Mexico City

Participants in the second Salón Independiente on the esplanade of the Museo Nacional de Antropología, Mexico City, Summer 1969. Photo: Salón Independiente, Centro de Documentación Arkheia.

Participants in the second Salón Independiente on the esplanade of the Museo Nacional de Antropología, Mexico City, Summer 1969. Photo: Salón Independiente, Centro de Documentación Arkheia.

“Un arte sin tutela: Salón Independiente en México, 1968–1971”

Museo Universitario Arte Contemporaneo (MUAC)

Participants in the second Salón Independiente on the esplanade of the Museo Nacional de Antropología, Mexico City, Summer 1969. Photo: Salón Independiente, Centro de Documentación Arkheia.

A PUBLICITY PHOTOGRAPH from the second Salón Independiente depicts nearly half of the exhibition’s artists, most standing against a wall, their hands up, and a few others sprawled on the ground. The massacre of approximately 325 student protesters in Tlatelolco’s Plaza de las Tres Culturas one year prior, on October 2, 1968, was an unmistakable reference. The first Salón Independiente opened just two weeks after Tlatelolco; it had been organized between July and October of that year, during the student protests and their ensuing repression by the government of Gustavo Díaz Ordaz. The Salón’s legacy of experimentation and of autonomy from institutions is tied up in its proximity to the turbulent politics of the era, even if the art on view was rarely denunciatory of the regime. Curator Pilar Garcia demonstrated this tension by giving the group portrait pride of place in “Un arte sin tutela: Salón Independiente en México, 1968–1971” (Art Without Guardianship: Salón Independiente in Mexico, 1968–1971). It appeared twice within a wall-size blowup of ephemera from the 1969 edition, once in color and once in black-and-white, reversed, echoing the artists’ gesture of traumatic repetition.

Felipe Ehrenberg, Tlatelolco (estudiante acribillado), 1968, acrylic and metal on wooden box, 15 3⁄4 × 19 3⁄4 × 1 1⁄8".

Similar media collages—jumbles of headlines, text, artists’ headshots, and installation photographs—loomed in each gallery of “Un arte sin tutela,” at times dwarfing the artworks. Beyond reflecting the original Salón artists’ tireless publicity efforts, this hierarchy of visual information was a reminder that little in this moment went unmediated; the artists’ rebellious position could only have been established within a cultural field already enjoying the spotlight. Garcia thus undertook a somewhat contradictory curatorial endeavor, historicizing a now-legendary movement with an unprecedented level of archival detail while simultaneously demystifying its aura of independence. Drawing on the Museo Universitario Arte Contemporáneo’s Arkheia archives, Garcia placed original works from the three Salóns and reproductions thereof alongside ephemera and examples from such related exhibitions as “Exposición Solar 68,” the official showcase of contemporary Mexican art sponsored by the 1968 Olympics, which catalyzed the formation of the Salón Independiente. Objecting to that exposition’s nationalism, rigid formal categories, and emphasis on prizes, the forty-five artists who presented in the first Salón stressed “free expression,” without political or commercial motives, as well as international representation. While critics found both exhibitions stylistically incoherent, Salón artists tended toward easel painting and in some cases used gestural abstraction to signify independence; see Lilia Carrillo’s expressionist En todos los caminos (On All Roads), 1968. Geometric abstraction was also represented in the Salón by works such as Vicente Rojo’s Tríptico escultórico (Sculptural Triptych), 1968, in which two paintings are precariously balanced atop a third at the corners, yielding a triangular void in the center that clashes with the painted image of a soft-cornered rectangle. Felipe Ehrenberg’s Tlatelolco (estudiante acribillado), 1968, an early example of his Pop-inspired acrylic-on-wood boxes, was one of only two works that dared address the recent atrocities. An anonymous running figure appears in each panel of a diptych, one of which is peppered with flat metal studs. On the work’s reverse side, the artist scrawled PINCHE SALÓN (fucking salon), presumably cursing his compatriots’ lack of political commitment.

José Luis Cuevas, La máscara abierta (The Open Mask), 1969, lithograph on paper, 29 7⁄8 × 22 1⁄2".

The 1968 edition had been put together with relative haste and was barely documented; only a handful of the exhibited works could be recovered for Garcia’s show. By the next year, however, the organizing artists—among them Arnaldo Coen, José Luis Cuevas, Helen Escobedo, Manuel Felguérez, Francisco Icaza, Myra Landau, Felipe Orlando, Ricardo Regazzoni, Rojo, and Kazuya Sakai—had given the event an austere revolutionary identity. They set up a governing board, raised funds, and forbade members to join other salons or show in biennials premised on competition or nationalism. Garcia connected the galleries pertaining to the first and second Salóns via one of the latter’s iconic works, Escobedo’s Corredor blanco (White Corridor), 1969, a navigable tunnel of serial lacquered wood slats. The inclusion is noteworthy as much for the installation’s fusion of kinetics and Minimalism as for the fact that, since 1961, Escobedo had directed the Departamento de Artes Plásticas at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM), which oversaw the Salón’s venues. She was a key member of the Salón, yet a reminder, too, of its close proximity to the major art institutions from which it sought to distinguish itself.

Garcia undertook a somewhat contradictory curatorial endeavor, historicizing a now-legendary movement with an unprecedented level of archival detail while simultaneously demystifying its aura of independence.

The richer selection of works from 1969 made it clear that styles were again heterogeneous, from Sakai’s hard-edge abstraction to Luis Cuevas’s figurative homage to Spanish poet Francisco de Quevedo to the mural scale of paintings by Felguérez and Vlady. Indeed, the relative consistency or quality of the works was beside the point. The Salón’s collective gestures were political. The artists held a sale of their works and even planned a fashion show to sponsor the inclusion of international artists like Fernando de Szyszlo (Peru) and Antonio Seguí (Argentina). They lent financial support to the group Cine Independiente en México, who reciprocated by documenting the 1969 and 1970 Salóns. Particularly in their film Salón Independiente ’69, assembled from footage of the opening night, the psychedelic irreverence of the group was on full display: The artists’ discussions of their own works, and even an oratory by the venerable David Alfaro Siqueiros, are punctuated on the soundtrack with animal and machine noises.

Felipe Ehrenberg, Obra secretamente titulada Arriba y Adelante . . . y si no pues tambien (Work Secretly Titled Upwards and Onward . . . Whether You Like It or Not), 1970, ink, postage stamps, and rubber stamps on 193 postcards, 70 × 55".

In 1970, for the third and final Salón, materials were restricted to newspaper and cardboard to save money; the show was promoted as “poor in materials, luxurious in concept.” In “Un arte sin tutela,” many of the ephemeral originals exhibited in that iteration were replicated by the museum. The ubiquity of newspaper in this edition effectively materialized the exhibition’s emphasis on publicity, while paradoxically preserving its signature range of styles. Sebastián (aka Enrique Carvajal) and Landau (whose Ritmo No. 7 [Rhythm No. 7], 1970, was a standout) responded by cannily substituting the cheaper medium to further their abstract sculpture and painting; Ehrenberg, then living in England, instead reflected on how the changed materials could affect the nature of his work—and how he could use them to evade censorship. Mocking President Luis Echeverría’s amnesiac campaign slogan, his Obra secretamente titulada Arriba y Adelante . . . y si no pues tambien (Work Secretly Titled Upwards and Onwards . . . Whether You Like It or Not), 1970, consisted of postcards mailed to the show and reassembled to reveal a soft-porn model cradling a 1970 World Cup Mexico soccer ball. Gilberto Aceves Navarro and Marta Palau crafted ritualistic newspaper environments in which the material was burned or adorned with alchemical symbols. Participation and Conceptualism were making inroads into what was then an intimate milieu—but the shift was gradual, always yoked (quite literally) to current events in Mexican art and politics.

View of “Un arte sin tutela: Salón Independiente en México, 1968–1971” (Art Without Guardianship: Salón Independiente in Mexico, 1968–1971), 2018–19, Museo Universitario Arte Contemporáneo, Mexico City. From left: Alberto Gironella, Diego Velázquez artista fotógrafo (Diego Velázquez Artist Photographer), 1968; Vicente Rojo, Tríptico escultórico (Scuptural Triptych), 1968; Helen Escobedo, Corredor blanco (White Corridor), 1969/2007. Photo: Araceli Limón and Agustín Estrada.

The Salón Independiente then came to an end, just after it had arrived at its own mode of distinctive experimentation. A concluding gallery chronicled the artists’ final collective efforts, as well as the internal divisions that led to a breakdown in 1971: As early as August 1970, Ehrenberg had issued public statements detailing the Salón’s reliance on UNAM’s resources, and ahead of the fourth edition, several members conceded that they had, in fact, received prizes and participated in verboten art events. Certainly, Ehrenberg, who died in 2017, emerged as a key protagonist and critical conscience of the Salón, someone whose exposure to expanded practices in Europe allowed him to “introduce” novel strategies to his colleagues while he continued to demand more in terms of ethical and political conduct.

Yet this rich unpacking of the Salón’s density and self-contradiction helped confirm its reputation as a harbinger of Mexico’s 1970s Conceptualist “grupos” and ’90s alternative spaces. Admirably, MUAC took care to contextualize the Salón’s significance by mounting several other ’68-themed exhibitions over the past year, including the contemporaneous show on student-movement posters, radical graphic design, and contemporary activism. “#NoMeCansaré: Estética y política en México, 2012–2018” highlighted the social-media-organized protests against the disappearance of forty-three college students in Ayotzinapa in 2014 and other atrocities, giving the Salón’s spirit of resistance concrete form for a necropolitical present. 

Daniel Quiles is an Associate Professor of Art History, Theory, and Criticism at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago.