On Gego and Gerd Leufert: a dialogue
Gego (Gertrude Goldschmidt, Venezuelan, born Germany, 1912–1994) and Gerd Leufert (Venezuelan, born Lithuania, 1914–1998) are among the most significant artists working with the language of abstraction during the second half of the twentieth century in Venezuela. The exhibition “Gego and Gerd Leufert: a dialogue” highlights both artists’ development and reciprocal influence through a focused core of works produced from 1964 to 1990. This show, consisting mainly of works on paper and sculpture, explores shared motifs in each of these artists’ productions, most notably their use of the line as a means of enhancing the visual potentiality of empty spaces within two or three-dimensional forms. “Gego and Gerd Leufert: a dialogue” provides a long-overdue, tandem examination of the artists’ works, thereby unveiling an underlying, parallel dialogue of nonobjective language within their organic forms, linear structures, and systematic, spatial investigations.
Both Gego and Leufert received in-depth academic training that served as a major foundation for their artistic development. Born in Hamburg, Germany, in 1912, Gego graduated with a degree in engineering and a minor in architecture from the Technische Hochschule (Technical School) of Stuttgart in 1938, where she studied under the influential German architect Paul Bonatz (1877–1956).1 She fled Nazi Germany in 1939 and migrated to Venezuela, where she met Leufert in 1951.2 Once in Caracas, Gego worked as an architect and furniture designer. By the early 1950s she abandoned architecture, pursuing her artwork more seriously instead. A major figure in postwar art, Gego’s ongoing study and research of linear knots, parallel lines, and the effects of parallax—in which the direction and the shape of a static object changes due to the movement of the viewer’s physical position—became more explicit in her groundbreaking wire sculptures and environmental installations created from the late 1960s to the late 1980s.
Gerd Leufert was born in Memel, Germany (present-day Klapėida, Lithuania), and graduated from the Akademie der Bildenden Künste (Academy of Fine Arts), Munich, in 1939, an institution where he received rigorous academic training in graphic arts under the renowned German graphic designer Fritz Helmuth Ehmcke (1878–1965).3 Before migrating to Venezuela in 1951, Leufert worked as a graphic designer in several important German publishing houses such as Piper, Biederstein, Oldenbourg, and Hanser.4 Leufert was already a well-established graphic designer upon his arrival to Caracas and held subsequent prestigious positions, including director of arts at the international publishing house McCann Erickson (1952–53); artistic director of the magazine El Farol (1957), where he established experimental graphic design in typography and cover illustration; educator and docent at the Facultad de Arquitectura y Urbanismo de la Universidad Central de Venezuela (Faculty of Architecture and Urbanism of the Central University of Venezuela) and at the Escuela de Artes Plásticas y Aplicadas (School of Visual and Applied Arts, 1958–60); and curator and museographer at the Museo de Bellas Artes, Caracas (Museum of Fine Arts, 1961–73). Leufert became an unequivocal pioneer in graphic design, greatly enriching the fields of printmaking, draftsmanship, and exhibition design in Venezuela.
Much like the serpentine, undulating, cursive lines so prevalent in their abstract works, Gego’s and Leufert’s artistic paths intersected several times throughout their lives. After migrating to Venezuela, they worked alongside their contemporaries, among them Carlos Cruz-Diez (Venezuelan, born 1923), Alejandro Otero (Venezuelan, 1921–1990), Jesús Rafael Soto (Venezuelan, 1923–2005), Nedo M. F. (Nedo Mion Ferrario, Venezuelan, born Italy, 1926–2001), Marcel Floris (Venezuelan, born France, 1914–2007), and Omar Rafael Carreño (Venezuelan, 1928–2013), all of whom were proponents of Geometric Abstraction and Kinetic Art that thrived from the 1950s to the 1970s. These movements offered Gego and Leufert fundamental tools for their own repertoire, such as how to create parallactic perception through the use of light, space, structure, form, and movement. Both artists participated in a group show at the Wolfgang Gurlitt Gallery in Munich (1955) and, in Caracas, they were founding members and professors of the Instituto de Diseño, Fundación Neumann—INCE (Institute of Design, Neumann Foundation—INCE), where they both taught from 1964 to 1967. (Gego would continue teaching there until 1977.) They traveled internationally to attend printmaking workshops at the University of Iowa, Iowa City, and the Pratt Institute, New York (1959–60), and they taught fine arts at the Universidad Central de Venezuela (Central University of Venezuela), Caracas, from 1958 to 1960. (Gego would continue teaching architecture courses through 1967.) By the late 1960s, Gego and Leufert had collaborated on two large-scale public space projects that integrated sculpture into architectural settings: Torre y Mural “Cediaz” (Tower and Mural “Cediaz,” 1967–68) and Fachada y Mural “Sede INCE” (Façade and Mural “INCE,” 1968–69).
During the 1970s, when both Gego and Leufert were already well established within their respective fields, they each delved into series that gave them the opportunity to develop their expansive artistic vocabulary. From 1970 to 1974, Leufert worked on his series Listonados (Strips) (Fig. 1),5 three-dimensional objects consisting of right-angle wooden strips painted with acrylic either mounted perpendicularly to the wall or hung from the ceiling. The geometry of the square is the primary representation, according to curator Ruth Auerbach, who describes Leufert’s Listonados as volumetric structures that “trap” the immediate space and propel the spectator to perceive a fixed framework through an active interaction.6 His Listonados essentially “encase nothingness,”7 or integrate space with the artwork, so that the “frame vibrates . . . and space becomes almost tangible.”8 Similarly, Gego’s series Dibujos sin papel (Drawings without paper) (Fig. 2), her most prolific artistic investigation from 1976 to 1988, consists of gridlike structures made of wire, scrap metal, nylon, and other recycled materials, which are connected alongside geometric planes. Installed in close proximity to the wall, these fragile sculptural arrangements cast shadows that slightly move as they interact with the environment of the exhibition space. To Gego, the construction and deconstruction of the grid was the ideal matrix for her research as it provided her with infinite possibilities to modulate space and activate notions of opacity, energy, and parallactic effects.9 The Listonados and Dibujos sin papel series showcase a crucial aesthetic solution employed by both artists: the activation of space through linear structures that echo a window, a frame, an opening, an empty area, or a void that become engaged or activated with the viewer’s movement, and by extension, with each work’s immediate environment.
While Gego’s drawings from the early 1970s were a precursor to her later wire sculptures, they also provided her with the ability to study the composition of a line in relation to empty space on a flat plane. Both Gego and Leufert explored the use of line with a focus on minimal linear traces (Fig. 3) and fragmental marks (Fig. 4) that seem to go beyond the plane’s edge. Upon closer examination, one can see that Leufert has ripped into the paper itself in order to produce visible lines, thereby engaging the substrate medium in the act of drawing (one of his common practices). Gego’s investigation of the grid and the spatial system of modular lines comes alive in the form of reticular nets (Fig. 5), which echo Leufert’s labyrinthine geometric system of lines (Fig. 6). Beginning in the early 1980s, Leufert focused intently on drawing, allowing him to experiment with color, looser brushstrokes, expressive line, and the play of light and shadow. His Untitled drawing from 1980 (Fig. 7), for example, celebrates his graphic and gestural aesthetic, which is materialized through careful design. While works such as this drawing represent the greatest departure from Leufert’s training in applied arts, he maintained his characteristic use of directionality to create multiple articulations on the picture plane. The effect is a seemingly endless pathway into the depth of a concentrated network or a representation of a linear organic cascade. This work coincides with Leufert’s experiments utilizing natural materials to create sculpture, which may have also affected color choices in his later work. During this period, Gego continued to work on her Dibujo sin papel series, focusing more intently on smaller-scale works made of nylon, galvanized mesh, or other industrial materials. In her Dibujo sin papel 87/13 from 1987 (Fig. 8), for example, she attaches a piece of nylon mesh with multiple hooks onto a circular structure made of steel and iron. At the very center she interweaves a spiral helix structure, causing irregular tension and undulations within the mesh itself and echoing Leufert’s gestural linear marks.
In one of Leufert’s early drawings from 1964 titled Amor (Love) (Fig. 9), he drew a knot made up of a red and a black line that meet at the center of the paper, interconnect in a loop, and tether to two opposite hooks. The notion of this knotting system became more prevalent in his Serie Ganchos (Hooks series) drawings as they evolved to utilize a system of hooks or loops, at times penetrating the paper, but ultimately connecting with the drawn lines at certain joints in order to create the illusion of a web or a net (Fig. 10). Scholar and poet Luis Pérez-Oramas writes of a similar practice in Gego’s work: “[She] finished her works with a point that was no longer just a point, but also a beginning. Gego began and finished with knotting. The work [is] an interplay of echoes, of knotted silences,”10 (Fig. 11).
It is significant that such glimpses into Gego’s and Leufert’s respective practices convey their reciprocal influence and art-making strategies. “Gego and Gerd Leufert: a dialogue” touches upon the consistent presence of shared motifs throughout their artistic trajectories. The partnership between Gego and Leufert resulted in lifelong mutual support that concurrently nurtured their personal relationship and their independent careers as artists. Gego has said that Leufert taught her “to see and discover—things you don’t learn in engineering or architecture,”11 and has opined that there was a great amount of “constructive criticism” between the two of them.12 Both ultimately became pioneers in their field, having a long-lasting impact on future generations of artists at national and international levels.
— Geaninne Gutiérrez-Guimarães
1: For more information on Paul Bonatz’s influence on Gego’s academic training, please see Gego: Line as Object (Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz, 2013).
2: Gego first married Ernst Gunz in Caracas in 1940 and had two children, Tomás and Barbara Gunz Goldschmidt, who are now the directors of the Fundación Gego in Caracas. Gego and Gunz separated in 1951 and later divorced in 1953.
3: See C. Arthur Croyle, Hertwig: The Zelig of Design (Ames, Iowa: Culicidae Architectural Press, 2011) for the influence of Fritz Helmuth Ehmcke on education and graphic arts in German academia.
4: Miguel G. Arroyo C., ed. Gerd Leufert: Diseñador (Caracas: Museo de Bellas Artes, 1976), p. 11.
5: The word listonado is an architectural term used to describe molding, ridges, bands, or wooden strips used to support certain structures.
6: Ruth Auerbach, Enmarcando a Gerd Leufert: Listonados; Homenaje al artista en su centenario (Caracas: Trasnocho Arte Contacto, 2014), p. 20.
7: Roberto Guevara, “Leufert: Marcos para el vacio,” El Nacional (Caracas), December 12, 1972.
8: Ray Ponte [Raquel Chonchol], “Five Unique Artists in One Exhibition,” Daily Journal (Caracas), April 7, 1973.
9: In 1969 Gego created her environmental installation Reticulárea (Reticula [Net] + Area), which was the foundation for many of her sculptural investigations and allowed her to study the serial, linear superposition and transformation of irregular lines over a deconstructed grid. For more critical information on this particular open work, see Mari Carmen Ramírez and Melina Kervandjian, eds., Untangling the Web: Gego’s Reticulárea; An Anthology of Critical Response / Desenredando la red: La Reticulárea de Gego; Antología de respuestas criticas (Houston: Museum of Fine Arts, 2013).
10: Luis Pérez-Oramas, Gego: Anudamientos (Caracas: Sala Mendoza, 2004), p. 16.
11: Roberto Montero Castro, “Gego o la provocación para un mundo nuevo,” El Universal (Caracas), September 18, 1977, p. 17.