Text by Anna Ratcliffe
Gego: Line as Object, currently on show at the Henry Moore Institute Leeds, is the first time that the artist’s work has been exhibited in a UK solo show. Gego is a Venezuelan artist who used line as a medium to explore form and space.
Born Gertrude Goldschmidt, she was prominently known by the abbreviation Gego – a childhood nickname created by taking the first two letters of her first and last names. This pseudonym was intentionally used to prevent her work from being read biographically. However, a short account of her life explains a lot about her practice; born in Stuttgart in 1912, she studied architecture and engineering in Hamburg, but her life was uprooted in 1939 as being of Jewish descent, the Nazi occupation in Germany meant it was no longer safe for her to stay in the country. Gego managed to find passage to Venezuela through a distant relative and it is there that she started making art.
Gego denied ever wanting to become an artist, explaining that it was something that just happened, and also vehemently denied being a sculptor, stating “Sculpture, three-dimensional forms of solid material. Never what I do!”. Nowadays the definition of sculpture has moved far away from the heavy immovable objects of Gego’s preconceived notion and it seems appropriate that her suspended forms should be shown in an Institute dedicated to sculpture.
When entering the gallery you are met with her series of ‘Drawings Without Paper’ (1983). These consist of wire sculptures, as if a pen line has jumped from the white background of the wall behind, the drawing now hanging in three-dimensional space. This series illustrates some of the most important aspects of Gego’s work and the themes that run throughout the show. It is not simply the wire object in ‘Drawings Without Paper’ that demands our attention, it is the negative space and what we can see through that negative space. Gego was very conscious of the shadows that her work creates, and this is seen clearly in the next piece in the exhibition, ‘Vibration in Black’ (1957). This torso-like structure of aluminium hangs suspended in space; slowly rotating, the ‘body’ plays tricks on your eyes and its projected shadow produces fantastic rippling effects. This is Gego’s earliest sculpture and may be seen as being influenced by the Kinetic Art movement in South America at the time of its creation.
Moving through the exhibition the true breadth of Gego’s work is represented from her weavings to print making, watercolours and ‘Bichitos’ (1987-89), which are a series of small sculptures made out of leftovers from other works and discarded objects, including telephone wire and a bag to carry lemons. In the white-walled space of Gallery Two you encounter her larger sculptures balanced like clouds and seemingly to defy gravity. These pieces are created from individual wire lines, forming geometric patterns that are hung from a singular point and seem to tessellate out from this spot. In a way this is how the artist formed these works, with no sketches or written plan but simply starting at one point and working outwards.
Gego’s work not only deals with form and volume, but also with transparency and the spaces in-between. From her beginnings as an architect, where line was used as a tool for siphoning off space, she moved to thinking of line as an autonomous object. This is illustrated in her ‘Autobiography of a Line’ (1965): it is not line used for function but as an object in its own right and with its own story to tell. It is Gego’s fascination with line that drove her artistic practice and the expanded quote taken as the exhibition title exemplifies this – ‘line as object to play with’.
Anna Ratcliffe is a History of Art graduate based in Leeds.