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BEST SHOW: Vicky Richardson on GEGO. LINE as Object at The Henry Moore Foundation Leeds, 2014

Workshop for Potential Design

Photo: Alice Masters

Vicky Richardson is journalist and Associate Director at the London School of Architecture.

WFPD: So, we will be talking about a retrospective of the artist Gego. 

Vicky Richardson: It’s a nickname that this artist was given when she was a child and her full name is Gertrud Goldschmidt.  So it’s the G-E and the G-O from her first and second name. 

WFPD: Where did you see this exhibition?

VR: The show was called Gego. Line as Object and it was at the Henry Moore Institute in Leeds. It was on from July to October 2014. Every year we go on holiday to Scotland. We drive there which takes 12 hours and we usually stop somewhere for lunch and Leeds is about halfway, so we thought “Oh, let’s go to the Henry Moore Institute.” I didn’t know what was on, so we stopped for lunch, had a sandwich and went into the museum and this show happened to be on. I already knew Gego’s work because when I was at the British Council I traveled to Venezuela for a big regional meeting and we had one day at the end of the meeting where we could go and explore the city. I went to the art museum and I discovered Gego then. I’d never heard of her before and I just couldn’t believe that she wasn’t better known because to my mind she is just one of the strongest female Modernist artists that I’d ever seen. And you know, alongside Alexander Calder and all of the people doing kinetic art around that period, her work was just phenomenal and in fact the museum was full of artists who you think you should know better. People like Jesús Soto and Carlos Cruz-Diez, all these incredible Modernist artists.

Because it’s Latin America and because it was Venezuela, and noone really goes to Venezuela anymore, they almost had been a bit forgotten, so it was really fantastic to discover this exhibition which was her first solo show in the UK and quite a full retrospective of her work from the ’50s and ’60s up until the ’80s. She died in 1994.

WFPD: So you were familiar with this artist before. Can you describe a bit about the show itself? What kind of space it was in and what did you feel when you walked into the exhibition?

VR: Well, I think I love this show because it was just so spacial. You were really walking into quite an immersive experience and her work is very structural and mainly consists of wire. It is hard to describe the feeling without describing the work but it was an almost sensory perception of going into the show combined with the left and the right side of your brain working together. Which is the perfect combination to me where you have that sort of sense of structure and form, universal geometric shapes corresponding to a sense of rationality, but also this really powerful sense of beauty and being part of a space and an experience. That was my first impression. 

The spaces of the Henry Moore Institute are quite small gallery spaces and I think I always prefer smaller shows than today’s blockbuster shows you find at Tate or the RA. I much prefer smaller, more intimate shows and this is a whole sequence of spaces that started with her later work, which are some weavings using magazines, collages, which I loved. They’re not really representative of her work but they were the very last thing she did when she became too old to work with wire and she started working with paper. But then it went on into some large spaces. The space was always surprising, you would turn a corner and there would be something really incredible. It’s a really interesting gallery from that point of view. 

WFPD: It is interesting to hear you describe the different rooms as she is also known for not sticking to one style, moving on and then coming back to it in later years. 

VR: Well, she started as an architect. she studied architecture in the ’30s in Germany and she was Jewish, so she had to emigrate first to England and then she caught a ship to Venezuela because she had a cousin there or something. When she first got there she picked up jobs working as an architect and I think she had a family and she wasn’t going to pursue this career in a serious kind of way. Then she started making things. In the ’50s she would have gradually been making things and it sounds like there was a very supportive scene there with lots of artists and the real flourishing of art and architecture together. So it was possible to move from one discipline into another in what seems like a very natural kind of way. She was drawing a lot. Drawing structures, drawing forms in a very free flowing way and then that almost naturally moves into these sculptures which are like three dimensional lines where the line begins as a pen mark on a piece of paper but then she found a way to make the line an object, which is the title of the show, by using stainless steel wire and some pliers. The pieces are incredible because they are like three dimensional drawings, they have the fluidity and the freedom of a drawing but they’re in three dimensions.

WFPD: She refused to say her work was sculpture, right?

VR: Yeah, because there wasn’t really a precedent for these kind of sculptures which were formless. They weren’t big solid objects but if you imagine the sculptural tradition of busts or sculpture being very much object based, for example carving or removing material to create an object, this was really about something that was almost weightless and formless, something that’s exploring space rather than occupying space.

WFPD: Do you find it kind of ironic or intriguing that the exhibition was in the Henry Moore Institute? Henry Moore of course represents the kind of object based sculpture Gego was distancing herself from. 

VR: Well, the Henry Moore Institute is very important in this country in exploring what sculpture is. And in fact the reason why it was there is because she was very interested in Henry Moore’s work actually. But also, interestingly enough, the woman who curated the show at the Henry Moore Institute, Lisa Le Feuvre, studied architecture. In fact she studied with me in the same year at college which is another kind of weird coincidence about the show. Something that makes it quite poignant for me because both of us studied architecture and even though 

we didn’t become architects, we found ways of drawing on that experience. And I loved the show also because I knew that Lisa was involved. And I could see that in the architectural background in the work and her interest in Gego’s work.

WFPD: That’s three of you who studied architecture but didn’t become an architect then. 

VR: Yeah, I really know I felt that sort of common bond with the artist as well. She seems to have such strength. Being Gego, it’s such a powerful thing isn’t it? Just to call yourself one word like that and she had a great logo as well. Well, it wasn’t a logo but a great way of writing her name which turns these letters into almost a sculptural diagrammatic form. So I felt quite inspired by her as a person as much as the work.

WFPD: Do you think these coincidences and the context in which you encountered the show somehow affected your perception of it?

VR: Definitely, because when I first saw her work in Caracas it was purely accidental. It was also the first day of my holiday which is a very special day isn’t it when you are suddenly free! I think all of these things do influence the shows that we remember. The ones that have a big impact us. The time and the place definitely count for something. I have seen her again at the Royal Academy. There was a show of Latin American Constructivist art about a year ago and I felt it was just as strong. I think there’s definitely something objective about her work and I’d really like her to be better known. It puzzles me that she’s not better known because I think there are many parallels between what she was doing and other artists who have really been recognized as significant abstract artists of that period. But as I said, because Latin America was slightly off the European or American art circuit, I think they’ve been somewhat forgotten.

WFPD: Do you think that’s the main reason why she was somewhat forgotten? 

VR: I think there’s a fragility to her work which makes it quite difficult to travel and to recreate. Some minimalist, abstract artists of that period, like Sol LeWitt, could have their work remade with instructions. They would have teams of people who were working for them so that the idea was probably the most significant thing and the actual execution of the work could be done by systems or by a gallery technician. With Gego, the making of the work was almost as important as the form itself, and the structures are not planned. She didn’t sit down and do drawings to plan out exactly how they would be. So there are no instructions really, for how to recreate these works. She would be in the gallery space with the wire and the pliers and actually be creating the work within the space. I think that means after her death in 1994, it’s been quite difficult for some of these pieces to travel. They have a sort of specificity to them and because the making process was so important I think it’s quite hard to recreate it, in a gallery environment or in a group show.

WFPD: Can you tell me the difference between her smaller work and the bigger work that was more installation-like?

VR: I think what really interests me is that her work was really structural and obviously influenced by architects and engineers, for example Buckminster Fuller was a big influence, and the triangulated forms that you see in the larger works are very rational and they have a sense of tension and structure within them. But then the smaller work is really whimsical and she used to describe her smaller sculptures as bugs. They are made of wires and other sort of materials but they have an animalistic quality to them, that doesn’t really refer so much to the structural or manmade, but much more remind you of something like a tangle of twigs or the sort of shapes you find in nature like grasses. But they’re completely manmade, often from scraps or bits of found materials. They are still quite structural and she’s obviously very interested still in lines as all the materials she is using have a linear quality to them but they’re very different from the larger scale things. I like them equally. I like them for the same reasons that I like photographing bits of seaweed on the beach or the strange things that you come across like an amazing structure of twigs within a bush in the middle of winter. You know, when you see the structure of a plant revealed. It’s an interesting parallel with the work although everything she’s created is intentionally formed but they look almost like found objects I think.

PC: You mentioned tension as a descriptive word just now, as well as the fragility in the pieces. How did the work influence the behavior of the people in the gallery?

VR: I think because they were moving objects mostly, especially the largest scale things as they are hanging, they’re very delicate and weightless, there’s a movement in the space and you get the full effect of these pieces by moving around them. That’s why it’s very hard to capture the strength of the work in photography. The minute you freeze it in a still, you’re losing something. I mean it’s really a work to be experienced and you could see that in the way people behaved in the gallery. There’s a lot more movement in the gallery; people are moving around and that atmosphere in a gallery really influences the way you enjoy it. In a lot of shows you go to now, you go in and you’re almost in a queue to see the work and you shuffle along and I hate that sense of having to see the work in a particular order that the curators told you. So I really like the fact that in this show people were wandering around all over the place and I didn’t feel like I was being preached at or told to look at it in a particular way.

WFPD: Did you feel like you were part of the show in some way?

VR: Yeah definitely. I think we even walked in through the back, or I didn’t know what was the beginning or the end and it didn’t matter. I went around twice anyway. Another thing was that I really wanted to make something from this wire. The wire was the predominant material and it’s such an accessible, easy material and I’m sure she had immense skill but she made it look so easy. 

WFPD: Going back a little bit. You came across her work in South America and kind of discovered it. Do you think that sense of discovery, not just in art but in general, speaks to you and influences your ideas about them?

VR: Yeah maybe, I’m a journalist and so I suppose the value in being able to do that work is the sense of discovery and inquiry, being curious and finding things out. I was really intrigued as I hadn’t heard of her and immediately wanted to know more. That’s a sort of journalistic spirit I guess but you know, when we’re living in London and in London we already know so much about exhibitions before we go and see them;  you read the reviews, you already know a lot about the artist, you are part of the discussion about that show and you’ve half made up your mind about what you think of it before you even get there. There’s something about just coming across an exhibition and not even knowing it’s on. That means you are coming at it completely with no preconceived ideas and that makes it exciting especially if you are really drawn to the work. 

WFPD: Did your daughters like the show?

VR: You know I really can’t remember. Isn’t that great? I was completely just thinking about the work. 

WFPD: That must’ve been a very good show. 

VR:  Because this was an art show and it’s away from my profession I think that’s important as well. Although there was a relationship in her work to architecture, if it was the show of an architect or a design exhibition I would probably have had my work hat on. And I would probably be thinking if I like the font they’ve used for the captions or if the captions are too long, or if I could write a feature on this or something. So it kind of makes it special when you’re not having to have to think in a transactional sort of way.

WFPD: Was there anything else that made this show stand out from the other shows?

VR: Well, what was interesting in this show was that they didn’t give much biographical information away, so you left really still not knowing that much about the artist. There’s a temptation to turn shows into biographies, I noticed that with the Giacometti exhibition at the Tate. It’s a retrospective so in a way of course you’re looking at someone’s life as much as you are looking at their work but you came away from that show really feeling like you’ve read a whole book about his life and I felt that was a bit of a distraction from the actual work. So I thought it was good that they didn’t do that with this exhibition. It really did focus on the work and that the work was quite timeless actually. I didn’t feel that it was necessarily a product of a particular time or a particular art movement or a cultural context and I felt it was so universal. It seemed so alive and contemporary.