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Art review: 'Sites of Latin American Abstraction' @ MOLAA

December 8, 2009 | 12:00 pm


Suppose you were an artist living under a repressive dictatorship and wanted to make art about surviving the predicament and inventing a new world. Given harsh prohibitions against public debate, figurative representations of political content would be an almost impossible way to go -- and personally dangerous to boot.

Such was the daunting case in many Latin American countries by the end of World War II, as a marvelous exhibition of avant-garde paintings, sculptures and photographs in Long Beach attests. It's the most compelling show in the Museum of Latin American Art's 13-year history.

Argentina was ruled by a military junta, which continued under Juan Perón. A clique in oil-rich Venezuela gave way to Marcos Pérez Jiménez, whose dictatorship lasted for most of the 1950s. Uruguay underwent decades of social whiplash -- 1930s dictatorship enabled by worldwide economic depression, followed by Utopian reforms and prosperity, another grim economic collapse and repeated waves of tangled alterations in constitutional governments.

The work at MOLAA displays an extraordinary response to a forbidding, sometimes brutal, long-tumultuous situation. You won't find any Surrealism, with its intrusive nightmares and visionary dream worlds, or outlandish Dada assertions of social insanity. Expressionist utterances of inner turmoil are also absent.

Instead, think geometry.

The properties and relationships of points, lines, angles, surfaces, solids and voids became the syntax for a revolutionary language of forms. Painters mapped it out. Photographers, scanning the horizon of modern industry, located it in cities, ports and factories. Sculptors teased it into three dimensions -- and sometimes four, given the addition of motorized, hand-manipulated or otherwise moving parts by Julio Le Parc, Lygia Clark, Carlos Cruz-Diez and others.

“The Sites of Latin American Abstraction: Selections from the Ella Fontanals-Cisneros Collection” is a sprawling survey of geometric abstract art that carried profound implications for the social and political life of the region between the 1940s and the 1970s. A reconfiguration of a 2007 show at Miami's Cisneros Fontanals Art Foundation, it marks the start of Richard P. Townsend's tenure as MOLAA's new president, following a three-year stint at the Miami Art Museum.

Eighty-four inventive artists are represented -- and at that, the show is not comprehensive. (The most puzzling omission is pioneer Tomás Maldonado, who spent his later career outside South America.) Especially in Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay and Venezuela, geometric abstraction came to represent progressive values. Far from being a simple matter of indifferent or escapist design, it was approached as a modern avenue for the conception of distinctly Latin American identity.

Some of this territory was covered in 2004's "Beyond Geometry" at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. But many of these artists are virtually unknown in the U.S., a lamentable fact that nonetheless adds an element of discovery to the show.

Lygia Clark2 The well-known artists include Joaquin Torres-García, a late-bloomer whose gridded pictographs are like ancient tablets foretelling the construction of a new civilization; Lucio Fontana, who punched holes into painted canvas with a blade, a seemingly violent act that had the contradictory effect of erasing painterly illusions in favor of constructing a concrete sense of art as a poignant, perishable object in space; Helio Oiticica, whose exquisite gouache on cardboard stacks up four rows of linear rectangles that miraculously seem to warp, bend and curve the resolutely flat grid; and Clark, whose cut, folded and hinged sheets of aluminum transform a flat plane of industrial material into a malleable object of potentially endless sculptural possibilities.

The best represented artist is Gego (Gertrud Goldschmidt), a refugee from Hitler's Germany who arrived in Caracas, Venezuela, at age 27. An architect and furniture designer, she began making remarkable wire sculptures in the 1950s. Drawn in space with twisted, knotted and suspended stainless steel wire, one three-foot orb marries a galaxy to a spider's web. Another suspended work attaches lengths of wire with X-shaped joinery, evoking an eight-foot cascade of shooting stars. (Linear shadow-play on adjacent walls adds to the evanescence.) Industrial materials and Constructivist principles of sculpture yield elusive forms with a surprising undercurrent of organic nature.

Gego also represents two distinctive features of Latin American geometric abstraction. One is her status as a Central European immigrant. Numerous South American artists came from Lithuania, Hungary and especially Germany. They brought with them Constructivist and Bauhaus legacies that native-born artists transformed.

The other is her gender. The number of women -- Marta Boto, María Freire, Elsa Gramcko, Judith Lauand, Mercedes Pardo, Mira Schendel, Greta Stern, etc. -- is far greater than one might expect to encounter, not least in a show of postwar European or American art. But it makes sense in Latin America. Egalitarianism should be expected from an exploratory art that sought to dismantle hierarchies in a social and political environment dominated by their rigid enforcement.

The MOLAA show is installed thematically rather than chronologically, with themes focused on material rather than narrative subjects. For example, the support on which a painter works is considered as a surface, a shape that isn't necessarily rectangular, a plane separate from the wall and a fully three-dimensional object (as chunky as sculpture); or, line is a rhythmic element representing the movement of a point through space, inventing an evolving structure. Both emerge as modern metaphors for constructing an urban, industrial world.

Leo Matiz Black-and-white photographs emphasizing mechanical structure are abundant -- 63 of 171 works. Color is not absent from painting but is not thematically examined. And putting all the motorized kinetic art in one room was probably not a good idea, because it recalls an amusement arcade.

But the installation opens with a nice surprise. A monumental, 15-foot-wide wall relief by Mexican artist Mathias Goeritz is made from a thin, rippling sheet of stainless steel wrapped around a wooden plane, painted gold and perforated by hand with row upon row of holes. Its magnificent, labor-intensive evocation of a sanctified landscape, part terrestrial and part industrial, owes something to Fontana's avant-gardism; to folkloric traditions of paper-cutting (papel picado, or “perforated paper”); to the gilding in Spanish Colonial altars; and to the public scale of great Mexican murals.

The fact that Goeritz was vigorously derided as “a faker without the slightest talent” by no less than the great Mexican muralists Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros is telling. If you think muralism is Latin America's primary form of politically engaged art, “Sites of Latin American Abstraction” shows how mistaken that perception is.

-- Christopher Knight

"The Sites of Latin American Abstraction: The Ella Fontanals-Cisneros Collection," Museum of Latin American Art, 628 Alamitos Ave., Long Beach, ( 562) 437-1689, Wed. through Sun., 11-5. $9. Ends Jan. 24.

Photos: Gego (Gertrud Goldschmidt), "Sphere No. 4," 1976 (foreground), stainless steel wire; credit: Jon Endow; Lygia Clark, "Bicho (Animal)," circa 1960 (foreground), aluminum; credit: Jon Endow; Leo Matiz, "Petroleum Structure," 1950, gelatin-silver print. Credit: MOLAA


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