Fine Lines

Line is the dominant element in Gego's art.
Courtesy of Fundacin Gego Collection

Do you know Gego? Her work was one of the standouts in the 2004 Museum of Fine Arts, Houston exhibition "Inverted Utopias: Avant-Garde Art in Latin America." Gego was the Venezuelan avant-garde artist formerly known as Gertrud Goldschmidt. As alliterative as Gertrud Goldschmidt is, you can kinda see why she went with her childhood nickname, Gego. Sculptures, drawings, prints and collages by the artist are currently on view in "Gego, Between Transparency and the Invisible" at the MFAH.

To coincide with the exhibition, the museum's International Center for the Arts of the Americas and the Fundación Gego in Venezuela issued a collection of writings by the artist, Sabiduras and Other Texts by Gego. Gego died in 1994, and five years after her death, a folder labeled "Sabiduras" (which means something like "words of wisdom") was discovered in an old trunk. Along with some other texts by Gego, the previously unknown writings were published in the book, and it's a beautifully eclectic mix. Gego writes about art and education. There's a word game, a poem and correspondence, including a 1987 letter to a Hamburg professor investigating the "Exile and Emigration of Hamburg Jews."

The woman who would become a major figure of the Latin American avant-garde was born in Hamburg, Germany, in 1912. Gego grew up in a tolerant, liberal household and went on to study architecture and engineering at a technical college in Stuttgart. She graduated in 1938, the year of the Kristallnacht. Her professors, all too aware of the climate for Jews in Germany, hustled to issue her diploma as quickly as possible. It was at graduation that she "realized the precariousness" of her situation. Her tutor wrote her numerous letters of recommendation and told her he would've liked to employ her himself but "anticipated difficulties in doing so."


"Gego, Between Transparency and the Invisible"

Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 5601 Main, 713-639-7300.

Through September 25

Meanwhile, Gego's father and brother were forced to close the Hamburg bank the Goldschmidt family had founded in 1815. Her parents applied for and received a permit to live in England, and they left in 1939. Soon afterward, Gego locked her family's empty house, threw the key in the Alster River and followed them. But with only a transit permit, she couldn't remain there indefinitely. When she at last received a visa, it was to Venezuela.

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Gego spoke no Spanish when she arrived in Caracas, but she made the country her home, marrying Ernst Gunz in 1940 and having two children. She opened a furniture and lamp factory, learning Spanish from the workers, but closed the rapidly expanding business with the birth of her second child in 1944. She and Gunz separated in 1951 and divorced in 1953, the same year she met her "life partner," the artist Gerd Leufert. Leufert was a graphic designer and a prominent figure on the Venezuelan art scene. It was he who encouraged Gego to pursue art.

In looking at her work, you can see evidence of Gego's Germanic training in architecture, engineering and drafting. Line is the dominant element in Gego's art. But the lines she uses warp and subvert notions of geometric and mechanical precision, thwarting and relaxing them.

For an untitled 1970 work, Gego used a ruler to draw an anal-retentive grid of angled lines. But then she disrupted the crisp regularity of the diamond-shaped cells of the grid. Cell by cell, she bisected each one with a tentative, hand-drawn line. In a similar untitled 1966 work, she covered a page with two ruled grids of lines. They look like they should meet in the center of the page, but they're intentionally off. With a careful, purposeful line, Gego traced around where the lines should meet. In these drawings, she's setting up an expectation of precision and then subtly and delicately undermining it. In other works, such as the untitled 1968 ink drawing pictured below, she chooses to be looser, creating a dense and more organic network of interwoven lines.

Gego mastered the precision demanded by her fields of study but comfortably discounted it, like a classically trained musician who strays and improvises. Her 1977 hanging sculptural "spheres" [Esphera (Sphere) No. 8 and No. 5] are something of an architectural riff, with a Buckminster Fuller-geodesic-dome look to them. With tiny sections of wire, Gego constructed irregular, amoeboid spheres, at first using warped Fuller-esque triangles, but later moving to rectangles, pentagons, octagons and other polygons. Gego's loose spheres sag under their own weight, giving them an organic feeling. Using snippets of wire, the artist created thoughtful, quirky and thoroughly empathetic objects defined by lines.

In her series "Drawings Without Paper," Gego used wire to break free from the page. Using random scraps like old coat hangers, she created whimsical drawings in space. Gego bent the wire in flat planes, treating it like the line of a pencil drawing. The works hang away from the walls, casting their shadows against them and creating other, more ephemeral drawings.

In tiny table-top sculptures, Gego let line flow into space. In an untitled 1969 work, clusters of wire were neatly soldered together at the base and then bent to stick up like tufts of grass. Her large-scale 1970 sculpture, Tres chorros (Three Streams), uses aluminum rods clustered together and hung from the ceiling to cascade onto the ground. Sections of rods are jointed like knees and elbows, angling in or out as they hit the ground. You imagine the sound they would make as they were dropped to the ground.

In her later years, Gego was afflicted with arthritis and could no longer work with wire. She turned instead to paper, creating tejeduras by cutting strips from old catalogs and magazines and weaving them together in loose grids. Her pursuit of line continued unabated.

Gego created a body of work that is beautiful, investigatory and still highly relevant. She was a private person and didn't promote her biography in service of her work. The papers included in Sabiduras were tucked away and never shown to anyone. But with their publication and ongoing exhibitions of Gego's work, more of us are learning more about this remarkable woman, her art, her life and the forces that shaped them.

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