In Edwin Abbott’s 1884 classic Flatland, a religious allegory about geometry, a very sensible Square discovers the existence of Spaceland, a mysterious world of three dimensions. Thrilled with his knowledge, he tries to tell the public what he’s seen, only to be imprisoned for heresy. Similar daring and dimension-crossing dreams appear in the Drawing Center’s marvelous exhibit of work by Gertrud Goldschmidt, the German-born Venezuelan artist known as Gego, who gave grids, arcs, polygons, and squiggles enchanting lives of mass and motion.
Attracted by the expressive power of the simple line, Gego was a minimalist of both style and material. She spent much of her career assembling ordinary linear objects (wire, coat hangers, metal sleeves and tubing) into what she called Drawings Without Paper—delicate hanging sculptures, confined to the vertical plane and often based on the grid, that were meant to look as if they’d been drawn freehand on nothing more than air. They’re sketches leaping into Spaceland, leaving behind their two-dimensional selves, which appear on the walls as shadows (just as Gego intended). In one of the most elegant, a gray wire mesh of galvanized steel, partially framed by a bent red bar, has been clipped in the center along a diagonal to form a subtle stroke of emptiness. In another, a grid loses its order to the chaos of advancing coils—a piece that looks like a miniature bedspring in convulsions and whose shadow could be a sketch gone wrong, crossed out in anger with scribbles. Some of the works take their three-dimensional urges further, layering the mesh, tentatively growing geometric nodules, or in one case, pushing out a red mouth-like wedge.
The grid, also dominant in Gego’s ink drawings, connects the two distinct halves of Gertrud Goldschmidt’s life—the graph paper of engineering and architecture, which she studied in Germany, and the warp and weft of South American weaving. Born in 1912 in Hamburg, the daughter of Jewish parents, Goldschmidt obtained a degree at a Stuttgart technical college in 1938—the year, it turned out, of Kristallnacht. She soon fled the Nazis, settling in Venezuela, where over the next decade or so she reinvented herself. She adopted her playful sobriquet (a combination of first letters from her two names, it has a certain Latin flavor), met her lifelong companion Gerd Leufert after abandoning a traditional marriage to another émigré, became a citizen of her new country, and, with Leufert’s encouragement, dropped architecture to devote herself full time to art at the age of 42.
That transformation, which must have been exhilarating, seems to exist in her work as a sense of restlessness and movement, of things wanting to go beyond presumed limits. In several Drawings Without Paper, wiggly filaments sprout from straight edges. In another, a shape that resembles a flattened box gradually loses coherence, finally letting itself go into a twisted tangle. There’s also a square that extends spiny tips like antennae to investigate the surroundings. Other sculptures, from the late ’60s and ’70s, express growth: Wires emerge from flat bases like grass or undulating seaweed; in a piece titled Chorros (Streams), linked rods rise upward, nearly to the ceiling, in stalagmite shapes. The exhibit also includes one example of Gego’s Reticulárea, her series of large and impressive net-like installations; this version’s complex cellular construction, of alternating squares and triangles that spread across one wall, appears to be multiplying.
The well-selected exhibit succinctly documents Gego’s nurturing of the humble line, from a single lonely streak to complex patterns and structures. Her paper drawings and monotypes from the ’60s appear like schematics for the later assemblies. The ink, always in motion, seems eager to move off the paper, as if dreaming of itself as wire. Colored and darkened strokes lurch through grids or crosshatched fields, trying to get somewhere else. Closely spaced parallel threads suddenly billow, dip, or veer off in new directions. Like a scientist, Gego constantly experimented with her subject. In fact, her wordless booklet from 1964, a series of charming sketches she called
Relation in Transparency, displays the kinds of progressions and comparisons you might find in lab notes.
Though the exhibit doesn’t include photographs of the artist—a disappointment, particularly for someone who deserves wider recognition—you’ll find several in the catalog. In one, Gego is adjusting a large sculpture; hair tied up, a cigarette dangling from her mouth, she’s pulling on rods and wires with muscled arms, a demonstration of how much effort it took to create such fragile work. But even when arthritis limited her strength near the end of her life, Gego continued to explore the line and the grid, creating the exquisite tejeduras, small square weavings of thin strips of paper or cellophane. Final acknowledgments of the country that welcomed her as an immigrant and celebrated her achievements, they’re just more evidence that Gego created some of the most intimate art you’ll find anywhere.