The Geometry of Hope: Latin Abstract Art from the Patricia Phelps de Cisneros Collection, an exhibition at N.Y.U.’s Grey Art Gallery, poses two interesting questions: What characteristics identify art as provincial? And what does hope have to do with making art?
Organized by the Blanton Museum of Art at the University of Texas at Austin, The Geometry of Hope seeks to expand our preconceptions of the avant-garde. It focuses on six urban centers—Montevideo, Buenos Aires, São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Caracas and, as an indispensable adjunct, Paris—and their relationship to Modernism (or, at least, its standard narrative). The time frame is roughly 40 years, from the 1930’s to the 1970’s.
The Uruguayan painter Joaquín Torres-García spent his formative years in Paris, befriending Piet Mondrian and Theo van Doesburg, and absorbing and putting into practice their utopian longings. In both art and teaching—he founded the Taller Torres-García in 1934 to proselytize on behalf of Modernism—Torres-García sought to embody spiritual and philosophical archetypes he felt were common to all civilizations. “Constructive Universalism,” as he called it, was his optimistic transformation of world culture through art.
Torres-García cautioned Uruguayan artists against blunt reference to South American folk traditions. Yet he was also acutely aware of Europe’s preeminence, and aspired to make Latin America a player in the international avant-garde. Universalism is one thing, but nationality will out.
Or will it? Curator Gabriel Perèz-Barreiro wonders how best to explore art peculiar to a specific region. Relegating it to “Latin America” is unfeasible: It’s “too big a term,” he writes in the exhibition’s catalog, “encompassing too much diversity and disconnection.” He’s averse to pegging, say, Waldemar Cordeiro’s kinetic Visible Idea (1956) as a Brazilian painting. Given Cordeiro’s fascination with the golden rectangle—a compositional armature that fits well within Torres-García’s Constructivist Universalism—such a claim is constraining and silly.
But neither is Mr. Perèz-Barreiro comfortable with art as, well, art. “The formalist model radically decontextualizes artists,” he writes, imagining a conversation between Mira Schendel, Kazimir Malevich and Jesús Rafael Soto wherein they talk “in terms of the tension between icon and ground, in a true ‘constellation of meanings,’ one in which there is no a priori geographical or contextual framework.” He doesn’t go so far as to imagine that the artists might have enjoyed the conversation.
Mr. Perèz-Barreiro settles on a third way, placing an emphasis on the city, and overall, it seems a fair alternative. Cities are hotbeds of cultural miscegenation; they are intrinsically open to diverse and sometimes radical viewpoints. Paris is included in the exhibition’s purview, not only as acknowledgement of its artistic centrality, but as an example of urban sophistication, energy and openness.
The Geometry of Hope acts locally, then, but thinks globally. It’s an argument for internationalism. The extent to which Mr. Perèz-Barreiro’s thesis refutes provincialism is dubious—physical proximity to a vibrant cultural center is often the primary determinant of major art. The proof is in the art itself, and, truth to tell, most of the artists at Grey Art Gallery reiterate, rather than reinvigorate, an established canon; they elicit yawn-inducing respect. Alejandro Otero’s gouache studies on paper—floating, gridded structures that recall El Lizzitsky’s cosmic abstractions—are as dull and dated as myriad neoplasticist knockoffs found in, yes, provincial museums the world over.
But there are artists—including the later Otero, whose startlingly fresh Pampatar Board (1954) beats Ellsworth Kelly at his own game—who beg for wider consideration. Tomàs Maldonado and Alfredo Hilto locate razor-sharp quirks within Suprematism’s seemingly finite confines. The best artists—the toughest artists—interrogate the limits of painting: Cordeiro, Geraldo de Barros and, especially, Judith Lauand, whose investigations of shape and format are relentless and smart. Who’s going to do this woman up right?
The sculptor Gertrude Goldschmidt, working under the name Gego, is a find: Her spidery constructions explore line, gravity and volume with exquisite, almost reticent understatement. Square Reticularea (1971), a topographical netting made of brass, copper and stainless steel, is as organic and delicate as the veins of a leaf. Lygia Clark works in a minor key, but there’s much to admire in her planar constructions.
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