And now, a brief update from the modernist halls of Brazilian power. The president, Michel Temer, has an approval rating of about 10 percent. The giant corruption investigation Operação Lava Jato — Operation Carwash — has ensnared dozens of members of the Brazilian political class. The country continues to endure its worst recession in history. And since the contested impeachment of Mr. Temer’s left-wing predecessor, Dilma Rousseff, the new government has amended the constitution to freeze social spending for two decades, an act that a United Nations rapporteur says “will place Brazil in a socially retrogressive category all of its own.” Outside the Met Breuer this week, at the opening of an exhibition of works by the Brazilian artist Lygia Pape, protesting expatriates denounced the Temer government as illegitimate, and warned of an “ongoing coup.”
What do you do when your government cracks, and when dreams for the future die? How should your art change when social circumstances worsen? Pape, the most experimental and restless of Brazil’s great postwar artists, offers one answer. She spent her whole life in Rio de Janeiro, and the upbeat abstract forms of her early paintings and reliefs rhyme with the buoyant mood of a nation on the move, when Brasília, a futuristic capital, was rising in the heartland. But for the bulk of her career, from 1964 to 1985, she lived and worked under a dictatorship. She was briefly imprisoned, and tortured.
New times called for a new art of public intervention, communal action, anthropological inquiry and boundless risk. Whether or not you agree with the protesters that Brazil’s current political situation amounts to a coup, her edgy, unsettled art should be a standard for artists today in Brazil, and in another large, politically fraught country in this hemisphere.
The Met Breuer’s retrospective, “Lygia Pape: A Multitude of Forms,” is the first for Pape in the United States, and it has been organized by Iria Candela, a Met curator of Latin American art. Though it’s hardly perfect — stumbling particularly with Pape’s films — it features galleries of exquisite beauty and command, especially in the early stretches.
Pape (1927-2004) came of age as World War II ended and the authoritarian government of President Getúlio Vargas dissolved. A new, democratic Brazil was born; society exploded, the economy boomed and art responded in kind. Pape, who never studied art, joined Grupo Frente — a movement whose members included Lygia Clark and Hélio Oiticica — and embraced a geometric, methodical style, opposed to the Brazilian realism then in favor and drawing on the foreign abstraction seen at new museums like the Museu de Arte Moderna, which opened in Rio in 1948.
Pape’s paintings from this first period, in which rotated squares and askew, spindly lines lie in fields of white, draw heavily on the example of Soviet Constructivism. More interesting are her reliefs of the mid-1950s: blocks fitted with squares or stripes painted red, blue or yellow on different sides, so that the whole can never be fully perceived from a single angle. Exacting line drawings from that time, as well as lovely black-and-white prints of oblongs and half-moons, speak to her engagement with form as a sign of modernization, much like Oscar Niemeyer, Roberto Burle Marx and the other designers of Brasília.
Yet where artists in São Paulo often took a rigorous approach to abstraction, Pape and her Rio colleagues Clark and Oiticica were dreamier. In 1959 they veered into a more active, experimental mode they called Neo-Concretism, which prioritized participation, sensuality and the integration of art into daily life. (A copy of the Neo-Concrete Manifesto is on display here, from an age when artists still got their messages out in the Sunday paper.) Clark began her hinged bichos (critters), Oiticica made hanging wood constructions, and Pape started to make unbound books, meant to be handled, that channeled nature or the built environment into joyous abstraction.