“Gego: Measuring Infinity” at the Guggenheim

Sue Spaid

I have always appreciated the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum’s focus on experiential artworks. Since the millennium, they have presented Brazilian participatory art, Tino Seghal’s scripted performances, interventions associated with relational aesthetics, Maurizio Cattalan’s entire oeuvre like a massive mobile suspended from the occulus, Giacomo Balla’s 1916-1917 light installation, a ZERO movement survey (1957-1966), Alberto Burri’s cretti, Hilma af Klint’s immersive paintings, and now a survey of over 220 of Gego’s early paintings, experimental prints, suspended spheres, dangling “waterfalls,” free-standing “tree trunks,” and 3-D “drawings without paper.”

Born Gertrud Goldschmidt (1912-1994) in Hamburg, Gego died in Caracas, having lived in Venezuela since 1939. Although her German Jewish parents immigrated to the UK, this highly-educated architect and engineer opted instead to accept a visa to immigrate to Venezuela. Not only did this move enable her to carve out a separate path, but it surprisingly led to her becoming an artist in her late 40s, following years working as a furniture designer, mother of two, urban planner, and interior architect. Given Düsseldorf’s parallel ZERO movement (1957-1966) whose respective artworks explored the relationship between movement, light and space, she would have found compatriots had she returned to Germany, but they may not have invited her to the party, which strangely excluded that era’s remarkable Mary Baumeister.

Similar in effect to Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic structures and Kenneth Snelson’s suspended tubes, Gego’s major artworks investigate structural systems involving tension, spatial relations, and transparency. Unlike their structures, her objects are not only pliable, but they exude fragility, flexibility, and the optical effects of motion and vibration. Her pliable 3-D objects strike me as the obvious solution to the perennial problem of shipping large-scale artworks across continents, since they seem collapsible, and thus easily transportable. Of course, no one would dare to flatten them these days, even if she once did.

Gego installing Reticulárea, Museo de Bellas Artes de Caracas, 1969. Photo: Juan Santana © Fundación Gego

Two visits to the US influenced her future. She just happened to be at a printmaking workshop in Iowa between 1959 and 1960, when she made Sphere (1959), a table-top object purchased by MoMA in 1960 and later exhibited alongside artworks by around 100 artists, including several from Group Zero and another Venezuelan, in the monumental exhibition “The Responsive Eye” (1965), one of the first museum exhibitions to highlight abstract art’s perceptual anomalies. She also worked with the Tamarind Lithography Workshop in Los Angeles (1063 and 1966), where she experimented with embossing, etching, and lithography. This period is represented here by five comparatively complex and surprisingly colorful examples of lithography, such as Sin titulo (1966).

Gego (Gertrud Goldschmidt), Sin título (Tamarind 1848B) (Untitled [Tamarind 1848B]), 1966. Lithograph on paperboard, C.P. (color proof), 32 1/16 x 23 1/8 in. (81.4 x 58.7 cm). Colección Fundación Gego, Caracas © Fundación Gego. Photo: Carlos Germán Rojas, courtesy Archivo Fundación Gego

A year before Ed Ruscha printed Every Building on the Sunset Strip (1966), Gego created Autobiography of a Line (1965), a similarly accordion-folding etching featuring multiple horizontal lines. The next year she produced two “folding lithographs,” of which the longest extends 98 inches.

Scores of Gego’s abstract drawings and etchings from the late 50s through the mid-60s exemplify “seeing 3D on a 2D plane.” That is, they manifest sculptural features, as if they were studies for her later nets, spheres, trunks, waterfalls, and drawings without paper. For example, three ink drawings from 1968 are composed primarily of horizontal or vertical lines, while concentric arcs give way to concave spheres or barely visible discs. Around 1969, her works on paper which she earlier described as “linear parallelas” (parallel lines), started evolving into 3-D nets.

Gego (Gertrud Goldschmidt), Sin título (Untitled), 1968. Ink on paper, 24 7/16 x 19 3/8 in. (62.1 x 49.2 cm). Fundación Gego Collection at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston © Fundación Gego. Photo: Will Michels, courtesy The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

In the early 70s, she created numerous two and three-dimensional reticulária, a kind of cross between a flat grid and a flexible net. Bendable like nets, yet structured like grids, her various reticulária made from stainless steel and aluminum wire evoke various properties that recall either animate beings or wall hangings, which, according to a small 1969 ink drawing, she envisioned suspending between buildings. By far her most famous Reticulária (1981) is a room-size immersive installation (a.k.a. penetrable) on permanent display at the National Art Gallery in Caracas, VZ. Bizarrely, a similarly large-scale environment that she installed in Frankfurt, DE disappeared following its exhibition in a group show there in 1982.

Installation view “Gego: Measuring Infinity,” March 31–September 10, 2023, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. Photo: David Heald © Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York

This exhibition’s curators must share my admiration for Gego’s “Drawings without Paper” series, as they selected more than 40 3-D wallworks, ranging in size from 6”x 6” to 60” x 36” and dating from 1976 to 1989. Occupying five bays, they represent nearly 20% of the bays devoted to her survey. These wall works demonstrate her cleverness with ordinary, presumably found, materials that come alive in her hands. Some parts pop, while others flop, dangle, twist, and cry out for attention. Since several harken back to yesteryear’s homemade TV antennas, one imagines her attempting to communicate with people far away.

Installation view “Gego: Measuring Infinity,” March 31–September 10, 2023, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. Photo: David Heald © Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York

Just as her earlier parallel Iines gave way to messy nets, her earlier orderly table-top objects gave way to irregularly-shaped “bichos” and bichitos” (little bugs) during the late 1980s, several of which suggest nests, further transforming messy nets into their 3-D counterparts.  

Installation view “Gego: Measuring Infinity,” March 31–September 10, 2023, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. Photo: David Heald © Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York

In the last years of her life (1988-1991), she switched gears once again, and made rather irregular “weavings,” that combined her fascination with grids and found materials to yield rather unpredictable patterns.

Gego (Gertrud Goldschmidt), Tejedura 91/31 (Weaving 91/31), 1991. 19 1/16 x 13 3/8 in. (48.4 x 33.9 cm). MACBA Collection, MACBA Consortium, Long-term loan of Fundación Gego © Fundación Gego. Photo: FotoGasull, courtesy Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona, MACBA