Inverted Utopias: Avant-Garde Art in Latin America

by Christopher French June 2, 2004

Imagine the history of modernism without Jackson Pollock, Clifford Still, Mark Rothko, or the New York School.

Lygia Clark, Brazilian, 1920-1988... Óculos sensoriais (Sensorial Spectacles), 1968... Goggles in various sizes, adapted to produce visual effects

Or imagine the form/ function purity of Bauhaus grafted and hybridized into nine distinct ways of relating aesthetics to utility and social value. These hypotheticals give you some idea of the alternate reality of modernism conjured by Inverted Utopias: Avant-Garde Art in Latin America, the sprawling survey show organized by Mari Carmen Ramirez and Héctor Olea for the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

It would be tempting to call this show revisionist, except that most viewers will be seeing almost all of this art for the first time. The standard line about history is that the victors write it, and most North American historians have perceived modernism as a dialogue about the transfer of modernist creativity from east (Europe) to west (United States). Inverted Utopias enlarges this cherished story into a triangulation that includes the southern hemisphere as a critical component.

This show is not a survey in the traditional sense. Instead, it pays particularly close attention to two periods of high ferment in twentieth century artistic developments that can be defined roughly in terms of World War Two — prewar (1930s) and postwar (1950s and 1960s). The selected artists live and work in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Columbia, Cuba, Mexico, Puerto Rico, Uruguay, and Venezuela. Emphasizing themes rather than linear history, the curators have arrayed six broad oppositional categories — Universal and Vernacular, Play and Grief, Progression and Rupture, Vibrational and Stationary, Touch and Gaze, and Cryptic and Committed.

At times Inverted Utopias seems eerily like the history of a parallel universe. The Argentinean polymath Xul Solar, who created meaning in the form of hybrid gaming structures, theatrical masks, and striking watercolors, capably mirrors Marcel Duchamp. The hieroglyphic-filled grids of Uruguayan Joaquín Torres-Garcia predate Adolph Gottlieb’s by a good decade, just as fellow Uruguayan Gonzalo Fonseca’s wooden assemblages are similar in form (yet very different in content) to Louse Nevelson’s wooden monochromes. It is tempting to proceed through the show this way, creating linkages that reinforce the universal modernizing themes intrinsic to the twentieth century.

But while this approach may feel good, in an it’s a small world, after all sort of way, it misses the real differences in perception, process, and social practice between north, south, east, and west that make this show so invigorating. Xul Solar’s watercolors may rightly be described as Klee-like (he corresponded with the Swiss artist), but they are also unique for incorporating language and Aztec iconography. And while Solar shared with Duchamp a love of chess (he played with Jorge Luis Borges instead of Man Ray), his chess set is such a striking reinvention — a hallucination of the game, really — that Duchamp’s interest in the game seems quaintly academic.

What is it that distinguishes Latin American art? In my opinion, an emphasis on tactility, assemblage, and language. Each of these relates to a different emphasis on how art functions in social discourse — this is one of the primary distinctions between northern and southern approaches to modernism, and I think it helps explain why painting’s role is so diminished in this show, especially in the second half. Latin American modernism embraces discourse, and so necessarily rejects anything approaching the self-contained purity of Clement Greenberg’s planar formalism.

Jorge de la Vega, Argentinean, 1930-1971... Music Hall, 1963... Collage and oil on canvas... Private Collection, Buenos Aires

You can see this difference most clearly in the section titled Vibrational and Stationary. Beginning in the 1950s and 1960s, Venezuelans Jesús Rafael Soto, Gego, Alejandro Otero, and Carlos Cruz-Diez addressed concerns of all-over abstraction identical to those being hashed out in New York, but to very different ends. There is a strong emphasis on retinality in their work, and it would be easy to categorize them with Op painters like Bridget Riley, if tactility and sculptural relief did not intrude to point out that more is at stake in art than an appeal to the eyes. Activating space, Gego’s large wire Reticuláreas, Cruz-Diez’s Cromosaturación, and Soto’s Penetrable amarillo anticipate the more recent ambient installations of artists like Robert Irwin and James Turrell.

The synthesis of personal perceptions and public expressions in social spaces finds its fulfillment in the work of Brazilians Lygia Clark and Hélio Oiticica, who came of age in the 1950s as adherents of concrete, abstract structuralism that had roots in the original German Bauhaus movement (one of the main subsets of the show’s first half). By the 1960s their thinking had become radicalized, their formal inventiveness hybridized to incorporate aspects of play, community, social critique, utilitarian forms like clothing and building structures. While it is tempting to see this evolution as an echo of the conceptualism practiced in the United States and Europe in the 1960s, precious few on either side of the Atlantic (with the exception of Joseph Beuys or the German-born expatriate Hans Haacke) addressed social concerns in this way. Clark’s art, especially, activates a sense of wonder. Her Óculos series reinvents looking and touching with conjoined glasses that encourage the viewers to find new ways to look at each other and gloves that viewers can don to touch familiar objects as if for the first time.

Antonio Berni, Argentinean, 1905-1981... El mundo prometido a Juanito Laguna (The World Promised to Juanito Laguna), 1962... Collage on wood, industrial trash, scraps and board

Politics and religion are also much more thematically to the front in Inverted Utopias. The works in Play and Grief pointedly remind that, for all of its polygot racial diversity, Latin America is unified by a predominant Catholicism that functions as a common idiom for social protest, and that art is part of the Latin American political discourse. Artists in the United States mostly bemoaned being ignored or impoverished. Latin American artists, especially during the cold-war era, worried about jail or worse if they spoke too frankly. Some embraced this risk theatrically: Argentinean León Ferrari’s 1965 marriage of politics and religion, Civilización occidental y cristiana, polemicizes in all directions, crucifying the Christ on the underbelly of a scale model of a US air force fighter jet. Comparing this searing image with Chris Burden’s 1974 performance Trans-Fixed, one of the few recent crucifixion images by a North American artist, gets to the heart of the striking differences between north and south. Burden had his outstretched hands nailed onto a Volkswagen bug, documenting his event through photography and artifacts; his iconography is personal, his critique primarily commercial — about his relationship to car culture. Ferrari’s politically freighted imagery speaks societally, in terms of “we.” This implicating point of view resonates throughout Inverted Utopias.

Much more beautiful (and just as politically charged) are Ferrari’s calligraphic paintings, where words first animate and then devour the purity of the Greenbergian plane. Brazilian Artur Barrio is represented by abandoned bundles of bread and blood-soaked rags, which poignantly evoke the many disappearances that resulted from the foreign (read: CIA) entanglements of Latin American governments during the cold war decades. Other artists inverted critique into a public form of shaming. Argentinean Oscar Bony’s La familia obrera produces a double take, for lurking behind his Norman Rockwell poses is an ocean of ill-concealed repression. The exhibition revives Bony’s original intent by occasionally hiring Houstonians to re-enact the part of father, son, and mother in front of the photographic documentation of his 1968 tableaux vivant.

Perhaps the most fascinating of the politicized artists in Inverted Utopias is Cildo Meireles. This Brazilian conceptual artist operates in all media, and almost always against the grain. His 1970s Projetos series practiced subversive recycling, attaching anticapitalistic slogans as stickers to Coca-Cola bottles so that they could be disseminated anonymously via rebottling, or emblazoning one-cruzeiro banknotes with the accusatory question “Who killed (Vladimir) Herzog?” This stark denunciation of the murder of a journalist by the São Paulo Police Department stands at one ends of Meireles’ output. Made at the same time, his installation Eureka/Blindhotland is both theatrically iconic and morally ambiguous.

My responses skim the surface of this voluminous show. You will find yourself arguing at times with the categories the curators have established, and wondering why some notable artists (Mexicans Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo; the Chilean Matta) with excellent pedigrees where excluded while others (the Argentian-born Lucio Fontana, who lived most of his life in Italy) where included. This is where the show does become revisionist (and frankly ahistorical). But Inverted Utopias is that rarest of group shows — an informed, opinionated, and abundantly envisionist effort to rewrite the history books by making sense of modernism’s effect on an entire continent.

Inverted Utopias: Avant-Garde Art in Latin America remains on view at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston through September 12. The exhibition is accompanied by an exhibition catalogue published by Yale University Press, and a 5-part lecture series that continues on Tuesdays and Fridays through August 13 (go to for a listing of speakers).

A related gallery exhibition, Parallel Stories: Brazilian & Venezuelan Abstract-Constructive Art, concisely examines the textural opticality of artists Carlos Cruz-Diez, Lygia Clark, Sergio Camargo, Gego, Mira Schendel, and Jesús Rafael Soto. It remains on view in Houston at Sicardi Gallery through August 14.

Images courtesy the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

Christopher French is a writer and artist living in Houston.

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