New York

Marcia Schvartz, Erinia (el misterio del arte) (Erinyes [The Mystery of Art]), 2003, mixed media on canvas, 59 × 78 3⁄4".

Marcia Schvartz, Erinia (el misterio del arte) (Erinyes [The Mystery of Art]), 2003, mixed media on canvas, 59 × 78 3⁄4".

Marcia Schvartz

55 Walker

“Mom was an academic, but I had an irresistible attraction to the old Peronists,” Marcia Schvartz told an interviewer in 2012, “tough old ladies, very strong, with painted pearly nails and rollers.” One perhaps encountered such a figure—the pink, plump, peroxide-blonde materfamilias of Alegría, Alegría, 1976, for instance—in “Marcia Schvartz: Works, 1976–2018.” This vital show was the first US survey devoted to the Buenos Aires–based artist, who is best known for her unflinching paintings of individuals, subcultures, and classes in the time of Argentina’s Dirty War and its aftermath. The exhibition merely scratched the surface of her prolific, ferocious output.

Born in 1955 to Porteño intellectuals, Schvartz dropped out of art school in the 1970s, traveled around South America, and joined the Juventud Peronista (Peronist Youth), the left wing of an ideologically diffuse, internally fractious mass movement encompassing state corporatism, cultish nationalism, and working-class militancy. Her politics found aesthetic expression in an enthusiasm for “everything popular,” in the artist’s words, and an aversion to anything “tidy and middle class.” The year she painted Alegría, Alegría—a multiracial, proletarian burlesque of the Holy Family—a US-backed coup overthrew President Isabel Perón and installed dictator General Jorge Rafael Videla, whose death squads murdered thirty thousand trade unionists and leftists. Schvartz escaped to Barcelona; her best friend Hilda Fernández, a fellow art student and JP activist, was among the dead.  

Returning to Buenos Aires in 1982, shortly before the junta’s collapse, Schvartz began painting studio portraits of her neighbors in Abasto, where a lumpenqueer underground of theaters and nightclubs was stirring from the ashes of the Dirty War. Several descendants of these works were on view at 55 Walker, intimate pastel likenesses of fellow artists and friends including Desnuda y con zoquetes (Nude with Socks), 2012, which pictures its middle-aged female subject with casual sangfroid against a naked linen ground. The relational intensity, rugged facture, and egalitarian attitude tempted comparison with the paintings of Alice Neel, who likewise persisted in a humanist figuration at odds with prevailing art-world fashions. Indeed, the early 1990s saw bitter recriminations between Schvartz and the artists gathered around the gallery of El Centro Cultural Ricardo Rojas, located on the campus of the University of Buenos Aires. The ascendant, Pop-inflected camp aesthetics of the so-called Grupo de Roj-as (Group of Reds)—“Mickey Mouse, dolls, plastics, glitter, and strident col-ors,”in Schvartz’s words—made her look “like some kind of psicobolche [a contemptuous portmanteau of psychoanalysis and Bolshevik]. Oil painting was an antiquity.”

A decade earlier, Schvartz’s inheritance of Argentina’s realist painting tradition had ignited controversy upon her homecoming, when critic Fermín Fèvre, Videla’s former cultural adviser, dismissed her work as derivative of that of Antonio Berni, late elder statesman of the socially committed style of Nuevo Realismo. Schvartz called Fèvre a boludo (jerk) in the cultural magazine El Porteño, and he in turn filed criminal charges against her and the offending publication, which replied by printing the names of culture workers who disappeared during his tenure. The festering wounds of the dictatorship, and the ongoing project of remembrance, would define Schvartz’s art for decades.  

In Fondo L, 2008, the ghostly outline of a woman’s face emerges from a surface encrusted with sand and shells collected from the Río de la Plata, where the remains of the victims of Videla’s purge were discarded. This Plutonic visage conjures the memory of Hilda Fernández and another lost friend, artist Liliana Maresca, who died of AIDS in 1994. For Schvartz, the work of mourning is sharpened by rage, identified as the source of creation in the title of the stunning Erinia (el misterio del arte) (Erinyes [The Mystery of Art]), 2003. Here, the atavistic goddess of vengeance—wings slicked with black tar, purple breasts exposed—mauls her prey. Unsated by her kill, she throws her head back, piranha teeth gnashing—an avenger undeluded by dreams of justice or resolution. Quoth the artist, “I wake up full of anger, which for the Greeks was a very positive energy, close to inspiration.”