Lygia Pape and Frank Stella: Separated at Birth?

THE DAILY PIC: The Metropolitan Museum's Pape survey shows striking similarities between some of her Brazilian works and later ones from the U.S.

THE DAILY PIC (#1776): Any fans of pared-down abstraction visiting “Lygia Pape: A Multitude of Forms,” now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, will be bowled over by the astounding resemblance between Pape’s 1956 woodcut called Tecelar and the pinstripe paintings that Frank Stella did a very few years later in New York.

I’m not saying that Stella copied Pape; I doubt he would have had access to her art. It just seems that particular art-historical moments spew out certain kinds of work, without the artists ever knowing that they are mere puppets of their place and time. And yes, I’m totally uncomfortable with how deterministic that sounds, but am also stuck admitting that such stylistic parallels are hard to account for otherwise.

Of course one could invoke Yve-Alain Bois’s notion of “pseudomorphism”—that works can look very similar and still mean and be utterly different things. Brazilian works by Pape and American ones by Stella, that is, may not really be as much alike as they seem. I’ve often had recourse to Bois’s idea, but it too has its problems. It seems to demand some kind of notion that works have “real” meanings that we can somehow winkle out, then use to tell true similarities from pseudomorphic ones.

But isn’t that likely to push us into the intentional fallacy, where what Pape and Stella say about their works is what establishes their meaning? And even if we refuse to go there, we’re still stuck historicizing our way to the “original meanings” of the works, in some kind of social or cultural context. That might have equally limiting results.

Following Stella’s famous dictum, it doesn’t seem wrong to imagine that, at least in the years around 1960, what you saw was, in fact, what you saw.

Or, to put it another way, pseudomorphism were us. (©Projeto Lygia Pape)

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