New York

León Ferrari and Mira Schendel

A PAIR OF PHOTOGRAPHIC PORTRAITS of the artists adorn the entrance of the Museum of Modern Art’s joint retrospective “Tangled Alphabets: León Ferrari and Mira Schendel,” the first major North American survey for either of these two key figures of postwar Latin American art. Similarly framed, equally expressionless, and each flanked by abstract sculptures, the two artists look strikingly alike. This coincidence reflects the show’s primary operation: The dearth of actual historical connections between Ferrari and Schendel is repeatedly eclipsed by immediate visual affinities. While a retrospective of even one of these early exponents of what critic Craig Owens once called the “eruption of language into the field of the visual arts” would have been welcome and overdue, curator Luis Pérez-Oramas has a more ambitious aim: for the artists to clarify each other’s contributions through a series of formal comparisons.

To this end, “Tangled Alphabets” juxtaposes some two hundred works while following a rough biographical chronology. Ferrari, who was born in 1920 to Italian parents in Buenos Aires, left Argentina for São Paulo in 1976 to escape the “dirty war,” returning to his hometown (where he still lives) only in 1991; while Schendel, who died in 1988, was born in Switzerland in 1919 and emigrated to Brazil in 1949, settling in São Paulo in 1953. In the early 1960s, both artists began systematically exploring combinations of drawing and writing, which supplanted their earlier, more traditionally modernist investigations: for Schendel, Morandi-like still lifes; for Ferrari, Picassoid ceramics. In series such as “Letras” (Letters) and “Escritas” (Written), both 1964–65, Schendel made prints of isolated abstract markings, numbers, and fragments of different languages by first placing sheets of rice paper between plates of glass treated with ink and a layer of talc, and then pressing onto the glass to transfer the ink to the paper. In contrast, Ferrari made ink drawings that linked compositional elements together with lines, organizing elegant gestural abstractions into text-like syntax, as in the series “Cartas a un general” (Letters to a General), 1963. Expressionism and writing are here mapped onto each other so that the former is rendered regular and the latter illegible. Ferrari subsequently incorporated actual writing into his works, including Cuadro escrito (Written Painting), 1964, which describes a painting he would have made but could not.

In his catalogue essay, Pérez-Oramas contends that the artists’ focus on the materiality of writing over its ability to advance ideas sets them apart from North American or European Conceptual artists. Considering the subsequent interest in language as matter in the work of Robert Smithson, Hanne Darboven, and many others, however, it might be argued that Ferrari and Schendel offer an alternative picture of language’s appearance in ’60s art: not as rupture but as a result of rigorous experimentation with abstract form. For Schendel’s “Objetos gráficos” (Graphic Objects), begun in 1967, she veiled her drawings, which were now double-sided and included transfer type, behind sheets of translucent acrylic. Ferrari used Letraset characters in mad profusion in his “Heliografías” (Heliographs), ca. 1980–84, enormous diazotypes that were folded and mailed internationally (of which the show sadly includes only four, none of them full-size examples). These approaches also yielded sculptural iterations for both artists—Ferrari’s late-’70s wire sculptures repeat modernist grids until they become prisons, while for her “Droguinhas” (Little Nothings) series, ca. 1965–68, Schendel refigured her medium in three dimensions, crumpling and knotting rice paper into soft lattices.

Yet something is missing in these tangled oeuvres: Ferrari’s fierce political engagement from 1965 on. If the illegibility of “Cartas a un general” evokes language’s futility before military power, his participation in the 1968 pro-labor, antidictatorship collective project Tucumán Arde (Tucumán Burns)—unaddressed by this exhibition—speaks to a profound shift in orientation. The artist’s confrontational character is acknowledged with the inclusion of blasphemous collages of the ’80s and ’90s, but these decry violence on a less immediately political scale. The absence of Nosotros no sabíamos (We Didn’t Know), 1976–92, a collection of newspaper articles relating to the discovery of corpses of disappeared Argentineans, and his collages for a left-wing newspaper’s republication in 1995 of Nunca más (Never Again), the report issued by Argentina’s National Commission on the Disappearance of Persons, likewise obscures the political side of Ferrari’s practice, in which the message, not materiality, is paramount.

This omission points to a limitation of the show’s comparative structure: The emphasis on the two artists’ formal affinities suggests that they were both exclusively engaged in studious and hermetic processes that were developed and elaborated over the course of years. This is certainly true of Schendel, whose last complete series, “Sarrafos” (Splints), 1987, comprises austere abstract paintings in which black wood bars cross and protrude from white canvases, but Ferrari has alternated a similar working method with a parallel one of collaboration and provocation. The strongest indication here of the radical difference between the artists is the pairing of Schendel’s Ondas paradas de probabilidade (Still Waves of Probability), 1969, with Ferrari’s Juicio final (Final Judgment), 1994. The former is an installation of hundreds of hanging, evanescent nylon threads, accompanied by a biblical passage about God’s silence. The latter is a print of Michelangelo’s Last Judgment covered in bird shit. Beyond the question of whether MOMA despite its newly global purview, still privileges revolutions in form over revolution itself, “Tangled Alphabets” exemplifies the contemporary challenge of exhibiting “peripheral” artists, whose implications for the canon must be balanced with points of historical and political specificity that do not translate as well, or at all.

“Tangled Alphabets: León Ferrari and Mira Schendel” remains on view at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, through June 15, and travels to the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid, Nov. 24, 2009–Mar. 1, 2010.

Daniel Quiles is an art historian and critic based in New York.