THE MUSEUM THAT BEARS Solomon R. Guggenheim’s name was the vision of a little-known painter named Hilla von Rebay. While painting his portrait in 1928, Rebay convinced Guggenheim to collect abstract art and then, eventually, to build a museum to house it. Except she didn’t describe the building as a museum. Instead, she imagined it as “a temple of nonrepresentation and reverence.” The spiritual language was intentional. For Rebay, art was a portal to a higher plane of consciousness. Given this spiritualist impulse, Frank Lloyd Wright was the obvious commission, and when he conceived the fabled ramp that spirals up the rotunda, climbing toward the light of the oculus at the top, he was realizing a dream of Rebay’s: “her conviction,” as Julia Voss summarizes, “that nonobjective painting could free the viewer from the material plane and lead to higher forms of consciousness.”
Fittingly, this space has been the site of generation-defining exhibits that, in particular, have reframed and revivified the work of twentieth-century women whose ambitions and accomplishments resonate with Wright’s. The 2017 Agnes Martin retrospective comes to mind, as well as the 2019 Hilma af Klint show after which her intensely spiritual abstractions exploded into public consciousness a century late. This summer I experienced another of these monumental shows, Gego: Measuring Infinity.
Born Gertrud Goldschmidt, Gego escaped Hitler’s Germany in 1939 for Venezuela, an adopted home the Jewish refugee never left. Drawing on her technical education in Stuttgart, she worked as a freelance architect in Caracas for a decade before venturing into a life of art marking. The Guggenheim exhibit gathers her earliest work from the 1950s through her last creations in the early 1990s. Gego is best known for uncanny works in wire and steel that are somehow at once mechanistic and organic. We sense something geometric, but a refusal to follow Euclid’s rules. Gego is working with her own geometry. She is, in a way, drawing lines in three dimensions. Empty space is as integral to these creations as any shape created by the forms. Much of the work is suspended from the ceiling, and gravity becomes a cocreator, the artist dancing with a constraint that makes things possible.
I found myself absorbed in the shadows cast by these creations. In her Dibujos sin papel (Drawings without paper)—“sketches” in wire that mimic paintings—Gego has not merely drawn lines in wire on a wall; she has suspended them out from the wall, imbuing the space between wall and object with creative possibility. Subject to natural light, that in-between space creates the shadow that, over the course of a day, becomes the movement in this stationary work. Shadow is now experienced not as absence of light but as the artwork’s imprint on the world in a dance with the sun. Here shadow is an active presence. Gego’s Dibujos sin papel frame nothing and project shadows, and yet both feel imbued with a fullness and presence. Her lines are like weathervanes that catch invisible winds.
While Gego’s work changes, her project was constant: “to work with emptiness,” as she later wrote. Whether in her “sculptures” (Gego resisted the term), watercolors, or weavings, Gego played with the magic of line and space, visibility and invisibility. To work with emptiness is not nihilism; it is a mystical posture that appreciates the pregnancy of air and the fecundity of silence. This is art in an apophatic mode, where negation is in the service of a plenitude beyond naming. The empty space makes room for the ineffable that can only be felt. Within these frames, emptiness becomes its own mysterious presence.
As you move up the rotunda’s ramp, you traverse Gego’s life, ascending toward the end. As you climb, Gego is aging. The bold, ambitious works in iron and steel from the 1960s and ’70s give way, in the 1980s, to her smaller but remarkable Dibujos sin papel and deft, delicate watercolors that also play with absence. Her last works, her Tejeduras (Weavings), abandon steel and wire altogether for textiles, paper, remnants of photographs, and scraps at hand in her studio, woven together in what Tanya Barson calls an “aesthetics of the residual.”
I realized, upon reflection, that each stage of this career is a measure of what Gego’s hands could do. Her ambition to “measure infinity” and plumb the resonant depths of nothingness never changes, only what she can lay her hands on and manipulate. For her whole life, Catherine de Zegher observes, Gego’s “hands do the thinking.” In the final Tejeduras, portable forms of weaving that echo indigenous handcraft, Zegher suggests we can see “not only the fragility of the aging body but also the precariousness of exile.” The elder Gego can no longer build monumental works like her early Reticulárea in vast architectural spaces, works that required her to bend heavy-gauge wire and weld iron. But her hands can still weave lighter materials whose warp and weft plays with color and light, presence and absence, nothingness and the geometry of wonder.
As Image’s editor in chief, I have, over the past several years, been surprised by an occasional criticism of the visual art in our pages. A minority report, the critique is rooted in a founding aspect of our mission and vision, what we’ve described variously as our commitment to religious humanism or incarnational humanism. This conviction, the critics argue, should find expression in a celebration of art that honors and attends to the mystery of the human form. This is not, to its credit, an argument for realism or narrowly representationalist approaches; the critics are not vying to enshrine a particular style or school. But, they argue, visual art nourished by incarnational humanism will be figural, enchanted by the human body. As our pages have made more and more room for abstraction and conceptual art, the critics worry that our commitment to humanism is waning.
I understand the concern, even if I think it is mistaken. But I have little energy for polemics. Don’t expect a defense. I am, in my creeping old age, a lumper rather than a splitter. I’m not here to make a disjunctive case for this rather than that, or only this. I’m a practitioner of conjunction: also this; including that; let many flowers bloom.
I agree that our incarnational humanism should find expression in a commitment to art that grapples with and honors our embodiment. My only retort to the critics is simply this: picturing bodies is not the only way to take the body seriously in art. Indeed, even the most abstract and conceptual art can bear the imprints of the human body in ways that are tactile, haptic, visceral, incarnate.
No one has taught me more about this than poet and essayist Molly McCully Brown. In her stunning collection of essays, Places I’ve Taken My Body, Brown’s voice bears the marks of her own embodiment as she navigates a world that isn’t primed to welcome someone with cerebral palsy. Unsurprisingly, at times Brown’s own body is the focus, the subject matter. But I would argue that Brown’s body is present in her voice. That voice—attentive and incisive, at once warm, witty, and searingly honest—emerges from a body that is bent, and refuses to bend, in ways I’ll never experience. And yet the magic of Brown’s prose obliquely testifies to the particularity—the hoc est, if you will—of her embodiment. Sometimes the body appears as witness rather than subject.
When Brown recounts her journey into Roman Catholicism, there is a record-scratch encounter between her aspirations and her embodiment: “I can’t enact many of the gestures the Catholic mass requires.” This generates an existential question: “Is it absurd to adhere to a religion whose central rituals my body won’t let me perform?”
But this same faith, she realizes, accords centrality to the suffering body of Christ. While listening to a homily one week, she glimpses afresh “the bent body of Christ on the cross” and then the stained-glass window above that pictures a “lamb with curled legs.” A flash of recognition; a new perceptual possibility. “Bent body, lamb. Bent body, lamb. Bent body, lamb,” her prose chants, which then becomes a prayer with a question mark (like so many?): “Maybe I don’t have to hate my body?”
Brown refuses to romanticize; the honesty of her voice, willing to waver, is a defining virtue. “The truth is,” she later writes, “mostly, I don’t want a different life or even a different body.” She reaches a “brokered peace”: “And this body, as complicated as it is, gave me rapt attention. It gave me empathy and maturity. It gave me discipline and poetry, and enough hurt and strangeness to need it.”
The body that gives poetry. The body that picks up the brush or tackles the clay or sets its hand to write a poem. If, at Image, our imagination is nourished by God incarnate, we are also nourished by a body given. The art we curate and celebrate in our pages is art that takes the human body seriously, even if it is not always pictured—maybe especially as art that bears the marks of bodies bent but creative, wounded yet making.
And so, now, when I hear from these critics, I think of Gego’s hands. On those upper echelons of the rotunda ramp, closer to the light streaming through the oculus, I am looking at her Tejeduras. They are smaller, lighter, scaled to what her ailing hands could accomplish. And yet they are audacious and unanticipated.
These hands have a memory. Every once in a while, the echoes of her sprawling Reticuláreas are manifest in these weavings. But this is not nostalgia for what she used to be able to do. Gego is showing us how her newest work rhymes with what she’s been doing with her life. “The Tejeduras,” Tanya Barson comments, “are the final expression of what Gego called the ‘multidimensional chess game,’ which she had played throughout her life as an artist.” The hands that could bend all that wire and weld that iron and grapple with gravity in hanging these installations are the hands that now weave fabric and paper, still playing with the dynamics of hiddenness and revelation.
Here, too, in the abstraction of these singular weavings, is the body: beautiful, if bent, bending what it can to continue the endless endeavor of measuring infinity.
Image: Gego, Reticulárea, 1981.