Documenting the Visual

Building a Latin American Collection at the MoMA Library

March 29, 2018

Milan Hughston was MoMA's Chief of Library from 1999 until his retirement in 2016. His responsibilities included identifying and acquiring material for the library that would augment the museum's holdings without duplicating material available elsewhere. In the following text, Hughston will talk about some of the rare and specialized archives of Latin American art he was able to identify and add to MoMA's collection.

Milan Hughston going through CAYC archives at the MoMA Manhattan library.

One of the great joys in acquiring materials for a research library is the serendipitous discovery of treasures that you may not have been aware your collection was missing. I have been acquiring rare and out-of-print material for art research libraries for 40 years. In that time, I have seen the market change dramatically, particularly in the way one discovers material. When I started my career, it was important to make visits to antiquarian dealers to browse their stock, and most major global cities had shops to choose from. But of course the internet has changed the world of rare books. Now librarians rely on both electronic and intellectual networks. One example of how these networks yield results is in the acquisition of the Centro de Arte y Comunicación (CAYC) material.

CAYC logo

A goal of every research collection is to build on existing strengths, particularly when it comes to rare and hard-to-find material. This happened with the MoMA Library's 2016 acquisition of 800 loose sheets documenting the activities of the Centro de Arte y Comunicación [CAYC], an extremely important center of avant-garde cultural happenings in Buenos Aires from the late 1960s through 1977. The acquisition augmented MoMA's important collection of printed catalogues from CAYC and allowed us to tell an even more complete story of CAYC's role in art activism during a particularly intense period in Argentina.  

CAYC, February 1975

In the catalogue of one of its earliest and most influential exhibitions, Arte de Sistemas [Systems Art] from 1971, the text describes systems art as a movement that expresses art as "an idea, environmental art, Arte Povera, cybernetic art, proposal art, and political art." The list of artists participating throughout its first decade includes many important Latin American conceptual artists such as Jaime Davidovich, Guillermo Deisler, Juan Downey, Carlos Ginsberg, and Victor Grippo, as well as other notable names in the global mail art and political movement including Agnes Denes, Guerrilla Art Action Group, Dick Higgins, Lea Lublin, and Jiří Valoch.  

Portrait of Juan Luis Martínez

I was able to get two important artist's books by Chilean artist, poet, and activist Juan Luis Martínez for MoMA's library because I had built a long partnership with a prominent West Coast dealer in Latin American books, which were hard to acquire from South America. That dealer had discovered the Martínez books on a buying trip and brought them to a conference I was attending. The minute I saw the titles, I knew they were perfect for the MoMA Library. Librarians and collection developers need to anticipate curatorial interests, and in this case, the acquisition of the material by the MoMA library preceded an important acquisition of Martínez’s art made several years later by the curator of Latin American art.

La Nueva Novela by Juan Luis Martínez

Juan Luis Martínez published only two artist's books in his lifetime (1942-1993), during a turbulent time of political upheaval and oppression. Previously, his poems were circulated via photocopies, so the publication of the two titles was greatly anticipated by the avant-garde. The MoMA Library has a copy of each of the titles, acquired in 2009. The first one, La Nueva Novela, was originally published in 1977, and the second, Poesia Chilena, was published in 1978. La Nueva Novela, a collage of images and text, includes portraits of Rimbaud and Karl Marx in addition to 19th-century clothing fragments, which also feature in an important acquisition in 2014 by MoMA's Drawings and Prints department.  

Milan Hughston going through Martínez’s Poesia Chilena at the MoMA Manhattan library.

The second of two artist's books by Juan Luis Martínez acquired in 2009 for the MoMA Library's collection, Poesia Chilena, was published in 1978, one year after the first, La Nueva Novela. Both titles explore the relationship between object, text, and image in an abstract and spatial layout. Poesia Chilena comprises a small black and white box filled with old library cards stamped from the Biblioteca Nacional de Chile, featuring poems on death by Gabriela Mistral, Vicente Huidobro, and Pablo Neruda. In it, Martínez also included a small bag of soil titled 'Tierra del Valle Central de Chile'. Both books merge words and visual images in arresting, perplexing, and engaging ways.

Milan Hughston going through El Techo de la Ballena at the MoMA Manhattan library.

Discovering interesting materials to acquire for the Library was accomplished through many channels. One was the twice-yearly meetings of MoMA's Latin American and Caribbean Fund (LACF). My short presentations at each meeting gave members the chance to learn more about the collection, what we had acquired, and what we hoped to acquire. 

A member of MoMA’s LACF alerted us to the most complete collection extant of materials documenting the early 60s Venezuelan avant-garde movement El Techo de la Ballena [The Roof of the Whale]. The MoMA Library’s subsequent acquisition of that collection assured the preservation of the El Techo collective’s significant contributions to art and activism of the period.

Façade of Galería El Techo de la Ballena as it appeared during the exhibition Homenaje a la cursilería (Homage to Kitsch), 1961

Beginning in the first half of the 1960s, a group of artists and writers banded together under the name "El Techo de la Ballena" and emerged as an anarchic presence in Caracas' cultural climate, with a goal of 'changing lives and transforming society.'

In addition to printed manifestos and magazines, the movement's 'main events' were art actions and interventions. Three events in particular loom large in the group's notoriety. The first, in June 1961, 'Para Restituir el Magma' [For the Restitution of Magma] was offered as a 'gesture' of open protest against the country's pervasive cultural structures; the second, also in 1961, 'Homenaje a Cursileria' [Homage to Kitsch] focused on the same target; and third was artist Carlos Contramaestre's exhibition 'Homenaje a la Necrofilia' [Homage to Necrophilia] in 1962. Unsurprisingly, the exhibitions and actions riled the cultural establishment of Caracas. Though the group dispersed by the mid-60s, its political actions migrated to university campuses worldwide.

Rodolfo Izaguirre with Angel Luque’s drawing for Rayado sobre El Techo de la Ballena no. 1 (1961)

The group wrote a statement in 1963 that could apply to today's climate:

El Techo de la Ballena recognizes at the ballast
Of its cargo frequent and aggressive sea beasts
Borrowed from Dada and Surrealism....
And also, at the poles of its hulk,
A material needful of the dialectical premises
Needed to bring about change.

Installation shot of MoMA’s 2015 special exhibition held in the mezzanine of the Cullman Education and Research Building

Spurred by MoMA’s commitment to archive the El Techo material and make it available for study, several of the surviving artists and writers of the movement also made their collections available. This further strengthened the El Techo collection at MoMA, which was donated in 2012. Luis Pérez-Oramas, then-curator of Latin American art at MoMA and a native of Caracas knew the material and its importance well.

The El Techo de la Ballena collection at MoMA has been fully processed and catalogued and is available for research by scholars, who have made constant use of the material:

An exhibition of documents from the El Techo collection was organized by Jennifer Tobias, a MoMA librarian, and shown from December 1, 2015 to February 28, 2016 in MoMA’s mezzanine.

Porn Art Movement (1980–1982)/ Movimiento de arte pornô (1980–1982) archive at MoMA donated by Eduardo Kac

Eduardo Kac, a Brazilian artist and professor of Art & Technology Studies at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago donated his archives from the politically motivated Movimento de Arte Pornô [Porn Art Movement], which he created in early 1980. Kac was joined by a core group of collaborators who contested the stifling conservatism of Brazil’s military dictatorship through interventions, performances, and publications invoking pornography and advocating “pansexualism” as a form of resistance and artistic freedom of expression, often with a liberating sense of humor. 

Gang, performance Interversão, 1982. Vintage silver print by Belisario Franca, arrow stickers applied by Eduardo Kac

Eduardo Kac was joined by a number of other artists and poets from Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, who created poetry, cartoons, and manifestos. Their interventions were all enacted in public, on Rio’s most populated beaches and public gathering spots, ensuring the widest exposure to its actions and publications.  “The Gang,” as the movement's performance group called themselves, organized their first intervention, “Literary Topless,” on the beach to contest the law requiring women to cover their breasts.

Porn Art Movement (1980–1982)/ Movimiento de arte pornô (1980–1982) archive at MoMA donated by Eduardo Kac

The group's last major public intervention took place in February 1982, and included the distribution of Kac’s manifesto from 1980.  On its borders, some of its slogans were displayed, such as “For Planetary Peace,” “Down with Your Pants,” and “Everyone Nude.” As the nature of political art can be ephemeral, the MoMA Library is fortunate to have the Porn Art Movement archive preserved and available for research.

Kac's donation to the MoMA Library includes one of the largest collection of materials in North America documenting the short-lived but influential Porn Art Movement.  A partial illustrated checklist can be found at: 

Eduardo Kac piróculos (closeup), 1982. Vintage silver print by Belisario Franca. Eduardo Kac with piróculos during performance Interversão

Kac notes:

The Porn Art Movement—pansexual, progressive, formally experimental—emerged in 1980 in Brazil. This was a time when the dictatorship sent letter-bombs to progressive organizations, burned newsstands that sold independent publications, increased the number of government censors, and the general-president declared a “crusade against pornography.” The movement, which lasted until 1982, came back to light in 2012, when it was featured in an exhibition at the Reina Sofía Museum, Madrid. Soon after that, in dialogue with Milan Hughston, the idea came up of establishing a Porn Art Movement collection at MoMA’s library, in order to facilitate access for researchers. The ensemble is composed mostly from publications and original works I donated, but to celebrate Hudinilson Jr.’s [Brazilian Xerox art pioneer] memory, his mother [Maria Aparecida Urbano] kindly complemented my initial donation with publications I didn’t have."

The Porn Art Movement has gained new currency today in Brazil, where culture wars are exploding. Religious groups with political power are showing no tolerance for alterity and artistic freedom, just as the dictatorship of recent memory had clamped down on individual freedoms. It's my hope that the movement's insights, strategies, and achievements may be of assistance in negotiating this new, complex landscape.

Informe sobre Trelew [Argentina] : Comisión de Familiares de Presos Políticos Estudiantiles y Gremiales, 1974

The availability of a legendarily rare publication documenting the 1972 execution of 16 political prisoners at the airport in Trelew, Patagonia came to my notice in the summer of 2015 through Mauro Herlitzka, an expert on post-war Latin American art and documentation. Herlitzka was acting on behalf of Juan Pablo Queiroz and César Villamil, who wished to donate their copy of Informe sobre Trelew, a covert document created in 1974 that contained  a mixture of poems, photographs, and collages condemning the massacre. Those executed had attempted escape a week earlier from Rawson Penitentiary; six people succeeded in getting away but the others were forced to re-stage an escape attempt so that members of the Argentine military could gun them down. Only in 2012 were three of the officers involved sentenced to life for crimes against humanity.

Illustration in "Informe sobre Trelew" by Edgardo Antonio Vigo

Juan Pablo Queiroz and Cesar Villamil reflect that:

This very rare publication came to our hands unexpectedly during one of our typical quests in search of materials published in the 70s in Argentina. Informe sobre Trelew not only calls for justice for the slaughter committed, but is also emblematic of a captivating literary and artistic expression very much in force in Latin American countries during that time. Incorporating Informe sobre Trelew in MoMA's library allows for the preservation and global dissemination of the publication's message, in keeping with what we believe the creators of this book would have wanted.

Because of its highly inflammatory nature, very few copies of Informe sobre Trelew were made or distributed, and most of those were destroyed by pro-government forces at the height of the military dictatorship in Argentina. On the evening of the massacre, the government instituted a law banning distribution of information documenting guerrilla activities.  Informe sobre Trelew joins other publications at the MoMA Library that chronicle the literary and artistic response to the dictatorship, including CAYC.  

Edgardo Antonio Vigo, Acciones interconectadas por secuencias = Interconnected actions by means of sequences, 1973

One of the most prolific and influential practitioners of mail art was the Argentinian artist Edgardo Antonio Vigo [1928-1997].  Many of the Vigo materials came through MoMA's 1994 acquisition of the Franklin Furnace Artist Book archive.  The Furnace’s founder, Martha Wilson, was particularly successful at gathering material from Latin America, despite upheaval across South America. Vigo was also on the radar of conceptual art proponent and writer Lucy Lippard, who, from her position in the MoMA Library in the 60s, included Vigo among her ‘correspondents’ from Latin America. 

Edgardo Antonio Vigo. Miscellaneous graphic materials in Franklin Furnace Archive

Vigo was based in La Plata but was connected globally through a network of artists and activists through the mail art movement.  His ‘messages,’ especially when his son Palomo was ‘disappeared’ in 1976, alerted the rest of the world to the persecutions perpetrated by the Argentinian junta. His engaging graphic formats used sometimes subtle, sometimes jarring compositions of handmade assemblages, visual poetry, collages, and cosas [things], usually meant to be manipulated and handled.  

Milan Hughston going through Hexágono ’71 Magazine (1971–1975)

Vigo had excellent coverage in the MoMA library through a range of artist’s books and periodicals, all visually provocative and politically potent. But of course, no collection has everything, especially for someone as prolific as Vigo, so I was immediately captivated by a complete run of Hexagono ‘71 that I found at an antiquarian bookseller in Paris. I knew immediately that it would fill a gap in our collection and further strengthen our Vigo holdings.

The Vigo material has also been one of the most accessed and visible collections in the Library, and given its remarkable visual impact, selections have been included in important exhibitions such as The Unmaker of Objects: Edgardo Antonio Vigo’s Marginal Media, in 2014, and Transmissions: Art in Eastern Europe and Latin America, 1960-1980.  Each exhibition’s website captures the visually and mentally compelling work of someone who quietly but forcefully said: “Do not fear. The punishment will be for those who block the rampant empire of aesthetic acts.”

Today, social media and digital formats have taken the place of paper in documenting the art of our unsettled times. While efforts are underway to preserve this material, the paper record found in the MoMA Library ensures that the documents made by artists from 50 or so years ago remain a tangible witness to their zeal. It's been a great pleasure to see a new generation of Latin American scholars discover the value of what had been considered ephemeral.