“Inverted Utopias”

Exhibitions of Latin American art in Europe and the United States have long labored under the apparent necessity of introducing or explaining an entire continent’s artistic production to a public hitherto unaware of it. Surveys have inevitably been the norm, employing curatorial strategies that would be considered simplistic if applied to the history of European or North American art. As the work of twentieth-century Latin American artists became fashionable and attractive to the international art market in the ’80s, certain European and American enthusiasts aimed to realize their long-held ambition to establish Latin American art in the mainstream of contemporary culture. But with some exceptions, such as Dawn Ades’s pioneering “Art in Latin America: The Modern Era, 1820–1980” (Hayward Gallery, London, 1989) and Catherine de Zegher’s audacious “America, Bride of the Sun” (Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Antwerp, 1992), the shows they produced followed routine historical procedures and a conventional notion of the art object.

Today, with the regular inclusion of Latin American artists in Documenta and in international thematic shows, this introductory phase might appear to be over. Until recently, however, we still lacked for a treatment of the antecedents of the current scene that reflected contemporary thinking in those countries themselves, since relatively little of the continent’s art criticism has been translated. Hence “Inverted Utopias: Avant-Garde Art in Latin America” marks perhaps the most intellectually challenging megasurvey to date.

The exhibition’s title refers to the famous cover of Joaquín Torres-García’s 1935 manifesto, “La escuela del sur,” showing the map of South America upside down according to the standard global projection. Rather than constructing a geography or a chronology, joint curators Mari Carmen Ramírez, director of the International Center for the Arts of the Americas at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and the Mexican poet Héctor Olea, structured their project and its huge, indispensable catalogue around pairs of fertile oppositions and contradictions. “Play and Grief,” for example, established a nexus between an agonized expressionism and a clever freedom with materials; “Cryptic and Committed” showed the interrelation of two facets of conceptualism—political activism and an exploration of the enigmas of representation; and “Touch and Gaze” traced the eruption of the corporeal into the optical traditions of visual art.

The result is not the establishment of an alternative, exotic, or “other” modernism, but rather an expansion of our understanding of the utopian and dystopian facets of avant-garde experimentation, with cultural differences considered not as barriers but as challenges and stimulants. This enables one to think of art as a precarious yet insistent flow of ideas across cultures and generations.

Indeed, what receives institutional recognition here has long been understood and made use of by artists themselves. Almost thirty-five years ago, Vito Acconci was inspired by Hélio Oiticica’s participatory construction, Nests, 1970, made for “Information,” MoMA’s seminal exhibition of the same year. In Marcos Bonisson’s recent film on Oiticica, Acconci recalls: “In the middle of the museum there was a place, a place for people. That was very rare at that time. No one thought of art as a place for people, those little compartments, those little capsules, nests. . . . [Oiticica’s work] was about relations between people before mine was.”

One of the strengths of “Inverted Utopias” was that it took an extended view of individual creativity, communicating something of the intellectual ferment in which so many of these artists worked. Thus the Argentinian Xul Solar is shown not only as a painter who synthesized a view of the continent’s mythical past in crystalline watercolors, but as a maker of masks for satiric performances, and the inventor of a strange numeralogical/linguistic system that took the form of a chess set.

A sense of the conceptual audacity and political astuteness of the Argentinian scene in the mid-’60s emerged from this show with particular strength. León Ferrari, Oscar Bony, Luis Filipe Noé, Alberto Greco, and Roberto Jacoby are still relatively little-known artists in Europe and the United States. The works by Jacoby documented here, along with the texts he coauthored with Eduardo Costa and Raúl Escari, show a truly prophetic grasp of the technological mediation of experience. A manifesto titled, “Un arte de los medios de comunicación” (1966) stated: “In the end consumers are not interested in whether an exhibition took place or not; all that matters is the image which is made of the artistic fact in the communication media.” The artists took this as their cue to insert into the press written and photographic documentation of a “happening” that never took place. “We want to construct a work inside those media,” they wrote. How many artists who employ comparably interventionist tactics today realize that they were laid out with such urgency, lucidity, and wit forty years ago in Buenos Aires?

In a broad sense, art in twentieth-century Latin America echoes the dualism found in Europe between geometric abstraction’s drive to order, and the chaotic, mutating tangle of expressionism and symbolist figuration. Having long been drawn myself to the first tendency, this exhibition represented for me a chance to discover the intense visualization of violence, chaos, and suffering in works by Débora Arango, Alberto Heredia, Carlos Raquel Rivera, Antonio Berni, and others, all of whom witnessed the dystopia of poverty and military dictatorship firsthand. Beyond this, though, the multitude of voices assembled here suggested that geometric and expressionist tendencies may contain each other in a different register: Think, for example, of the disruption of order in Gego’s late work, or the transformation of violence in the formerly Neo-concrete artist Lygia Clark’s terapia. Such complexity reminds us not only how long overdue “Inverted Utopias” was, but also how many detailed monographic shows remain to be staged.

Guy Brett is a writer and curator based in London.