Down to the Wire

Museum of Fine Arts, Houston/Fundación Gego/Will Michels

Gego: Reticulárea, 1969

Museum of Fine Arts, Houston/Fundación Gego/Will Michels

Gego: Reticulárea, 1969

In 1815 the German Jew Isaac Meyer Goldschmidt opened the bank J. Goldschmidt Sohn in Hamburg, guaranteeing his family’s prosperity for more than a century. When Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia in March of 1939, his grandchildren closed the bank and fled to England. But his twenty-six-year-old great-granddaughter, Gertrud, was denied the same visa as her parents and escaped instead to Venezuela, fat that year from oil exports that would finance its rapid modernization after the war.

It was Paul Bonatz, a professor from her studies in Stuttgart, who advised Gertrud to flee. In 1938 she had earned her degree in architecture and engineering, and during her first decade in Caracas she put it to use as a freelance architect before trying her hand at visual art, first in two dimensions and then in three. By midcentury she was known as Gego, a radically inventive abstractionist on the order of her compatriots Alejandro Otero and Jesús Rafael Soto. Her work was shown in the US in 1965 in “The Responsive Eye,” the exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art that introduced American viewers to Op Art, short for optical art—sculptures and paintings that create the illusion of movement. MoMA’s director, Alfred H. Barr Jr., had met Gego in New York at the start of the decade, just after the city wrested the mantle of modernism from Paris—as the story goes.

Gego’s first museum retrospective in New York—and her first in the US since a 2005 show at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston—is now on view at the Guggenheim, which has a well-advertised record of challenging the narrative of North Atlantic modernism espoused by MoMA and its American peers. (Among the headliners of MoMA’s rehang in 2019 was “Sur moderno: Journeys of Abstraction,” featuring gifts from the Venezuelan media mogul Patricia Phelps de Cisneros, best of all a suite of Gegos.) Over the last half-century the Guggenheim has mounted solo exhibits of the major Latin American modernists Lucio Fontana, Félix González-Torres, Gabriel Orozco, Doris Salcedo, Soto, Rufino Tamayo, and, just last year, Cecilia Vicuña. It aims now to track Gego’s “markedly individual artistic path” toward her “unique language of abstraction.” The show, curated by Pablo León de la Barra and Geaninne Gutiérrez-Guimarães, allots enough space to her drawings, prints, artist’s books, and textiles to suggest that she worked with equal success across mediums. But the work itself proves that Gego had a métier, and it was sculpture, mostly wire, a malleable submedium that runs from Ptolemaic Egypt to Alexander Calder and Ruth Asawa.

Past a few wire sculptures hung from the high ceiling in the first gallery are early works on paper made from 1953 to 1960 in casein, gouache, tempera, and watercolor—a wall of foreplay. Just up the ramp, two ink drawings from 1957 and three etchings from 1960, all black-and-white, rage against the confines of their surfaces. Gego yearned to leap into the third dimension, and she did so with four small sculptures displayed in one rotunda recess: 12 círculos concéntricos (1959), Cubo en esfera (1966), Esfera blanca (1966), and Sphere (1959).

With the last one she landed. Sphere is a truly formidable brass and steel piece made in Iowa during her second trip to the US. Rods jut from three tilted axes to form comb-like semicircles that, when overlaid in the viewer’s various lines of sight, create grids that seem to vibrate. Before the viewer knows it they have moved around the sculpture and perceived each of its three planes in blurred succession. The critic Yve-Alain Bois once pronounced that “it is foolish to rave about anything” Gego made before the late Sixties, but Sphere shows that in the Fifties, before she began working in wire, she was compelling the viewer’s movement to great effect. Like all the best op artists she used visual trickery not as an end but as her means to an additive visual field. 

Gego was not a colorist, even on the few occasions when she tried. Cuatro tetreados (1966) and Cuatro planos rojos (1967), two iron pieces, look like models made by a modern architect who knows that a well-chosen cerise is a social good. Here and elsewhere, the inability to move around the sculptures is the installation’s big liability. At one viewing, when a guard abandoned his post, I lunged onto the incline between a wall and the platform that supported the Pequeña vertical (1970). In leaning on my thigh and turning my head I sensed Gego’s hands bending the wire, shaping a representation not of a human body but of human movement itself. The wire ornament of Egyptian filigree came to mind: in both cases precise folds of dense metal seem to send the most earthly of materials to the stratosphere. A craftsperson’s knowledge and skill, snatched by an artist.


The ur-Gegos are the Reticuláreas, her large hanging wire works, which spread like webs across the Guggenheim’s bays. The first on the ramp is Reticulárea cuadrada 71/6 (1971), in which wire descends from a bar to form a grid, then crawls diagonally both toward the left and toward the viewer. Formed in the negative space are squares, triangles, rectangles, and trapezoids of roughly similar sizes. The protrusions in the lower half of the sculpture seem to yearn to replicate the shapes infinitely. But where they stop matters. So precise was Gego with her structural calculations that she could have stretched the wire to greater heights, widths, and depths, but she kept Reticuláreas like this one to human size. What strikes me about these works are not their gentleness or ephemerality, and certainly not their shadows or the fact that they sway when you walk by, but their astonishing wholeness. You can easily make them out across the rotunda. 

Vered Engelhard is right to claim in their perceptive catalog essay that the “openness and fertility” of the Reticuláreas induce the viewer’s body into movement. So it was with much Kinetic Art, the other movement with which Gego is often associated. Contemporaries of Gego working in other forms created their own art around her sculptures; in 1977, Engelhard writes, the Venezuelan Sonia Sanoja danced “among Gego’s works” at the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo in Caracas and called the performance Coreogegos. Bois, understandably charmed by photographs of kids dancing inside a Reticulárea, concluded that “to fully experience this work one had to engage one’s whole body—not just one’s immaterial gaze; as if in Gego’s world one intuitively freed oneself from the constraints of traditional (museal) beholding conventions.” But Gego’s accomplishment in the Reticuláreas is not her activation of viewers’ bodies. If her work physically engages viewers—by, say, compelling them to move around her sculptures—it is in service of a more expansive visuality of a kind that two-dimensional art cannot accomplish but that sculpture always has.


In the catalog, the curator Michael Wellen discusses Gego’s final Reticulárea, made in 1982 for a group show at Frankfurt’s Alte Oper. It was her “homecoming”; she had not made a major work in Germany since fleeing the Nazis. She started making the sculpture in Caracas and finished it in Frankfurt, and then, at the exhibit’s close, Reticulárea Alte Oper was packed up and lost forever. Making good use of installation photographs and video, as well as Gego’s marvelous sketch of the plan, Wellen argues that Reticulárea Alte Oper was a piece apart—“something significantly different from the iterations that came before it.”

Fundación Gego/Reinaldo Armas Ponce

Gego: Sin titulo, circa 1987

Unlike the spare galleries in which Reticuláreas were typically hung, the Liszt Salon gave Gego the opportunity to contrast her modern sculptures with a Neo-Renaissance multipurpose room that had been updated with postmodern ornamentation, including grid patterns on mirrors, cabinets, doors, and walls. She not only spread her jagged geodesic dome across the gallery but played, twice a day from sixteen speakers throughout the room, John Cage’s Roaratorio, An Irish Circus on Finnegans Wake (1979). Rather than abolish distinctions among mediums—one of many hang-ups for installation artists around the time Gego planned Reticulárea Alte Oper—she wanted to harmonize her sculpture with music, architecture, and literature.

The surviving later works at the Guggenheim gasp, their materials overstretched or recycled one too many times. An exception is Sin título (1987), a weighted blanket of woven fiber hung from wood, so heavy it could break your sternum or your heart. As the rotunda spirals toward her death in 1994, the viewer feels the pressure to Kusamify Gego—to call her an installation artist, a participatory artist, an artist who was anything but a sculptor. At times she herself gave into it, posing for the kind of rapturous installation photo that adorns the back cover of the catalog and printing her puckish nom de guerre in a suite of splashy typefaces with the help of her graphic designer husband. Turning Gego into a brand and denying her medium are constant, twin threats. But hers is a resistance wire. 


“Gego: Measuring Infinity” is at the Guggenheim through September 10.

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