At Large  June 20, 2022  Cynthia Close

Neo-Concretism: the short-lived but influential art movement

Wikiart. © Lygia Clark.

Lygia Clark, Máscaras sensoriais, 1967.

The ground of art history is littered with manifestoes. Those documents, often written by art critics, poets, and artist-philosophers, explain the underlying motivations of a coalition of creatives and help identify who is “in” and who is “out” of the group.

Kröller-Müller Museum, Netherlands.

Piet Mondrian, Tableau no. 1, 1913.

In retrospect, these declarations often run parallel with the politics of a particular place and time. They are also usually a revolt against some earlier manifestation made by a different, if tangentially related, group of artists. Such is the case of the Neo-Concrete Movement.

The Brazilian poet, essayist, and art critic Ferreira Gullar is credited with writing the original Neo-Concrete Manifesto. It was also Gullar who first identified a need to react against the rigidity and cool rationalism of geometric abstraction that arose in Europe after WWI.

In 1930, the Dutch artist and leader of De Stijl Theo van Doesburg coined the term, Concrete Art. Riding on a wave of post-war euphoria, in thrall to science and industry, artists like Netherlandish painter Piet Mondrian, Russian constructivist El Lisitski, and Ukrainian-Russian supremacist Kazimir Malevich all practiced the art of reduction.

As a group, they made art without reference to nature. It was Malevich who brought the art of elimination to its logical extreme in Black (1915), his oil painting of a square, and in his slightly more complicated painting of two squares in White on White (1918).

MoMA. 1935 Acquisition confirmed in 1999 by agreement with the Estate of Kazimir Malevich and made possible with funds from the Mrs. John Hay Whitney Bequest (by exchange).

Kazimir Malevich, Suprematist Composition: White on White, 1918.

During the brief period between 1959 and 1961, Gullar and his contemporaries preached a less scientific approach to art. In his 1959 essay Theory of the Non-Object, and in his later publication the Neo-Concrete Manifesto, Gullar outlines what Neo-Concrete art should be:

“We use the term ‘neo-concrete’ to differentiate ourselves from those committed to non-figurative ‘geometric’ art (neo-plasticize, constructivism, suprematism, Ulm School) and in particular the kind of concrete art that is influenced by a dangerously extreme rationalism… We propose a reinterpretation of neo-plasticize, constructivism, and other similar movements, basing ourselves on their expressive successes… Neo-concrete art creates a new expressive space.”

This declaration was made public simultaneously with the First Neo-Concrete Exhibition held in Rio de Janeiro. The artist participants, Amilcar de Castro, Franz Weissman, Lygia Clark, Lygia Pape, along with poets Reynaldo Jardin, Theon Saudis, and Gullar, were all signers of the manifesto.

Wikimedia Commons. Brazilian National Archives.

Lygia Pape.

Of the founding members of the Neo-Concrete Movement, the two Lygias–Clark and Pape–have had the greatest impact on subsequent generations of artists. Because they introduced new ways of thinking about what art can be and who can engage with a work of art, their audience became co-creators of the work. Though both artists are usually associated with the European constructivist movement, their brand of Neo-Concretism truly took hold in Brazil, their home country. By 1959, Clark was the most recognized figure among the Neo-Concretists.

Lygia Clark and Fayga Ostrower in 1956. Wikimedia Commons. Brazilian National Archives.
Wikimedia Commons. Brazilian National Archives.

Lygia Clark and Fayga Ostrower in 1956.

Lygia Clark, Bichos, 1965. (c) Lygia Clark. Wikiart.
wikiart. © Lygia Clark.

Lygia Clark, Bichos, 1965.

Lygia Clark, Máscara Abismo (Abyss Mask) ,1968.
Wikiart. © Lygia Clark.

Lygia Clark, Máscara Abismo (Abyss Mask),1968. 

Lygia Clark, Planos em Superficie Modulada, 1952.
Wikiart. © Lygia Clark.

Lygia Clark, Planos em Superficie Modulada, 1952.

Clark started her career as a painter, studying in Paris with Fernand Leger. In the early 1960s, she became known for her three-dimensional work, especially for a series of small, folded objects she called Bichos. Gallery-goers were encouraged to interact with and touch her sculpture.

During this period, she eventually moved further into the realm of conceptual art and performance. Like many artists of the 1950s and 1960s who studied Sigmund Freud, Clark underwent psychoanalysis. Her subsequent work took a radically divergent path.

Beginning in 1964, with the series Nostalgia of the Body, she abandoned the making of objects to create participatory artwork rooted in an individual’s experience of bodily senses. The concept of opposites, of internal and external feelings held in the same body, became core ideas for Clark.

Wikimedia Commons. Photo by Shelby Lessig.

Marina performing The Artist is Present at the MoMA in May 2010.

We can trace the influences of Clark’s body-centered work to performance artists like Marina Abramović. She is considered Serbian but claims she “is from a country that no longer exists,” in reference to the former Yugoslavia.

Starting in 1973, Abramović’s earliest performance works were concerned with ritual, endurance, and self-inflicted pain. Called Rhythms, this numbered series carried Clark’s ideas to the next level. In Rhythm #1, Abramović tested the limits of a person’s ability to withstand extreme bodily pain by cutting herself with knives over twenty times. In Rhythm #4 (1974), she barely escaped setting herself on fire and lost consciousness during the performance. In her most notorious performance, Rhythm 0, she came close to being killed by audience participants. It is considered one of the greatest performance works of all time.

In 2010, the MoMA honored Abramović with a major retrospective. Entitled The Artist is Present, it was the largest exhibition of performance art the museum's history. In 1959, Gullar warned against rational art that becomes “dangerously extreme.” Although breaking boundaries is essential to great art, today, Gullar might apply the same warning to Neo-Concretism when taken to its outer limits.

About the Author

Cynthia Close

Cynthia Close holds a MFA from Boston University, was an instructor in drawing and painting, Dean of Admissions at The Art Institute of Boston, founder of ARTWORKS Consulting, and former executive director/president of Documentary Educational Resources, a film company. She was the inaugural art editor for the literary and art journal Mud Season Review. She now writes about art and culture for several publications.

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