party and it certainly looked like this art was also a way of propagating the Marxist message. They believed that representational art did not coincide with their political interest because it rather created a passive viewer. They wanted to put the viewer in connection to the direct objects.”

That was also the overall thesis when eighteen artists of the Asociación Arte Concreto-Invención movement signed the “Inventionist Manifesto” in March 1946 – that Concrete art “acquaints humans with things rather than with the fiction of things”: “The age of representational fiction in art has come to an end. Man is less and less sensitive to illusory images. That is to say, he is progressing in his sense of integration in the world. The old phantasmagorias no longer satisfy the aesthetic appetite of the new man, formed in a reality that demands of him his total presence, without reservations.”

Tomás Maldonado was the most drastic advocate of Concrete art’s union with revolutionary tactics in Argentina (he was too radical for the Communist Party which ousted him in 1948) and he argued that, “The biggest lacks in nonrepresentational art were caused by its failure to achieve either new composition or the definitive removal of the illusory. Thus we began by breaking with the traditional format of the painting.” His painting Desarrollo de un triángulo/Development of a triangle (1949) is the only “Russian” piece in the show. It is great but also, ironically, anachronistic.

“For the artists and critics of this generation, Concrete art was far more than a formal style – it provided the road map to the new materials and techniques that would populate the future. With newfound access to technical education, Concrete artists were exposed to new working methodologies and gained critical thinking skills that ultimately allowed them to re-evaluate many of the long-held conventions that governed their approach to fine art. In the modern economy, manual labour was no longer prized; instead innovation came to be rewarded,” informs Aleca Le Blanc in the catalogue to Making Art Concrete at the Getty Center (fifteen of the works in Concrete Matters came directly from Los Angeles) about their endeavours to modernise Argentina and Brazil. “Artists were quick to engage with the effort and took active roles in shaping its direction as architects, designers, and educators […] They were now the generators of new ideas and systems, optimistic about their process of research and development, with the imagined ends of making their modern cities appealing and efficient places to live and work.”

What we have to understand, however, is that Concrete art flourished and perished under the thumb of Juan Perón’s despicable presidency 1946–55, which he modelled on a miscellany of tyrants. Maldonado published his “Present and Future of Concrete Art” manifesto in 1951: “Despite all its efforts, today Concrete art fails to surmount the obstacles which prevent it from having a wider, more generous influence; but no doubt, its more deeply hidden vocation, almost its raison d’être, is to succeed in acting on very wide sectors someday, to become a public art, open to millions of men. We can say, in fact, that the true meaning of Concrete art lies in what it may become, rather than in what it is at present.”

Maldonado realised the magazine Nueva Visión: Revista de cultura visual in Buenos Aires (which had a better longevity than similar publications), and became a teacher of design and theory at the new Ulm School in southern Germany, cofounded by Inger Aicher-Scholl (sister to Sophie Scholl who was guillotined by the Nazis in 1943) and the versatile Swiss artist Max Bill who was an impressively important figure of inspiration for the Latin American Concretists. Max Bill is the crucial “foreign” name in Concrete Matters with his gorgeously “synthetic” oil painting 1–8 in vier Gruppen/1–8 in Four Groups (1955–63).

The Independent Salon in Buenos Aires showed propaganda paintings of Peronist working class heroes. The Concrete artists routinely encountered hatred from all areas of society: “Today people who are failures, who have anxieties over the future, who desire an easy posterity, without study, without talent and without morals, have found a refuge in abstract art. This morbid, perverse, and infamous art has progressively led to the utter degradation of art. It reveals the visual, intellectual and moral aberration of a group, fortunately small, of misfits,” expressed the Minister of Education in a public speech in 1949, just twelve years after the Entartete Kunst exhibition in Munich. “Morbid art, abstract art, does not fit in; there is no place for it in our young and blossoming country. It is not in line with Peronist doctrine, which is a doctrine of love, perfection and altruism that has heavenly ambitions for the people.”

Venezuelan Concrete art began with a capital rejection. “‘NO’ is the tradition we want to establish,” spurred the members of Los Disidentes in their 1950 manifesto. “We came [to Paris] to confront problems, to struggle with them, to learn to call things by their names, and for this reason we cannot remain indifferent faced with the climate of falsity that is the cultural reality of Venezuela.” Apart from the rather unoriginal graphic design of the Concrete Matters catalogue (which is following a template that has been the norm in Sweden since the early 1990s), it is a classic and helpful publication based on these groups’ magniloquent manifestos.

“It is a way to listen to the voices of the artists,” hints the curator. “And also because the works on so many levels appear to be so similar – but then you read the texts and you understand that there were artists who really did not like each other’s ideas, and that was something I wanted to emphasise. It is really here that they puff their chests and declare to us what they want to do. The manifestos were such an important entry to the period and it is great to have them translated, and some are actually presented for the first time.”

“The texts are so incredibly different,” she continues. “Some are quite clear both in tone and what they want to convey, some are pretty abstruse. But I thought that they were very rewarding to read as well, because here it somehow becomes audaciously obvious that here is where the age of the descriptive image is facing its end. And it is also exciting with this discrepancy that sometimes their bombastic words do not correspond to what they will actually achieve in their art. It is evident how young some of them are, and how they want to attain distinction in their current time, and that in itself is something that is super exciting.”

Military conspirators gave rise to eighty victorious coups d’état in Latin America between 1920 and 1966. Venezuela – with more petroleum than Saudi Arabia and all the monetary prerequisites for a swift and pleasant modernisation of the country – looked very promising for a few years after the end of World War II, only to be overthrown again by a new band of sanguinary generals who restored the status quo.

It really comes as no surprise that young Venezuelans utilised these purist ideas of arithmetical computations and the certitudes of geometry to locate the radio waves of the mind and to block out the emotive forces of our animal nature. “In Venezuela, the non-figurative idiom was attacked in a different way,” explains Matilda Olof-Ors. “There was a greater interest in perception, for our perception. What happens when we physically encounter a work of art – how does colour occur, how does movement occur?” We are the motor in this array of kinetic art.

Soto’s stripy, layered and serenely energetic optical pieces, like the Kinetic Box (1955), must be strolled to take effect in the mind. (The paintings of Cézanne and the Cubists were his first love in art.) Soto returned to Venezuela in 1952 together with Cruz-Diez and Alejandro Otero when the architect Carlos Raúl Villanueva asked them to join the league of great modernists who were creating the public art for the magnificently utopian Ciudad Universitaria de Caracas (1940–60). Otero’s three Mid-Century Modern gouaches in the show are like delicious little hors-d’œuvres. They swirl like waves in space and solely follow their own individual arranging principles.

Otero moved to Paris as soon as the World War II was over. And as for the rest of the Concrete artists who thought they worshipped Mondrian until they saw his works for real, Otero went to the Netherlands only to discover how handcrafted and (relatively) imperfect they looked compared to the reproductions. The tall Tablón de Pampatar/Pampatar Board (1954) is an “improved”, corrected or deconstructed “Mondrian” of rhythmical narrow stripes of red, blue and yellow, and black and white, which appear to move upwards-downwards and sideways, more to do with computerised movements than a boogie-woogie on Broadway.

Geometric abstraction, in an atmosphere of less opinionated perfectionism than abroad in Paris, was discussed, created and exhibited at home in Caracas where artists gathered around the Taller Libre de Arte. “We don’t paint faces, we invent things,” they stated in the catalogue to the first effort to show Concrete art in Venezuela in October 1948. “We are very keen on colour and are seduced by geometry. We also try to be sincere about the truth of the plane and the space.” The Open Air Studios was backed by the junta’s Ministry of Education, how was that possible? This fascination for the system of geometry seemed to pass as a fairly auspicious endeavour, innocuous as the children’s activities in Spanish director Victor Erice’s mysteriously subversive masterpiece The Sprit of the Beehive (1973), which totally went over the heads of Franco’s little helpers.

The last work in the Concrete Matters timeline is Gego’s Esfera/Sphere from 1976, a pulpy three-dimensional body of syncretised, unsymmetrical wires suspended over a flat podium. “It is as if the technical engineer in Gego was at odds with the architect-artisan, each one constantly trying to undo the other,” suggests Mari Carmen Ramírez in Questioning the Line: Gego in Context. Gertrud Louise Goldschmidt was a Hamburg professional whose life was rendered worthless after the Night of Broken Glass.

“It is very exciting to examine these physical movements of people who for various reasons had to flee from Europe, like Gego for instance. She was an architect in Germany but ended up in Venezuela, a country where she didn’t speak the language or had any contacts but eventually came to work as an artist. And you also think of the world situation today where there are still, regrettably, people on the run every day,” says Olof-Ors.

The purview of Gego’s works in the show – from the planar ink drawing of her skeletal nets to the galactic Sphere – is like a three-piece evolution chart of the course that Concrete art took in the next country, where the Museo de Arte Moderno turns Museu de Arte Moderna. In Abstraction in Reverse: The Reconfigured Spectator in Mid-20th-Century Latin American Art, Alexander Alberro notes how “the colonial history of Brazil – a narrative defined by transplantation – facilitated the revolutionary desire to create something new in a territory that, lacking any trace of ancient civilisation, provided modernism’s ideal tabula rasa: a place of endless new beginnings”.

But as Mónica Amor argues in her book, these artists responded “to a crisis of representation in general and not just a crisis of pictorial representation” – “they employed strategies that emphasised the wall, the exhibition space, the urban environment, spectatorship and subjectivity, and public address. These stratagems were executed under the aegis of Constructivism and Concrete art, but they were often manifested in crisis and displaced the tenets and forms associated with these artistic legacies.” Brazilian Concrete art originated from an understanding of national identity and universal inclusiveness, invention and vicissitude, aided by the steady squabbles between the contrasting groups Ruptura in São Paulo and the much more samba-minded Frente in Rio de Janeiro.

“In the mid-50s, the artists in Rio and São Paulo were in the same shows, but eventually a schism arose between them,” says Matilda Olof-Ors. “In São Paulo, it was considered that the artists in Rio had a far too experimental approach to the concrete idiom and had misunderstood the whole thing with Concrete art. And mutually, in Rio they thought it was the other way around, that the artists in São Paulo had misunderstood everything. It was rather a focus on colour than the black and white on the other wall. The artists in Rio introduced a more subjective gesture and an entirely experimental approach.”

“Ruptura embraced a little of the same thoughts that Max Bill had worked on in how this geometric, concrete idiom can be used to mathematically shape an idea where the artwork is rather the result of something that already has been thought out. A good example of this is the black and white painting by Geraldo de Barros [Função diagonal/Diagonal Function (1952)], based on a principle where the framework really defines the entire shape of the piece. It is first divided into its midpoint and draws a new square in between which is then divided into its centre, and so on and so on. Another example is Waldemar Cordeiro, born in Italy, who also ended up in Brazil. He was very interested in the golden ratio, in the logarithmic spiral. [Idéia visivel/Visible Idea (1956)] is also a work where the principle has already been devised and the work becomes a formation of that principle.”

(László Moholy-Nagy was the artist who – in the 1920s, during his Professor years at the Bauhaus in Weimar and Dessau – initiated this rationalising method of having a principle established in advance that would altogether shape what would come out in the end: he used to telephone his instructions in codes to a sign painter who would then produce these exact works of art for him.)

The two MAM institutions in Brazil’s largest cities were both established in 1948. The one in São Paulo was built by the industrialist Ciccillo Matarazzo who also presented the first Bienal de São Paulo in the fall of 1951, a truly international event with works from nineteen countries. Matarazzo engaged the Belgian art critic Léon Degand in that same international vein as the Founding Director of MAM-SP. The first thing Degand curated there was a show called From Figurative Art to Abstract Art which charted art’s forwardness in history, from the bottom of the painterly illustrative to the highest achievements in geometric abstraction.

Grupo Ruptura was formed by seven artists in 1952 while they were participating in a show at the MAM-SP. “The only female artist who was in Ruptura was Judith Lauand, there are three works in the exhibition, and she was also engaged in gestalt psychology – how the work is perceived as a perceptual whole, even though the lines are divided – and brought motion into the works,” says Olof-Ors. Lauand’s Concreto 61/Concrete 61 (1957) is a highly graphical piece – alkyd on hardboard as the Brazilians liked it – of twenty straight black lines of various sizes in an agitated symmetry which creates a propeller-like effect that ripples through space.

Grupo Frente was formed in Rio de Janeiro in 1954. The manifesto (if one can call it that) was written the following year by the group’s ideologue Mário Pedrosa whose personal belief was that art must show the public how “to fully exercise their senses and to shape their own emotions”. Olof-Ors mentions Pedrosa’s “ability to bring together people, but also conduct an art-critical discussion and highlight different art historical and philosophical reasoning that were very important for the way this art developed”. There is a great, untitled work from 1954 by Ivan Serpa in the show. Serpa was teaching young people how to paint at MAM Rio’s Ateliê Livre – a project that had been initiated by the museum’s forward-thinking Founding Director Niomar Moniz Sondré – where many in this group met for the first time. One of them was Aluísio Carvão. His painting Construção 8/Construction 8 (1955) emits a ciphered message of small rectangular bits that whisper until they reach the mind of the viewer. It is the most beautiful thing.

The members of Grupo Frente were attacking spatiality in different ways, whatever it took to break up the flatness of the surface. Matilda Olof-Ors talks about Lygia Clark’s painting on plywood, Planos em superficie modulada/Planes on a Modulated Surface (1956), one of the curator’s many favourites: “Above all, this is the painting where she physically attacks the framework and manages it in such a way that the boundary between the work and the space around it is blurred, and how she developed her idea about what a line may be – that it is not a character that you always need to apply to a surface, but a line can also occur between two colour fields that are joined, where interstices can also be a line. All her reasoning which later resulted in the rejection of the flat surface – that it was merely an illusion,” explains Olof-Ors. “Lygia Clark literally aggressed the frame, but in a different way than the artists did in Argentina. She simply painted over the frame, and in some way it is also here where the boundary between the artwork and the surrounding space is defined, and she further continued to literally erase the boundary between art and life which became more and more disintegrated.”

Aleca Le Blanc writes in the Getty catalogue how “Many Concrete artists took advantage of symmetry, doubling or mirroring their forms in their paintings.” One such example is a gouache from Hélio Oiticica’s series Metasquema/Metascheme (1957) in which wide ink lines form geometrical diagrams of repetitions and deviations, void of both personal stuff and the spurs of intuition. Looking at these works today is like listening to Kraftwerk’s music before the development of MIDI technology in the early 1980s, when there was always still an underlying Mensch to be sensed in their concept of the Man-Machine. Saul Bass’s title sequence to The Man with the Golden Arm (1955) with the protruding white rectangles against a black fond was four years later mirrored in reverse in Oiticica’s Pintura 9/Painting 9.

Irene Small expresses in Hélio Oiticica: Folding the Frame that “In Brazil in the late 1950s and early 1960s, some works of art were folded things. They displayed physical folds: pleats that drew space between them, creating inner cavities and hidden clefts, or bends that pressed flat planes into three-dimensional figures, cutting through space and organising form against it. But their folded character was virtual as well: a free-floating notch seemingly displaced from a plane, a temporal twisting, a hinge between work and world.” One such work is Oiticica’s untitled and hovering piece from 1959 that is both a painting and a sculpture, or perhaps none of it.

Lygia Clark’s rubber sculpture Estudio para obra mole/Study for Soft Work (1956) and her origamic Bicho, Radar/Creature, Radar (1960) sculpture of hinged aluminium triangles are two pieces that have made a way through this space. “Bichos are meant to be interactive meetings with the person who is playing with the pieces, and there is no front and back, no upside down, right or wrong way to arrange it. It is the living organism she lifts into an art form that is not referring to a world around. I had to put on my gloves and shape and it was great fun,” reveals Olof-Ors.

“However, Book of Creation is unrivalled, I think,” she continues. “I am very happy to have had the possibility to lend Lygia Pape’s fantastic artwork from the Museum of Modern Art in New York. It is a work that she created in 1959, just in the process of signing ‘The Neo-Concrete Manifesto’, and this, similar to Lygia Clark’s Bicho sculpture, was a work that was created to be interacted with. There is some sort of loosely consistent narrative about Creation in which we ourselves are creating. There is a loose narrative that she sometimes also featured on signs, about how it was at first the water and the water retreated. So this can also be read as a story of human development with incredibly simple means. It is weird that we cannot touch them, but we have been able to present a film where we see the artist interact with them.” Livro da criação is a pop-up book of sixteen gouache-on-cardboard “pages” – from the blue water to the bright yellow sun – based on the equations of Concrete art, and it is every bit as superb as Matilda Olof-Ors describes it.

“Modernist buildings were erected as emblems of a new era and artists were involved in the formation and definition of public space,” writes Ira Candela in her book on Lygia Pape (A Multitude of Forms). “The construction of the city of Brasilia between 1956 and 1960 epitomised the reimagining of Brazil and President Juscelino Kubitschek’s promise of ‘fifty years of progress in five’. Yet the promise was short-lived, and the risk of the invention of history materialised in the country’s regression after the coup d’état of 1964.” Pape was carried off by force by three men with machineguns in 1973, “Little bird in the cage,” they triumphed. She was incarcerated for three months. She was tortured. She was an artist.

“Art cannot be merely illustrations of a priori concepts,” argued the poet and critic Ferreira Gullar in “The Neo-Concrete Manifesto”, published on March 22, 1959 in the arts and culture supplement of the Rio de Janeiro daily Jornal do Brasil. “Such statements might lead one to believe that Neo-Concrete artists want to shun objectivity and lose themselves in subjective chaos. But in fact, we seek a kind of deeper objectivity resulting from the intimate integration of material with mankind’s feeling and mind.” As the principal ideologue for the Neo-Concretists in Rio, Gullar imparted what was wrong with the theoretical Concretists – how they spoke “to the machine-eye and not to the body-eye”. And the “body-eye” was the Neo-Concretists’ new thing, along with reception theory and a return to the wisdom of artists such as Mondrian and Malevich.

“While Gullar and the Neo-Concrete artists were empiric in their rejection of theory as a referential horizon – they objected specifically to Concrete art’s reliance on references imported from mathematics and science and its correspondence with systematic compositional methods (seriality, permutations, gestalt) – their attraction to philosophy, especially the phenomenology of the French phenomenological philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty, was undeniable,” explains Mónica Amor in Theories of the Nonobject (a term she purposely picked up from Gullar).

Alexander Alberro mentions In Abstraction in Reverse that “philosopher Theodor Adorno argued that critical theory functions like ‘bottles thrown into the sea’ for future readers, whose identities cannot be known”. One such bottle has reached the Stockholm Galaxy in our time. Concrete Matters is like a happy astronaut from the past, with a belief in inquiring and affirmation that might also carry the rest of us through.

Lygia Pape, Pintura/Painting, 1954–56. Courtesy Projeto Lygia Pape and Hauser & Wirth. © Projeto Lygia Pape.

Concrete Matters at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm through May 13, 2018.