New York

León Ferrari, Untitled, 2010, wire, 47 1/4 x 47 1/4 x 47 1/4".

León Ferrari, Untitled, 2010, wire, 47 1/4 x 47 1/4 x 47 1/4".

León Ferrari

Haunch of Venison | New York

León Ferrari, Untitled, 2010, wire, 47 1/4 x 47 1/4 x 47 1/4".

Despite the signal 2009 exhibition “Tangled Alphabets: León Ferrari and Mira Schendel,” at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, the work of the Argentine artist León Ferrari is, in all likelihood, unfamiliar to much of the North American public; in fact, that show’s catalogue forms the basic English reference to Ferrari’s striking output, which is still in vital production though Ferrari is, at this reviewing, a veteran prodigy at ninety years of age.

When he was young, to judge from the MoMA catalogue, Ferrari was an enchanting idealist—also an accomplished ceramist and draughtsman, but not a painter’s painter and never to be one. Social activism was his strong suit, a Conceptualist populism stoked by the Vietnam adventure—evidenced by the figures of Christ crucified on the bellies of US fighter jets, say. But his fury was particularly ignited by the Argentine “Dirty War” of 1976. In resisting the depredations of a soul-withering military junta, Ferrari’s own son was murdered, and Ferrari and family were forced into Brazilian exile. (Years before the scarring time of los desaparecidos, another family tragedy—the deafness of his young daughter, caused by a treatment for tuberculous meningitis in 1952—sparked the central role of the word in Ferrari’s art. To a non-Spanish reader, this elaborate, text-based body of work functions primarily as lyrical calligraphic abstraction—sheet music for hummingbirds, as it were.)

Ferrari is also outraged by the insidious intersection of a chauvinist Catholic Church with an authoritarian state apparatus nourished by mid-twentieth-century, Peronista roots. State repression on one hand and, on the other, the denial of libido central to Church teaching: These are the great themes of Ferrari’s art. Shrewdly understated, granting the power of the subjects at hand, his work addresses the sentimentalization of Marian virginity, say, or the abhorrence of the humanly physical, Inquisitorial purification and mortifying acts of faith, and the relentless hell guaranteed by Church truths traduced. Ferrari’s “discourtesies” along such lines may take the form, for example, of defaming images of Michelangelo’s Last Judgment from the Sistine Chapel: using it to line a birdcage, so that avian droppings rain through a template in the shape of a cross upon the image, or replacing it with enlargements of harrowing concentration-camp scenes. Regrettably, Conceptual work of this type was absent from the Haunch of Venison show, which was carefully pruned so as to transform the artist from firebrand into figure of accessible comfort.

Apart from a disturbing 2004 documentary, directed by Pablo Padula, portraying Catholic “family values” demonstrations against Ferrari’s fifty-year retrospective in Buenos Aires, the works exhibited—many of recent date—lay claim to another terrain, the exquisite linearity that we see as natural to Eva Hesse’s sculptures of which the artist, at least in his younger years, may only have been dimly aware. The quaint linear structures of Paul Klee also come to mind, as does the white writing of Mark Tobey; Ferrari surely was cognizant of these artists. Among the loveliest works are the recent galaxies of wire that aspire to a transparent linear dematerialization; though drifting, they never abandon their status as sculpture, yet they embody the perennial dream of solid mass deliquescing into cloud and mist.

In presenting so selective a vision of the “good Ferrari,” this exhibition may well have slighted a life’s work of exemplary power. Nevertheless, it assembled a shimmering group of wire constellations and some two dozen revelatory drawings of discriminating sensibility.

Robert Pincus-Witten