by Marcelo Pacheco


Journeys of non-figurative art in the Rio de la Plata - Experiences of an ex-centric vanguard 1914-1955

Abstraction, Non-Figurative art, Concrete art, Non-Objective art, White Painting, are some of the conceptual (and nominal) arguments that ran through the artistic vanguards of the first decades of the XXth century.

As of 1910 there is a definite battle ground between representation and presentation, between the artistic image and its connections with the world of appearances, between art and autonomy, between the historical mandates of old Realism and the artistic dialectics of a new reality. Sharp edges, evolutions and convolutions of many theoretical debates and mechanisms of production which soon spread out internationally, count on their onset files with a number of artists coming from cultures that were quite diverse as well as from different visual, political and cultural traditions.

Milan, Paris, Berlin, Munich, Zurich, Amsterdam, London and Moscow were the spots that concentrated the arguments among Futurism, Blauer Reiter, Abstractionism, Orphism, Suprematisme, Constructivism, Neoplastic art, Dadaism, Rayonisme, Vorticism, Simultaneous art, Concrete art, and their respective varied derivations.

It was within this context of conceptual and visual tradition that Argentina started its dealings with Abstraction through artists like Emilio Petorutti, Pablo Curatella Manes y Juan del Prete. During their prolonged stays in Europe, they were part of the different avant-garde brigades interacting in the main modern metropolis.

On his own, Uruguayan artist Joaquin Torres-García, in Paris, in 1929, joined Michel Seuphor, Pier Mondrian and Theo Van Doesburg, for them to feature Concrete Art. Argentineans and Uruguayans brought, on their return to their native countries, works and ideas related to Non-Figurative art. These, either vehemently or with an air of moderation, sooner or later, were made to circulate about Buenos Aires and Montevideo –thus speeding up the local processes that had already started. In fact, within the spectrum of Argentine modern art, the discussion on the subject “Abstract art” was given, since the early 20s, much space in journals and publications 1.

The historical fact of exhibiting the first Abstract works in the River Plate belongs to Pettoruti. His notorious scandal exhibition in 1924 became, for the orthodox historiography of Argentine art, the very landmark of modernity and the local vanguards.
The artist was back in Argentina after ten years in Europe. He exhibited, at Salón Witcomb, 86 works which included oils on canvas, drawings, tempera, aquarelles and mosaics –all regarded by art critics as samples of Cubism and Futurism.

Within those works, Pettoruti showed some of them to near Abstraction thus following the paths opened by the Italian Futurists and also using some personal experimentation derived from a complex medley of handcraft techniques for stained-glass and mosaics as well as studies of chromatic and photic maps from artists of the Prime Renaissance 2.

The review published by the vanguard journal Martín Fierro, signed by Pettoruti’s friend, the artist Xul Solar remarks: “We also came across some stirring pictures, some new glyphs, unclassifiable, artefacts from a secret laboratory, really interesting, a sample of the heights a painter can reach when he unleashes his will for the fancy of abstractions” 3.

However, the Abstract tradition in the River Plate had its decisive front-line battles in the 30s. Juan del Prete’s presence in Buenos Aires after his stay in Paris and two successive non-figurative paint and sculpture exhibitions, in 1933 and 1934 respectively, mark a start for the public circulation of Concrete art.

On the other hand, in Montevideo with Torres-García’s return (1934), a public debate got started –this was one on Abstraction as part of the artist’s activities to promote Constructive Universalism. This included exhibitions, books and articles, lectures, lessons and the creation of the Asociación de Arte Constructivo and the opening of Torres-Garcia’s Atelier. Ever since then, on both sides of River Plate, the debate continued and it offered simultaneous fighting fronts: the reaction of the public; criticism and official institutions –most of them being conservative and subjected to academic and nationalistic visual habits– on the same stage of the modern confronted by the styles after the academic vanguard of the School of Paris spread by the ateliers of André Lothe, Othon Friesz and Antoine Bourdelle; on the artistic and the ideological fields with the tenets of New Realism and the so-called “neomexicanismo siqueirano” coming from the artists related with social art and the systematic, programmed spread of Bretonian Surrealism, renewed by the turn of the 30s.

Within this complex panorama the Abstract and Concrete investigations found spokesmen and followers such as Yente and Torres-García’s Atelier members, and also direct external stimuli as the renewed presence of Chilean poet Vicente Huidobro through articles visits and lectures as well as an exhibition of Italian Abstracts shown at Galeria Moody in Buenos Aires, in 1936.

Lucio Fontana’s new stay in Argentina, between 1940 and 1947, the settling in Buenos Aires, as of 1936, of Grete Stern –a German photographer related with the Bauhaus–, of the Italian artist and critic Attilio Rossi and of the avant-garde Spanish writer Guillermo de Torre: they were all events which perfected the interweaving of relations and set up the stage for dialogues concerned with Non-Figuration in the south of Latin America.

In the 1940s several groups of Argentine and Uruguayan young artists living in Buenos Aires started to write the most important chapter as regards Concrete art in the River Plate and where local variations were also included. Madí art, the Concrete-Invention Arts Association and Perceptism, with its frictions, divisions and clashes showed, between 1944 and 1954, constant activity reflected in their local and international exhibitions, publications, pamphlets, manifestoes, lectures and their controversies.

Cut-out frames, articulated sculptures, mobiles, industrial materials, participation of spectators who were encouraged to manipulate objects, arguments on the white function, coplanar disposition, qualimetry, serialized elements, the idea of coloured field, the concepts of invention and creation, the contributions made by scientific thinking (especially physics and mathematics) and philosophy (dialectic materialism in particular), political links (Communist party activists and the conflicts with Peronism), the relations to other disciplines such as design, dancing, poetry, music and photography –all these were part of the features in common as well as some of the confrontation stages for the three groups and their distinct protagonists.

The first research work, publications and curatorial expertise on Argentine Concrete art were produced by Nelly Perazzo in the 1970s –though other antecedents can be found in the 50s and 60s.

Between the Arte Nuevo Gallery exhibition in 1976 and her book El Arte Concreto en Argentina (Concrete Art in Argentina), published in 1983, there were research seminars held at Universidad de Buenos Aires and the exhibition on “Vanguards in the 1940s” opened at Museo Sívori (Buenos Aires) in 1980. The contributions of Ms Perazzo together with the articles and the book by Jorge Rivera on Madí art, in 1976, and also the publications by Gyula Kosice on the same group, served to create, in a few years, a considerable mass of criticism and a consistent corpus of works.

The local climax for the spreading and study of those vanguards coincided, in the mid 1980s, with the renewed income of Latin American art in the globalized arena of American and European cultural institutions. Panoramic, monographic, historical and individual exhibitions in museums, cultural centres and galleries in Basil, New York Seville, Paris, Cologne, London and Madrid; books and catalogues produced by the MoMA (New York), Oxford university, the Georges Pompidou Centre, Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Yale University Press –they all served to create a plentiful presence as well as give a high level of circulation and visibility of Riverplatian “madís, concretos and perceptistas”.

Simultaneously and with a similar “success”, the original ground became a battlefield for authorships and paternities. The controversy over works, dates, signing up of texts and manifestos, made the story of those vanguards into a Gordian knot which checked international interest and multiplied doubts and distrust due to the constant versions and counter versions.

In many cases it is the original documents that highlight the deceitful and troublemaking conduct of certain positions. In other cases, those documents are insufficient or ambiguous. The works included in this exhibition are related directly to their background or case history. The curatorial expertise and the researchers who had worked in the picking out and elaboration of texts, the criticism and the context halls answer to an attempt of historical reconstruction based on sources of their time, giving attention to direct testimonies though confronting declarations and memories with documents and previous professional papers.

The chosen diagram and the selection criteria to work on South American Abstract Art moves round three axes. First, the beginning of abstraction in Argentine painting and sculpture in the 20s as well as those proposals coming from Concrete art in the 30s including the research done by Torres-García and his disciples in Montevideo. Second, a section of the Abstract experiences by Fontana during the years 1930 and 1940, between Italy and Argentina, which reaches the time of the formulation of Spacialism in Milan. Third, those groups devoted to the Riverplatian vanguards with the protagonists of Madí art, the Concrete-Invention Group and Perceptism, between 1944 and 1954 4.

The itinerary proposed is supplemented by three halls for documents and contexts –under Patricia Arundo’s supervision– this allowing visitors receive historic and conceptual information on Argentina and its modernization project as a country, Argentine culture and its protagonists and their relations with European intelligentsia, the general context for production and the spreading of the vanguards of the 40s and their publications and works in the field of graphic design.

This exhibition is partly indebted to the contributions made by Nelly Perazzo at the beginning of the period under study and her latest productions. The exhibition Abstract Art from the Rio de la Plata. Buenos Aires and Montevideo 1933-1953 (Americas Society, New York, 2001), curated by Ms Perazzo and Mario Gradowczyk constitutes its immediate, direct antecedent. The New York exhibition sets a strict curatorial model based on its will to relate the world of Abstraction and Concrete art which took place simultaneously and in an interrelated way between Buenos Aires and Montevideo.

Within the visual and conceptual systems set forth by Perazzo and Gradowczyk, the extensive essay and the selection of artists and works are meant to focus accurately and show their approach to a history of Latin American Abstraction, adding on their own to macro elaborations such as those made by Mari Carmen Ramírez en Heterotopías (MNCRAS, Madrid, 2000) within the Concrete-Constructive constellation. Among other peculiarities, this work on a framed universe and the use of such cultural and geographic categories as “Río de la Plata” are, in fact, what helps reconstructing a network of relations and communicating vessels that did exist at their time and which stimulated the national artistic productions.

The trap of the simplistic, rigid diagram that pretends viewing the history of Latin American Art as a province of automatic translations and extrapolations of the European “isms” can be utterly disarticulated. And this is done if one has in mind the round trips and tours and short time stays of our artists in Europe (especially in countries such as Italy, France, Germany and Spain), their contact with European protagonists (central as well as peripheral), the exchange among Latin Americans proper in the international metropolis, the circulation and visibility of visual and theoretical information (larger than official history on both sides would actually admit) –this coming through the world of journals, newspapers, and catalogues of the age– changes of residence and constant migrations of artists and intellectuals (especially during the two great wars) and the following cartography of debates, influences and Pan-American stimuli.

A hundred of works have been selected and are accompanied by those documents and props (such as photographs, gigantic photos and digitalisations), and also by the essays, texts and critical system of the catalogue. They work or operate together. In the first place, as an identical system of gradual and diverse approaches to the problem of Abstraction –a central subject in the history of international art in the XXth century, with its derivations towards Concrete art and its posterior re-elaborations.
Secondly, as a structure made up of information, knowledge and visual as well as theoretical proposals which has already contributed and still contributes to the debate over Non-Figurative art –this done from a geographically and culturally displaced centre. This “centre” offers the possibility of witnessing and featuring ideas and productions spread out internationally (for the Latin American artists are placed amidst crosses and tensions between an alien though familiar tradition and a local and regional history of its own which enables them a more free manipulation of established canons).
Thirdly we find a chronological narration. This selects artists, works and groups which, unfolded on their actual stage, can show their points of contact and their differences, their heritage, continuities and contributions to the research done on Abstract art during the last decades of modernity in the River Plate.
Fourthly, it is an explanatory model where works and the dialogues among them inaugurate journeys to be made out of fixed or univocal paths. Between facts and historical imagination, the curatorial expertise proposes meeting points which update the reading of those ex-centric vanguards that took place, between Argentineans and Uruguayans, in Buenos Aires.

“Ex-centric does not imply bizarre or exotic –and even less the idea derived from peripheral. It refers to conditioning elements and these do not fall under the central parameters of the European hegemonic context. Ex-centric vanguard is a term that applies to the autonomy of those artistic and social movements which, born out of the domineering axe of the medullar countries, were able to assimilate, with freedom and creativity, the utopian impulse of those movements”