A Look at Sur ModernoTuesday, September 8, 2020
Sur moderno: Journeys of Abstraction—The Patricia Phelps de Cisneros Gift, drawn primarily from works donated to the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) by the Colección Patricia Phelps de Cisneros, explores the abstract and Concrete art movements that flourished in South America from the mid-1940s to the late 1970s. It’s our pleasure to republish a selection of the exhibition’s in-gallery texts and to translate it into Spanish for our readers.
Neo-Concretism was an art movement from Rio de Janeiro that emphasized a sensorial and subjective encounter with abstract artworks. As stated in their 1959 manifesto published in Jornal do Brasil, the artists associated with this movement opposed the “dangerously acute rationalism” of the Concrete art created by an earlier generation. Concrete art, the manifesto argues, “speaks to the machine-eye and not the body-eye.” Neo-Concrete artists, including Lygia Pape, Lygia Clark, Hélio Oiticica, and Willys de Castro, all featured in this gallery, thus sought to create an art that would engage the body and stimulate other senses beyond vision.
“The new work of art is not stagnant. This new object placed within the sensible world [becomes] an active object.” This description of Willys de Castro’s Active Object series appeared in the Brazilian magazine Habitat in 1960. At the time, the artist was working on a group of sculptures and painted wall reliefs in which he often wrapped a wooden plank or pole with painted canvas. The rhythmic color-block patterns of these works call attention to their edges and invite the viewer to circle them, “activating” the space between object and audience, a central ambition of the Neo- Concrete artists.
Lauand proclaimed that her work was “based on elements that are inherent to painting itself: form, space, color, and movement. I love synthesis, precision, and exact thinking.” She was the only woman in Grupo Ruptura, a São Paulo–based coterie of Concrete artists who emphasized rationality and mathematical rigor in their work. Like many Grupo Ruptura members, Lauand leaned heavily on Gestalt theory’s explanation of the mechanics of vision, to create paintings suggestive of movement and three-dimensionality. In this work, black lines painted around a central void appear to rotate like a vortex, while the unframed board seems to float off the wall.
“A painting should be something that begins and ends in itself,” Rothfuss wrote. With this cutout frame, the artist put his principle into practice: the yellow rectangle on the left juts out, and the support takes on the shape of the painting itself. While his work was indebted to that of Joaquín Torres-García and to European abstract artists such as Mondrian, Rothfuss was also influenced by vernacular practices. The alkyd resin present in this work was also used by the artist to create floats for carnival parades in his native Montevideo.
In works such as Relief no. 30, Raúl Lozza fragmented the surface of painting into discrete parts—usually, irregular geometric shapes—that he fixed in a particular configuration with connecting rods. Known as “coplanals,” these constructions are placed directly onto the wall without any framing mechanism. The empty space in between their shapes thus becomes a part of the work. Lozza investigated the possibilities of the coplanal for years, founding with his brothers the Perceptismo group. They developed a mathematical approach to painting that focused on the relationship between the wall and the coplanal’s dimensions and colors.
Two events marked the dawn of abstraction in Venezuela. The first was a 1948 exhibition of Argentine Concrete art that took place in Caracas and exposed Venezuelan artists to Argentine paintings with irregular frames. The second was the launch in 1950 of Los Disidentes, a magazine published by a handful of Venezuelan artists based in Paris. The publication critiqued Venezuela’s traditional tastes, which, these artists believed, perpetuated a colonial mindset. To offset this, they sought to reappropriate European art, to “reconquer the Western world in the intellectual sense in order to achieve historical equilibrium.” As made clear by the words “Circulating around Latin America” on the magazine’s cover, this group hoped that their ideas would have a regional impact, reshaping Latin American culture and identity.
“I really started out with the desire to make the work of Mondrian move,” explained Soto, who had traveled to Holland to see firsthand the work of the Dutch artist. Mondrian’s paintings such as Broadway Boogie-Woogie inspired Soto to animate abstraction by optical means. Using transparent sheets of Plexiglas, he was able to superimpose colorful striations that seem to flicker as the viewer moves. Activating the work through the beholder’s motion became a core principle of Soto’s practice, which over time staged even more complex and immersive bodily encounters.
Pampatar Board heralds the arrival of Colorhythms, a series of paintings that, to Otero, are “imbued with the constructive meaning given to me by an intimate and passionate contact with architectural rhythm and space.” In the 1950s, he worked with architects on several new public projects that aimed to modernize Caracas, often contributing murals. This work’s monumental verticality reflects the artist’s interest in modern architecture, while the composition’s rhythmic arrangement of vivid colors, obtained from industrial paints usually used on automobiles, conveys the dynamism of modern urban life that inspired Otero.
“I was interested in the transparency of volume, so that a form could be appreciated fully from all angles of observation,” Gego noted. Working across architecture, sculpture, drawing, and printmaking, Gego started in 1969 to focus on volume and the expansive properties of the line in space. Her suspended sculptures involved exercises in folding, deforming, and misaligning the grid’s orthogonal axes. By the 1980s, Gego’s three-dimensional assemblages included refuse as well as recycled fragments of other works. Registering movements in the air, these works are often described as “drawings in space.”
Sur moderno: Journeys of Abstraction—The Patricia Phelps de Cisneros Gift was organized by Inés Katzenstein, Curator of Latin American Art and Director of the Patricia Phelps de Cisneros Research Institute for the Study of Art from Latin America, The Museum of Modern Art, and consulting curator María Amalia García, Consejo Nacional de Investigaciones Científicas y Técnicas (CONICET)–Universidad Nacional de San Martín, with Karen Grimson, Curatorial Assistant, Department of Drawings and Prints, The Museum of Modern Art.