This paper starts with two stories, stories of what I like to call a ‘what the heck is this?’ moment in the history of art.
New York, 1962: Puzzled, Donald Judd looks at one of his first free-standing pieces, which he describes as ‘a right angle of wood placed directly on the floor.’ He is thinking: ‘The work is not lying flat upon the floor, therefore it isn’t a low relief on the floor. But on the other hand, it isn’t heaped upon the floor either, so it isn’t a high relief either.’ Years later, Judd would look back onto this moment and conclude: ‘Before the right angle and its predecessor, nothing had ever been placed directly on the floor. […] My work on the floor was a new form, creating space amply and strongly.’ As Judd sought, in 1964, to define a new type of three-dimensional work in his key text on ‘Specific Objects’, he may have cast himself back to this initial moment of puzzlement and excitement. Although he emphasised that this text was not about his own work, it is difficult not to read ‘Specific Objects’ as a kind of verbal equivalent of this right-angled object standing on the floor: a corner unexpectedly discovered at the end of an impasse, a departure from past forms of art, a turning point in time.
Rio de Janeiro, 1959: Artist Lygia Clark invites her friends to dinner at her house. Some of them are artists and poets who have recently come together, with Clark, to form the Neoconcrete group, and their first exhibition has taken place earlier that year. As they arrive, she shows them a new work of hers, a painted object lying on the floor. The two critics associated with the group stop and look. ‘I don’t know what to call this,’ she says to them. ‘It’s a kind of relief,’ suggests art historian Mário Pedrosa. But Ferreira Gullar, a poet and the author of the Neoconcrete Manifesto, disagrees: ‘it can’t be a relief – it has no surface.’ So Gullar starts thinking: ‘It’s not painting, it’s not sculpture, it’s an object. But, look, a table is an object, a chair is an object. So this work by Lygia is not an object.’ Joining the others at the dinner table, Gullar proudly announces: ‘I have found a name: it’s a non-object.’ Shortly after he would start writing his ‘Theory of the Non-Object’, which would be published in the Sunday supplement of the Jornal do Brasil in 1959; his ‘Dialogue about the Non-Object’ would follow in 1960.
Now, you may be wondering why I am not showing you at this point an image of this crucial work by Lygia Clark. The simple reason for this is that this work was either lost or destroyed by the artist, and I have been unable to find any reference to it apart from Gullar’s retrospective descriptions. Instead, I can show you one of Clark’s 1959 ‘Casulos or Cocoons’, which is a kind of painted wall relief, and an example from a series of works which she went on to make in 1960, the ‘Bichos’ (‘Animals’ or ‘Beasts’) which are hinged metal objects placed directly onto the floor. The piece recalled by Gullar was most probably made at some point between these two works, around the moment when, as Clark would recount, the ‘Cocoons’ slid from the wall onto the floor and became the ‘Bichos’.