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Ready To Rumba!


August 27, 2004
Copyright © 2004 THE NEW YORK TIMES. All rights reserved.

HOUSTON -- While a conservative politician from Texas takes center stage in Manhattan next week, some of the most radical political art of the 20th century will heat up the wide-open gallery spaces of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, in a big, sharp, unconventional show called "Inverted Utopias: Avant-Garde Art in Latin America."

"Political art" has several meanings here. It can mean an art of polemics, hard targets, the naming of names. More often, it is art that poses existential questions: How do we live constructively in the world? How do we break habits of thinking and seeing? And it gives answers: Through fresh ideas and refreshed ideals, through intelligent action and vigilant stillness. In this view, all art, from agitprop posters to abstract paintings, is political.

As its title indicates, the show is also about a place that isn't a place. Latin America is a cartographic convenience, a way to pack more than 20 individual countries and hundreds of ethnicities into a neat bundle and file them (inaccurately) under "Hispanic." At the same time, the label points to a historical reality that stains the continent like a mapmaker's color: colonialism. It is this reality that helps explain a long Latin American tradition of socially engaged art. The art in the show comes from nine countries: Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Cuba, Mexico, Puerto Rico, Uruguay and Venezuela. And most of it is by artists who matured either in the 1920's or in the 1960's, two innovative eras. We seldom see their work in New York, or only in dribs and drabs. Some of the names may still draw a blank: Eduardo Abela, Débora Arango, Graciela Carnevale, Willys de Castro, Beatriz González, Rubén Santantonin, Tucumán Arde Group.

But they are important names, of audacious artists who were also poets, teachers, theoreticans, critics, political activists, rock musicians, actors, designers and architects. Most of them were influenced to varying degrees by art in Europe and North America; some of them prefigured that art, got there first. But even more than the strengths of the 67 artists chosen, it is the exhibition as a whole that is the draw. Stirring throughout, revelatory in parts, it's sensational. If I could travel to just one American museum show this summer, this would be it.

What's an "inverted utopia"? The organizers – Mari Carmen Ramírez, curator of Latin American Art at the Houston museum, and Héctor Olea, an independent scholar and curator – have several ideas about this. The utopia they're referring to is the classic model proposed by European modernism, in which a universalist aesthetic lays the groundwork for a condition of sociopolitical harmony.

The "inverted" part is, of course, what matters, and to illustrate it the curators have an image in mind, a 1935 drawing by the artist Joaquín Torres-García, who was born in 1874 in Uruguay, worked in vanguard circles in Paris and New York, and returned to his home country to invent a Latin American modernism, a "School of the South."

His drawing, which is not in the show, is of an upside-down world map, with South America, the continent that North America looks down on, in every sense of the term, on top, above the equator, Tierra del Fuego pointing upward. In one graphic utopian stroke, South America is given new prominence in the Western hemisphere yet keeps its familiar, identifying shape.

Torres-García customized art in a similar way, as illustrated in one of the show's six thematic sections, "Universal and Vernacular." He retained formal aspects of European modernism – oil paint on canvas, semi-abstraction, Constructivist geometry and so forth – but added a content of pre-Columbian pictographs and Latin American folk images, to make an art that was both internationalist and non-Western.

Artists from other Latin American countries made comparable moves. Vicente de Rego Monteiro in Brazil recast ethographic images of Amazon Indians in a Cubist idiom. Eduardo Abela from Cuba filtered images of Santería rituals through Expressionism. Pedro Figari turned out dense, Vuillardian images of a racially mixed Uruguayan society.

And then there was the Argentine artist who called himself Xul Solar. A mystic, a writer, a friend of Jorge Luis Borges, he produced exquisite Klee-esque watercolors of imaginary beings and invented a "neo-Creole" language, at once universalist and American, for globally shared discussions of otherwise inexpressible spiritual matters. In linking Old World and New World on a horizontal continuum, he turns the notion of Otherness on its head.

This early story has been told before, as has that of Constructivists like Willys de Castro and the pre-Conceptual Waldemar Cordeiro in Brazil. They concentrated on geometric abstraction, the most esoteric of modernist styles, but broke it up, skewed its rectilinearity, grafted painting to sculpture, to destabilize received standards of pictorial order.

Equally intent on disruption, the underknown Luis Sacilotto shook up the marmoreal logic of modernist space with proto-Op Art sculptures in the 1950's, and the Mexican muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros, working collaboratively, made virtuosic use of illusionist painting to create cinematically enveloping political dramas.

Siqueiros was a political artist of the hard-core kind, as was that most pessimistic of idealists, José Clemente Orozco. Orozco anchors the section titled "Play and Grief," which is the first glimpse you get of the show when you come into the museum. Installed in a high-ceilinged, stagelike space, it makes quite an impression. It has the kind of political art most people think of as political art, issue-directed, expressively insistent. But it's evident at a glance – and this comes as a little shock – how various this art is.

Orozco clearly had an impact on the painter Débora Arango from Colombia, who in the 1940's was forthrightly addressing the subject of violence toward women, and on Julio Tomás Martínez of Puerto Rico, whose scrupulously detailed allegorical paintings slam church and state with equal ferocity.

But other artists are in different grooves. Antonio Berni of Argentina started out as a muralist but turned to printmaking as a publicly accessible medium that he hoped might escape co-option by the art market. In addition, he assembled a series of sculptures called "Cosmic Monsters" (1964) from junk metal, street rubbish and soil. In photographs they look like toys, but they're huge: giant spawns of urban waste and pollution, rabid, hungry and on the move.

Jorge de la Vega conjured up a Shrek-green monster in a vivid collage painting incorporating a colonial-era print and coroporate decals. The piece is called "Music Hall" and dated 1963. A few years later, de la Vega gave up art to become a singer. The moral dogmas embedded in Western Christian art are the subject of scathing, page-size collages by the artist-poet León Ferrari. Beatriz González, based in Colombia, mines art history, too, but in a cooler way. She paints versions of European masterpieces in Pop colors on pieces of household furniture, at once diminishing the aura of icons and elevating ordinary things.

If "Inverted Utopias" accomplished nothing else, it would irrefutably demonstrate the sheer breadth of formal and intellectual territory covered by traditional modes of political art. But the show turns especially thrilling, and pertinent to the present, in what it has to tell us about elusive and, for that reason subversive, versions of Conceptualism from Latin America, art that courts invisibility, stimulates spiritual activism.

The netlike, openwork wire sculptures of the Venezuelan artist Gego (Gertrud Goldschmidt) are transitional examples of the aesthetic. Basically drawings in space,they are there, but not there. You look at a white gallery wall. Nothing. Then suddenly, an openwork web of stainless steel wires is suspended in front of you, like a phantom. Even more materially rarefied, and correspondingly difficult to exhibit persuasively, is the work of two great Brazilian artists, Lygia Clark and Hélio Oiticica.

Originally abstract painters, in the 1960's they turned from producing objects to exploring a multisensory, kinetic, ready-made object: the body. Clark first made the connection through small geometric sculptures that viewers could pick up and play with, like pets. (She called them "Bichos," critters.) Then she designed clothes that made wearers aware of their own physicality. She organized group events that were like a cross between psychotherapy and physiotherapy sessions, meant to arouse, provoke and soothe. Calling herself a researcher rather than an artist, she merged her art with the practice of psychotherapy.

Oiticica, who absorbed anarchist thinking from his family, used scent, touch, space and movement as aesthetic mediums, and designed brightly colored cloaks as dancing costumes, giving them to friends and residents of Rio de Janeiro's shantytowns. The cloaks integrated modernist forms – they are like wearable monochrome paintings – into Brazilian culture. The sound of carnival sambas pouring from one of Oiticica's videos fills the the show's second-floor space, spicing and sweetening everything with its syncopations.

The line between Oiticica's art of the social body and the political work of the Argentine collective Tucumán Arde is a fine one. Both represent an art of consciousness-raising and participation. Both operated outside the conventional art world. Both approached art as a socially and personally transformative process.

The collective formed in 1968 when several artists, Mr. Ferrari among them, staged a series of aesthetic events that were protests on behalf of impoverished sugar workers in the province of Tucumán. Their goal was to expose a government cover-up of the workers' dire conditions. They did so by gathering first-hand data and inserting it into public media like newspapers, billboards, even television. Their point was not so much to refute official information as to interrupt it, confuse it, scramble it. In the process, they revealed the mechanisms of media-delivered "truth" and showed that the control of mass communication could change hands.

The Tucumán Arde (Tucumán Is Burning) event had varying consequences for its participants. Some, like Eduardo Favario, subsequently abandoned art for radical politics; he joined a revolutionary group and was shot and killed as a terrorist by the Argentine army. Others, like Mr. Ferrari, who was later hounded into exile in Brazil, pursued political art in more traditional, studio-based media. (He will have a solo show at the Drawing Center in SoHo beginning next month.)

The collective itself quickly fell apart, as most of the utopian projects documented in the show did. They either imploded or were shattered by government reprisals. Even when broader liberationist movements carried the day, dictatorships followed. And no matter what, the poor stayed poor.

Little wonder that younger artists in Latin America have a distrust of old-style utopian thinking. They are in post-utopian mode, which doesn't mean they are passive. "We live on adversities," Oiticica said. Certainly Latin America has, and does. Its definition of "political" has been wide and deep, and still is as artists trade 1960's-style resistance for subtler, but no less rigorous, activisms. This is the subject for another show, and I strongly encourage the Houston museum, and its recently established International Center for the Arts of the Americas, to organize it. I only wish "Inverted Utopias" was traveling, but it is not.

All of this has immediate relevance to our own "northern" situation. Political feelings are running high in the country, particularly in New York City, where the scheduling of protests around the Republican National Convention is unresolved. The exact nature of a new generation of activists is still unknown. Similarly uncertain is the future direction of political art. Some will be on gallery walls. But it seems increasingly likely that much will be ephemeral, collective, hard to see. A museumful of revolutionary souls in Houston has much to tell us about that future. They've already been there.

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