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Modern Art of South America comes to the RA

Minimalist migrations

Published 10 June 2014

How does an art movement travel to a new continent? As the RA’s ‘Radical Geometry’ opens, Gabriel Pérez-Barreiro maps the cultural and political changes that were crucial to the development of abstraction in South America.

  • Uruguay

    Concept Connecting ancient Incan and modern geometries.
    When 1930 and ‘40s.
    Who Joaquín Torres-García founds School of the South.

    Our story starts in 1934 when a by-then old man, Joaquín Torres-García (1874-1949), disembarked from a ship in the harbour of Montevideo, his birth city, after a lifetime working in the major artistic cities of the world: Barcelona, New York, Paris. Torres-García returned to Uruguay with great ambitions and the conviction that South America would be the birthplace of a new Utopian art movement that would build on and renew the ideas developed in the European avant-garde.

    In a missionary vein, Torres-García searched for disciples who would join him in his new ‘School of the South’ that would fuse ancient and contemporary art with a South American perspective. Although he had worked alongside Piet Mondrian and Michel Seuphor in Paris, Torres-García was as impressed by the geometry of Incan ceramics at the city’s Trocadéro museum as he was by the hard-edged Neoplastic compositions of these European artists. Mondrian and the Inca shared the same sense of composition, proportion and mathematical principle, and this led him to speculate that art could be a way of bridging cultures and fusing spiritual traditions. He developed these theories in several volumes that culminated in Constructive Universalism, published in Buenos Aires in 1944.

    Torres-García worked with great energy in his native city, founding two artistic associations, publishing magazines and books, and hosting a regular radio show. His audience was the literate middle-class of a then-prosperous and highly educated country. Uruguay was known as the ‘Switzerland of South America’ in the 1940s and ’50s because of its tradition of liberalism (it was one of the first countries in the continent to give women the vote, separate church from state and recognise divorce). Yet Torres-García’s works were understood by few outside his group of disciples and he lived modestly.

    Torres-García worked in a variety of styles and subjects, from more traditional still-life and landscape to fully abstract work such as Construction in White and Black (1938), in which the stacked geometric forms that stand out in relief recall stonework of Incan temples. He is best known for his grid-like compositions filled with symbols and letters such as Constructive Composition 16, from 1943, in which we can see the sun, an anchor and even the letters that spell out the name Montevideo. In works such as these, Torres-García gave visual form to his aspirations that contemporary art should speak as much to the past as to the present, using the universal language of geometry to find connections between ancient and new, local and global.

  • Joaquín Torres-García, Construction in White and Black

    Joaquín Torres-García, Construction in White and Black, 1938.

    Oil on paper mounted on wood. 80.7 x 102 cm. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Patricia Phelps de Cisneros in honour of David Rockefeller, 2004. Photo Colección Patricia Phelps de Cisneros..

  • Argentina

    Concept Social revolution through experimental art.
    When 1940s.
    Who Arte Madí and the Concrete Art-Invention Association.

    For a number of young artists in Buenos Aires across the Rio de la Plata in the mid-1940s, Torres-García was an old man, clinging to antiquarian notions of the past and to a romantic idea of painting and spirituality. These artists, in their late teens and early 20s, felt a compelling urge to make a radical new art that would reflect the ideological extremes of the Second World War and the fight against Fascism. For them, all previous art was a form of bourgeois elitism, and they proposed to use geometry as a universal language to make art objects that could be made and enjoyed by all people. In doing so, these artists – Tomás Maldonado, Gyula Kosice, Carmelo Arden Quin, Rhod Rothfuss and Juan Melé, among others – tried to revive the revolutionary ideas of Russian Constructivism which in the early years of the Russian Revolution had tried to create a new art of the people based on extreme geometry. Of course by the 1940s, the official art of the Soviet Union was Socialist Realism, but the Argentines chose nonetheless to promote a severe form of abstraction as a way of supporting class struggle.

    In the mid-1940s Argentina was profiting from its own political neutrality and its grain exports during the Second World War, as well as from an influx of highly educated European refugees. But its political future was in the balance as right and left fought for power, creating the vacuum that was filled by the rise of Juan Domingo Perón, an ambiguous populist with strong ties to the unions, but who many suspected of being a closet Fascist. Against this backdrop, radical artists formed the Concrete Art-Invention Association in 1945 and Arte Madí in 1946, writing provocative manifestos in which they proclaimed their revolution in art as the vanguard for a social revolution that would remove all class distinctions. Their works were uncompromisingly geometric and severe, unsigned (to sign a work was considered a mark of bourgeois decadence), and often breaking the boundary of traditional painting supports, as we can see in Juan Melé’s Irregular Frames No. 2 (1946), in which the colourful forms seem to be pushing the frame into a bold geometric shape. As John Carter RA explains, the irregular or structured frame was seen as a way to question the long tradition of paintings within rectangular frames, which since the days of Alberti in the Renaissance had been associated with illusionism: a window onto the world.

    By creating irregular forms, or even separating shapes in space – as seen in Raúl Lozza’s Relief No. 30 (1946) – the artists were attempting to create an object that no longer resembled a painting as it was then understood. Arte Madí, founded by Kosice, Arden Quin and Rothfuss, took these ideas further by introducing physical movement into the works. In Kosice’s Mobile Articulated Sculpture (1948), the viewer was invited to pick up hinged metal bands and make their own composition. The idea that artist and viewer could share authorship of an artwork became a feature of the South American avant-garde. Arte Madí also proposed a fusion of disciplines, and its exhibitions and magazines included architects, composers, dancers and writers. Many of these artists took on several pseudonyms, adding fictional members of a movement that sought to spread its influence internationally. After a period of intense activity from 1944 to 1948, many of these radical artists became disillusioned by the hardening ideological positions of the emerging Cold War, and by the rise of Peronism. Some left Argentina for Europe – Tomás Maldonado, became a designer and philosopher in Germany and Italy – while others abandoned the extreme positions of their youth or even stopped making art. A few, like Kosice, continued to innovate in the field of Kinetic Art.

  • Juan Melé, Irregular Frame No. 2

    Juan Melé, Irregular Frame No. 2, 1946.

    Oil on plywood. 71.1 x 50.2 x 2.5 cm. Colección Patricia Phelps de Cisneros. © Estate of Juan Melé.

  • Brazil

    Concept São Paulo’s machine aesthetic and Rio’s redefinition of the art object.
    When 1950s and ‘60s.
    Who Ruptura and Neo-Concretism.

    Unlike Argentina or Uruguay, Brazil was positioned to emerge as an economic superpower in the postwar years. The government of Juscelino Kubitschek from 1956 to 1961 heralded an era with the aim of building national industries to remove the country’s reliance on imported goods. A clear symbol of Brazil’s new confidence was the decision to move the capital city away from the colonial splendour of Rio de Janeiro to a brand new city in the heartland of the country, Brasilía. The enthusiasm for all things modern was felt across the arts, and Brazilian modern architecture and design is justly celebrated. For visual artists, geometric abstraction was a language that perfectly reflected the country’s industrial and progressive spirit. The creation of the São Paulo Biennial in 1951, following on the heels of two new museums of modern art in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, created a forum for Brazilians to see the best of international modern art, but also to present themselves as the vanguard within this international context.

    The Swiss artist Max Bill was awarded the grand prize for sculpture at the first Biennial in 1951, and his hard-edged, mathematical and calculated style was to become a model for many young Brazilian artists. Waldemar Cordeiro, Geraldo de Barros, Hermelindo Fiaminghi, Judith Lauand and several other São Paulo artists were members of Ruptura, a movement that from 1952 posited a precise machine aesthetic, which, according to their manifesto, had ‘clear and intelligent principles’ and was ‘capable of practical applications’. In Cordeiro’s Visible Idea (1956), for example, we can see how mathematical principles were applied with a diagrammatic clarity in the central interlocking spirals, painted with precision on a surface that seems industrially produced, although it was painstakingly made by hand. Not surprisingly, many Brazilian artists also had careers as graphic or industrial designers, where these principles of clear, graphic communication could be introduced into a mass market.

  • Tomás Maldonado, Development of a Triangle

    Tomás Maldonado, Development of a Triangle, 1949.

    Oil on canvas. 80.6 x 60.3 cm. Colección Patricia Phelps de Cisneros © Tomás Maldonado.

  • In Rio geometric abstraction was to take a different path. In the early 1950s artists in the Neo-Concrete movement, such as Lygia Pape, Franz Weismann and Hélio Oiticica, made similarly reductive works. However, by the middle of the decade more organic and relaxed compositions appeared, although still within a very limited and rigorous vocabulary. For example, in Oiticica’s Painting 9 (1959), the black quadrilaterals, while still pure in their formal language, appear to be moving more organically across the surface, as though floating on air or in water. The more relaxed lifestyle and exuberant nature of Rio, as opposed to the severe concrete of São Paulo, may have something to do with this change. Rio was also the hub of Bossa Nova, a new tropical jazz that came to represent a suave and refined aesthetic across the globe.

    Rio was also home to some of the more radical proposals to emerge out of geometric abstraction in South America. In 1959 Lygia Clark made hinged sculptures that she collectively called ‘Bichos’ (‘Creatures’). These allowed the viewer to interact physically with the object, making a potentially infinite number of compositions. Meanwhile, Hélio Oiticica’s interest in the slum cultures of Rio led him in 1965 to create a wearable geometric composition, the parangolé, that was used in the city’s Samba School, collapsing traditional distinctions between high and low culture. Both of these artists pushed the boundaries of the object, but still maintained (some would say renewed) abstraction’s original utopian and transformative aspirations.

  • Hélio Oiticica, Painting 9

    Hélio Oiticica, Painting 9, 1959.

    Oil on canvas. 115.9 x 88.9 cm. Colección Patricia Phelps de Cisneros. © Projeto Hélio Oiticica.

  • Venzuela

    Concept Optical effects and colour fields.
    When 1950s and ‘70s.
    Who Artists such as Carlos Cruz-Diez, Gego, Alejandro Otero and Jesús Soto.

    Caracas of the 1950s and ’60s was, like São Paulo or Rio, a bustling and rapidly growing city, keen to establish a modern and forward-looking identity. Major urban projects such as the University City, designed by Carlos Raúl Villanueva and inaugurated in 1954, expressed a vision of a tropical modernism that was sophisticated and cosmopolitan. The public spaces of the University City included major artworks by American and European artists such as Alexander Calder, Jean Arp, Victor Vasarely and Fernand Léger, along with works by the new generation of local artists including Jesús Soto, Alejandro Otero and Mateo Manaure. Riding on the wealth created by enormous oil reserves, Venezuelans collected art, while large-scale public works created an urban iconography that was playful and optimistic on a scale that rivalled Mexico City’s famous murals.

  • Jesús Soto, Double Transparency

    Jesús Soto, Double Transparency, 1956.

    Colección Patricia Phelps de Cisneros. © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2014.

  • For Soto, Carlos Cruz-Diez and Alejandro Otero, the challenge of art was how to capture and generate the transitory effects of light and time. In works such as Double Transparency (1956), Soto superimposed grids to create optical vibrations as the viewer moved in front of the works. For Cruz-Diez colour was the central issue, and in his series ‘Physichromie’ (derived from ‘physics’ and ‘chromatic’) he made compositions that change colour depending on the viewer’s position and the ambient light, generating immersive and unstable fields of colour. The delicate wire structures of Germanborn Gego (Gertrude Goldschmidt), such as her series ‘Esfera (Sphere)’, are geometric, while more like tree branches than mechanical objects. From Torres-García’s School of the South to Cruz-Diez’s vibrant colour fields, geometric abstraction in South America above all gave visual form to different ideological and political positions. For the Brazilian critic Mário Pedrosa, it was ‘the experimental exercise of freedom’.

    Radical Geometry: Modern Art of South America from the Patricia Phelps de Cisneros Collection is at the RA from 5 July - 28 September 2014.

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