Over the last decade Gertrud Goldschmidt, who became known as the Venezuelan artist Gego – an inventive shorthand that combines the first two letters of the artist’s first and last names – has come to represent a Modernist sensibility from a decidedly outsider position. A German-Jewish émigrée in Latin America, she was a woman who used the language of formal abstraction without strong affinities to the movement with which she was often compared but never associated: Cinetismo (Kineticism), the prevailing nationalist Modernist discourse invented and claimed by Venezuela, emblematized by Jesús Rafael Soto.
Gego’s oeuvre can be described as the spatial experience of mark-making: a running commentary on the pleasures and rigours of the line, elementary shapes and the grid. Her work is part of a larger impulse towards abstraction during the 1960s and ’70s. Trained as an architect, Gego combined sculpture and drawing, liberating the drawn line from paper’s flat surface and instead rendering free-form drawings from steel wire and various found materials such as chicken wire and steel mesh. These works are restless yet plain-spoken, announced by their collective titles and numbering systems, such as the curly wire embedded in a diamond grid of Drawing without Paper 83/5A (1983). Much of her work was based on what Robert Storr calls ‘soft grids’ – tightly harnessed lines that go slack once the tension is visibly altered, allowing the line to fall where it may, so to speak. While Gego has often been compared to Paul Klee or Agnes Martin, this explains the distinctive texture of her grids, which replicate the look and feel of minimal intervention through what can only have been a labour-intensive practice, as anyone who has ever tried to fix a bracelet clasp with needle-nosed pliers can attest.
The thread-like quality of wire was not lost on Gego. Indeed, she was also intrigued with the idea of weaving. Her best-known works, suspended matrices collectively titled ‘Reticuláreas’ (Reticulations), resemble steel nets, often with intricate hook-and-eye clasps embedded into meshes of varying thicknesses and colours. These installation pieces, begun in 1969, are pure poetry, defying gravity entirely through their suspensions from the ceiling or off the wall. Because of space constraints, a small version from 1975 was the only example of this in the show, but it aptly demonstrated Gego’s remarkable ability to make curvaceous forms using straight, linear materials.
The ‘Drawing without Paper’ series from the late 1970s and ’80s follows this trajectory as well, enlarging the capacity for expanded viewing through the allure of the shadow and the play of the materials on the wall, fostering a dependency between the wire line and its sharp, shapely shadow. Gego’s sculptures are only ever as good as their installation, necessitating sensitive lighting and distance. Fortunately the works in this small, elegant show were carefully selected and lovingly displayed, maximizing space in what is most certainly a pared-down rendition of an exhibition originating at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, curated by Mari-Carmen Ramirez as a follow-up to her 2005 retrospective of the artist. Gego made numerous trips to Europe and the USA, living in New York in 1960 and again in ’63 as well as spending time at the University of Iowa. During this time her work was collected by major institutions such as MoMA and the New York Public Library but remained largely unknown and obscure. Arguably, she is as important an abstractionist as Josef Albers and as resistant in her sensibilities to easy categorization as Eva Hesse. For Gego the line, in all its potential freedom, was her permanent muse. Like Agnes Martin, she lived a long life and remained loyal to her own aesthetic, making variations of her gridded abstractions until her death in 1994.
For over a decade now, the Drawing Center has continually picked up the slack for New York’s larger, less agile institutional spaces, recouping undervalued artists and highlighting important overlooked work. This is to the Center’s credit, but one cannot help feeling that, on the heels of MoMA’s Brice Marden and Armando Reverón retrospectives, Gego’s work deserves the same sprawl and critical attention accorded her male and North American peers. This is less an issue of parity than of provincialism, which is an embarrassing New York phenomenon, as though Latin American art only exists at El Museo del Barrio in Harlem or the Bronx Museum of the Arts, as well as in spaces in Texas, California and Miami. In its sculptural renderings of the line, Gego’s Modernism is a formidable achievement.