Buenos Aires

Pablo Suárez, Narciso de Mataderos (Narcissus of Mataderos), 1984–85 /1994, oil and enamel paint on plaster, dresser, mirror. Installation view. Photo: Gustavo Sosa Pinilla.

Pablo Suárez, Narciso de Mataderos (Narcissus of Mataderos), 1984–85 /1994, oil and enamel paint on plaster, dresser, mirror. Installation view. Photo: Gustavo Sosa Pinilla.

Pablo Suárez

In 1968, Pablo Suárez (1937–2006) wrote a letter to Jorge Romero Brest, director of the famed Visual Art Center at the Instituto Torcuato Di Tella in Buenos Aires, renouncing his association with the institute by refusing to participate in its imminent “Experiencias 68”––the same exhibition that was subsequently repudiated by many participating artists after the police censored an installation by Roberto Plate. Explicating his disillusionment with the institutionalization of avant-garde practices, which Di Tella symbolized, Suárez took to the streets, delivering multiple copies of his missive to the institute’s doorstep and recruiting neighborhood children to stash it between periodical pages. The act was as much a performance as it was a political statement.

The artist’s gesture of refusal was indicative of his life’s work, encapsulated by the title of this retrospective, “Narciso plebeyo” (The Plebeian Narcissist), organized by Rafael Cippolini and Jimena Ferreiro. Unlike any of his explicitly socially engaged contemporaries, Suárez upheld a lofty, self—consciously ludicrous ideal of reimagining the radical potential of Argentinean avant-gardism (which he had helped to form), even as he became disenchanted with the role of art in the degraded political conditions of his lifetime: ruthless dictatorships, persecution of dissidents, economic crises, and creative oppression.

Only a handful of Suárez’s pre-1972 works remain intact; they were either too materially precarious or irrevocably site-specific, and from 1972 to 1976 he seems to have disengaged from artmaking altogether. Thus, the exhibition opened with enlarged reproductions of correspondence, among them the aforementioned infamous letter to Brest, as well as exhibition announcement cards, newspaper clippings, and photos. Bookended with a dramatically curtained entrance and exit, the exhibition design created a theatrical setting for the artist’s extant oeuvre and its staging of the tragicomedy of Argentina’s recent past.

Social practice of the kind produced by many of his contemporaries was atypical for Suárez, characterizing only his collaboration with Marta Minujín and Rubén Santantonín in 1965 and the politically engaged pieces he produced with the Vanguard Artists Group from 1968 to 1972—the most famous of which, Tucumán arde (Tucumán Is Burning), 1968, he retrospectively considered a failure. Instead, Suárez was devoted to upending object-based art and rewriting his country’s art history, imbuing his often garishly camp aesthetic and plebeian subject matter with a relatable pathos. Emblems of Argentinean popular culture rooted in tradition—among them thermoses of maté, dishes such as milanesa, and social events such as poolside asados—are simultaneously treated with respect and irreverence in an ironic reworking of the realistic yet romantic Costumbrismo painting style of the nineteenth century. Meanwhile, the still lifes Suárez painted with the utmost technical adroitness, though viewed by some as purely market-driven works, are encrypted portraits of Argentinean life brought to a standstill by state terrorism in the 1970s and ’80s.

Along with his avant-garde practice of the 1960s, Suárez is perhaps best known for his works in which figures escape two-dimensional space, not unlike actors breaking the fourth wall. In the earliest such pieces, the substrate was always painting. Later, bodies would step out of the picture plane altogether. In Narciso de Mataderos (Narcissus of Mataderos), 1984–85/1994, a life-size male figure leans into a dresser, grimacing at himself in the mirror. He is grotesque, yet jaunty and lurid; perhaps this work can be read as a self-portrait expressing Suárez’s conflicted relationship to maintaining an art practice at all. In Por temor a mí accediste a un lujo vano (pensó la rata) (For Fear of Me You Agreed to a Vain Luxury [Thought the Rat]), 1989, a tremulous nude clutches voluminous drapes to escape a minuscule rat on the floor below. Though we may be spectators in the space of the exhibition, these figures leap forth into reality, underscoring Suárez’s persisting sociopolitical intent. His works are to be experienced in our own space, suggesting that the onlooker is a fellow actor in the absurd theater of life rather than merely an audience for the artist’s individuated vision.