Ferreira Gullar, 2015. Photo: Greg Salibian.
I ENCOUNTERED FERREIRA GULLAR’s WRITINGS IN THE MID 1990s. I had become familiar with the work of Neo-concrete artists Hélio Oiticica and Lygia Clark—then utterly unknown in American academia—so it was Gullar’s writings in support of those artists and his criticism of the period that I first tackled. With the Neoconcrete cohort, Gullar penned the famous “Neoconcrete Manifesto” of 1959, which was published as a pamphlet and in the revolutionary Suplemento Dominical Jornal do Brasil, for which Gullar served as visual-arts editor. But by then Gullar was an established poet too, author of A luta corporal (1954) and O formigueiro (1955)—which helped define experimental poetry in Brazil.
A native of São Luís, Maranhão, on the northeast coast of Brazil, Gullar moved to Rio de Janeiro at the beginning of the 1950s. There, he met towering critic Mário Pedrosa, with whom Gullar sustained a productive dialogue that radically transformed Concrete art and poetry in Brazil. It was partly Pedrosa who provided Gullar with the tools to question the Concrete doxa—which in art and poetry had become an exemplary model of aesthetic production. Under the aegis of phenomenology, Gullar sought to rethink Concretism by privileging experience and expression instead of a priori conceptualization and theoretical interpretation. His attentive reading of Clark’s work contributed to this antiobjectivist and antifunctionalist understanding of geometric abstraction but also led him to forcefully question the ontology of the art object. By focusing on the beyond-the-frame that Clark’s work postulated, Gullar reflected on a crisis of mediums that he articulated through the concept of the nonobject (1959). The nonobject was the result of the exhaustion of representation as a function of art, but it signaled, too, the limits and conventions of painting and sculpture. In work that did away with the frame and the base, Gullar identified a new sense of meaning, a new mode of participatory interaction, a new rapport with the space of everyday life. He explored this dissolution of mediums in a series of spatial poems in which he inscribed single words upon wooden structures that revealed and concealed the words via the manipulation of the structures. In Lembra, (1959) for example, which consists of the Portuguese word for “remember” in the center of a white, wooden, square panel that is covered by a small blue cube, the meaning of the word is echoed in its concealment—enacted by a “reader” who shapes the semantic and visual tenor of the poem.
In 1961, Gullar became increasingly concerned with popular art and politics. A member of the Communist Party, he lived in exile for most of the 1970s. Upon his return in 1977 he resumed his activities as poet, critic, writer, and journalist. One of the region’s most important poets, honored as such by multiple awards and accolades, Gullar, in his criticism, also made a pivotal contribution to theories of modern art—an achievement with which we have just begun to cope.
For additional Ferreira Gullar Passages, see the forthcoming April issue of Artforum.
Monica Amor is a professor at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore.
AUDACIOUS MAY SEEM LIKE THE BEST WORD to describe both the work and the personality of Teodoro González de León.
The last time I saw him he was both amused and deeply touched as he looked again, after more than sixty years, at the drawing that symbolized his daring entry into the world of architecture. When he was a twenty-year-old architecture student, he and his classmate Armando Franco decided to draw an alternative master-plan proposal for the University City UNAM in Mexico and show it to the university authorities. Against all odds, the drawing became the basis for the most important design of the country in the 1950s, one that gathered all of the most important Mexican architects and engineers of the time.
In March 2015, González de León’s drawing now hung on a wall of the Museum of Modern Art in New York during the opening of the exhibition “Latin America in Construction.” He pointed at one detail sketched in pencil and said to me, smiling, “Look how we drew all the small formations of lava!” At that point, I understood that the most important factor in shaping the final design was the lava landscape of El Pedregal. While helping the curators locate the Mexican material for the exhibition, I was lucky to find the drawing in an archive at the UNAM. For many years, González de León had claimed that he and Franco (who became his first associate) were the original authors of the master plan, but no one really believed him until the unexpected discovery of this drawing and the publication of the book Living CU 60 Years: Ciudad Universitaria UNAM 1954–2014 at around the same time in 2015. In this publication, the full story of the master plan was explained by historians Elisa Drago, Jimena Torre, and Alberto Pérez-Méndez. This long overdue recognition was welcomed by both architects—I remember that during a book launch event for Living CU, I watched Franco reach out from his wheelchair and hug González de León, and some tears escaped them both.
If his early audacious moves operated between several established languages of architectural modernism, González de León found his own. His buildings of the 1970s through 1990s were always used as examples for several generations of architectural students despite the fact that he never wanted to be a professor. His triangular plazas and his roughly surfaced buildings with sloping walls reminded us young architects of ancient Mexican ruins but also showed us shocking new combinations of volumes and open spaces. An inventor of great gestures in the urban landscape—more than functional or comfortable buildings—he always claimed that he was responding to the city. His audacious buildings—in a way similar to his paintings, which are similar to those of Le Corbusier, for whom he worked for eighteen months—are big, heavy sculptures inserted into the urban fabric, solid volumes that emerge from the ground in unpredictable combinations. The singularity of those forms established them almost immediately as urban landmarks. No one but he could have convinced so many clients, whether the state or private investors, to erect such huge structures that defied all preestablished forms.
He was also an intellectual who read Octavio Paz, listened to contemporary classical music on a daily basis, and kept working until his final day; a cultivated man who thought that being an architect was not a job but a way of living. Soon after the country celebrated his ninetieth birthday, he died suddenly, during the night of September 16, when, as Mexicans, we celebrate our independence. He will not be able to see his last works finished, but their constant presence in the city alongside all the others that precede them will not allow us to forget him.
Cristina López Uribe is a professor in the school of architecture at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México and editor of Bitácora journal.
IF YOU CARE ABOUT BALLET from the second half of the twentieth century, one of your wished-for fly-on-the-wall moments is probably a late rehearsal, back in 1957, for a new piece by George Balanchine. It’s called Agon. Music by Igor Stravinsky. Today, Stravinsky himself is stopping by to see a run-through. In dark glasses, a vest, and a tie, he sits with the choreographer at the mirrored front of the room. The dancers begin. Stravinsky beats time. Balanchine snaps his fingers. At one point, the pair consult with the rehearsal pianist, and a corps member rests on the floor in front of them. Finally, Arthur Mitchell and Diana Adams perform the ballet’s revolutionary pas de deux, in which, as Melissa Hayden remembers, “it was really awesome to see a black hand touch . . . white skin.” Everyone in the rehearsal studio can sense how important this is.
I wasn’t there, but I can too. I can because of the photographs. Martha Swope took them.
Dance and theater have always relied on images—paintings and lithographs, then posed photographic portraits, and finally, as technology allowed, crisp shots capturing performers in motion. Pictures help a potentially infinite audience see a fleeting art that only a few, relatively speaking, watch in person at each show. Swope was a great photographer of dance and theater. For nearly four decades, she chronicled Broadway productions and performances by the New York City Ballet, American Ballet Theater, and other dance companies. She was also a great photographer of process. She brought her audience into the studio. You might have to go back to Degas to find an artist so good at capturing dancers at work. She shot rehearsals of Dances at a Gathering and The Wiz and A Chorus Line; she showed us Chita Rivera and Edward Villella and Patti LuPone practicing steps. Swope’s career included the “dance boom” of the 1960s and ’70s, and she understood how to feed curiosity about an art form while never travestying the artistry or diminishing the admiration it deserves. Her rehearsal photographs show the sweat and scuffed shoes—also the camaraderie and effort.
Her photography career began, fittingly, when Jerome Robbins asked her to take some pictures as he worked on dances for West Side Story. Soon after, Lincoln Kirstein hired her as a full-time photographer for NYCB. Swope was then a student at the company’s feeder academy, the School of American Ballet, to which she’d come from Waco, Texas, after one year at Baylor. But with Kirstein’s request, she abandoned her plans to become a dancer and put her energies into what had previously been a hobby. Eventually, she worked for other companies, publications, and productions as well. Her dance training helped her to know just when and how to capture the line of a pose, the force of a gesture, the sweep of a movement. It also helped her gain the trust of dancers and performers, thereby achieving the modest wonder of her access and range. Her pictures aren’t about exposure or exploitation or pride. What she photographed, she understood.
The photographs share that understanding. In 2010, Swope gave her archive of more than a million images to the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. The Agon series is among them.
Siobhan Phillips’s essays and poems have appeared in Boston Review, Harvard Review, Southwest Review, and other journals. She is an assistant professor at Dickinson College in Carlisle, PA.
Hassan Sharif, 1981.
TALKING ABOUT COURAGE would be a bit grandiose for Hassan Sharif. He dismissed the labels put on him in the second half of his life: the Gulf’s “Godfather of Conceptual art,” the “grandfather of United Arab Emirates art,” and such. Yet one can take courage in the way Hassan continued to work despite early rejection and the true nature of his work going underappreciated until the end of his life.
I worked with Hassan for about a year on what would turn out to be his last solo show of new work on his home turf in Dubai. He lived and worked between two rooms, on stuck-down strips of garish pink linoleum, in a white villa he called The Flying House.
The place was like a rock pool, where materials washed in and washed out—encrusted, enmeshed, transformed. There were no good or bad days there. Kittens darted about over the artworks, flies met and screwed in the sunlight, and Hassan tag-teamed between a cigarette and a pipe, chugging smoke like a malfunctioning steam engine. Always working, cutting, and retying.
Awareness of Hassan’s work gathered pace only after a 2011 monograph and exhibition in Abu Dhabi curated by Catherine David and his longtime collaborator Mohammed Kazem. It revealed thirty years of making, from burial-mound-size bundles of rubber sandals to the tomes of ink-on-paper experiments that he called Semi-systems. The show also unearthed a radical, critical seam in Hassan’s work that is too often overlooked in celebrating how much of a pioneering force he was in Middle East art.
Born in the north of Iran in the early 1950s—no one is exactly sure when—Hassan Sharif could always recite lines by the Iranian modernist poets in their original Farsi. The sight of fishermen fixing their nets on the shore of the Caspian Sea may have fed his love of rudimentary, untrained weaving. Yet it was Dubai and the Emirates, where he and his family came in the early ’60s, long before the country was formed, that would be his sparring partner.
While still in high school, Hassan began drawing satirical cartoons and by his twenties was contributing two cartoons a day to the UAE’s nascent press. He took aim at everything, from the Arab nationalists to the consumerism and gaudy globalization that was sweeping through the young, oil-rich Emirates. Many of these cartoons are still relevant today; others are just damn prophetic: Two men stand waist-high in the Gulf, and one says to the other, “My friend, I urge you, buy this piece of sea . . . They’ll build an island here one day!” (Drawn up, of course, long before Dubai dreamt of cobbling palm-tree-shaped islands out of dredged sand.)
Hassan Sharif, Body and Squares, 1983, photographs, ink, pen, pencil on paper mounted on cardboard, 33 x 23".
One of the first UAE nationals to get an arts scholarship, he moved to England in 1979 and at London’s Byam Shaw School of Art (today part of Central Saint Martins) came under the mentorship of Tam Giles, a hard-edge abstraction painter on faculty. She introduced him to the work of Kenneth Martin and his Constructionist mantra: Chance and order. Martin’s pencil-marked graph papers had an incredible effect on Hassan. Art could be found in rigid systems—one needed only to erect a system so elaborate that error was inevitable.
He also never forgot watching Laurie Anderson perform at the Tate. Today, all that’s left of Hassan’s own London performances are washed-out Polaroids: plucking out his own pubic hairs and tossing them into a milk bottle, talking art history with a member of the faculty in a toilet cubicle. Post graduation, Hassan returned to Dubai in 1984 and was expected to embody the artistic ambitions of a young nation. Yet he dismissed the Arab calligrapher-painters as nationalists, and the portraits of falcons bored him. Instead, the artist loaded up a truck with friends, headed to the desert on Dubai’s periphery, and had them photograph him jumping a few feet in the sand or tying rope between rocks.
Hassan became the meeting point for a small group of frustrated writers, artists, and filmmakers in the Emirates. The first exhibition they held in a marketplace in Sharjah was shut down for not having a permit. Later, an atelier was closed after an altercation with the neighbors. Hassan, meanwhile, was translating art manifestos, Fluxus texts, and the lectures of John Cage into Arabic, hoping to show that what he was doing had roots in theory.
He started bundling together cheap stuff he’d bought in the markets in the UAE—mass-produced, plasticky things like pegs and sandals—and explained to me that it was about handing back to society the product and excess of rapid globalization and industrialization as art. An essay from the ’90s, “Weaving,” touches on this: “It was this the new world order, whose slogan is ‘Adapt your aspirations to our ends—or else’ that particularly irritated me, this vulgar market mentality that flooded shops with consumer products had so infiltrated the minds of individuals that it now controlled them.”
Hassan Sharif, Slippers and Wire, 2009, slippers and copper wire, dimensions variable. Installation view, Qasr Al Hosn, 2011.
Uselessness or dysfunction became the prolonged gesture of his work. His life was equally indecorous. He had no time for convention and had an extraordinary constitution for drink. I crawled out of that studio a couple of times and woke up, the next day, gripped by a hangover, yet Hassan would wake at the same time the next morning, roll up his sleeves, and set to work.
One day, after we’d finished jotting down the dimensions of a column he’d made of strung-together glossy magazines, Hassan laid out on a table several folders of press clippings from his early career. “This one is very harsh,” he said, giggling slightly, as he turned over pages of yellowed Arabic print.
Rejection, he said, meant that people were at least reacting to what he did. Three decades later, in 2015, his works would be at the Whitechapel Gallery alongside names that had lit up his youth: Mondrian, Malevich, Carl Andre. He attended the exhibition’s opening, only after finding a hotel in London that would let him smoke. The last time he had been in London was as a student.
Hassan never stopped working, and the archive at The Flying House overflows today. He was making until the end. I hear he spent his last couple of hours talking about his Semi-system drawings, as well as the chance and order of things.
Christopher Lord is a writer and currently Monocle’s bureau chief in Istanbul.
JOHN BERGER WAS AN EXTRAORDINARY INDIVIDUAL—extraordinary in the range of his creation and his criticism. But also extraordinary as a presence. He had the least sense of hierarchy of anyone I have ever known. And he was uniquely interested in the present moment. So whoever he was with, young or old, rich or poor, famous or unknown, man or woman, had his complete attention. This was, in its way, unnerving: You had to think about what you were saying because you were being listened to with a quite unusual concentration. And you had to listen with real intensity because what was being said was being said for you and, it felt, for you alone. But if it was unnerving, it was also immensely invigorating. You became more intelligent and more consequent, more insightful, and more amusing. And what John said stayed with you and transformed you.
This may all sound quite pious. John could well have been an actor—there was something of the ham in his performances. He was also a seducer. But neither of these facts detract from the wonderful pleasure of his company. Indeed, they were an essential part of it.
He was the best and most reliable of friends, always willing to lend a hand, to encourage, to enthuse, and—very important—to criticize when it was necessary. His range was extraordinary: major art critic, great novelist, gifted filmmaker. With his close friend Jean Mohr, he even invented a genre: the committed use of photography and prose to render invisible elements of the social visible. They started with A Fortunate Man in 1967 but developed this further with A Seventh Man (1975), which John thought his best book. It is forty years since A Seventh Man was composed, but the analysis of the crucial role of migrant labor in contemporary capitalism could have been written tomorrow.
It is foolish to predict reputation into the future, but I hope that people go on reading and watching John because he joined the demand for social justice to the recognition of the centrality of desire and the importance of form. His death brought to me three quotes from his writing that touch on each of these emphases.
“To be desired is perhaps the closest anybody in this life can reach to feeling immortal.”
—“The Museum of Desire,” 2001
“The poverty of our century is unlike that of any other. It is not, as poverty was before, the result of natural scarcity, but of a set of priorities imposed upon the rest of the world by the rich. Consequently, the modern poor are not pitied . . . but written off as trash. The twentieth-century consumer economy has produced the first culture for which a beggar is a reminder of nothing.”
— “Keeping a Rendezvous,” published in The Brick Reader, 1991
“What makes photography a strange invention—with unforeseeable consequences—is that its primary raw materials are light and time.”
—Another Way of Telling, 1982
Colin MacCabe teaches English and film at the University of Pittsburgh. He is co-director of the film The Seasons in Quincy: Four Portraits of John Berger (2016), and author, most recently, of Perpetual Carnival: Essays on Film and Literature (Oxford University Press, 2017).
For additional John Berger Passages, see the forthcoming March issue of Artforum.
John Berger, 2009. Photo: Wikimedia commons user Ji-Elle.
IN A TIME OF POLITICAL TRAUMA, the ability to communicate complex ideas about history in language that is accessible to more than just the most highly educated and privileged is a rare gift. John Berger’s death at the age of ninety on the second day of this ominous new year struck many as a symbolic blow against the last embers of the Enlightenment. People turned to his writings to find words to help us in the current moment: For example, as we prepare ourselves for the necessity of years of political demonstrations to preserve civil rights and democracy, this quote immediately circulated, taken from his 1968 essay “The Nature of Mass Demonstrations,” published, among other places, in International Socialism in autumn 1968: “The truth is that mass demonstrations are rehearsals for revolution: not strategic or even tactical ones, but rehearsals of revolutionary awareness. The delay between the rehearsals and the real performance may be very long: their quality—the intensity of rehearsed awareness—may, on different occasions, vary considerably: but any demonstration which lacks this element of rehearsal is better described as an officially encouraged public spectacle.” Berger’s comments were based on his research for his 1972 Booker Prize–winning novel G., in which, as in all his art writings and other works, he interjects the political with the intimate, and the sensory with the historical, in a uniquely captivating and thought-inspiring manner. In the middle of G.’s fictional narrative, a line appears, interjected à propos de rien, as the French would say, but perfectly relevant, a small self-portrait: “Everything you write is a schema. You are the most schematic of writers. It is like a theorem.”
This would indicate that everything Berger wrote was part of a political project, everything a representation of a political theory, Marxism: In a late interview, he said that his readings of Marx in his teens “helped [him] enormously to understand history and therefore to understand where we are in history and therefore to understand what we have to envisage as a future thinking about human dignity and justice.” But like Walter Benjamin—the writer he most resembles in his themes and ability to use language in a magical manner that differs from our expectations of what political language should be—Berger’s appreciation of certain kinds of experience may have been suspect to some more dogmatic and programmatic Marxists.
In “To Tell A Story,” a 1983 television conversation on the British program Voices, Berger and Susan Sontag discuss the nature of storytelling from their initial commonality as fiction writers, essayists, filmmakers, and writers with an interest in photography. Berger sets forth the premise of the storyteller as symbolic of shelter in a frightening world, of the story as “a kind of home.” Sontag counters with a view that storytelling in our society is more diversified and as much about lies and invention as about any basic truth. However, Berger’s atavistic vision of the storyteller around a campfire, holding his listeners in thrall, is similar to that of Benjamin, expressed in his 1936 essay “The Storyteller.” Benjamin saw the novel as emblematic of alienation; the reader is alone, while “a man listening to a story is in the company of the storyteller.”
In a sense, Ways of Seeing, Berger’s 1972 television series, enacts the revolutionary premise and promise of Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility” and develops from his critique of aura. Ways of Seeing was aimed at a popular TV audience. It respected that audience but did not condescend to it. His views about representation of women, reproduction, the role of art in capitalism are all still valid. In fact, especially when it comes to representation of women or anything that represents a feminist critique, the TV show (and the book developed from it) remain remarkably current. Because of the accessibility of its language, it is incredibly useful as a primary teaching tool, though Berger himself anticipates, in the script, technological communication developments that would need to be used and addressed if something like the project were to be attempted now. The TV show, perhaps even more than the book, successfully embodies and develops the political role of montage and collage in opening up the viewer’s initial assumptions to new ways of seeing what they had thought they knew—exactly as the title of the show indicates. The mixed methods of presentation that constantly call attention to the physical and sociological placement of the viewer, to his own methods and context, are exemplary of a dialectical methodology emerging from Benjamin and the Frankfurt School, but with an ability to communicate that is not intimidating.
“Every artist’s work changes when he dies,” Berger wrote shortly after Alberto Giacometti’s death. For me, Berger was a model of what I’ve sometimes called “sort of an art historian,” someone who is not constrained by the politesse of a specific professional methodology and thus is more inventive in the connections he makes and the interjections of poetically worded thoughts that, because they seem unexpected and almost out of place, make the text flexible, resonant, and inspiring. My favorite book is The Sense of Sight, which I read when it was published in the early ’90s. It contains essays that seem so personal that you wonder what they are doing there, if, as I did, you have brought certain expectations of “objectivity” or academic impersonality to essays about art. Brecht, in his diary about his friend Walter Benjamin, wrote, “It is all mysticism, mysticism in a posture opposed to mysticism,” and there are those who I’m sure scoff at Berger’s lack of Marxist rigor—or is it really at his lyricism and his love of painting? But nothing ever seems self-indulgent about these texts; each component of the book seems precisely chosen for its relevance to his underlying themes, with a strong emphasis on historical context. But the didactic or polemic or ideological is nestled in something intimate and elegiac.
Berger’s 1968 essay “The Moment of Cubism” is my touchstone—complex, provocative, evocative, informative, and, like many of his most important writings, the context and the spur for its creation seem mysteriously not tied to commercial publishing schedules or to art-market exigencies, but is rather the result of conversations started twenty years before, now connecting to revolutionary moments in his own time such as the spirit of ’68 and the Women’s Liberation Movement. I wrote, a few years ago, in a text called “The Berger Mystery,” that “‘The Moment of Cubism’ is a thrilling essay because it instantly opens up a double vista to the past and to the future of an instance of radicality, whose promise is not completely fulfilled but yet may be ahead of us. Nostalgia, regret, wonder, and hope erupt out of the first sentence of the essay: ‘I find it hard to believe that the most extreme Cubist works were painted over fifty years ago. It is true that I would not expect them to have been painted today. They are both too optimistic and too revolutionary for that. Perhaps in a way I am surprised that they have been painted at all. It would seem more likely that they were yet to be painted.’ It is as if Berger adds an extra time warp to the trajectory of perception of Walter Benjamin’s Angel of History, whose face ‘is turned toward the past.’” Significantly, the essay ends with a reflection about the miracle of a beginning: “The moment at which a piece of music begins provides a clue to the nature of all art. The incongruity of that moment, compared to the uncounted, unperceived silence which preceded it, is the secret of art.”
Certainly, Berger’s moment was the postwar period from the ’50s to early ’90s, with some of the most important critical and fictional work done from the late ’60s and ’70s, at the same time as contemporaries such as Guy Debord, as well as such politically engaged writers as Lucy Lippard—another “sort of an art historian” who wrote in various registers as inspired by the character of the artwork, and who could, like Berger, encompass the political and the aesthetic without the layer of recondite theoretical language or dense jargon that came to characterize ’80s art criticism.
For me, his words came out of nowhere. Incredibly, for someone who was involved in the beginning of the feminist art movement, I had not seen Ways of Seeing on broadcast television in the ’70s. When I finally watched the show on YouTube a few years ago, I was vastly amused and somewhat taken aback by the appearance of the cute guy in a tight-fitting Carnaby Street–style print shirt with the kind of upper-class British lisp—“we wealize,” “the pwice” [for “the price”], “Euwopean”—that Monty Python would have a field day with. In a way, I was retrospectively happy that, when I first encountered his writings, I had not been burdened by the specifics of the man as a man and could take in his ideas and his words in an act of what felt like private discovery, mind to mind. Berger often somewhat disingenuously said that he was not good with words. But I’m happy that for a long time I had only the words. I could work from them, without regard for the man.
Unlike Benjamin, whom Hannah Arendt described as having fatally “bad luck,” Berger lived a long, productive, and successful life as a writer and, from what one can tell, as a person, remaining sharp of mind until the end. We may mourn him as a symbol of a system of values and thought that we now see as having ended. But writing, like art, continues to live long after the artist or writer has died. Berger could write about a Frans Hals painting as if it had been painted yesterday and he was in the artist’s studio. For us, there are the texts, and so much on film and video. We can continue to meet him at various stages of his life and be assured that there will be various John Bergers for us to reference at different stages and different historical moments of our own lives.
Mira Schor, a painter and writer living in New York City, is the author of A Decade of Negative Thinking: Essays on Art, Politics, and Daily Life (2009) and of the blog A Year of Positive Thinking. She is represented by Lyles & King Gallery in New York and CB1 Gallery in LA.
For additional John Berger Passages, see the forthcoming March issue of Artforum.