Two Female Pioneers of the Postwar Era
June 11, 2018
MASTERWORKS BY JOAN MITCHELL AND GEGO AT ART BASEL 2018
Joan Mitchell (1925–1992) and Gego (1912–1994) made extraordinary contributions to the evolution of abstraction in the postwar era, when the innovations of women artists were too often overshadowed by the masculine heroism of Abstract Expressionism. Lévy Gorvy’s presentation at Art Basel 2018 will center on rare masterworks from these two pioneering figures, presenting Mitchell’s Untitled (1959), and Gego’s Columna (Reticulárea cuadrada) (1972).
Mitchell and Gego each sought gestural vocabularies that transcended not only the narratives of nations and politics, but also of gender. Both worked concurrently but in different contexts, engaged in the cultural climates of places then considered peripheral to the ‘center of the action’ in New York: Gego lived and worked in Caracas, Venezuela, while Mitchell was in Paris and, later, Vétheuil, France. In a time of trauma and rebuilding, as well as deeply-entrenched misogyny, Mitchell’s intensely-hued canvases and Gego’s radical sculptural geometries defied hierarchies and laws, instead privileging connection, movement, and nature.
In 1959, nearly a decade after establishing herself at the vanguard of New York’s second generation Abstract Expressionist scene, Mitchell, who was born in Chicago in 1925, moved to Paris. That year, she would paint Untitled—a work that reveals the artist’s virtuosic sensibility for gesture and balance while anticipating the centralized compositions of her multi-panel works of the 1960s. Organized around a sinewy armature of thin brushstrokes on primed white canvas, Untitled, on view in the stand of Lévy Gorvy, crescendos in a central impasto passage, where primary colors animate a dense field of brushstrokes. This maelstrom of color blanches towards the edges of the canvas, generating a palpable tension between the painting’s center and periphery. Untitled exemplifies the profound visual force of Mitchell’s oeuvre. To her mind, the timelessness of painting ultimately transcended the ephemerality of style. “Music takes time to listen to and ends, writing takes time and ends, movies end, ideas and even sculpture take time,” Mitchell described. “Painting does not. It never ends, it is the only thing that is both continuous and still.”
In that same year of 1959, Gego (born Gertrud Louise Goldschmidt in 1912) arrived in New York—the year that the Museum of Modern Art began acquiring her work, starting with Sphere (1959), a painted welded brass and steel sculpture, currently on view in the museum’s exhibition The Long Run. Like Mitchell, Gego was invested in timelessness, rejecting stylistic categories and historical trajectories of influence. She wedded an expressionistic impulse with the order of the Constructivist grid, offering rationality cut with romanticism and structure that bends to nature. Her 1972 Columna (Reticulárea cuadrada), on view in the stand of Lévy Gorvy, is a standout early example of Reticuláreas (1969–82), the series of suspended gossamer structures for which she is best known. In these non-solid sculptural works, wire lines articulate geometric shapes that assemble to form net-like,three-dimensional volumes. By dissolving boundaries and engaging marginal space, the series marks a radical re-engagement with modern sculpture. The Reticuláreas push against sculptural conventions—volume, mass, solidness, and scale—to emphasize line and space. Columna (Reticulárea cuadrada) conjoins such industrial materials as stainless steel rods and metal washers and sinkers with the more diaphanous nylon thread to achieve a mesmerizing quality of being both robust and fragile. The columnar form is ultimately indeterminate: as the structure responds to the movement of the air in which it is suspended, the lines that comprise it variously partition empty space in the viewer’s perception.
Lévy Gorvy’s presentation of Mitchell’s Untitled and Gego’s Columna (Reticulárea cuadrada) at Art Basel is demonstrative of the gallery’s commitment to identifying works of the highest quality. Demand for Mitchell paintings of this caliber is particularly strong following the record-breaking sale of Blueberry (1969) this May. Blueberry sold for $16.6 million USD with fees at Christie’s New York, smashing the previous auction record for the artist. Much like the record-breaking work, Untitled is fresh to the market, coming from an important private collection, and has never been at auction. Also of exceptional rarity, Columna (Reticulárea cuadrada) is the largest and most intricate work of the series, outside of Reticulárea (1969), an environmental room in the collection of the Galería de Arte Nacional in Caracas, Venezuela. Of the approximately ten Reticulárea works that measure two meters and larger, eight are in public collections. The gallery recently placed a key work from the series, Columna 71/9 (1971), in the collection of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. At Art Basel, Lévy Gorvy is presenting Columna (Reticulárea cuadrada), one of only two remaining works of this kind in private hands, a work which has remained in the same private collection since 1972 when it was acquired directly from the artist.
Mitchell’s painting and Gego’s sculpture appear in lively dialogue with the works that complete Lévy Gorvy’s stand. Anchored in the gallery’s international exhibition program, Booth H11 continues the gallery’s ongoing tradition of offering a curated presentation for Art Basel. The selected works—organized around the centerpiece of twin, exceptional masterpieces by Mitchell and Gego—invite viewers to reassess form as they move through space. From the balance achieved in the curious asymmetry of Eduardo Chillida’s totemic sculpture Besaka (1987), to Lucio Fontana’s painting Concetto spaziale (1955)—a work that subverts the two-dimensionality of the canvas—these works reveal form as a surprisingly dynamic state. François Morellet’s 2 trames de grillage, -4° +4° (1978) evokes similar geometries to Gego’s work, playfully subverting the tyranny of the grid. As Mitchell’s fevered cloud of brushstrokes seemingly float above the canvas, the stripes of Enrico Castellani’s Superficia rigata (1961) also reject their bounds – flaring impertinently at the corners, they leave the square behind.
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