One of the corners of the gallery Touching the Void, on the fourth floor of the Museum, appears to be folded outwards, as an inverted pyramid. This striking topography—half sculpture, half architecture—is an early work by Argentine David Lamelas, titled Corner Piece. The work was built for the first time in Buenos Aires in 1966 and rebuilt by the artist this past October to be included in a gallery dedicated to the different ways artists in Caracas, New York, Zagreb, and Tokyo, among other distant cities, dealt with the problem of bare form during the 1960s.
In this interview, Lamelas discusses the origin of the work, his time working alongside a brilliant group of colleagues in Buenos Aires, and gives a surprisingly humanistic vision of his radical Conceptual art.
Inés Katzenstein: I would like to ask you about the Argentine art context in the mid ’60s, when you first made Corner Piece. What ideas informed this work?
David Lamelas: Well, I really was a teenager. I had just finished a very traditional art school training in Buenos Aires. We went to school between 8:00 and 12:00. Before I went to my house to have lunch with my parents, I went to the art galleries and I discovered the Argentine avant-garde. It was far more interesting than what I saw at the academy! I saw works by a generation of artists like Marta Minujín, Alberto Greco, Federico Peralta Ramos, Kenneth Kemble, Luis Wells, just to name a few. And, well, I thought they were closer to me, at least, closer to where I was going. So I jumped into that movement of amazing creative energy where we, the young, were calling the shots! I was lucky enough to be connected with the Torcuato Di Tella Institute, a mix between museum and an artist space that prepared me for the international circuit.
David Lamelas. Photo: Victoria Colmegna
Art is not just sculpture, or a painting; it can be something else, and go far beyond the bourgeois idea of art.
Can you characterize the energy of that moment in Buenos Aires?
Besides the work of your colleagues in Argentina, what artists interested you at that time?
A work that really impressed me was Marcel Duchamp’s The Mile of String that he did in a Surrealist exhibition in New York, in the ’40s. I remember seeing it in a very small photo. There were paintings by the greatest—Picasso, Picabia, Magritte—and Duchamp surrounded all the exhibition panels, and the works, with string. Even though there were great paintings, they really looked pathetic to me next to this courageous piece of Duchamp. That image really changed my conception of art; it gave me the freedom to imagine that art is not just sculpture, or a painting; it can be something else, and go far beyond the bourgeois idea of art.
I am sure you know that Duchamp did a very curious work in a corner, Door: 11 rue Larrey.
I always loved that work. It always intrigued me. What was that door in the corner? How did Duchamp manage to do it?
In previous interviews you stated that you were primarily interested in treating space, and specifically the space of the gallery, as a medium that you can manipulate.
Yes. That interest started early on in the ’60s. I remember that I convinced the director of the Galería Lirolay, where the extreme cutting-edge art was happening in Buenos Aires, to give me a show. I made Super Elástico (1965), a minimalist object that would expand and take over the space. It was rather flamboyant. It had color, it had shapes. It was entertaining. But then I decided, little by little, to get rid of color, to get rid of decoration. The next step was Pink Skin (1965). The sculpture was attached to the wall, and it was about architecture, because if you look at it carefully, it is a house, with a column and a roof attached to the wall. And a habitat is usually made for humans to live in. So then I thought to paint the color of the palm of my hand.
I was thinking about sculpture, but I was also thinking about abandoning the conception of sculpture as an object.
Installation view of the exhibition David Lamelas. A Life of Their Own, MALBA, Buenos Aires, 2018. Photo: Javier Agustín Rojas
One of the most extreme works that you produced along those lines, because of its absolute reduction to the structural elements of the gallery space, is Limit to a Projection, from 1967, in which we see only a beam of light projected on the floor. A simple cone of light. But can you talk specifically about the ideas or processes behind Corner Piece? Why choose to work with a space so seemingly residual and complex as a corner?
For many years, I was an artist without a studio. My studio was a notebook and a pencil. In Buenos Aires in the early ’60s, my studio was in coffee-shops where I did maybe a hundred little projects on paper. And one of them was Corner Piece.
For some reason, whenever I went to a museum or an art gallery, the situation where the objects were shown was very interesting to me: the architectural context, and the social interaction with the works. And I always paid attention to the corners, something that is empty, but at the same time full of space.
Lastly, I was not coming from the idea that, let’s say, a sculpture comes from volume first and then the space. I was coming from the concept first. I always liked the sculptor Henry Moore, interestingly enough, because he dealt with volume, bronze, and space. He always gave a lot of attention to the voids.
Very early in your career, in the mid-’60s, you were not building your works, but hiring other people to do it. How was that type of process seen at that moment in Argentina?
Oh, that’s an interesting question. I mean, that was part of my theory that I was not an architect, I was not a carpenter, I was not really a sculptor. I only had ideas. So I always hired someone to build them. In Argentina, it was seen as something bizarre. I remember a very good friend of mine who is a great artist said, “Oh, Lamelas, he gets away with nothing.” I remember I had this installation that happened in different rooms. Several people came up to me standing inside the piece, asking, “Where is your work?” And I said, “We are in it.”
David Lamelas. Límite de una proyección I (Limit of a Projection I). 1967
Any culture, any human being, we need to be supported.
Corner Piece does a little bit of the same. It disappears.
I have done Corner Piece for different specific sites, and most of the time it is ignored. People pass by. They just think it’s architecture. And at the beginning I used to be hurt by it, but then I thought, “No. This is great. That’s what it is.”
That’s funny because, you know, the gallery where it’s installed now at MoMA is called Touching the Void.
I know, and I am very happy about it. I have always been thinking about the void.
I have one last question. Which of your more recent works do you feel continues the ideas of inversion, topography, and hybridity of Corner Piece?
Well, you know, there is one from the ’90s. (Can you call a work made more than 20 years ago “recent”?) It is called Falling Wall, and it is a piece that I made in Milan in 1991. After many years of dealing with film and video, I decided to return to sculpture. I was looking back at what I had been trying to do in the ’60s and finally understanding it. Falling Wall represents a wall that falls into space, sustained by tree trunks.
And it seems to produce the same kind of disorienting effect in relationship to the body of the viewer as Corner Piece.
Yes, it does. It’s the weight of the wall coming at you, making the space full of meaning. It is about architecture, but it’s also about us, human beings. The work was made just after the fall of the Berlin Wall. And somehow it refers to the fact that we all need support. Any culture, any human being, we need to be supported. And finally, walls shouldn’t be made to divide, but to join, in a way. We will always find a way to get through.