Lydia Okumura

Galeria Jaqueline Martins, São Paulo, Brazil


First impressions of Lydia Okumura’s work can easily be misleading. With a career that spans almost 50 years, the Brazilian-born, New York-based artist has been investigating the interstice between two- and three-dimensional space through precise, site-specific installations. Mostly using acrylic paint, cotton string, painted aluminium sheets, charcoal and pencil, Okumura constructs abstract geometric compositions that project into three-dimensional space from the walls and floor. Although her practice can be framed within the minimalist tradition, op art is also at play. Through modest interventions, Okumura enhances our awareness of our bodily presence in the exhibition space. Yet, the cracks, scratches and scuffs on the gallery walls and floor subvert the illusion; Okumura’s conscious inclusion of these cues lends a certain expressivity to her otherwise austere minimalist gestures.


Lydia Okumura, Installation II, 1981, metal plate, acrylic on wall and floor, 1.8 x 2.6 x 1.5 m approx. Courtesy: Galeria Jacqueline Martins, São Paulo; photograph: Ding Musa

The artist’s recent show, ‘Dentro, o que existe fora’ (Inside, or What Exists Outside), at Galeria Jaqueline Martins is a welcome opportunity to revisit her oeuvre. The exhibition comprises nine, site-specific works spanning the breadth of her career, some of which have never previously been shown. A series of line drawings and precisely collaged or annotated photographic studies – the main source for her installations – evoke the documentation of 1970s conceptual practices. But it is when these works take three-dimensional form in the gallery that Okumura’s intuitive approach becomes evident: the artist adjusts her modifications for each given space. Her paint and string constructions are not idealized: glue marks and under-drawings are intentionally incorporated to subtle effect in the finished pieces.


Lydia Okumura, The Appearence, 1975/2017, cord on wall and floor, 1.9 x 1.6 x 1.6 m. Courtesy: Galeria Jacqueline Martins, São Paulo; photograph: Ding Musa

Before moving to New York in 1974, Okumura studied art in São Paulo, during the worst years of Brazil’s military dictatorship. At that time, her practice responded to the conceptual art of the period, exploring the boundaries between artistic practice and mundane labour in works that appropriated printed ephemera. For Cartões de Ponto (Timecards, 1970), for instance, Okumura photocopied timecards from the advertising agency where she worked in which she recorded ‘commercial art’ time – hours spent working on the job – and ‘art-making time’ or free time. During those formative years, she also founded the collective Equipe3 with artists Genilson Soares and Francisco Iñarra. Equipe3’s collaborative installations led to their participation in the 1973 São Paulo Biennial, where they presented the site-specific piece Pontos de vista (Points of View) – a large rock installed in a painted corner, which Okumura demarcated with string to create a volumetric frame. Equipe3 described the work as a ‘game of mutual interference’, emphasizing the space between illusion and reality that manifested in their playfulness with geometrical forms. Pontos de vista might also be considered the departure point for Okumura’s signature style, which applies geometric abstraction to site-specific installations.


Lydia Okumura, Untitled I, 1981/2017 metal plate, acrylic and cord on wall and floor, 2 x 4 x 1 m approx. Courtesy: Galeria Jacqueline Martins, São Paulo; photograph: Ding Musa

While the artist may have taken inspiration from Fred Sandback or Sol LeWitt, her original influences are Brazilian post neo-concrete artists, such as Cildo Meireles and Artur Barrio, whose work includes elements of abstraction, conceptualism and expressionism. By drawing from these sources, Okumura breathes life back into the often cold and cerebral aesthetic of minimalist art.

Main image: Lydia Okumura, ‘Dentro, o que existe fora’ (Inside, or What Exists Outside), installation view,  Galeria Jaqueline Martins, São Paulo, 2017

Ricardo Sardenberg is a writer and curator based in São Paulo, Brazil. 

Most Read

London’s fourth plinth artists announced; a new fund to protect cultural heritage in war-torn areas
Annika Eriksson, The Social, 2017, wallpaper and objects on a shelf, 500 x 450 cm. Courtesy: The artist and Moderna Museet, Malmö
Moderna Museet, Malmö, Sweden
Paul Scheerbart, Nusi-Pusi, 1912. Courtesy: Berlinische Galerie/Kai-Annett Becker
From a short history of plagiarism to Trisha Brown's walk: what to read this weekend
Q. What is art for? A. To tell us where we are.
The work of filmmaker James N. Kienitz Wilkins on the occasion of his inclusion in the 2017 Whitney Biennial film...
Trisha Brown has died, aged 80; two new appointments at London’s ICA; controversy at the Whitney
A round-up of the best shows to see in the city ahead of this week’s Art Basel Hong Kong
How should the artistic community respond when an art space, explicitly or implicitly, associates itself with right-...
Charlie Fox on a new translation of Hervé Guibert's chronicle of love, lust and drug-addled longing
Three highlights from the New York festival promoting emerging filmmakers
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, USA
A report and the highlights from a show themed around fluidity, flux, botany and the subterranean
From growing protests over the gentrification of Boyle Heights to Schimmel leaving Hauser & Wirth, the latest from...
kurimanzutto, Mexico City, Mexico
Migros Museum für Gegenwartskunst, Zurich, Switzerland
The body is a troubled thing ...
Sir Howard Hodgkin dies aged 84; finalists for Berlin’s Preis der Nationalgalerie 2017 announced

From the Women's Strike to a march that cancels itself out: what to read this weekend
The most interesting works in the IFFR’s Short Film section all grappled with questions of truth, honesty and...
With the reissue of their eponymous debut album, revisiting the career of legendary Berlin art project / punk band Die...
Galeria Jaqueline Martins, São Paulo, Brazil 

Tramway, Glasgow, UK
A work by self-taught artist Martín Ramírez
Munich’s Haus der Kunst embroiled in Scientology scandal; Martín Ramírez to inaugurate the new ICA LA
If politics today obsesses over the policing of borders, art in France is enacting multiple crossings
A new video installation from Richard Mosse investigates the refugee crisis
Gustav Metzger has died aged 90; director of the Met resigns
What draws us to certain stories, and why do we retell them? 
It’s time that the extraordinary life and work of Anya Berger was acknowledged

Latest Magazines

frieze magazine

Nov - Dec 2016

frieze magazine

Jan - Feb 2017

frieze magazine

March 2017