Buenos Aires

León Ferrari

Trying to read León Ferrari’s scribbles is almost embarrassing. It’s like intruding on a private realm, seeing things never meant for our eyes, overhearing a whispered conversation. Indeed, this selection of Ferrari’s drawings, curated by Victoria Noorthoorn, seemed like an open diary: the artist’s silent and most private attempt at finding a self—in any case a search for something at times almost within reach, at other times completely inaccessible, but always as elusive as quicksilver. These calligraphic line drawings, mostly ink on paper, which first appeared around 1961 and have continued throughout the artist’s career, sometimes resemble the works Henri Michaux did under the influence of mescaline. But however akin formally, the two artists’ works are in fact born out of quite different spirits. Ferrari’s practice of drawing does not seek the derangement of the senses as Michaux’s did. Rather, it is devised as a conceptual tool for reflecting on the writing experience.

Ferrari’s calligraphies paradoxically seem not to foster communication but to express the incommunicable, for the drawings collapse into themselves, negate their own premises, arrive at zero. They are a step beyond the sign and the image, a zone where writing disappears—as if the artist were describing not so much language itself as the effect that it produces. What is writing? Ferrari’s drawings seem to ask. And they answer at the same time. For him, writing seems a medium through which to get down on paper not thoughts, exactly, but ideas about thoughts. In this sense the artist never speaks explicitly and yet never fails to make himself clear.

One of the many virtues of this show was that it brought together for the first time the full range of Ferrari’s drawings. For it would be impossible to get an accurate sense of his work from isolated pieces: In Ferrari what is important is the ongoing process of writing. With lines that dizzyingly grow thin or fat and words that roll over others, the drawings constitute not an evocation of the written word but a commentary about it that carries us beyond the confines of the subject. Throughout his life Ferrari has created these drawings as a parallel work while simultaneously executing his most public political art, like the notorious sculpture La civilización occidental y cristiana, 1965, in which a Christ figure is crucified to a fighter jet. His arms span the wings as he grasps a missile on either side. These calligraphies, by contrast, can be understood as Ferrari’s most intimate work, as if in the end those lines, those squiggles, were all about loneliness, about that essential condition of being locked inside one’s own head. The show emerges as a monologue, the lifelong conversation we hold with ourselves and the endless process through which we gain self-consciousness: a process that takes place in absolute solitude. And hanging there, silently on the walls, the lines become a monument to the questioning mind.

Maria Gainza