At the Guggenheim Museum in New York last summer I was treated to an exhibit of the work of German-Venezuelan Woman Artist Gego (Gertrud Goldschmidt 1912-1994) and her fascination with the the non-visible connections of line, net, and triangle that create space.
As I walked the spiraling ramp that leads one through the exhibits in the Guggenheim, space was revealed by delicate, hanging, webbed creations made of metal, rope, wire and paper. The rooms echoed of the etheric, the delicate balance of life, the unseen underpinnings of reality. These alive and breathing creations cast shadows on the walls behind them — also alive and breathing. Speaking. They were quiet and loud, simple and profound. Deeply moving.
The pieces (because Gego did not want her work labeled sculpture) each possess unique, discrete character, simultaneously conveying impermanence and eternity. They encourage the viewer to wonder with their whole body. They elicit feeling, express the ineffable.
As in autumn, when drying leaves rustle, descend in colored spirals revealing the currents of wind or winter when snow falls, giving presence to silence, or summer evenings when crickets sing, revealing deeper dimensions of space—this is the experience of Gego’s art.
It was June 2023. The exhibit was called Measuring Infinity. Museum notes:
“Gego 1912-1994, born into a German Jewish family, Gertrud Goldschmidt, fled Nazi persecution in 1939 ending up in Caracas. She began her artistic career in the 1950s and “explored the relationship between line, space, and volume.”
Gego put forth radical ideas through her investigations of structural systems: transparency, tension, fragility, spatial relations, and the optical effects of motion are all methodically addressed in her singular body of work. Tracing a markedly individual artistic path, Gego defied categorization.”
Gego studied architecture and engineering in Stuttgart, Germany at what is now the University of Stuttgart. She was taught a hands-on approach which was unique for the time. She continued to pursue this way of working in her art career, creating and hanging her pieces with her own hands. She believed the tactile relationship with generative form was important.
Her family, prominent in Hamburg for over one hundred and fifty years, fled to England in 1939 to escape Nazi persecution. (They eventually settled in Los Angeles.) Gego, the sixth of seven children, stayed behind alone, to finish her education, being the last one to close down her family villa and throw the key in the nearby river when she left months later.
She was unable to obtain papers to stay in England and was recommended Venezuela by a friend, so she went there, alone, to begin a new life. It is important to remember that Gego was in exile, a Jewish refugee. She did not speak any Spanish when she fled to Caracas and had to create a whole new life for herself.
“In Venezuela she struggled to find work in architecture as a woman and a foreigner, and married Ernst Gunz in 1940. Together they opened a wooden furniture design workshop. The couple had two children, Tomás and Barbara. In 1951, they separated, and Gego met her life partner, Gerd Leufert”(https://news.artnet.com/art-world/venezuela-artist-gego-global-demand-2221617).
She began her career as an artist after establishing herself professionally. “Gego” is what her sister called her when she was young which is where the pseudonym originated.
It is often said that Gego was silent about her personal experiences of Nazi Germany, yet, as the old adage goes: silence speaks volumes.
“Art historian Rina Carvajal maintains that Gego’s work grew out of the skepticism and disenchantment of her wartime experiences, significantly dissenting from the optimistic and apologetic vision of the kinetic artists who were trying to emulate European rationalist and technological models”(https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/goldschmidt-gertrude).
Gego also drew, sketched and painted. In Venezuela she was accepted and respected by the predominantly male artistic community but internationally she was less well known.
Feminist Abstract Art
Gego is categorized as an abstract artist which places her in the lineage of Hilma af Klint, Vanessa Bell and Judy Chicago, all covered here on Nasty Women Writers. Read our posts about these other formidable women artists.
In the forward to the book for the exhibit Revolution in the Making: Abstract Sculpture by Women 1947-2016, Paul Schimmel and Jenni Sorkin explain that many groundbreaking and feminist women artists of this time period (1947-2016) pursued abstract art. It was a way of breaking barriers not only in the culture and with gender but with what was viewed as a rigid art world that imposed limitations on the way we think and perceive in general. Shimmel and Sorkin write:
“Revolution in the Making sketches out the contours of a broader, tectonic shift toward process and materials, arguing that the advances of this period were largely pioneered by women. . . Focusing on abstract sculpture by women allows us to look at the history of postwar abstraction from a new perspective, illuminating the fundamental changes that these generations of artists brought to bear on sculpture within the histories of modernism and beyond. Asymmetry and biomorphism were wrought from uncommon and found materials. These were arranged, hung, wound, split, cut, and otherwise fragmented to permeate, utilize, and territorialize space, owning it by taking up space, becoming enlarged, going beyond the wall and spreading onto the ceiling, the floor, and hanging in the air itself, like mobiles, making volumetric works that reference mortality, fragility, and contingency itself. Collectively, these works reveal an extraordinary history of invention and innovation that has inspired younger artists of all genders through a critical engagement with the history of modern sculpture, formalism, and studio practice, rather than eschewing it for text-based conceptualism”(11).
Shimmel and Sorkin also note that this generation were studio artists and that at the time, it was so important for women to have and take up studio space which had been largely male and generally denied to them. For women to allow themselves to create large sculptures with their physical bodies that were also large in scope and subject, was revolutionary.
Gego allowed herself to not only take up space but to create form and author space. Yet, in the end, for Gego it was more about collaboration with space and the forces that conspire together to give it presence and contour. She began to think and work in and with the concept of systems, interrelatedness, interconnections, webs and nets. “The net is life,” she wrote in one of her notebooks.
Gego defied categorization and did not wish to refer back to the European masters that many of her peers in South America wished to emulate. She had come from Europe, she had been schooled there, she had also suffered the repercussions of being othered there. She had no wish to try to “fit in” with the old guard. She knew she never had and never would. She cautiously kept herself outside of the mainstream art world.
“Gego’s oeuvre, therefore, seems like a blow struck for liberation from the patriarchy and constricting corset of academic rules. Her constructivist approach and her visual abilities became the impetus for casting off the chains of inflexible regulation”(Roettig in LAO 55).
The Geometry of Space
“Gego began to explore space as a theme in the late fifties. Moving beyond classic architecture, she developed ideas in which space could, essentially, be understood as an orthogonal vessel consisting of verticals and horizontals. Gego began to systematically explore space as a theme. Within her overall body of sculptures we can find groups devoted to individual geometric figure and their rendering in space. At the end of the fifties, she began working with triangles and squares—first as isolated forms, then as forms meshed together”(Froitzheim in LAO 79).
Through the pieces in the exhibit, I was able to appreciate the dimensionality of space. Gego exposes how space is different than place. Space IS. Place is something we give value and purpose to, project emotion onto. Space simply IS.
And yet space, though we think of it as empty or blank, also possesses form and connection. One line leads to another, connects to another, links to another. This is space relating and interrelating, eventually creating geometries which then continue to interconnect becoming more complex, yet subtle.
This is the web and the net which bring us to Gego’s Reticuláreas, what she is probably most known for.
In her late sixties Gego began creating her three-dimensional Reticuláreas. Gego explains:
“A reticule is a net-like weave, reticul-área: area of nets . . . It is characteristic of the Reticuláreas to have no beginning and no end, no centre and no edges, no hierarchy or balance. Everything is equal, linked together, infinite. Woven into an interrelated web, the modular configurations are linked to one another by multiple joints and notes; they unite to form a dematerialized object that offers a paradoxical opportunity to look through it as well as at it. The shape of the work constantly changes, depending upon perspective and it is difficult for the observer to view it from a distance because he is always, it seems, right in the middle”(Kölle in LAO 19).
Gego was interested in giving people an experience of space, how it changes with their movement, perspective and position. She was interested in flexibility and changeability which is why she shied away from the word sculpture which seemed static and set, unchangeable.
Gego’s Reticuláreas “are far from compact. They rely on a nerve like proliferations, rather than muscular compression; on the idea of system, rather than thing”(Froitzheim LAO 80).
“In her work, Gego disregarded the idea of an architecture bound to statistics and mass; instead she drew on the idea of space developed by Albert Einstein, which is based on the equivalence of mass and energy. Gego’s concept of a fluid, non-hierarchical space that is constantly changing in the beholder’s perception is open to social ideas and enables ‘specific sites’ to be created. When a place is transformed into the site of an event in this way, it becomes open to interferences and interventions”(Froitzheim in LAO 83).
The weaving and netting theme is repeated over and over in the art of women through time going back all the way to the Paleolithic era.
Read Nasty Women Writers piece about women and weaving: #Nastywomenweavers: Elizabeth Wayland Barber’s Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years
Gego’s Reticuláreas are reminiscent of these, the way she wove them with her hands, slowly stitching them together, hanging them as drapery or fabric, mirroring the fabric of time, being and light.
Gertrud Goldschmidt aka Gego is a Nasty Woman Artist.
©Theresa C. Dintino 2024
Fattal, Laura. “Gertrude/Gego Goldschmidt.” Jewish Women’s Archive. https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/goldschmidt-gertrude
Gego: Line as Object with essays by Eva-Marina Froitzheim, Brigitte Kölle, Lisa Le Feuvre, Petra Roettig. Hatje Cantz, 2014.
Lauter, Devorah. “Spending Her Life Outside the World’s Art Capitals, Venezuelan Artist Gego’s Meticulous Wire Sculptures Are Now in Global Demand.” Artnet, December 5, 2022. https://news.artnet.com/art-world/venezuela-artist-gego-global-demand-2221617
Schimmel and Sorkin, eds. Revolution in the Making: Abstract Sculpture by Women 1947-2016. Hauser & Wirth, 2016.