A Review of Lydia Okumura: Five Sides and Other Dimensions at Broadway 1602, New York
The work of Brazilian-born Lydia Okumura straddles both Minimalism and Conceptualism. Her work seeks to “make art in a spontaneous way, using the minimum necessary in order to express an idea. . . I want to express the immateriality in everything.” Her work follows in the footsteps of Concretism and Neo-Concretism. Like Lygia Clark and Lygia Pape, Brazilian compatriots, Okumura has also challenged the very notion of the conventional art object and art experience.
There are no clear, consistent definitions of Minimalism and Conceptualism. The artists invariably associated with these “art-making activities” include Carl Andre, Dan Flavin, and Donald Judd. Sol LeWitt, Robert Ryman, and Frank Stella are also frequently named. Reach a little further, dig a little deeper, and even more names are added to the list: Robert Morris and Fred Sandback. It is an approximate roster of the artists in collection of Dia: Beacon.
Both art-making categories are frequently, but inexactly, labeled genres or movements. These are usually after-the-fact rubrics applied by art critics and, especially, art historians as a matter of convenience. An artist’s most correct identity would be self-defined. Robert Mangold, for example, does not identify as a Minimalist, but accepts the association. Agnes Martin referred to herself as an abstract painter, not as a Minimalist, although a good case might be argued for her work looking minimal.
Who is notably missing from these lists, as a rule, are the numerous women—primarily, Americans and a handful of South Americans and Europeans—who explored and propelled many of the same Minimalist and Conceptualist ideas and constructs. There are exceptions.
Okumura, who attended the School of Visual Arts in São Paulo, was inspired when reading about the 1970 Tokyo Biennale, which was titled Between Man and Matter. This exhibition included many young, emerging Minimal and Conceptual artists, including LeWitt and Andre. At that time Okumura became engaged in the concept of labor, and with her classmates Genilson Soares and Francisco Iñarro, she formed a collective named Equipe3. In 1973, Equipe3 participated in Brazil’s national biennial, transforming the existing architecture, “illuminating the conceptual and physical space between illusion and reality.”
Okumura moved to New York in 1974, where she had a scholarship to the Pratt Graphics Center. Except for a brief relocation to Tokyo and Osaka in 1979 and 1980, Okumura has called New York home. She continued to work in her studio and make art and participated in numerous group exhibitions, particularly in Brazil, but she had less visibility in the United States, and in the New York art market. By 1984, Okumura began working at the United Nations in the public services unit and then as a free-lance translator. She had a significant solo exhibition at Museu de Arte Moderna (São Paulo) in 1984. Afterwards her solo exhibition history is sporadic. Nonetheless, her work was not forgotten; it routinely reappeared in group exhibitions thereafter, particularly in Brazil and Japan.
As Okumura evolved artistically, she become more engaged in working with line, form, and—always—space. That there is an appreciable empathy with LeWitt and Sandback is obvious. You might even add Mangold to the list when you look at her works on paper. There is a true aesthetic humility that Okumura shares with them. Like these Minimalists, she draws. She also uses simple, readily available, very portable material—string, wire, and paint. She does not make engineered art, like Donald Judd, which has become fetishized in the contemporary art market. Okumura’s work emanates a handmade ethic, down-to-earth personality.
Okumura’s drawings are generally prototypes for site-specific works to be commissioned, a practice similar to LeWitt’s and Sandback’s instructions and sketches. She differs by drawing the concept of spaces, defying the flat surfaces of a wall or a floor. As she described it:
“The installations I was doing were mostly based on the elements of architecture of the exhibition spaces, sometimes by projecting shapes into prisms, and painting onto the walls and floors. I was building virtual structures, crossing walls, ceiling and floors, sliding between the two and three dimensions. In a way the subject of my work was the viewer him/herself, who would walk around within it, and happen to reflect on themselves.“
The works in this gallery exhibition dated from 1971 onward, and several of them were fabricated (“realized” to use her term) and transformed into spaces or objects. Monochromatic wall paintings were combined with string, tempting you to enter and occupy Okumura’s voids. The wire cubes that hung from the gallery ceiling and the five-sided sculptures affixed to the wall had a wabi-sabi aesthetic: the pieces were not quite perfect; the placement was not quite aligned. The reality of imperfection was natural, uncontrived, and challenged notions of Minimalist purity.
Written by Clayton Press, a Contributor to Arteviste.