San Francisco

Cordoba Bienal

Kaiser Center, Oakland

30 paintings by 20 artists from Argentina, Colombia, Chile, Peru, Uruguay and Venezuela, selected by Paul Mills, curator of the Oakland Art Museum, Lawrence Alloway, curator of the Guggenheim Museum, and Robert Wool, president of the Inter-American Foundation for the Arts, from the Second Bienal Americana de Arte held at the University of Cordoba, Argentina, last fall.

The South American artists are apparently an eclectic group. In some cases they have achieved a syncretistic style in which their obvious borrowings have been made to serve a new and personal purpose. And in other cases one searches in vain for something essentially South American in spirit. Only a few paintings from the West Coast reveal the mixed lineage of an Indio-Hispanic esthetic. All are cosmopolitan in expression and some are so international in idiom as to deny their place of origin. They could as well have been painted in New York, Toronto, Paris or Madrid, and one could pass them over as “more of the same“ were it not for their individual excellence. While some purely geometric abstractions are shown, there are no purely tachiste abstractions.

Although the tone of the show was determined by the decisions of the judges, it reportedly gives a reasonably accurate survey of contemporary South American painting. In a lecture on South American art developments in which he discussed some of the paintings for the preview audience (whose knowledge of avant-garde art he seemed to underestimate), Lawrence Alloway stated that the intent of the judges was to select works which would show some affiliation with the mainstream of international art. It was his conclusion, and he had firm premises, that these artists are attempting to forge a separate identity in the face of a problem poised between indigenous expression, based on forces encouraging nationalism, and the influence of Paris, New York and Spain.

Most of the exhibitors here are in their thirties, the ’oldest is fifty. Most have shown internationally and have traveled or lived abroad, their itinerary revealed by their works. Two are foreign-born, and of them Gerd Leufert, a Lithuanian Hard-Edge painter recently transplanted to Caracas, is as yet a South American artist in residence only. Alberto Gutierrez, an Armenian, combines calligraphy, old photographs, collage items and decorative spots into romantic compositions rich in personal iconography, somewhat after the style of Rauschenberg.

The range of expression is wide, including the lush figurativism and penetrating social commentary of Jacobo Borges (Venezuela), the generative geometrics of designer Eduardo Mac Entyre (Argentina) and the neat inventiveness of Cruz-Diez (Venezuela), whose relief constructions have been called “chromoplastic atmospheres” because shadows and reflected color or light modify their appearance as one changes one’s viewing angle.

The most powerfully inventive artist of the 20 is Jorge de la Vega of Argentina. He may have been the outstanding painter at the Bienal, since the jury agreed unanimously that three of his entries were musts for the North American tour. Jorge has drawn deeply on native Hispanic sources for a statement, expressed through a contemporary idiom with mixed media, that is probably the most illuminating of any representing South America today. Somewhere he came under the influence of Ensor, probably in Paris where he has lived for a time, and he has translated the traditional Latin American involvement with death into a weird drama where calaveras become Ensor masks decorated with letters and numbers in random arrangement and stones and ornamental scrolls to indicate facial features. Jorge’s “El Diario de Santos L’Overture” is by far the most exciting work in the show, and a prime candidate for the most significant statement to come out of the Americas in 1964.

Other artists worth mentioning are José Soto, Romulo Maccio and Antonio Segui. If Soto illustrates any particularly native aspect of Argentinian culture it is that of the metalworker. He is a meticulous craftsman who projects geometric shapes or wire (line) from a painted surface, depending upon cast shadows to assist in creating what Alloway referred to as an “optical dance.” His works are in that tradition of international concrete, or “cold,” art where the design must be completely autotelic, designating nothing else in the objective world and referring to nothing in the artist’s subjective world. Curiously, Clorindo Testa, one of a group known in the 1950s as “Los Independentos,” makes a more graphic use of geometrics. He paints cool dark rectangles of irregular size and blurred edges, arranged symmetrically, to annotate the highly sophisticated ancient city of Machu Picchu.

Segui and Maccio are full of learned reminiscences of a heritage not limited to the Argentine. One finds in them references to Bacon, Picasso, Dubuffet and American Pop Art. But each, in his own way, has integrated the various influences with his own personal vocabulary for the expression of intrinsic Argentinian moods. Segui’s painting is sophisticated in both content and method, but is rather slick in its reliance on an artificial patina presumably applied to simulate age. One wonders if he intends to reflect some quality of respect for Hispanic gentility which might be residual in the Argentine culture today, or whether he just gets carried away with tricky surface effects. There is about his painting here (a colorful box of calaveras titled “Caja con Senores”) an affiliation with Mexican art and a memory of Goya.

Maccio retains the dazzling Hispanic color and, while not sharing Segui’s reverence for “old-master” patina and chiaroscuro, he is equally concerned with stylistic problems already posed by Francis Bacon. And he adds those of Larry Rivers. In synthesizing these influences he epitomizes, at least in the Kaiser show, the Argentine’s new figuration. Both Maccio and Segui have recently moved to France. One can only hope that while subjected to the powerful School of Paris they will continue to adapt rather than adopt.

Elizabeth M. Polley