The situation, of course, is familiar – having haunted the avant-garde across the 20thcentury. But this exhibition serves as a potent reminder that what Clement Greenberg called the ‘umbilical cord of gold’ continues to cause complications far beyond the womb. As Benjamin Buchloh has observed in an examination of the decline of the critic, ‘management and control, validation and affirmation can just as well be performed from within the ranks of the given institutions and their networks of support, in particular the museum and the market’.[ii] Patricia Phelps de Cisneros – who sits on the boards of various museums across the world, as well as wielding the force of her extensive collection – is in a remarkably strong position to exercise such control. At the Royal Academy the result is an exhibition that looks at geometric abstraction in four different countries, across a thirty-year period. Heralding formal purity and ‘radicalism’ as symbolic of the ‘progress’, ‘reform’, ‘aspiration’ and ‘economic prosperity’[iii] of Latin America in the post-war era, the exhibition elides the distinctions between ‘formal’ and political modes of ‘radicalism’, obscures all but the most general and convenient of social and political contexts and bestows a sense of cherry-picked canonical triumph, in line with the elites’ lip-service to neo-liberal progress in the ‘New World’ (though perhaps less so with the disinvestment Cisneros has engaged in since the 1990s[iv]).
Uruguayan Joaquin Torres-Garcia provides a convenient, if in some ways incongruous, start to this exhibition: the direct lineage affirmed by his connections with the European avant-garde, and in particular with the Art-Concret movement in Paris, presumably outweighing the considerable divergences between his metaphysically inflected, symbolic art and the ‘hard geometry’ of the other artists in the show. It is, however, Torres-Garcia’s apparent ill-fit which makes his inclusion poignant – his attempts to ally European Modernism with references to Latin American Pre-Hispanic art, as well as a certain Dada crudity in object making and a Surrealist interest in juxtaposition (surprising given the hostilities at work in Paris), offering a clear reminder of the manner in which preceding Latin American avant-gardes had tended to process Modernism through the filter of local variance. As the Argentine journal Martin Fierro put it in 1924: ‘‘Martin Fierro believes in the importance of the intellectual contribution of the Americas, after taking the scissors to each and every umbilical cord. But extending the independence movement begun in language by Rubén Darío, to all intellectual manifestations does not mean we have to give up or, even less, pretend we don’t see the Swedish toothpaste, French towels and English soap we use every morning’[v].
Despite appearances it is within this paradigm of contested influence, and combined and uneven development (rather than a fully formed invention conjured from the scraps of European modernism here symbolised by Torres-Garcia) that the succeeding work is brought into greater focus. The claims to autonomy, universality or purity, so clearly implicit within the artists’ statements, must themselves be seen within the complex, dynamic and historically transient relationships of Latin American modernity. It is this complexity that is overlooked in this exhibition – which in concentrating on formal ‘radicalism’ as though it were a universal category, robs the art of its social anchor. As Roberto Schwarz has said of a passage in Caetano Veloso’s autobiography, ‘the play of conflicting forces disappears, the class alliances and antagonisms that underlie aesthetic invention, without which beauty is deprived of its social meaning’.[vi] Whilst the apparent purity of geometric abstraction was bound up with the developmentalism of the post-Second World War period, it is here presented as a crystalline symbol of it. This accounting neglects the balances and contradictions within the work, the contexts, meanings and answers it sought or gave form to, and the frequent abandonment of these explorations, in the face of diverse social realities.
The group of Argentine artists with whom Torres-Garcia shares the first room are represented by a busily hung corner of fairly inert looking shaped canvasses, and later large-format works by Tomás Maldonado and Alfredo Hlito. Whilst wall labels and exhibition catalogue note the radical Marxism of the group, no explanation is made of the manner in which this Marxism was touched by international debates, contemporary events in Argentina (amidst three years of military rule and on the eve of Peron’s populist rise), or more crucially, how it impacted on the production of their art. We would be forgiven, as such, for thinking that the artists’ Marxism was, in fact, incidental. The catalogue fails to bring us much closer to either the work, or the political position, with statements that the artists subscribed to ‘the notion that the apparently abstract language of geometry could incorporate fiction, humour, the unstable and the unexpected’ falling notably short of an illuminating context. A look to their manifestos is more revealing. There, concrete geometric art is conceived as a historically justified means of expression, giving form to ‘man’s constant, all absorbing desire to invent and construct objects within absolute, eternal human values, in his struggle to construct a new classless society, which liberates energy, masters time and space in all senses, and dominates matter to the limit’.[vii]
Rather than the receivers of foreign soap, towels and toothpaste, the artists now included themselves within the ‘highly industrialised countries’, in which ‘naturalism is beating a retreat’, and in which concrete art had emerged as the vanguard of expression. For all the positivist idealism of the pronouncements, the positioning of their ‘Madí’ art[viii] within the historical continuum of global capitalism is telling, as is the alignment of this formal and historical progression with the struggle for a classless society. The internationalist (and political) associations of both constructivism and concretism no doubt lent themselves effectively to this position. But within the local context it seems crucial that Argentina’s standing within the combined and uneven development of the capitalist world was no longer viewed as a shackle, but a liberation – the relative industrialisation of Argentina combining with a revolutionary politics and the absence of ‘European taboos’[ix] which restricted ‘pre-Madí work’. Buoyed, it would seem, by the carnage of an ‘Old World’ in the midst and aftermath of the Second World War, the ‘creation’ and ‘invention’ of concrete art were coupled, at least for a time, with political ideals and an implicit confidence in the future of the ‘New World’.
The shaped and curved canvases, interactive sculptural objects and neon light pieces (not included here), which emerged alongside such theories are remarkable in their rapid and varied movements away from the notion of a rectilinear support. (Somewhat regrettably photographs of contemporary exhibitions included in the catalogue seem to include more interesting selection of work than that presented in this show). Approached from an awareness of the Modernist canon this formal experimentation seems particularly remarkable for its derailing of the historical claims for novelty laid out, in particular, by North Americans in the succeeding decades[x]. Yet, presented within the context of a new canon building exercise, the dynamism of the pieces falls somewhat short of the polemic: they defeat the frame to fizzle underwhelmingly across the corner of the Royal Academy, and fail, somehow, to live up to the large-scale echoes which minimalism and later North American shaped canvasses have left imprinted on our minds.
For all their universalist discourse, without the support of an enlarged bourgeoisie, or the hoped for arrival of a classless society, the artistic explorations of the Madí and post-Madí groups were confined to a reduced scale suitable for exhibition in friend’s apartments (and occasionally even upon the exterior walls of their studios[xi]). Indeed amidst relative public indifference, the emergent hostility of the Communist party under renewed directives from Russia and the changing field of Argentine politics as Peron assumed power in 1947, the group split and split again with many of the artists seeming to fall off the radar of historical record. All this, no doubt, would make for a fascinating study. Here, however, the attempt to force the work into the context of a newly established lineage wilfully ignores the pathos of historical failure. An awareness of this failure is crucial to a full understanding of the works’ ‘radicalism’ and historical positioning.
The Brazilian artists who came to prominence in the 1950s found themselves in a much more hospitable environment – with an emergent museum culture and industrial elite throwing their support behind modern art and architecture in a period in which ‘developmentalist ideology’ had become ‘hegemonic’[xii]. The apparently untroubled synthesis of this moment of economic progress and ‘radical’ art, is central to the Cisneros narrative and yet, once more, evades the inconvenience of complications. As Michael Asbury notes, ‘it is not coincidental that the constructivist tendencies emerged alongside the inauguration of the museums of modern art in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro during the late 1940s and declined shortly after the inauguration of the new capital Brasilia in 1960 as faith in the industrial development of the nation dissipated with the political and economic crisis brought by the excessively accelerated modernisation of the 1950s’. Whilst the exhibition offers an unusually complete picture of the Concretist movement of the 1950s – showing the work of the São Paulo-based artists (such as such as Waldemar Cordeiro, Hermelindo Fiaminghi and Geraldo de Barros) alongside the more familiar Rio-based Neo-Concretists – it follows what Asbury notes as an established pattern in obscuring the decline in the Neo-Concretist consensus after 1960.
For all the historical interest in the chance to see the first wave of São Paulo based Concretists, it is hard to avoid the conclusion (reached most decisively by the Neo-Concretists) that there is something amiss in their rather staid engagements with gestalt theory. Against the perceptual charge of Willys de Castro’s totemic red and white Active Object (1961) Lygia Clark’s Counter Relief No. 1 (1958) and Lygia Pape’s woodblock prints (1959-60), the São Paulo works seem to move little past the realm of elegant graphic design.[xiii] The Neo-Concretist exploration – by de Castro, Clark or Pape – of the ambiguities of perception, by contrast, yielded objects that remain dynamic and somewhat mysterious – as we flit between their physical simplicity and perceptual dissonance. Once more there are interesting parallels with US minimalism: physical presence, simple geometry and an interlocking of perceptual modes forcing the viewer into increasingly active and physical modes of spectatorship. Supported by institutional patronage – and indeed (perhaps equally crucially) a strong selection – the Brazilian work sustains the cross-cultural comparison much more robustly than the Argentine. In its simultaneous demands for dynamic interaction and visual contemplation the work seems to transcend the po-faced literalism of much minimalist art, and resist its dependency on and sanctifying co-option of the exhibition space. Clark’s Counter Relief, No. 1, for example, brings to mind something of Elsworth Kelly’s early wall pieces, whilst summoning a very Juddean notion of three-dimensional objecthood, yet its power rests in an enduring sense of discovery – the relative simplicity of its indented form and black on white contrast, never fully succumbing to the understanding we feel it should. In this in fact, the Neo-Concretists seem almost closer to what Roger Coleman observed as a tendency among English painters at the 1960 Situation Exhibition towards works which were ‘cartographically simple but perceptually complex’.[xiv]
The existence of such parallels in the work of artists in London, New York and Rio de Janeiro across these years would seem to offer another potentially fertile field of comparative study.[xv] The manner in which the Brazilians developed their investigation of spectatorship and perceptual charge across the early 1960s, however, remains distinct. In this respect Lygia Clark’s Bichos series fall at a juncture – their demands for direct physical interaction highlighting a concern with redefining ritual that was shared by many of the artists in this exhibition.[xvi] Against Gyula Kosice’s earlier movable sculpture in the first room, Clarke’s Bichos combine a formal integrity with a greater promise of tactile revelation (though in the context of this exhibition, the tactile experience which both demand must remain unrealized).[xvii] In the succeeding years, as Brazil ignited with political uprisings and counter-cultural happenings – both before and after the commence of dictatorship in 1964 – an interest in transformed modes of ritual and interaction was to take centre stage for many of the former Neo-Concretists. As they positioned their work within wider social movement of the time the ‘radical’ geometry of their earlier work was displaced and a rupture with their Neo-Concretist roots completed.
If Clark’s Bichos stand poised at the edge of this rupture Oitícica’s Parangolé (a costume from a 1965 performance) is firmly on the other side. The costume, which carries the statement ‘We Live from Adversity’, hung as a banner from a burlap sack was originally worn in performances by Samba dancers of Rio’s favelas a year into the dictatorship. Having negligible interest in geometry it is wholly out of place in the context of this exhibition, where it appears like some relic of Beuysian mystification. Its inclusion here thus serves to obscure the rupture in the career of Oitícica and other former Neo-Concretists – allowing the counter-cultural allure of the later work to rub off on the cultural isolationism of the earlier, and in the process undermining our understanding of both. This is doubly regrettable as seen properly Oitícica’s growing attention to the persistent inequalities of Latin America, and his attempt to make art by fusing local popular traditions with avant-gardist tactics in fact offers a telling antithesis to the narratives of uninterrupted progress which form the central premise of this exhibition.
If the political climate of Brazil in the early 1960s led to a disintegration of the Neo-Concretist interest in the autonomy of the cultural and perceptual spheres, and a movement towards interactive and performative work, the Venezuelan artists with whom the exhibition concludes found themselves confronted by no such rupture. With government funding for travels to Europe later replaced by large-scale commissions for Universities and private patrons in Venezuela, Jesús-Rafael Soto, Carlos Cruz-Diez and Alejandro Otero became members of a ‘post-ideological’ international-avant-garde. They moved between bases in Europe whilst maintaining connections with Venezuela. With close links to Op and other European movements and a certain light-hearted charm that makes it well-suited to the decorative schemes of capitalism’s semi-public realms the world over, there is an unmistakably cosmopolitan edge to the work. Yet, I cannot help lament that the compellingly bleak and dystopian feel of Soto’s early wire pieces, the sense of alienation they express, was subsumed in the large-scale institutional pieces of later years. In these later works, like Carlos Cruz Diez’ Physichromie No. 500 (1970) the alienation moves from expression to effect – the work is experienced as a spectacle, isolating the individual as he progresses through a pre-conditioned series of physical positions to the bright-coloured visual muzak of an artificial sublime. Gego’s work is set against the mass schemes of the ‘Big Three’, (Soto, Cruz-Diez and Otero) and seems set for a wide-scale reassessment, with an exhibition at Henry Moore Institute running to the end of October. For all the contrast, however, it seems afflicted by a similar lack of expressive intensity – the hollow technocratic networks of wires, as well suited to theoretical ambiguities as they are resistant to profound engagement.
There is much to think about within this small and in some ways underwhelming exhibition. Whilst the work is deserving of considerably more attention than the small upper galleries the Royal Academy allow, the opportunity to view this selection of largely unfamiliar work is surely to be welcomed. The parallels thrown up with international Modernism, provide a challenge to canonical art historical narratives and deserve to be better known. But the exhibition also highlights the difficulty in approaching such unfamiliar art – the means by which selection and presentation can be manipulated to provide support to dominant ideologies, by obscuring the complications of historical positioning. In this instance the focus on ‘radicalism’ in fact serves as a cipher for a developmentalist history, whilst blinding us to the failures, fractures and transitions that history has been marked by – and the continuing inequalities and underdevelopment it has left behind. In so doing the exhibition establishes a false exoticism, perfectly compatible with the cultural imperialism of elite Venezuelan business dynasties, whilst obscuring the historical situation of a diverse, forward looking and at times engaged art, replete with contradictions, failures, and its own fascinating genealogies.
‘Radical Geometry: Modern Art of South America from the Patricia Phelps de Cisneros Collection’ is at the Royal Academy until the 28th of September
THIS TEXT HAS BEEN PUBLISHED IN ABSTRACT CRITICAL and written by Ben Wiedel-Kaufmann