CAN AN EXHIBITION, CONSIDERED IN RETROSPECT, PROVE TO BE A CREATIVE MARRIAGE OF SORTS between an artist and a gallerist?
Jannis Kounellis’s presentation of live horses in the garage space in Rome I’d converted into an art gallery was undoubtedly the apex of our careers: Jannis’s, and mine. Yes, in a certain sense, we tied the knot on January 14, 1969, when his quadrupeds entered the garage. That exhibition of twelve mighty Dutch horses, arranged in a semicircle with their reins attached to the walls, lasted three days. Visitors moved among the horses, who defecated and urinated continually, their enormous penises there for all to see. Stable hands cleaned and fed the animals. The night of the show’s opening, the city was hit with a strong afternoon storm, and few people came, thirty or so at most, for an exhibition that would go on to become extremely famous. What could be more avant-garde? The horses had already been gone for several days when Harald Szeemann, the well-known Swiss curator, stopped by. Yet even the empty site was enough for him to understand the absolute novelty of that exhibition space, which had a workability previously unseen in art galleries. The next month, in the catalogue for “When Attitudes Become Form,” an international exhibition he organized at his museum in Bern, its image of the horses stood out.
The Bern catalogue circulated around the world. That April, I saw proof of this when I was in New York, where I had arrived in the midst of organizing the festival “Danza, volo, musica, dinamite” (“Dance, flight, music, dynamite”) at my space in Rome. (Around that time I connected with Simone Forti, whom I had met in Rome the year before. During our conversations then, I first began to fully articulate my vision for my exhibition space: one that was good for both installations and performance art, music and dance, that would accommodate both immobile objects and bodies in motion.) At a party, in the midst of strangers, I heard a voice speaking from among a small group: “Did you know there’s a gallery in Rome that exhibits live horses?” It was the critic Seth Siegelaub, and there was genuine amazement in his voice, which was understandable, given that most New York art galleries opened directly into streets, like shops, or were incorporated into skyscrapers, like apartments. Months passed: In June, my underground garage would host La Monte Young and Terry Riley, Trisha Brown and Steve Paxton, Yvonne Rainer and Deborah Hay, David Bradshaw and, of course, Simone Forti. And then, after that, Philip Glass, Steve Reich, Charlemagne Palestine, and Joan Jonas.
In art, as in life, there are marriages and divorces. And so Kounellis and I also divorced. A long silence descended between us. On the surface, our disagreement was resolvable. But perhaps the real reason for our split was unfathomable. I didn’t understand, for example, why Kounellis insisted on presenting the horses again, at the Venice Biennale and elsewhere. At that point they were legendary, I told myself, tied to an unrepeatable space and time.
While writing these lines, my telephone rings. I answer and cannot believe my ears: The L’Attico garage—which had become a discotheque after I closed it in 1976, flooding the space with water—is soon to be invaded by cars once again. It will return to its originally intended use as a garage. But before that happens, I learn, there is still the opportunity, for one evening, to show video of the horses there.
Jannis, what do you say: Shall we remarry?
Fabio Sargentini is a writer, filmmaker, and actor who owns and directs the Galleria L’Attico in Rome.
Translated from Italian by Marguerite Shore.
For more Passages, see a forthcoming issue of Artforum.
ALTHOUGH FAMILIAR WITH HIS WORK FROM MY UNDERGRADUATE YEARS, I never had any reason to reach out to Ferreira Gullar until 2010, when I was preparing the exhibition “Specters of Artaud” for the Reina Sofía. In my research interview with him, we reviewed some well-trodden history: his Concrete poetry of the 1950s and his authorship of the 1959 “Neoconcrete Manifesto” that marked his and his cohort’s break with the rationality of Concrete poetry and visual art. Around the turn of the decade, he also penned a series of newspaper articles titled “Stages of Contemporary Art,” a programmatic and particular vision of art’s progression that culminated in the Brazilian Neoconcrete movement. At the time, I was interested in Surrealism, a movement omitted from his “Stages,” and more specifically in his exposure to the work of dissident Surrealist Antonin Artaud. When prompted about Artaud, Gullar revealed his more complex poetic origins and varied investments. He was indeed familiar with Artaud’s poetry, the book on Van Gogh, as well as the scathing To Have Done with the Judgment of God (1948). Gullar even made mimeographed copies of some poems to distribute to his friends when he first discovered Artaud in the 1950s. Gullar was deeply influenced by what he described as Artaud’s “question of the body,” a complexity Gullar explored by disintegrating verbal syntax to the point of imploding it in the concluding poems of his seminal A luta corporal (The Body’s Struggle, 1954). In this first meeting, which continues to live on with me both for what emerged in conversation and for the collaboration that ensued, Gullar expressed displeasure about one historical fact: In the 1950s, he loaned a magazine with Artaud’s poems to a friend who never returned it. When I asked him about the specific publication, he explained: “It was French, dedicated to Artaud, had a yellow cover and square format, and was published on thick paper.” I promised to track it down, and his otherwise firm and unyielding features gave me an incredulous smile.
In the month that followed, I mailed him a copy of the spring 1949 issue of Les cahiers de la pléiade, hoping that sixty years later he might rediscover in its pages what had so inspired him initially. In return, I received a postcard with the words “quero manifestar-lhe minha gratidão” (I want to express my gratitude to you); when we spoke by phone he enthusiastically added, “que maravilha” (how wonderful). But my interest in Gullar’s exposure to Artaud was more than literary, it was also psychiatric. Like his mentor Mário Pedrosa, Gullar publicly supported the work of Dr. Nise da Silveira, who had opened a painting studio for her patients in the Rio neighborhood of Engenho de Dentro in 1946 (although Gullar did not know her at that time). In 1996, he published Nise da Silveira: Uma psiquiatra rebelde, which included an interview with Silveira in which he asks about her use of Artaud’s definition of madness: os inumeráveis estados do ser (the innumerable states of being). He also wrote on patients’ work, as when he contributed alongside Pedrosa to Silveira’s “Os inumeráveis estados do ser” exhibition catalogue in 1987. Given this history, it is perhaps somewhat paradoxical that in the face of psychiatric reform and deinstitutionalization in Brazil, Gullar—as if in mirrored inversion to Artaud—publically affirmed the necessity of hospitalized psychiatric care, pointing out the ways in which the absence of such sustained care affected families with limited resources and also openly criticizing psychiatrists like Silveira. Gullar himself had two schizophrenic sons. But when it came to art produced in so-called normal or schizophrenic circumstances, Gullar repeatedly spoke to how artistic talent existed independently of such conditions. On this subject, and for the generosity he displayed, I reserve my final lines for him: “I have never mistaken madness for artistic talent, though, and I have always refused to see Artaud’s works or the works of the Engenho de Dentro painters as the fruits of madness.”
For additional Ferreira Gullar Passages, see the forthcoming April issue of Artforum.
Kaira M. Cabañas is associate professor in global modern and contemporary art at the University of Florida, Gainesville.
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.