The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Two visionary women ignite the Guggenheim

Concurrent Gego and Sarah Sze exhibitions speak to order and chaos in modern society

An installation view of “Gego: Measuring Infinity,” at the Guggenheim Museum in New York through Sept. 10. (David Heald/Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York)
8 min

NEW YORK — If we strip everything back to basics, there’s a chance we might all get along.

That, in essence, was the dream of 20th-century modernism. Be assured: The dream hasn’t died. You can find traces of it in the world-conquering Esperanto of computer coding and in the algorithms behind artificial intelligence. But modernism’s dream of a utopian simplicity that can inoculate us against chaos has definitely entered a weird, dark late stage.

Happily, you can tap into earlier, sunnier versions of the dream by visiting “Gego: Measuring Infinity,” a fabulous exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum in New York. (The show was curated by Pablo Léon de la Barra and Geaninne Gutiérrez-Guimarães.) Gego (1912-1994), the German Venezuelan artist who was born Gertrud Goldschmidt, takes up most of the display bays that line Frank Lloyd Wright’s interior spiral.

In an inspired stroke, Gego has been paired with Sarah Sze (b. 1969), who has colonized the spiral’s upper reaches with her exhibit “Timelapse.” Sze represented the United States at the 2013 Venice Biennale. Her work — complex installations of ladders, lamps, fans, clamps, potted plants, videos, photographs, torn paper, masking tape, pulleys and string, wire and wooden scaffolds — also spills into some of the building’s other spaces.

Without forcing correspondences or reducing either artist to a function of the other, the two exhibitions lubricate jammed thoughts about what we want from art today, what we used to want and why it may have changed.

How good, really, was Picasso?

Sze’s work is in no way intended as a commentary on Gego’s. Yet the relationship between the two is inadvertently fecund, and suggestive, in its way, of the relationship between Homer’s “Odyssey” and James Joyce’s “Ulysses.”

I don’t mean to inflate either show’s importance — only to point out that where the work of Gego feels somehow foundational and pure in its simplicity, Sze’s work is different. At first it appears messy, improvised and oblique — the sculptural equivalent of marginalia. But, like Joyce’s “Ulysses,” it gradually takes on a teeming complexity and poetic depth.

I’ve always loved Gego’s individual works when I’ve encountered them in museums’ permanent collections. Her mostly wire constructions, often suspended from the ceiling or mounted on pedestals, are grounded in a simplicity that’s reassuringly transparent. You can see exactly how they’re made.

What I hadn’t registered — and what’s extraordinary about Gego’s oeuvre as a whole — is the sheer variety of her inventions, all dreamed up within strict, self-imposed parameters. She was a sculptor of extraordinary sophistication and subtlety. Her creations combine the playful vivacity of Alexander Calder and the woven robustness of Ruth Asawa and Janet Echelman with the optical intelligence of Bridget Riley and the ethereal delicacy of Lygia Pape.

Gego was born in Hamburg. The sixth of seven children, she was raised in a Jewish family and trained as an architect in Stuttgart. The Nazis stripped her of German citizenship in 1935. Nonetheless she managed, three years later, to gain a diploma in both engineering and architecture. By 1939, understanding that she was in mortal danger, she fled Germany, ending up in Caracas, Venezuela. There she found work as an architect before ultimately pursuing a career in art.

The switch was less abrupt than it sounds: The kinds of things Gego was investigating in both fields were clearly related. In those postwar decades, modernism was sweeping through Latin American art and architecture. Venezuela, in particular, was a hotbed of geometric and kinetic art.

What was modernism? Very simply, it was the cultural response to modernity — to the combined impact of the scientific revolution and industrialization, to insecurity, fragmentation, remorseless change, cascading complexity and intimations of meaninglessness. The German philosopher Theodor Adorno expressed it neatly: “That the world is out of joint,” he wrote, “is shown everywhere in the fact that, however a problem is solved, the solution is false.”

Against this dark view, modernism — at least in its more utopian manifestations — proposed that a global language could be found to right the world’s disjointedness. Movements sprouting in Russia in the years immediately before and after the Bolshevik Revolution (Suprematism, Constructivism), in the Netherlands (de Stijl), in Weimar Germany (the Bauhaus) and in the United States at places like Black Mountain College, all proposed uniting the various branches of the arts, then knitting them together with the sciences, engineering and society at large.

In art, all this necessitated a turn away from illusionism and a return to the basic building blocks, the foundational honesty of abstraction: line, color, materials, structure. Things as they are, in other words — not in service to illusions.

An electrifying exhibit shows Richard Avedon at his most ambitious

In the late-1950s and ’60s, Gego took to investigating the effects of parallel lines in different planes that intersect and overlap. As you walk by these sculptures, which look almost ridiculously simple, your sightlines change the optical effect from transparent to hatched to cross-hatched to opaque and back again, all in quick succession, so that the entire structure seems subtly animated and amazingly complex.

Gego went on to work with wires bunched like the bristles of brooms before turning to very light, suspended structures of thin wires configured like grids but building out into other geometries. Each work possesses different degrees of slackness and tension. All create an interplay, too, between line and shadow, and between two and three dimensions.

The cumulative effect of Gego’s theme-and-variation approach, which has as much to do with weaving as with architecture, is deeply poetic. Her inventiveness with such strictly reduced formats was nothing short of dazzling. Despite the transparency of their human construction, her pieces have an organic look, reminiscent of naturally occurring structures such as spiderwebs, geological formations and fanning plants.

So Gego’s is a brand of abstraction that, by virtue of its rigorous distillation, presents itself as universally applicable and reliably generative. Implicit in its underlying principles is the conviction that, if we could all just fall back on some shared fundamentals, it might actually be possible to repair the world.

Where Gego’s abstract sculptures express the modernist dream of simplicity, Sze takes confounding complexity as a given — as something to embrace. That’s part of what makes her one of the most interesting artists alive. Her show, organized by Kyung An, announces that things, from the beginning, are in a state of constant change and near anarchy. Systems exist, but so does entropy. Time is out of joint, coherence elusive, nothing commensurate, everything unbalanced. Adorno was right: The only solutions are false.

Still, Sze seems to be saying, the shards and detritus we have before us can perhaps be unified — even if only fleetingly, before darker intimations take over — by our aesthetic sense, by our capacity for wonder.

The Guggenheim is a wonder-inducing place, and Sze has done a superb job responding to its distinctive architecture. Her work is so sprawling that it’s hard to tell where one piece ends and the next begins. But the installation titled “Diver” features a stainless-steel plumb bob swinging elliptically over the level surface of a container of water that sits on the Guggenheim’s sloping ramp.

As it swings, the shiny plumb bob reflects onto the water the orange and yellow sunset in a nearby photograph, which is pegged to an armature connected to a rotating fan. Meanwhile, string connects all this to a giant collage on the wall, to the oculus in the Guggenheim’s ceiling, and all the way down to the boat-shaped fountain in the ground-floor atrium.

“At the Guggenheim,” a wall label quotes Sze as saying, “perception is always being turned on its head. You’re always being disoriented and reoriented. Even the paintings are hung at an angle that the museum has found feels right to the viewer, but is somewhere in between being square to the earth and square to the slope of the building’s ramp.

“I am interested,” she continues, approaching the nub of it, “in a state of teetering — this feeling that you’re always rebalancing — because the notion that something is unstable and constantly changing signals the ephemerality and fragility of knowledge and experience.”

You could argue that Gego’s work, too, is about ephemerality. And you’d be right. Rarely, in fact, has an artist made major work by treading so lightly. But where Gego’s ostensibly fragile aesthetic is tethered at every point to sturdy underlying principles, Sze’s work fans out into epistemological mayhem. Applying terms laid down by science, you could say that Gego’s world is still Newtonian; Sze’s is quantum.

Gego: Measuring Infinity and Sarah Sze: Timelapse. Through Sept. 10 at the Guggenheim Museum, New York.