Edgard Negret

Humanized geometry

Humanized geometry is the title of Edgar Negret’s exhibition presented by the Duque Arango Gallery, which constitutes an anthological journey through the most relevant periods of the master’s work. The exhibition reveals the eminently human character that Negret knew how to show, in addition to his immeasurable talent, inextinguishable spirit of innovation, very high sensitivity and unlimited imagination. Besides, it brings to light not only Negret’s attraction for geometry and sculpture, but also his fondness for metal, nuts, bolts and machines.

More than a Colombian and Latin-American art icon, Negret is one of the most relevant figures of the 20th century’s sculpture at international level. His artwork represents a unique chapter, although with countless positive aftermaths, introducing itself unavoidably in the international history of modern art. His work, just like that of his friends, Elsworth Kelly, Agnes Martin, Robert Indiana, Louise Nevelson and Jack Youngerman, represents the moment when, in the mid 1950’s, the foundations of Abstract Expressionism that prevailed with no challenges, began to be questioned with arguments such as his own ones, including the reintroduction of shape, the recovery of control and accuracy as expressive values, and a reappraisal of the structure in the artistic production, all of which implies innovations of deep significance in the future of plastic modernity.

Negret confronts geometry not only as a man’s invention, as a development that upraises humankind as a result of his intelligence and spirit, but also as a resource that must work primarily in favor of man who is the measure of everything for the artist. Thus, it can be verified in this exhibition which makes clear that whatever his subject, it is always the relationship of man and his environment, his progress or his history, the intellectual guide from which the magnificent shapes and his productive suggestions are slowly arising. Its geometry seems to invariably go through a humanist sieve that makes it warm and festive.

While there is no doubt that modern man of his era is the aim and driving force of Negret’s artwork, the artist nourished and slowly shaped his work through reflections that involved dissimilar topics, such as the machine, the spirit, the nature and the expression of ancestral cultures. However, Negret always knew how to harmonize this type of bifurcation of his thinking to build a fully merged artwork that is part of a continuous creative process within solid, but not limiting, conceptual variables.

In his formative period, the artist made some religious nature sculptures that reveal the influence of his childhood’s environment, Popayán, his native town, where it is evident a tendency for some attributes of the baroque period, which will have to be equally recognized although tempered, restrained in large part of Negret’s subsequent works. But after travelling through Europe and arriving in New York, the impact of progress, of technological modernity led him to a reflection on his historical moment, his life context, and persuaded him to look for a way of expression in line with the characteristics and circumstances of the mid-20th century’s life. There is no doubt that the artwork of David Smith, who used parts of agricultural machinery in his production- passed on to master Negret by encouraging him to look for materials, such as iron sheets, rods and wires, that is, industrial materials- the basis for a way of expression without records.

The first steps for the production of Negret’s mature work are then taken in New York, where many of his contributions to modern sculpture would occur, including his introduction of aluminum as a propitious material for the sculptural work of the 20th century. Aluminum has the industrial and contemporary connotation that interested him, besides of being malleable, light and stainless; it does not require large nor complex machinery for its handling, lending itself admirably to the production of his Rockets, Couplings and Watchmen, which began occupying his creative mindset as well as some architectural elements like Stairs and Bridges.

Then, he also makes the extremely relevant and effective decision of using nuts and bolts at sight to adjust the different elements of each sculpture. Thus, he finds a resource not only reliable and consistent with the industrial implications of his time, but also a procedure that clearly indicates the constructive process of his artwork; a method that was straightforward and in compliance with his increasingly peculiar purposes that had been outlined for his incursions into three-dimensional space.

Negret never interrupted his dialogue with the advancement of the arts and state-of-the-art movements: his constructive system, based on modules inspired by Antoni Gaudí’s artwork, is another factor that is indicative of his investigative and innovative spirit. Thanks to this system, Negret put together the same elements, although not always of the same size, obtaining with this procedure, an illusion of formal multiplicity that coincided with his interest for the visual effects of baroque. And shortly afterwards, he also started to combine his interest for technology with the consideration of spiritual arguments, thereby creating one of the most eloquent symbioses about the convictions and circumstances that happened in modern sculpture. There is no doubt that it was his research into the artistic production of indigenous cultures that led Negret to reconsider the forces and properties of magic and spirit as fundamental factors of his production and to work in Kachinas, Masks and Temples.

But not all Negret’s contributions to the history of sculpture were produced abroad. It is clear that upon his return to Colombia after fifteen years of absence, the country’s culture, its nature, topography and idiosyncrasy made a deep impression on the artist. For example, the great mountain ranges that cross our territory, the lush vegetation of the tropics, the marked contrast between the radiant light of low-lying areas and the torrential atmospheres of the highlands had regard to the volumetry that his artworks would gain, with their extent and expansion. Thus, as attested by the fact that, shortly after his arrival, he made another significant decision that adds to his historical contributions to the art of sculpture. The artist arches the material, curves it and holds it from the edges, thus devising a type of sculpture that simultaneously enables the appreciation of its internal and external areas –the constructivists’ old dream!

In addition, with this system attached to the effects of colors, such as black, gray, blue, red, white, and later, yellow; which hide not only the brightness and hardness of aluminum, but also its temperature and especially its weight, Negret manages to give to his pieces of art an unexpected visual lightness, in such a way that the observer forgets the properties of the metal and has the feeling that they could rise.

With this step, Negret reiterates his deep faith on the constructive impulse as a means both of ennobling and signifying life, while making explicit his space conception, not so much as an inexhaustible essence subject to being delimited and divided, but rather as a fundamental component of sculpture. From that moment on, space will have not only to flow between the components of his artworks, but also his sculpture will tend to become enveloping, surrounding portions of space through paradigms and dividing it just as the structure of his artworks- without fully isolating it – in both the inside and outside.

It is impressive that a simple gesture, such as that of arching aluminum can open so significant and unexpected horizons for arts, but from that moment on, the inside of modern sculpture ceases to be a mystery and becomes a primary consideration in its production. Negret however, was not an artist prone to dwell too long on his achievements without new challenges to tackle with devotion and enthusiasm. And this is how Negret makes two decisions in the 80s that will visually enrich his work and will provide him with new connotations and suggestions: he increases his colors with the appearance of green, orange and purple shades, and makes more evident the relation of his sculpture with nature.

While his prior artworks were not only targeted to the industrial and scientific world, but also to the laws of organic growth and the geometric and mathematical structures that science has shown to be found in large quantities in nature, the artist now complements his metaphors on architecture and aeronautics, giving rise to the construction of artworks, such as Suns and Moons, Trees and Flowers, Mountain ranges and Waterfalls, pieces of art in which the shapes are much more evocative of the topics than in his former work.

Moreover, in relation to some of these artworks it can be affirmed that Negret attains the union of two traditionally antagonistic sculptural principles, the constructivist and organicist, since many of these pieces of art could be described as figurative, as fully representative, without having the material, the constructive system and the geometrical patterns hampering the formal description or recognition of their traits.

On the other hand, in the last stage of his production and in line with his new expressive attitude, Negret is primarily interested in history and the pre-Hispanic world, and begins the construction of notoriously memorable pieces of objects and Inca and Maya productions, and also of the hypogeous of Tierradentro. The color of his artworks now explodes in a polychromy with no records in modern sculpture, as manifested in artworks, such as Inca Flag and Andean Festivity.

Simultaneously, with the increase in colors, the details in his sculptures are on the rise, resembling mural decorations, ceremonial or textile elements, all of which coincides with his preference for baroque. Negret’s artwork however, remains relatively simple and diaphanous, preserving itself within the already noted moderation and control, and keeping man along with his purposes and records as the centre of his plastic thinking. After all, geometry remains as the generator of its shapes and his thinking driver.

Edgar Negret is undoubtedly the Colombian artist who has made the most important contributions to the growth and success of modern sculpture, as highlighted by this exhibition in which a good proportion of his ideas and attainments are represented. The exhibition makes clear that Negret’s contributions to the history of art were numerous and far-reaching, and his production was always admirably consistent with the plastic and social developments of his time.

– Eduardo Serrano