Conceptualism is not abstraction: The right to change our minds

May 18, 2014

Gabriel’s question suggests not only that geometric abstraction has replaced Mexican muralism as the dominant image of Latin American art, but also that conceptualism constitutes its obvious extension and counterpart. It is true that in recent years, abstract artists—notably Lygia Clark, Hélio Oiticica, Mira Schendel, León Ferrari, Carlos Cruz-Diez, and Gego—have dominated exhibitions in the majority of “canon-making” institutions in the United States and Western Europe. And indeed, the trajectories of such artists as Clark, Oiticica, or Ferrari might tempt one to search for an organic genealogy of conceptualist practices in abstraction.

However, rather than swallow the bait as planted, I want to point out that Gabriel poses a trick question, demanding a clear-cut, yes-or-no answer, affirming or disavowing the substitution of one canonical category for another. Against such a totalizing response, I suggest that we must not see either geometric abstraction or conceptualism as monolithic and stable concepts or even constellations. The promotion of abstraction is not the problem in itself. What’s troublesome is the promotion of abstraction exclusively as “progressive, developmentalist, and optimistic.” In turn, I am not the first to advocate for the uncovering of the mutability and tensions inherent in the abstract paradigm, regardless, or precisely because of, the formalist, morphological similarities of its various iterations. 

Likewise, the shifts in individual practices of, say, Oiticica should not compel us to see them within the interpretative boundaries prescribed by organic metaphors that identify the seeds of conceptualism in geometric abstraction. I want to reclaim the artist’s right to change their mind. To date, a number of scholars have contributed to mapping disparate genealogies within multifarious conceptualisms. A case in point is the “media art” theorized by Oscar Masotta in 1960s Argentina, based on his astute philosophical reflection about popular culture and mass media. At stake is the revelation of the always contingent and specific meanings of abstraction/conceptualism articulated from within distinct socio-political contexts that comprised “Latin America” throughout the twentieth century. 

Of course, I formulate my propositions as a historian and critic, whose medium accommodates the tracing of divergences of seemingly similar projects. The real challenge goes to my curator colleagues—how do they account for the barely visible differences in the spaces of exhibition?