‘Planes, forms and colours are elements of reality before being elements of an artistic language.’ Gullar’s statement echoes Judd’s references to colour, space and geometrical shapes as materials which, he claimed, were as objective and obdurate as steel or plywood. Comparing Judd’s early painted pieces with Oiticica’s ‘Spatial Reliefs’ reveals a shared preoccupation with colour applied to three-dimensional objects – Oiticica, who started to explore colour through the monochrome, would no doubt have agreed with Judd’s idea that ‘colour to continue had to occur in space.’ In Judd’s box-like object and Oiticica’s hanging relief, colour serves to articulate internal elements within the whole (the receding semi-circle in the former, the folds and corners in the latter) while also defining the general form of the work against the background of real space. We can see both from a distance before coming close and looking around, in and into these objects offered to our perception. In a 1960 text, Oiticica explained that ‘colour and structure are inseparable,’ and developed a very Juddian discussion of the specific properties of the colour he used. Yellow, for example, ‘possesses a strong optical pulsation and tends towards real space, it tends to detach itself from its material structure and to expand.’
The viewer’s ability to read the most minimal of formal elements in different ways was highlighted by Judd when he wrote about Frank Stella’s stripe paintings, which are, you will no doubt agree, strikingly similar to Lygia Pape’s Neoconcrete woodcuts. Richard Schiff has pointed to the ambiguities which Judd explored in Stella’s later works, but I would like to suggest that the artist’s comments in his 1962 review could also apply to this earlier 1959 piece by Stella. The optical effects created by the parallel lines in Stella’s painting led Judd to conclude that ‘it is both objective, like geometric work, and truculently subjective, unlike that.’ Pape’s woodcuts explore these very tensions, as the rigorous geometric composition is contradicted by the porosity of the wood which affects the precision of the lines, giving the impression that the lines were traced by a trembling hand. According to the artist, the ‘small vibration […] arose from the materials themselves.’ Paradoxically, this fragile vibration, or breath, coming from the materials is what conveys the most subjective dimension of the work.
In fact, Pape and Stella arrived at a similar point from two opposed directions. While Stella’s restrained subjectivity can easily be read as a reaction to the subjective outpourings of Abstract Expressionism, Pape and the Neoconcrete artists were, in contrast, taking a stance against the rigidly rigorous geometric abstraction of the Concrete artists of São Paulo. The issue of ‘expression’ was a recurrent term in this debate, and Gullar summarised the project of Neoconcrete art in Rio as a desire to ‘turn the geometric vocabulary of Concrete art into something expressive.’ For the Neoconcretists, ‘expression’ was closely linked to the way in which a form can suggest a living form without representing anything living. In the Neoconcrete Manifesto, Gullar explained: ‘If we must look for an equivalent for the work of art, we would be able to find it neither in the machine nor in the object perceived objectively, but rather, as Langer […] did, in living organisms.’ This ‘living’ quality of the work was sought by Neoconcrete artists through various means. The ‘small vibration’ (pequena vibração) in Pape’s prints is similar to Hélio Oiticica’s idea that an ‘interior breath’ (um sopro interior) emerged from the tension between form and colour. Aluísio Carvão also conceived colour as ‘living matter’ (matéria viva), and Amilcar de Castro’s sculptures, according to Gullar, possess an ‘explosive vitality’ (vitalidade explosive), because they seem to be capturing a moment in the growth of forms, between a point of origin and its final realisation. Thus vitality, vibrations and pulsations all seem to be closely associated with notions of transformability and mobility.