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.
“Livro da Criação” (“Book of Creation”), from 1959-60, comprises 16 square boards that translate prehistory into pure form: Red and white triangles suggest the discovery of fire, a folding fan stands for the invention of the wheel, and a rotating red disk symbolizes the invention of timekeeping. (You can fiddle with a replica here, fitting its cutouts together or spinning one page’s concentric rings.) Later, displayed on a cramped wall you wish were a little longer, comes the 365-element “Livro do Tempo” (“Book of Time”), 1961-63, a major work from Pape’s Neo-Concrete period whose red, yellow and blue reliefs function as a sort of abstract calendar.
So Pape’s art was already taking on elements of action and personal experience before April 1, 1964, a few days before her 37th birthday. That day, a coup d’état overthrew the left-wing president João Goulart, prefiguring two decades of military rule. In the coming years, the junta’s stance on freedom of expression hardened, culminating in the notorious Institutional Act No. 5, which legalized censorship, banned protests and cleared the way for torture. So Pape, who marched against the dictatorship, veered again. “Caixa das Baratas” (“Box of Cockroaches”), from 1967, is just what it says it is: an entomological graveyard, displayed in a mirrored acrylic box.
The same year, she took a huge white sheet, sliced at regular intervals, to one of Rio’s many favelas. The children to whom she presented the sheet popped their heads through the slits, laughing and sticking out their tongues, as they unified their bodies into a collective organism that breathed and undulated, as gracefully as an octopus in the sea. “Divisor” (“Divider”) became one of Pape’s most significant artworks; she restaged it several times in 1968 in much more glamorous parts of Rio. A social sculpture, it was complete only with group participation — though it was also, in a reversal typical of ’60s Brazilian art, a biting metaphor for government surveillance and limits to freedom.
“Divisor” stands at the heart of this retrospective. Along with footage from the 1967 favela performance, there is a video of a re-enactment in 2010 projected on a full wall. (“Divisor” is also being restaged at 11 a.m. on Saturday, in a walk from the Met Breuer to the museum’s principal home on Fifth Avenue.) Yet the compressed installation of this show shortchanges other moving-image works, particularly her politically trenchant films of the 1970s, made while many other Brazilian artists were in exile.
Several of these films play on a loop in a tiny black box, and interesting but unessential materials, like title designs she did for Cinema Novo directors, delay the projection of major later works like “Carnival in Rio” (1974), a sociological portrait with a samba beat, and “Catiti-Catiti” (1978), a biting superimposition of Ipanema Beach glamour shots and darker texts about Brazil’s colonization. Others are shown awkwardly at waist height, or on small screens in a darkened hallway. A proper film program would have helped.
Much of the Breuer’s fourth floor has been cleared for a ravishing late work, “Ttéia 1,” in which hundreds of golden filaments stretch from the ceiling to a large central platform. It’s dazzling; it’s sultry; it’ll be selfie central. But don’t let it sidetrack you from Pape’s more pugnacious work with the camera, from her Super 8 footage shot in a favela on the sea to her documentary “A Mão do Povo” (“The Hand of the People”), from 1975, which contrasts indigenous Brazilian art and handicraft with consumerist junk in Brazil’s big cities.
The films, more than anything here, offer a model for how to make art when the world outside seems to demand something more urgent. “Brazil is made of perpetual disasters,” Pape said in a 1997 interview. “We build the way Penelope weaves, and then someone undoes it.”
What the times required — and what today’s Brazil, today’s America, may require, too — was neither art for art’s sake nor blunt propaganda, each in its own way a cop-out. They required an art plunged into life itself, uniting disparate figures into new fellowship, all under a common sheet.