As a Venezuelan growing up abroad, seeing for the first time the work of this magnificent artist, at a Mexican museum, made me realize the distance my generation has with many masterworks of my country’s culture
Seeing one of Gego’s Reticulares is a fascinating experience. Metal wires bend and interconnect in networks that resemble the forms of trees, clouds, and even waterfalls. It seems as if hand-drawn lines had jumped from a piece of paper and started to assemble themselves in the air. I have never seen the border between the bidimensional and tridimensional get so blurry. In fact, I had never seen Gego’s art before. For many young people in the diaspora, a lot of her art and that of many classic Venezuelan artists exists just as pictures, videos, or ideas in the abstract. Now, I’ve realized that maybe Gego’s work can help us contextualize what it means to be Venezuelan in our complicated historical moment.
I first heard of Gego a few months ago, during a brief trip to Mexico City with my family. While I was trying to figure out which museums to go to, I stumbled upon a post by Venezuelan comedy-writer Andreina Borges. She commented very positively about the Gego exhibit “Measuring Infinity” at the Jumex Museum. Gego’s name did not sound familiar. I’m not an art historian, but I’m familiar with some of the big names in Venezuelan modern art like Jesús Soto, Carlos Cruz-Díez, Mateo Manaure, and so on. From the post, we knew that Gego was Venezuelan. I figured that maybe she was a contemporary Venezuelan, so we decided to go check the exhibit out. Much to our surprise, Gego was a major Venezuelan artist of the 20th century. We just had never heard of her before!
Gertrude Goldschmidt, also known by the moniker Gego, was a German-Venezuelan architect, artist, and educator who was born in Hamburg in 1912. She migrated to Venezuela in 1939, fleeing antisemitism and persecution by the Nazis, and settled in Caracas. There, she worked as an architect and designer. In the early 40s, she designed furniture for the Gunz factory, founded by her then-husband Ernst Gunz, and even designed and built two houses in Los Chorros in Caracas. Gego’s art career began in 1953 when she moved to the town of Tarma.
By 1956, after interacting with Jesús Soto and Alejandro Otero, Gego began exploring the tridimensional geometric abstractions that are so characteristic of Venezuelan art during that time, but with a unique twist.
Instead of grand and heavy metallic structures towering over the space, she created geometric abstractions focusing on negative space and lines, showing how malleable these materials and structures actually were while trying to explore what lines could become. In fact, the Venezuelan writer Jesús Torrivilla argued that her work was a critique, albeit generous, of the state of Venezuelan art in the second half of the 20th century. According to him, Gego took the materials and styles of her time and used them to show that strength can be achieved through fragility, negative space, and compactness and that the modernity that her peers championed was more fragile than anybody thought. Because of it, Torrivilla described her as “the most radical artist of Venezuelan modernism”.
All of that came through while watching the exhibit, but it also came with a recurring thought: “How many other artists do I not know? How would it have been to see more of this art in person?” Historically, many Venezuelans did not get to experience the work of the incredible artists that the country has produced. Much of their work was visible only in Caracas and, to a lesser extent, in the large urban areas of the interior. Venezuelan modernist art was closely linked with architecture and was designed as a sort of “place to visit”. Think for example of Otero’s Abra Solar in Plaza Venezuela or Soto’s iconic “Esfera de Caracas”, and even Cruz-Diez’s “Cromointerferencia de color aditivo”, the famous floor of the Maiquetía airport that has become a symbol of Venezuelan migration. In fact, while a lot of Gego’s works by Gego were rather small in size, she also participated in this wave of public art. For instance, she created a 10-meter sculpture for the Banco Industrial de Venezuela in 1962 and the facade of the INCE in 1969. This style of art was funded by governments during the democratic era as part of the modernization efforts, but the bulk of those was limited to the capital. So, the rest of the county didn’t get to experience it.
Venezuelan art is facing a new type of divide: one caused by migration and exile. Those of us who have grown up abroad, have had to understand a lot of our culture in the abstract. The rise of chavismo and migration separated us from the more tangible aspects of Venezuelanness.
I think this is one of the reasons why Gego’s exhibit at the Jumex museum was so powerful. It was deeply moving to see, in person, the style and characteristics of the art that I have only really gotten to know in pictures and stories. In addition, Gego’s approach to fragility was a constant reminder that the promised modernity of the democratic era was, indeed, ephemeral.
However, Gego’s art is more than a prophecy of the fragility of modernity. In fact, the interpretations of her work have changed through the decades. According to Pablo León de la Barra, curator of Latin American art at the Guggenheim museum, Gego’s work was perceived to be an allusion to rhizomes and other post-structuralist ideas in the 80s and then a critique of neoliberalism in the 90s. Now, I think Gego’s work can help us recontextualize what it means to be Venezuelan today.
At the end of the day, Gego’s work is about taking lines to unexpected places and connecting them in bold and interesting shapes. She even referred to some of her work as “drawings without paper”. Similarly, as the Venezuelan diaspora expands around the world, it starts making sense of its new spaces, learning new things, and adapting traditions. The lines that shape what it means to be Venezuelan are changing, and are evolving in fascinating new forms outside of the medium where we expect them to be. It might not be what we originally intended it to be, but, just like Gego’s work, it has a unique strength and a profound sense of connection.
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