Exploring the archive: on Lygia Pape’s ‘Slits, eyes, geometries’

by Briony Fer

  • Apr 3, 2020

‘Slits, eyes, geometries emerge from this source/wood that are Pythagorean flowers. Surfaces unfold in an oscillating to and fro before the viewer, apparently trying to be their own reverse’.[1]

This is Lygia Pape describing her Tecelares, the woodcuts that she worked on intensively over several years, from 1953 to 1959. The language she uses is remarkable: to talk about ‘slits, eyes, geometries’ as emerging from within a series of what are, after all, abstract wood-cuts is to bring together a cluster of terms that confound the standard ways of thinking about a geometric vocabulary of forms. Vision is evoked as an engaged and active process that positively courts, rather than denies, imaginative projection. So rather than a strict lexicon of exclusively geometric forms, let alone a mathematical or rational system, their conjunction with ‘slits’ and ‘eyes’, transforming into ‘Pythagorean flowers’, is an almost hallucinatory image. In just two sentences, then, from an undated statement, Pape challenges us to think differently about what a geometry of vision might entail. Although they share the same title, the Tecelares are incredibly varied, and comprise several groups. Some have bold curves defining both positive and negative shapes; others are more angular, using prominent diagonals. Some are divided horizontally; others vertically. Some have gouged-out furrows; others finer incisions. Some of them are black and white; others use colour. They all combine geometric elements with imprinted wood grains and they are all printed on a fine Japanese rice paper, which lends them an incredible delicacy even when they are heavily inked.

A basic vocabulary of circles, triangles, rectangles and so on is insistent, however elastic and malleable it proves in Pape’s hands. Any number of shapes made with ruler or compass prevail over the hand-drawn, situating these wood-cuts within the Neoconcretist context, in turn indebted to a history of Constructivism. They build on a language she had developed in her paintings and reliefs since the beginning of the 1950s. It is clear, in the work that she did across different media, how immersed she was in this geometric lexicon, but there is also a strong sense of rhythmic play rather than formulaic rules. For example, a Tecelar from 1955 is a composition of twenty-four small triangles that systematically works to undo the symmetrical arrangement that forms its central section. Not only does one side invert the other (it is not a mirror image), but the white sections between the triangles come to take shape as myriad quadrilaterals. Pape’s Tecelares may share a vocabulary with her paintings and painted reliefs, but as woodcuts they have a completely different quality of surface. In a statement about printmaking, made in 1959, she said that she was fascinated by the different textures and ‘veinings’ of each type of wood that she used, treating these as ‘found or pre-existing images’ that enabled her to make an enormous number of black pictures. She described in some de-tail how she would choose a wood with ‘more or less open pores’ to get a black that was lighter or darker.[2] She would also use sandpaper to rub down the wood and so vary the effects, making surfaces that were more or less fine and delicate.

Many of the woodcut prints seem to be experiments in black, in a way that only printmaking would allow. How many blacks in black? There is ‘an endless range of blacks’, she tells us.3 How heavy or weight-less, dark or light, can black be? This depends on the grain of the wood and the quantities of ink applied – technicalities, you might say. And yes, in a way they are. But I think it is important not to underestimate Pape’s physical relationship to print-making, and the fact that artists who make prints are normally preoccupied by the techniques it offers them. Pape was involved in every aspect of the process, absorbed by the smell of the ink, the sound, the feel of the press. She wrote about how much ‘the sensory sound of a roller spread-ing out paint was part of the creative process’.[4] These are never just technicalities because the whole look of the work depends on them. The gradations in blackness arise from the almost infinite variations of possibility in the making of them. When you look at the Tecelares chronologically you get the sense not so much of a straightforward development but of many different formal and material possibilities jostling for attention. There may be large sections left bare and inkless that counter the black solids. Or there may be very narrow troughs cut out from the block that make the ‘lines’ that we see. These lines trace geometric compositions of circles and squares ‘in the neg-ative’, as it were, as in a Tecelar of 1957; or of concentric white furrows that diminish in size as they reach the centre, transforming the spatial effects of a surface through the slightest differentials, as seen in a work from the previous year. Although the latter has sometimes been compared to Frank Stella’s much larger black stripe paintings of a couple of years later in which he left the narrowest of gaps between the bands, in a way superficially similar to Pape’s woodcuts, I think it is import-ant to note how very different the Neoconcretist project was from the Minimalist one. Pape’s woodcut is one of a series of configurations that are in constant transformation – that dramatize an almost polymorphic, rather than deductive, logic. This can be seen in their sheer diversity, and the way they turn somersaults with the language of geometric abstraction inherited from a broadly Constructivist trajectory.

The ‘eyes’ are in the wood (they are the knots) but occasionally they also seem to glimpse back at the viewer, as if these are animate rather than inanimate surfaces, suggesting an uncanny dimension to vision.

Nowhere is this difference more apparent than in the way Pape handled what she called ‘white hollows’.[5] These are the negative shapes that expose the paper, and which, despite being ‘hollows’, have their own kind of materiality. There are often striking and even abrupt transformations. A surface does not remain static but ‘oscillates to and fro’, as she put it, creating shapes that are ‘apparently trying to be their own reverse’.[6] This couldn’t be further away from a ‘truth to materials’ that became a modernist dogma within some versions of European Constructivism. Occasionally, textures can even appear to change their ‘nature’: the wood grain becomes like ripples in water, or even threatens to disappear in faint after-effects. Mostly, though, it is as if these natural striations are caught unsuspectingly in the gridded net of a geometrical language – or it could be vice versa. There is usually at least one pattern overlaid on another: triangles and squares, straight lines and sharp angles, for example, on the character of the wood. Or, rather, the different textures and grains are ‘woven’ together: Pape’s choice of title for the woodcuts – Tecelares – with its strong allusion to the Portuguese word for weaving (tecer), could not have made this more vivid. As she said later, she gave them that title because she was interested in ‘space being warped; yarn weaving space’.[7] ‘Warped’ here carries both senses of following a direction (as in the warp and the weft), and of being distorted. I called Pape’s striking description of ‘slits, eyes, geometries’ a challenge to think differently about the kinds of imaginative projection at work in geometric abstraction, but it’s also very important to distance her Tecelares from the kind of iconographical projection associated with a Surrealist imaginary. One of the most famous examples of wood grain as phantasmatic image – of the kind Pape’s are most definitely not – is Max Ernst’s folio of prints that he called L’Histoire Naturelle, published in 1926. Ernst’s prints were made from his ‘frottages’, pencil rubbings that he took from all sorts of textured surfaces, including wood and wallpaper. The viewer was positively invited to ‘see into’ the image – to conjure landscapes or faces – just as Leonardo had imagined scenes in the blotches and patterns on a crumbling wall. In Pape’s work, on the other hand, it is not as if we are reading images into the patterns. On the contrary, ‘slits, eyes, geometries’ emerge. The ‘eyes’ are in the wood (they are the knots) but occasionally they also seem to glimpse back at the viewer, as if these are animate rather than inanimate surfaces, suggesting an uncanny dimension to vision. The ‘Pythagorean flowers’ are not actual flowers but geometric patterns that seem to ‘bloom’ as they unfold on the surface. That is to say, they have a capacity for constantly creating multiple abstract permutations  of themselves.

Pape was not the first abstract artist to use the wood grain as a prominent feature of her woodcuts. Most important in this context, given his place in the canon of geometric abstraction and his considerable influence in Latin America, is Josef Albers, who made very many se-ries of prints over his long career. In the 1940s, when he was teaching at Black Mountain College in North Carolina, he made woodcuts that place an often complex structure of white lines on a texture of wood (for example, in High Up, 1948). These would lead on to his Structural Constellations on black laminated plastic, one of which was illustrated in the ‘Neoconcretist Manifesto’ of 1959, alongside a Tecelar by Pape and works by Lygia Clark. The Manifesto, written by Ferreira Gullar on the formal launch of the movement, clearly situated the new art within a Constructivist  /  Suprematist / Bauhaus tradition, also including images of work by Pevsner, Malevich and Max Bill. Albers – a pivotal figure in the Bauhaus trajectory – suspended his geometric configurations at the very centre of each print, collapsing the distinction between figure and ground. Pape preferred to extend hers right to the edge, where they seem to be cut out of, or unfolded from, larger structures still. Pape’s method is to ‘weave’ different surfaces together, making them act upon each other, exposing the one to the other. Pape’s own statement on printmaking appeared alongside the ‘Neoconcretist Manifesto’ in a Sun- day supplement of the Jornal do Brasil (22 March 1959). It is the job of an artistic manifesto to create artistic lineages; a manifesto rarely demonstrates how uneven or hybrid the development of art actually is. Part of what is intriguing about the Tecelares is the way they defy the straightjackets of various ‘isms’. Pape makes the most of the paradox that a coarse grain can be so finely cut, with the result that a slightly tortured pattern in the wood that might in other con-texts be designated ‘expressionist’ is here much harder to place. The surprise is in seeing these kinds of natural pattern combined with a geometric composition, simply because expectations about each are so deeply culturally embedded. While ‘light’ had often been dramatically evoked in a tradition of woodcut printing from Feininger to Goeldi,[8] Pape’s interest was in using it as an overriding formal tool or device. It had nothing to do with the figurative depiction of light. She wrote about its capacity to cut through space: by making incisions into a black surface, she could create ‘slices of light’, so that ‘on it I opened rays of light’.[9] There is nothing literal about this – we are not really seeing light through darkness – but we are seeing black and white ‘as if’ a play of matter and rays. The ‘slits’ that create these slivers of light are part of the process of imprinting vision, as if there is a grain to the light as well as a grain to the wood. – Since its founding in 1992, Hauser & Wirth Publishers has been devoted to the presentation of unique, object-like books and a rich exchange of ideas between artists and scholars. Exploring the Archive continues this commitment through the digitization of excerpts from seminal, rare, or out-of-print titles from the Hauser & Wirth Publishers archive, which comprises monographs, artists’ books, exhibition catalog, and collections of artists’ writings.

1.Lygia Pape, ‘The Number Exists’, n.d., in Lygia Pape: Magnetized Space (Madrid: Museo Nacional Centro de Reina Sofía, 2011), p. 116.2. Lygia Pape, ‘On Printmaking: A Statement by Lygia Pape’, 1959, in Lygia Pape: Magnetized Space, op. cit., p. 85.3. Ibid., p. 86.4. Lygia Pape, ‘Forty Neo-Concrete Woodcuts’, 1975, in Lygia Pape: Magnetized Space, op. cit., p. 88.5. Lygia Pape, ‘On Printmaking: A Statement by Lygia Pape’, op. cit., p. 87.6. Lygia Pape, ‘The Number Exists’, op. cit., p. 116.7. Lygia Pape ‘Statement’, 2 October 1979, in Lygia Pape: Magnetized Space, op. cit., p. 91. 8. Paolo Venancio Filho has written very interestingly, for example, on the Brazilian printmaker Oswaldo Goeldi, whose work Pape knew well. Note in particular his discussion of the way Goeldi evokes light in his urban nightscapes. See Paolo Venancio Filho, ‘Goeldi: Um Expressionista nos Trópicos’, Novos Estudos no. 40 (November 1994): 117–24.9. Lygia Pape, cited by Luiz Camillo Osorio, ‘Lygia Pape: Experimentation and Resistance’, in Lygia Pape: Magnetized Space, op. cit., p. 99.