PRINT October 1972

The Search for a Legible Iconography

TO EXPLOIT A PHRASE of Marx’s: Latin American artists are driven by “the nostalgia for a content.” This content must take account of a complex situation: though complex it is known to everybody and announced continually; it is the interplay of European, Spanish (a special case), North American, and Indian culture. What is wanted is an art that is not ideologically bound to a donor culture, which has come to mean exclusively an imperialist culture. Neither the iconography of art nor an existential commitment to art as a project can satisfy this demand, the former because of ideological contamination, the latter because the conception of role is insufficiently separated from an instrumental view of the professions. The semiotic problem facing Latin American artists who want to move in this direction is to take possession of signs that have their origin in the general system of communication. There is a built-in factor that might assist this. Signs and symbols have been used so long to signal political positions in the forms of graffiti that artists cannot break the habit now. The idea of using a country’s flag in a determinedly non-expressive way, like Johns, is inconceivable in South America. That is why Pop art always takes on political resonance in South America; even its North American references and origin are ideological. If artists are to draw from the general stock of signs, i.e. those that do not inhere to artists as a subgroup but are known to the public from everyday use, the signs will get changed by transposition. Max Bense has pointed out that “the path of a sign is simultaneously the path of its alteration.”’ Bense was commenting on the diffusion of the emblem Aloisio Magalhaes designed for the fourth centennial of Rio de Janeiro, but the point is applicable to all the transmissable signs in a nation’s inventory.

One of the problems in communication for South American artists is the disparity between the 19th-century structure of most of their cities and the output of the 20th-century message system. There have been moments of exceptional rapport, as between Buenos Aires in the ’60s and contemporaneous Pop culture, but it did not survive political changes in Argentina and the scattering of the artists to New York, Paris, London. Latin American cities have the pleasure, which is also a weakness, of intimate, face-to-face relations between all the members of a group so that all are vulnerable to the same pressures and reinforce the same inhibitions. Artists receive ideas about art that originate in the rapidly changing message system, but as the solutions of others change their problems have become partially arrested. Thus, the Mexican mural school is still present in Latin America, though rarely acknowledged by the artists. However, this is not only the sole contribution to 20th-century art recognized globally, it is also a body of work that incorporates native iconography and political doctrine.

The conflict of local obligations (roots) and international influence (models) which seemed settled by the internationalism of concrete art, expressionist figuration, and matter painting in the ’60s is active again as can be seen in the third Bienal de arte Coltejar at Medellin, Colombia. The revival of ideology has been as influential in Latin America as everywhere else; intellectuals have pushed ideas back to their social roots. The presence of Indian culture as an infrastructure is strongly felt, but so far attempts to assimilate indigenous motives have led nowhere. In fact, what artists want is not the insertion of Indian bits into art, but a testimony of their own Indianness (like Negritude) and the legitimation of the culture. And there is the compromising fact, awkwardly persistent, that artists with the ambition to act historically have to do so within their knowledge of the present state of the arts. This cannot be done with luck or innocently: its basis is a definition of art that derives from international ideas, though its material is native. One attempt at big scale art using local materials as theme is by Humberto Espindola who uses cattle hides imprinted with decorative brandmarks and surrounded by prize-winning rosettes. (An extension of this was in the Brazilian pavilion at Venice this year, an environment with a shower of suspended rosettes through which a wall of cattle skulls is glimpsed.)

Venezuela, Colombia, the Caribbean countries, all have groups of primitive easel painters, enumerative in drawing, local in color, and given to innocuous scenes of native life. This year the style has been politicized by Fernando Grillón (Paraguay) with a triptych of Usurers Devoured by Black Panthers. There are possibilities here of a range of subject matter to separate naive art from its complacent picturesque. Another source for painters with “nostalgia for a content” is graphic art, since it is public or semipublic compared to unique objects. Two Colombian artists demonstrate the option: Alberto Sierra’s The Preferred Fashion for the Season confronts clichés of imperialism and communism and Saturnine Ramirez’s The Prostitutes combines images that resemble magazine illustrations with a painterly touch. This pileup of images of women on separate canvases reveals its full Latinity only when you remember the title. What is sought, as these works typify, is imagery that is detachable from art’s usage to take on a social utility. It has to be a multiple-use sign system.

The handling of iconography as a prime interest reaches a climax in the Spanish contribution to the Bienal, the Equipo Realidad, a two-man painting team (Juan Cardells and Jorge Ballester). The Birth of Apollo is a characteristic montage, with flips in image source, scale, and angle of view. The transcription of existing imagery has a double usefulness: it provides the artist with symbols that have assigned meanings (like the black panther in The Birth of Apollo), thus enabling him to carry his art into a realm of disputation, and avoiding the difficulty of minting new, readable public imagery.

Something comparable occurs in the work of Herman Braun (Peru), whose paraphrases of other art tend to activate psychological notions about artists and sitters as people. In Study on Picasso, the figure of Picasso turns into a mortal smear by Bacon and near Picasso’s painting Woman in a Rocking Chair of the ’40s is a rocking chair and a seated woman from another angle, in another light, the model, maybe, or somebody else sitting in the chair later. The point is that these genre elements are all evoked by the quotation of known signs, an indication of the common preoccupation with legible imagery.

The second Bienal at Medellin two years ago was well stocked with abstract art and the jury responded by awarding the main prizes to Luis Tomsaello, Francisco Salazar, and Ary Brizzi. Although Salazar is Venezuelan, all three artists shared the systematic and orderly procedures of the Argentine-German-Swiss axis. The third Bienal this year carries far less abstract art, not because it is not being done but because it continues to be done in approximately the same way. Leonel Estrada, the director of the exhibition, wanted to do more than repeat the success of the preceding show and looked consequently for figurative art, a decision in keeping with the changing interest of many South American artists.

Figurative art does not mean now what it meant in the ’60s with, say, Otra Figuracion in Argentina and Nueva Presencia in Mexico. The former painters used a form of CoBrA imagery, a little more specific in details inasmuch as the streets and carnival provided things in life like the gestures they wanted to make with the paint. The Mexican group, though less given to exuberant metamorphosis, aimed at representing the human condition in terms of the pathos of representative human types. The generalization inherent in both approaches has been reduced so that imagery is topical and less linked to traditions of the grotesque or pathetic. There is more directness in the presentation of images that derive from familiar situations. Canogar’s La Escapada and Jorge Demirjian’s Blow Up, one from Spain, one from Argentina, share the image of a running figure: Canogar’s figure bulges in black relief in front of a smokily silhouetted crowd; Demirjian’s contoured figure is propelled forward by the curve of the sidewalk. Both works derive the figure from the specific and bynow common image of flight from armed police or soldiers in the street. Arnoldo Ramirez Amaya selected as subject a political assassination in his native Guatemala. The work is a composite, on wall and floor, of canvas and metal: different sections show a road (for the killers’ car), the victim’s body, and a helicopter ferrying the corpse out. The silhouette style of rendering may derive from the Equipo Cronica and the planes of the road from d’Arcangelo (both seen at Medellin two years ago), but the ensemble is Ramirez’s own, a disrupted walk-through of a topical subject. It is death without Francis Baconesque overtones; in fact, it has the brisk jumpiness of movie credits. The works mentioned here are all examples of a drive toward a participant iconography.

At the first Bienal de arte Coltejer at Medellin, Colombia in 1968 there were a hundred artists, at the second 160, and this year 220. The number of works shown has increased from 154 to 334 to 600 (this last figure excludes Conceptual art). The show is financed by Coltejer, a neologism formed out of Compania Colombian de Tejides (Colombian Textile Company). The company’s patronage is important for without it the scarcity of new original works of art in Colombia would be unabated (what activity there is—a museum, a few galleries—has centered on Bogota). In a situation of deprivation large recurrent shows have their full importance. After World War II, the Venice Biennale fulfilled the function of information transmission, as did the first four Documenta exhibitions, though this service has been suspended in the fifth. When information is low, and it is very low in Colombia, big shows can be highly consequential.

Medellin is an industrial city with a population of 1,300,000. Attendance at the first Bienal was 120,000, 200,000 at the second, and, owing to a downtown location this time and the buildup of interest from past shows, 290,000 in the first month of the third. With figures as high as this it is clear that it is not only artists who are being reached, but that public education is part of the Bienal’s output.

The exhibition is of particular significance to Colombian artists, my main concern here, less as a marketplace (there are no dealers or collectors of importance) than as a source of information, setting artists in contact with one another’s work. It is not a matter of social exchange contacts but that of knowledge of the field, so that the basis of a professional view of relevant events is established. (The fact that this exists strongly in the United States, does not mean it can be taken for granted elsewhere.) South America is not characterized by frequent or easy intercommunication. On the contrary, it is divided by insistent sovereignties which reduce contacts between the countries. There is more input from the art of Paris or New York than exchange between countries on the same continent. The Sao Paulo Bienal does not contribute much to raising the level of self-knowledge among Latin American artists because of the dominance of international artists, on the principle of Venice. In the ’60s Industrias Kaiser Argentina financed a Bienal Americana de arte at Cordoba; after three exhibitions, the last in 1966, the company changed hands and the show was dropped. It is this concept of an exhibition designed mainly to show the art of the Americas that Coltejer revived in 1968.

What is valuable about the Bienal is the view it gives of Latin American art. Its theme is ostensibly larger, the Americas, but this is not a subject to tackle from Colombia. To take the Americas as subject matter involves handling cultures at different levels of technology and also countries that have utterly different time rates. The methodological problems are more than can be asked of the organizers of a large art exhibition, who are certainly busy enough. In any case, the representation of North America and Canada is not worth the expense involved in getting them to Medellin. It would release the funds presently wasted on weak pieces by known artists or typical works by awful artists to concentrate on South American art completely. (Probably the Caribbean should be omitted, too, since its art appears consistently feeble.) Nobody goes to Medellin for information about North American culture, so that concentrating on Latin American problems would amplify what is already of most interest in the exhibition. If this were done, it need not be restricted to painters and sculptors, whose forms are, of course, derivative from European precedents. Popular culture, as it was produced in the past and as it continues today, urban and rural, could be included in the program. The study of Indian culture, its subjection to live esthetic judgment, is overdue and could be expected to contribute to the search for a legible imagery derived from regional sources.



1. Max Bense, nachwort in Aloisio Magalhaes, Der Weg Eines Zeichens, trans. Joachim Neugroschel, Stuttgart, 1969.