Gego (the chosen name of artist Gertrud Goldschmidt) didn’t consider herself a sculptor, at least not in the traditional sense. “Sculpture: three-dimensional forms in solid material,” she once wrote in a journal. “NEVER what I do!” Instead, she thought of herself as a kind of three-dimensional draftsperson, whose primary tool was not mass, but line.
Gego’s lines are displayed to dazzling effect at her current retrospective at New York City’s Guggenheim. The show, which fills five of the museum’s six stories (the sixth contains an exhibition by contemporary sculptor Sarah Sze), covers the four-decade span of the artist’s career.
Gego did not become an artist until midlife. Born in Hamburg, Germany, in 1912, she studied architecture and engineering at the University of Stuttgart, graduating in 1938. In 1939, she fled Nazi Germany for Venezuela. She spent the next decade working as an architect and designer, freelancing for various firms and starting a furniture workshop. It was only in the 1950s, after divorcing her husband and meeting her life partner Gerd Leufert, a Lithuanian-born graphic designer, that she began to pursue art full time.
The earliest pieces in the show are two-dimensional: a collection of drawings, paintings and prints made when the artist was in her 40s. These feel, for the most part, like studies rather than finished works; Gego’s power lay at the intersection of sculpture and drawing, not in drawing itself. In some of the most compelling pieces, we see the artist’s early exploration of overlapping parallel lines, a motif that she would return to again and again throughout her career.
In the 1960s, Gego began to realize her visions in three-dimensional space. Her early sculptures are heavy and geometric: collections of intersecting flat planes welded together and grounded on pedestals. Even in these early pieces, as in her drawings, Gego avoids solid forms—the planes are composed of evenly spaced metal rods, which she welded with the help of metalworkers.
But it was in the late 1960s, after a stint in the U.S., that Gego started to develop her distinct sculptural language. The thick metal rods of earlier sculptures became delicate wire, which Gego could manipulate by hand; the parallel lines became meshes. The pieces no longer sat on pedestals but hung suspended from the ceiling.
These new explorations would eventually evolve into the “Reticulárea” series, widely considered to be Gego’s masterpieces. These immersive environments filled rooms; visitors would have been able to experience Gego’s three-dimensional drawings from within.
The Guggenheim show does not contain one of Gego’s full “Reticuláreas,” which she designed specifically for their sites. (The components of the last “Reticulárea,” installed in Frankfurt in 1982, were lost in transit.) Looking at photographs of past installations, however, you can imagine what they were like—or how you would have felt like you were walking through a net, an infinite constellation.
Instead of a fully immersive experience, we get fragments of infinity: twisted triangular grids, a teepee-like structure dangling in mid-air. In one beautiful piece, the grid structure is disrupted by evenly spaced circular openings, reminiscent of the holes in a spider’s web.
Though geometric, these pieces are never rigid. The wires, like the lines of a sketch, waver; their thickness varies. Gego used different methods to connect the wires: sometimes she looped the ends of the wires around each other; sometimes she used hardware. These intersections, which are darker and denser than the rest of the piece, draw the viewer’s eye through space.
Like nets, the pieces also hold volume while remaining transparent. “They are sculptures that really go beyond their space,” Geaninne Gutiérrez-Guimarães, who co-curated the show with Pablo León de la Barra, told Observer. “You’re able to see through them to the space that is behind them and around them.”
Throughout the 70s and 80s, Gego continued to riff on the grid and, of course, the line. In one series, she wrapped wire meshes into cylindrical forms inspired by tree trunks; in another, she folded the grid in on itself, creating globes that hang from the ceiling like spherical galaxies. In the series Chorros (Streams), she abandoned the grid entirely, using the wire to create waterfall-like structures that pour crazily onto the floor.
Indeed, Gego was nothing if not a relentless innovator. The last levels of the exhibit show the strange and varied explorations of her final decades, like the aptly named Dibujos sin papel (Drawings without Paper), a series of “paperless frameless drawings,” as Gego called them, made of wire, hardware and other materials. At the very end of the show, we find a collection of small sculptures called Bichos (Bugs) and Bichitos (Small Bug): small, organic assemblages made from found materials and fragments of other sculptures.
But it is Gego’s lines, and the webs they weave, that shine in this show. For Gego, the line was a mark, a beautiful thing in itself, but it was also a container, and an edge–a way of enclosing infinity.
Mozart once said, allegedly, that music lies in the silence between notes, not in the notes themselves. In the physical realm, silence is space. And it is space itself that Gego so deftly illuminated.
Gego: Measuring Infinity is on view through September 10.