Lygia Clark

Brazilian Painter, Sculptor, Installation and Participatory Artist

Born: October 23, 1920
Belo Horizonte, Brazil
Died: April 25, 1988
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
The object would have no meaning or structure outside the participants manipulation.
Guy Brett

Summary of Lygia Clark

Aspiring to break down the barriers between art and everyday life, Lygia Clark radically reimagined what art could be. By facilitating an engaged and embodied relationship between the art object and its audience, Clark's work anticipated the development of participatory art, and has influenced generations of artists pushing the boundaries of sculpture, performance, and art-as-pedagogy. Clark's early abstract canvases were supplanted by constructions that attempted to rupture the pictorial frame, challenging the separation between the artwork and its surrounding environment, and announcing a shift from the two- to three-dimensional plane. These were followed by increasingly organic or corporeal sculptural forms designed to be physically activated by viewer participation, and interactive 'relational objects' which were later incorporated into the therapeutic practice that Clark established in the final phase of her working life.


Progression of Art


Staircase (Escadas)

Composition: Staircase is one of Clark's earliest works, completed while she was studying with the painter-turned-landscape-architect Roberto Burle Marx. It is part of a series of staircases painted around the same time; Clark believed that they were the only memorable works she produced while she was still a student. Its subject matter recalls two key works of European Modernism: Férnand Leger's drawing The Staircase (1913) - Clark would later study with Leger, and Marcel Duchamp's celebrated painting, Nude Descending the Staircase No. 2 (1912), which translates the moving human body into a set of linear picture planes. This second association in particular suggests Clark's early interest in the relationship between body and space.

The composition is effectively set in motion by the downwards movement of the eye, the spirals creating a whirling energy that suggests an opening up of time and space within the picture, as well as hinting at the potential of this gyratory force to spin free from its axis and rupture the surface of the painting. As curator and scholar Paulo Herkenhoff notes, "Clark's staircases are passageways, the ambivalent flux of going up and down. They shape the genesis of the dualities that will concern the artist in the future." The relationship between interior and exterior, recto and verso, were central to Clark's practice; more than a decade after painting these staircases, Clark would acknowledge that throughout her entire career she had been constantly searching for what she described as the 'empty-full' (vazio pleno), a term which suggests the metaphysical significance of the abyss-like interior space.

Oil on canvas - At MoMA


Discovery of the Organic Line (Descoberta da Linha Organica)

Discovery of the Organic Line recalls the work of Dutch abstract art pioneer Piet Mondrian, as well as that of Russian Constructivist El Lissitzky and Suprematist painter Kazimir Malevich. Mondrian co-founded the De Stijl movement, which in turn had a profound influence on the development of abstract art in Brazil in the form of Concretism and Neo-concretism. However, the Discovery of the Organic Line aims beyond mere geometric abstraction, marking the beginning of the artist's exploration of three-dimensional space and constituting a starting point for her ongoing efforts to situate her work in relation to human bodily experience.

The word 'organic' requires elucidation: Clark did not intend this term to refer to something resembling a biological form: her organic line is not sinuous, undulating or otherwise life-like. In her writings Clark refers to a number of other lines that she described as 'organic', including the functional lines of doorframes in an architectural space; this analogy can help us understand how the organic line in a painting was intended to function as an opening through which the viewer could approach the artwork. In the artist's own words, "I began with geometry, but I was looking for an organic space where one could enter the painting."

Oil on canvas


In itself (Bicho: Em Sí)

The Critters (sometimes translated as Beasts, or Animals) were produced between 1960 and 1963. The pieces are small enough to be held in two hands, and are made of flat aluminium circular and triangular sheets attached to each other by hinges. The works have no predetermined form: instead, the hinges allow them to assume a variety of three-dimensional configurations in response to handling by a viewer-participant. The artist envisaged a physical, mutually responsive interaction between art object and user; each Critter has the potential to react to manipulation in a multitude of unpredictable ways, forcing the user to adapt and respond in turn. Although this interaction is playful, it is not entirely without risk: one user described his experience of handling a Critter as akin to 'engaging in combat', and indeed, the artist did not think of these works as passively malleable toys, but as naughty, mischievous creatures capable of unexpected or unwanted reactions.

The Critters are groundbreaking in their rejection of the static qualities of sculpture. Unlike a traditional museum object, they are designed to be handled, with the meaning of the work ultimately residing not in the fixed form, but in the dynamic relationship between object and user. The activation of the work completes it; without handling the Critter remain inchoate and unfinished. The artist was extremely disappointed whenever a Critter was transferred from a public to a private collection, where it would generally be looked at but no longer touched.

As noted by Guy Brett, writing in Art in America, the Critters "are exactly poised between the cerebral schematism of geometry and the pulse of life." They mark both Clark's abandonment of painting, and her turn from geometric work to a corporeal and participatory practice.



Walking (Caminhando)

Walking (Caminhando) is a pivotal work for Clark, suggesting the dematerialization of the art object and the turn towards an art based in process and participation. The artist invited participants to cut a Möbius strip along its length to the thinnest width possible without breaking it. After cutting the first full length (basically one circumference of a circle), the participant (who has now become the author and thus challenged the preconceived notions of artistic authorship) must choose to move their scissors to the left or right of the existing cut.

The Mobius strip held a particular fascination for Clark. Although it is a line, it fails to perform the function which that form implies: it achieves no act of separation, making no distinction between inside and out, interior or exterior, front or back. The line made by Walking is thus a non-functional one that exists as an action rather than as a physical object. Walking activates and animates the static line that exists in drawings or paintings, recreating the line as an event that is necessarily finite, lasting only until the paper is sliced so thinly that the line cannot continue; unlike a drawn or painted line, the line in Walking is completely contingent upon an active participant. In Clark's own words, "the act is what produces Caminhando, nothing exists before it and nothing after."

Walking proposes the artwork as act rather than as object. From this point onwards, Clark began to describe all her works as 'propositions', a term which emphasizes a participant's freely chosen action as the basis for the work.

Paper, glue, and scissors


Sensorial Masks (Máscaras Sensoriais)

From the late 1960s onwards, Clark's practice focused almost exclusively on participatory propositions designed to heighten participants' physical and psychological awareness.

The proposition Sensorial Masks invites the user to place their head inside a specially designed cloth hood. The hood's folds are filled with sachets of herbs or other aromatic substances; additionally, mirrors might be placed next to eye sockets, or small bells close to ears. By reducing visual stimuli and invigorating the other senses, the participant would achieve an intensified consciousness of both sensory experience and of his or her own inner world. Clark described the materials as "a sort of travel bag in color with stones and inflated plastic bags"; the plastic bags were used to encourage the user to become aware of the relationship between their inner body and the surrounding space into which that body extends. Expelling air from their own lungs in order to inflate the bag, the participant could feel that he was symbolically reforming himself, making an external, visible manifestation of the psychical space that was within him; this aspect of the work reflects Clark's ongoing interest in the symbolic plenitude of the 'empty' interior space.

Crucially, the artist's own subjectivity was considered irrelevant to the work, with Clark declaring, "I have no desire or curiosity to dress in them. I am only interested to know the experiences of the person who puts them on." The significance of the piece is focused entirely upon the sensorial responses of the participants, which reportedly ranged from fun and excitement to claustrophobia and panic. Accordingly, as isolated art objects, the masks are insignificant; they have value only in the encounters that they are intended to facilitate. This poses a challenge for contemporary curators, since when the masks are exhibited inside museum cases (for example) their intended purpose is effectively effaced.

Some commentators have chosen to read the Sensorial Masks in relation to Brazil's military dictatorship and the Cold War, noting their menacing appearance and similarity to the gas masks used by the Brazilian police as well as to forms of nuclear protection.

Cloth, herbs, mirrors, bells - Mixed media


Biological Architecture (Arquitetura Biológica)

Biological Architecture extends Clark's earlier investigations into sensorial experience, shifting the register from the individual (as with Sensorial Masks) to the collective. Two or more participants are connected to each other by long transparent tubes or large sheets of plastic with which they attempt to cover each other or to form a mutual shelter. As participants enter into the structure in order to reshape it, they become the organs and limbs of a fantastical communal body, with the plastic functioning as a kind of connective tissue or shared skin. By using the plastic as a 'relational' material, these structures aim to eliminate the boundaries between body and object, self and other, and anticipate the Relational Objects that would play a central part in Clark's therapeutic practice from 1976 onwards.

At the time of conceiving this piece Clark had not yet undergone psychoanalysis herself; she was, however, deeply engaged in a study of psychoanalytic literature. The connective potential of the object recalls Donald Winnicott's theory of the transitional object, an item (such as a blanket or soft toy) given to the infant to ease their sense of loss as they begin to separate from their primary care giver. In the case of Biological Architecture, the transitional object (suggested by the plastic sheeting and tubes) can offer a form of regression, bonding two or more participants together in a way that is both communal and erotic, physical and psychological. As the artist noted, the importance of Biological Architecture lies in "the exchange between people and their intimate psychology".

Biological Architecture was not intended as a performance, but as a freely-chosen, participatory act. Clark was vehemently opposed to what she saw as the voyeurism of Performance art, and particularly objected to the assimilation of the artist's body with the body of the work, especially when that body was modulated with a kind of masochistic self-harm or martyrdom (as for example in the work of Gina Pane, Marina Abramović or Chris Burden). To this end Clark always refused to use her own body in her work, effectively erasing her own identity as artist/originator as each proposition was gradually transformed and reinvented by the bodies of the participants.

Plastic, nylon, and cloth


Anthropophagic Slobber (Baba Antropofágica)

Anthropophagic Slobber investigates the phantasmatic force of the body; it is not concerned with the body in itself, but with its psycho-sensorial capacities. It takes the following form. A person lies on the ground in the middle of a group. Kneeling in a circle, the other participants place spools of colored thread in their mouths, using their hands to draw out saliva-soaked strands which are draped across the body of the person on the floor, slowly building a tangled web or cocoon. When the lying person is fully covered, the group must reconnect with the slobber by removing the scrambled thread and entwining themselves into it, finally breaking free from the drool by snapping the threads. The last phase of the work is a verbal exchange of participants' perceptions of the event.

The affective experience of Anthropophagic Slobber has been compared to a kind of collective vomiting, or a pulling out of one's own viscera. The breaking of the threads functions as catharsis, and is often described in terms of aggression, joy, euphoria and even pain (the threads being hard to break). Participants have also spoken of their sensorial experiences of the work: the noise of spools against teeth, the smell of saliva, the taste of cotton and the revolving spools gently bruising the mouth. The notion of intersubjective exchange is central to the work, the figurative exchange of inner qualities (symbolized by the drool) echoing the verbal dialogue that takes place at the end; implicit in this is the relinquishment of the individual body in order to be reborn as part of a collective one.

Clark developed the work in collaboration with her students at the Sorbonne, where she had been invited to teach a course on gestural communication. Here, she found an environment energized by the participatory politics of May 1968 and wholly conducive to an exploratory, experimental way of working. The title of the work is an homage to Brazilian poet Oswald de Andrade's Manifesto Antropófago (1928), which posited cultural cannibalism as a mode of resistance to colonization. Just as certain tribes once ate their enemies to acquire their strengths (anthropophagism), so the colonized Brazilians should adapt and modify the colonizer's culture in order to produce a form of modernism that is inexorably Brazilian. Another set of influences can be traced in Clark's interest in dreams and psychoanalysis; Clark recalls that at her first appointment with analyst Pierre Fédida, who she was seeing at this time, she could only repeat one word: bave (slobber, drool). The work thus alludes to the limitations of language, transporting the body to a pre-linguistic space where the exchange of secretions acts as a substitute for speech, before returning the body to discourse with a new and shared vocabulary derived from psychosomatic experience.

'Performance,' cotton reels, saliva, cotton threads

Biography of Lygia Clark

Childhood and Early Life

Lygia Clark was born Lygia Pimentel Lins to an upper-class family in the town of Belo Horizonte, Minas Gerais, Brazil. She was educated by nuns at the Sacre Coeur Catholic School, where she displayed an interest in drawing from an early age. Her childhood was one of small-town privilege mixed with bourgeois repression: her father was often violent and abusive, and Clark felt stifled by the limitations dictated by her traditional upbringing. As an adult, psychoanalysis would unleash many painful childhood memories, often centred on a feeling of not belonging that grew more pronounced with the onset of puberty; as she recalled, "I grew up feeling outside the family, trying every night to tear out my little clitoris, which I experienced as a sign of marginality." As this revelation suggests, Clark's gender and sense of sexual self-discovery would play an important part in shaping her ideas about art-making.

At the age of eighteen she married Aluízio Clark Ribeiro, a civil engineer, and moved with him to the then-capital, Rio de Janeiro. By the age of twenty-five Clark was a mother of three: Elizabeth (1941), Álvaro (1943), and Eduardo (1945); her experience of maternity would later help to inform important works such as The House is the Body (A Casa é o Corpo, 1968), a participatory installation that was exhibited to critical acclaim in the Brazilian Pavilion at the 1968 Venice Biennale.

Early Training and Work

Between 1947 and 1949, Clarke studied under the painter and landscape architect Roberto Burle Marx, an important figure in Latin American Modernism, and painter and sculptor Zélia Salgado in Rio de Janeiro. Her fascination with the European avant-garde led her to Paris, where she and her children lived between 1950-51, allowing Clark to pursue her training under the tutelage of the abstract painters Árpad Szenes, Isaac Dobrinsky, and Fernand Léger. On her return to Brazil, Clark was given her first solo exhibition and awarded a prestigious prize for best new artist of the year. With professional success came personal difficulties as her marriage broke down, leading to divorce in 1953. The separation would ultimately allow her to pursue her chosen career: as her son Eduardo observed, "My mother was born rich, married a rich man, and, upon her separation, received 86 apartments, which she sold off one by one to support her work."

The 1950s in Brazil were marked by an intense optimism, derived from the economic prosperity and political stability enjoyed under the presidency of Juscelino Kubitschek (1956-61). Rio de Janeiro was an exhilarating place to be: the strains of Bossa Nova were in the air, daring experiments in modernist architecture were being realized, and visual artists were adapting Constructivism to create something inexorably Brazilian - the Concrete and Neo-concrete movements. Clark's early abstract compositions are definitive examples of visual art produced at this time.

In 1954, she joined the Grupo Frente, an artists' collective led by Ivan Serpa and which included Lygia Pape and Helio Oiticica among its members; Oiticica became Clark's life-long friend. The group initially embraced the ideals of Concrete art (which emphasized geometrical abstraction), but by 1959, Clark and Oiticica had joined their names to the signatories on the Manifesto Neo-concreta, which criticized the overly dogmatic approach of some Concrete artists, and called for a Concrete art with greater sensuality, color and feeling. The Neo-concretists were influenced by the phenomenology of French thinker Maurice Merleau-Ponty, who had pioneered a subjective, embodied approach to philosophical investigation. Around this time, Clark was starting to adopt a similarly corporeal and sensorial approach to her work, which had started to break with the orthodox Modernist canon as her paintings developed from two-dimensional abstractions to three-dimensional structures such as Breaking the frame (Quebra da mouldura, 1954), and participatory objects such as the Critters (Bichos, 1960-63).

Mature Period

By the mid 1960s, Clark's work was fully corporeal, participatory, and performative, with no trace of her earlier geometric abstraction. She was now an internationally celebrated artist, with a string of critically acclaimed exhibitions, including a major solo show in London in 1965, and the opportunity to represent Brazil at the Venice Biennale in 1968, where Clark presented a participatory installation simulating the experience of gestation and birth, The House is the Body: Penetration, Ovulation, Germination, Expulsion (A Casa é o Corpo: Penetração, Ovulação, Germinação e Expulsão, 1968). This deeply Freudian work exemplifies Clark's desire to arrive at a spatial and psychological understanding of the body, and to facilitate this process of exploration for her participants.

In 1964 a coup in Brazil established a repressive military regime that would last until 1984. After the passing of a decree which suspended many constitutional rights, Clark, like many other artists, writers and intellectuals, moved to Europe, arriving in Paris in 1968 to find a city deeply affected by the student uprisings of earlier that year. Clark's highly embodied, participatory work of this period is often understood as a response to the tense political situation in Brazil, as well as to the recent unrest in Paris.

Her work during this period was echoed in the development of broader creative movements, such as the Brazilian Tropicália movement, an optimistic anti-authoritarian project that brought together visual artists like Clark and Oiticica, with musicians such as Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil, and filmmakers such as Neville de Almeida. Internationally, Clark's interest in the participatory environment resonated with the emergence of early forms of performance art such as Allan Kaprow's Happenings in the United States, although Clark did not consider her practice to be performative as such. The art historian Yves Alan Bois, a lifelong friend of Clark's, recalls a conversation between the artist and a museum curator who had made the mistake of comparing her work to Body art and Happenings. The curator received "a torrent of furious abuse: her work had nothing to do with any performance whatsoever nor with the offering on a platter, for the secondary benefit of a voyeur, of her fantasies and her impulses".

In 1972 Clark was invited to teach a course on gestural communication at the Sorbonne, enabling her to shift from individual practice to collaborative group activities, exploring collective sensorial experiences with large classes of students. She became increasingly critical of art institutions, particularly museums, and began to think of her work in terms of an abandonment of traditional art-making. Her writing from this time suggests that she experienced a series of psychological and sexual crises, and during this period she underwent psychoanalysis with Pierre Fédida (a former student of Gilles Deleuze), terminating treatment in 1974 in favor of a new alternative therapeutic regime.

Late Period

Clark returned to Rio de Janeiro in 1976, where she established a practice as a therapist and healer, treating individual patients at her home. These sessions involved the application of self-designed props or relational objects (objetos relacionais) to her patients' bodies. She called her therapeutic method Estruturação do Self (Structuring of the Self), and by the early 1980s was training psychologists, artists, and therapists in its application. Clark's therapeutic methods are still in use today, practiced by her former colleague Lula Wanderley at a clinic housed within the psychiatric ward of the hospital the Instituto Municipal de Assistência a Saúde Nise da Silveira in Rio de Janeiro.

Brazil in 1976 was a very different place to the radical cultural environment that Clark had left in 1968. A new government-sponsored cultural programme prioritizing entertainment for the masses has replaced the atmosphere of experimentation and dialogue that had shaped the art scene in the 1950s and 1960s. Several key cultural figures were dead, among them the former leader of the Grupo Frente Ivan Serpa (d.1973). Clark's close friend Hélio Oiticica (seventeen years younger than Clark) died suddenly of a stroke in 1980. These final years were particularly difficult for Clark: she was struggling financially and emotionally, and her health was deteriorating, exacerbated by heavy drinking. In 1988, Clark suffered a fatal heart attack and died in her apartment in Copacabana.

The Legacy of Lygia Clark

The scholar and curator Guy Brett has remarked that "her work did not borrow existing concepts of art ... on the contrary, she transformed notions of art and the artist." By breaking down the barriers between art and life, Clark challenged received ideas about what art could or should be. Accordingly, she is a major reference point for contemporary artists dealing with the limits of conventional forms of art.

Clark's influence has been both global and local; as noted by the artist Carlito Carvalhosa, "her legacy is everywhere". In particular she has inspired a generation of Latin American artists. Her fascination with dichotomies and dualisms informs the work of artists such as Doris Salcedo and Marta Minujin, while her interest in the active spectator has been important for Ernesto Neto. Clark's utopian and political use of the body resonates in the work of artists Jeanine Oleson, Emily Royson, and choreographer Jérôme Bell.

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Untitled (Image from Yagul) (1973)

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