León Ferrari, La justicia/1492–1992 Quinto centenario de la Conquista (Justice/1492–1992 Fifth Centenary of the Conquest), 1992, mixed media. Installation view. Photo: Joaquín Cortés/Román Lores.

León Ferrari, La justicia/1492–1992 Quinto centenario de la Conquista (Justice/1492–1992 Fifth Centenary of the Conquest), 1992, mixed media. Installation view. Photo: Joaquín Cortés/Román Lores.

León Ferrari

Near the entrance to “La bondadosa crueldad: León Ferrari, 100 años” (The Kind Cruelty: León Ferrari, 100 Years), a survey dedicated to the Argentinean artist—who died in 2013 at the age of ninety-two—hung a letter from New York–based nonprofit Franklin Furnace, apologetically declining Ferrari’s request that a live vulture be included in “Heretic Chapel,” his 1987 show there.

The vulture is an easy symbol for the bloodlust and cruel indifference that so often prompted Ferrari’s prankish and poignant satire. Two of these birds can in fact be seen skulking like cartoon villains aboard the Santa María in the centerpiece of La justicia/1492–1992 Quinto centenario de la Conquista (Justice/1492–1992 Fifth Centenary of the Con-quest), 1992, Ferrari’s damning and mesmerizing votive altar to Western imperialism. Yet, considering the vulture’s wide field of vision and resourcefulness in the face of aimless carnage, this grinning scavenger might appropriately stand in for the artist himself. For the New York show, Ferrari ultimately settled on a pair of white doves. In Madrid, a photograph showed two such birds huddled together in a cage designed by Ferrari, likely for a 1988 group exhibition at Exit Art in New York. On a table underneath, ten one-dollar bills were neatly arranged, marked by a holy cross of bird shit formed as droppings fell through a cruciform aperture in the cage floor.

Often saddled with the limiting label of “provocateur,” Ferrari dabbled in practically every conceivable medium, producing works that were complex and sardonic, yet also directly political—ideological grenades flung at the fear-baiting cronies of church and state. His ink-on-paper “written drawings” from the late 1960s may be his most recognizable and abstract work. They range from swirls of coded calligraphy and surrealist poetry to explosive nonsignifying scrawls evoking thousands of superimposed angry letters to the editor. In Madrid, a selection of these pieces was displayed in conversation with Nosotros no sabíamos (We Didn’t Know), 1976, a collection of found newspaper clippings detailing accounts of the innumerable “disappearances” of political dissidents carried out by the Argentinean military junta as part of the US-backed Operation Condor (1975–83). Though legible, these journalistic accounts are equally incomprehensible in their staggering representation of snuffed-out lives. Hardly a fraction of those murdered in that political genocide, the faded names and headshots summon the innumerable others not represented, among them Ferrari’s own son Ariel.

Nowhere is Ferrari’s wry existentialism more succinct than in his “Heliografías” (Heliographs), 1980–86, a series of photocopied works for which the artist used Letraset icons—generic clip art—to construct crazed imaginary environments seen from above. In Bairro (Neighborhood), 1980, signed 2008, hundreds of featureless human figures wander labyrinthine arrangements of cubicles, passageways, and vacant furniture like somnambulistic proto-Sims trapped in a massive Kafka-esque business park. Hijacking the neutered corporatized aesthetic of these stock symbols, Ferrari attempted to visualize what he called “la arquitectura de la locura,” the architecture of madness.

After living in political exile in Brazil beginning in 1976, Ferrari returned to Argentina in 1991. There, he faced criticism from high-profile figures in the Catholic Church, including the archbishop of Buenos Aires, Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio (our current “progressive” Pope Francis). The backlash culminated during Ferrari’s 2004 retrospective at the Centro Cultural Recoleta in Buenos Aires, when, after Bergoglio publicly denounced Ferrari’s art as blasphemous, a group of protesters overran the exhibition hall and destroyed a number of works, including the aforementioned La justicia, which underwent major restoration for this exhibition.

It was this kind of casual abuse of influence, leveraged by the threat of damnation, that had only a few years earlier inspired Ferrari to pen a letter to a previous pope. In 1997, Ferrari wrote a letter urging John Paul II to abolish the Last Judgment on the grounds that it is, as a concept, unfair and unusually cruel. He sent a follow-up in 2001 requesting that hell be evacuated and demolished. Ferrari signed these letters with the name of a provisional organization he dubbed CIHABAPAI: Club de Impíos, Herejes, Apóstatas, Blasfemos, Ateos, Paganos, Agnósticos e Infieles—that is, the Unclean, Heretic, Apostate, Blasphemous, Atheist, Pagan, Agnostic, and Infidel Club.