New York

Luis Camnitzer

Lehman College

Luis Camnitzer’s first retrospective in the U. S. afforded a long-overdue look at the career of this Conceptual artist who has constantly positioned himself outside of the mainstream. Born in Germany and raised in a Jewish community in Uruguay, Camnitzer moved permanently to the U.S. in 1964 and stayed here when his country fell to a military dictatorship. For Camnitzer, art has always constituted a place from which to articulate resistance, and his work has offered a constant critique both of political oppression in Latin America and of the art market.

First known as a printmaker, Camnitzer abandoned his early proclivity for expressionism in order to focus on the medium’s potential to reach a mass audience. “Adhesive Labels,” 1966–67, in which random sentences were printed on labels and posted publicly, a full decade before Jenny Holzer plastered her “Truisms” on outdoor walls in downtown Manhattan, was an attempt to communicate directly to a larger audience while bypassing the art market. Eventually redefining himself as a Conceptual artist, Camnitzer continued to explore the possibilities of language as art in work akin to that of Joseph Kosuth and Mel Bochner. In Living Room, 1969–90, the artist recreated a living space with Xeroxed words, examining our conditioned reactions to language. Camnitzer used language to open up political space in works such as Massacre of Puerto Montt, 1969–90, in which text and dotted lines recreated a massacre of peasants by the Chilean government. In Leftovers, 1970, stacks of gauze-covered boxes stained blood-red, containing body parts, served as chillingly palpable symbols of genocide. Feeling that he had exhausted the political potential of textual works and wary of degenerating into predictable didacticism, Camnitzer focused on his critique of art’s status as commodity. Selling his measured signature as art in Signature by the inch, 1971–73, Camnitzer humorously but effectively drew attention to the dynamics of the market, in which a name is often more important than an artist’s work.

Switching gears in the late ’70s, Camnitzer reintroduced images, producing works such as Arbitrary Objects and Their Titles, 1979, which juxtaposed various images with seemingly random titles, challenging the viewer to take an active role in the production of meaning. This transitional period, in which Camnitzer made a point of sharing authorship with the viewer, set the stage for his return to political issues in the ’80s.

Several significant installations focused once again on oppression in Latin America; in “The Uruguayan Torture Series,” 1983–84, photoetchings of torture scenes were coupled with oblique, provocative captions. In one, an image of a hand, each finger pierced by a nail, is accompanied by the sentence “He practiced every day.” Here Camnitzer sacrificed directness for subtlety, encouraging the viewer’s imaginative reconstruction of the relationship between torturer and victim. At the 1988 Venice Biennale, Camnitzer created an installation evoking a prisoner’s cell, manipulating ordinary objects and text to explore the terror of incarceration. In these installations, Camnitzer sought not simply to inform an audience of political realities, but to enlighten them and to inspire action.

Camnitzer’s diverse oeuvre reveals a rigorous mind constantly engaged with the problems that inevitably face the political artist. His work has proceeded according to a moral imperative—that of waging a critique of power without hypocritically claiming power in the process, either by dominating the viewer, or by uncritically participating in the market. Alongside the major installations was a plethora of smaller works that wittily denounce art as commodity, such as Dollar Shelf, 1988, a mud-caked, wooden shelf in the shape of a dollar sign that mocks material preciousness. Camnitzer avoids self-righteousness by consistently directing his critical wit toward himself; one work documents a hilarious self-investigation through hypnosis of his own desire to be seduced by his materials. Almost overwhelmingly comprehensive, this show was an opportunity to follow the career of a significant first-generation Conceptualist who continues to give succeeding generations a run for their money.

Jenifer P. Borum