Featuring nearly one-hundred woodblock prints hung across multiple galleries, “Lygia Pape: Tecelares” at the Art Institute of Chicago is as expansive as it is focused. Offering viewers the unique opportunity to examine in-depth the late Brazilian modernist’s 1950s engagement with printmaking, the show also hints at her later explorations in sculpture and film. Many of the serenely balanced, achromatic works in “Tecelares” are on display for the first time in sixty-five years.
Born in 1927, Pape rose to creative maturity during a time of political, social and economic upheaval in her native Brazil. After receiving a degree in philosophy, she turned to art and began study at the Museu de Arte Moderna do Rio de Janeiro, where she came into contact with like-minded artists Hélio Oiticica, Lygia Clark and Aloísio Carvão.
Led by teacher Ivan Serpa and informed by the approaches of Max Bill and Josef Albers, they collectively formed Grupo Frente, a loose association of artists who prioritized the formal values of geometric abstraction over the prevailing social realist style of artists like Candido Portinari. Pape’s “Tecelares” or “weavings” are an outgrowth of her association with the group and its later manifestation as the Neo-Concrete movement.
Printed by hand on Japanese mulberry paper, Pape’s images are spare and geometric, but not rigidly so. The works, which capitalize on the natural contours and grain of the wood (often only minimally incised by the artist) feel more analogous to the eccentricities of folk art than the mathematical strictures of European inspired modernism. Indeed, Pape’s notion that the works were a kind of weaving process did not arise until the 1970s, when she had abandoned print processes in favor of more politically oriented efforts.
Like much of the geometric abstraction of the time period, Pape’s works possess a highly decorative, graphic quality. And like many artists of the time period, Pape made lofty claims of magnetism and emotional relationships on behalf of the “Tecelares” that the more cynical among us will find hard to square with the work at hand.
Though unquestionably beautiful, the sheer volume of prints on display also tends to dull the impact of any individual work, blending into a singular mass of paper and ink. So when one encounters a boldly printed impression from 1957 that predates, but is uncannily similar to Frank Stella’s “The Marriage of Reason and Squalor, II,” the effect is rousing and rejuvenating—we see Modernism as the truly global phenomenon it was.
“Lygia Pape: Tecelares” is on view through June 5 at the Art Institute of Chicago, 111 South Michigan.