New York

“The Geometry of Hope”

Grey Art Gallery

The title of this ambitious exhibition of Latin American geometric abstract art from the 1930s to the ’70s, drawn from the Patricia Phelps de Cisneros collection, is a self-conscious response to Herbert Read’s term “the geometry of fear,” which he coined in 1952 to describe cold war British abstraction. Broadly speaking, the show encouraged viewers to link abstraction to utopian politics, but its arguments remained confused. A more helpful title might have been “Cold War Constructivism Redux: The Contradictions of Postwar Abstraction.” While the show’s existing title, and its focus on art that explicitly quotes iconic works of revolutionary modernism, evoke abstraction’s historically revolutionary aspiration, the project as a whole failed to capitalize on its potential.

The installation design of “Geometry” mimicked its subject’s trajectory from utopianism to a less politicized association with architecture and design, but only a few works, such as those of Lygia Clark and Gego, functioned here as illustrations of abstraction’s claim to broad-based innovation. The majority of work included aligns abstraction with powerful but arguably simplistic visions of modernization and urbanization. Spatially, the show privileges Neoconcretism, the Brazilian movement with which Clark, Lygia Pape, and Hélio Oiticica were associated. These artists forged a materialist idiom by transforming Constructivism and Plasticism through a heightened sensitivity to the corporeal. Clark’s recoding of modernism in works such as the metal sculptures Bicho (Critter), 1960, and O dentroé o fora (The Inside Is the Outside), 1963, emphasizes tactility and intimacy. Touch as a means by which to redefi ne social experience and the formation of community problematizes the artist’s modernist heroes’—most notably Piet Mondrian’s—emphasis on a disembodied, transcendental vision. “The Geometry of Hope” thus blurs abstraction’s borders while also attempting to differentiate it as a Latin American tradition from those movements—Magical Realism, Mexican Muralism—more often associated with the region.

This confusion—productive and less so—aside, curator Gabriel Pérez-Barreiro attempts to categorize different strains of abstraction according to what he sees as the tendency’s affiliation with rationalist principles on the one hand, and its “desire to undermine the rationalist discourses of modernity” on the other. Such rhetoric notwithstanding, a strength of the show is its introduction of works by artists underrepresented in American collections that dissolves such binary oppositions altogether—Willys de Castro’s oil painting Objecto ativoamarelo (Active Object–Yellow), 1959–60, for example. Here, a yellow expanse, interrupted only by a blue line and a small blue square, rehearses the tension between physical and optical space associated with modernism. The painting becomes a sensory object that protrudes into real space, its sides repeating the figure-ground dynamic of the front plane, thereby upsetting the pomposity of its forebear’s preoccupation with flatness.

At the same time, Neo-concretism’s inclusion alongside more static prewar-style works such as Jesus Rafael Soto’s Desplazamiento de un elemento luminoso (Displacement of a Luminous Element), 1954, makes abstraction appear a purely self-reflective exercise. Another strength of the exhibition —perhaps the most important one—was that it demonstrated the extent to which abstraction was confl icted, a tug-ofwar between neutrality and engagement. While Oiticica’s Parangolé P16 Capa 12. De adversidade vivemes (Parangolé P16 Cape 12. We Live from Adversity), 1965/1992, adapts the style to costumes for street events, Carlos Cruz-Diez’s kinetic work Physichromie No. 126, 1964, shores up the narrative of abstraction as primarily decorative. As the wall text explains (in apparent contradiction to the overarching thesis of the show), “Kinetic art provided distance from contemporary political debates and offered war weary viewers a participatory artistic experience that was novel and entertaining.” So much for hope.

Jaleh Mansoor