Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
January 22, 2008
Gabriel Pérez-Barreiro, ed. The Geometry of Hope: Latin American Abstract Art from the Patricia Phelps de Cisneros Collection Exh. cat. Austin: Blanton Museum of Art, University of Texas at Austin, 2007. 344 pp.; 70 color ills.; 30 b/w ills. Paper $29.95 (9780977145362)
Exhibition schedule: Blanton Museum of Art, University of Texas at Austin, February 20–April 22, 2007; Grey Art Gallery, New York University, New York, September 12–December 8, 2007
Jesús Rafael Soto. Doble transparencia (Double Transparency) (1956). Industrial paint on Plexiglass mounted on wood. 21 5/8 x 21 5/8 x 21 5/8 in. Courtesy Colección Patricia Phelps de Cisneros.

Originating at the Blanton Museum of Art and organized by its Latin American curator, Gabriel Pérez-Barreiro, The Geometry of Hope features over 125 works produced by artists from Venezuela, Brazil, Uruguay, and Argentina between 1930 and 1970. A respected scholar in the field, specializing in Argentinian Madi art (one of the movements represented in the exhibition), Pérez-Barreiro has assembled the most comprehensive presentation to date of the alternative modernity that due to a wide array of factors—chief among them the influx of avant-garde European ideas, works, and people between and in the wake of the two World Wars—flourished in the Atlantic coast region of South America. Defying ingrained assumptions, this important segment of Latin American art is diametrically opposed to all stereotypes associated with local colorful subject matter married to the misadventures of Surrealism, Magical Realism, and Social Realism. The Cisneros Collection, based in Caracas, Venezuela, is the largest reservoir of these singular productions and has slowly leaked into MoMA where, as trustees and major donors, the couple has a significant stake.

In the introduction to the impressive exhibition catalogue, Pérez-Barreiro presents the two dominant positions used to discuss the work in question: the contextual mode, which takes geography as its starting point and treats abstraction as “one part of the story of how a particular region’s culture developed, one step in a history about the formation of an identity” (14); and the formal mode, which “radically decontextualizes artists, presenting works in terms of relationships that are based on optical or formal similarities” (14). He proposes a variation of the contextual model that begins with the geographical, distinguishing the east coast of South America from other regions, and shifts to the geopolitical, shunning national boundaries in favor of cities: Caracas, São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Montevideo, and Buenos Aires. Hence, a cultural geography is established against the idea of a fixed national identity. The traditional geographical boundaries of “Latin American Art”—a generally dubious and unspecific category—are further destabilized by the inclusion of a transatlantic center (or periphery, depending on the date): Paris. While this curatorial choice may be unexpected to North American viewers, it is a justifiable one: throughout the twentieth century, artists from South America trained in and turned to the artistic example of Paris. But even more relevant in the case of this exhibition, Venezuelan Kinetic art found a market and a gallery—Denise Rene—to champion it during the 1960s. Also, a number of exiled artists and intellectuals escaping the dictatorship that started in 1964 in Brazil landed in Paris.

Pérez-Barreiro takes a dialectical and liberal humanistic stance toward the historicization of his geographical variant, dividing Latin American geometrical abstraction into two propositions. The first “is based in a belief in reason, in an international language of abstraction that represents the highest stage in the evolution of modern art” (14). The second reflects “a desire to undermine the rationalistic discourse in favor of a deep questioning of the role of art in human experience” (14). The conflict between the rational and the irrational, itself a staple of Western humanist discourse of the self conceived as universal, reappears in his opening remarks about the use of the word “hope” in the exhibition title: “there was a time when Latin America was a beacon of hope and progress in a world devastated by war, genocide, and destruction” (13), meaning in Europe. The highlighted relationship between hope and progress has historically been associated with the first proposition: modernism as advanced, rational, and internationalist. The second, anti-rational, proposition corresponds generally to the disavowal of object making in favor of experiences and environments (Gego’s major work, Reticularea (1969), not in the exhibition, comes to mind here), which is often associated with the undoing of a centered, humanist subject.

However, signaling the demise of the first proposition in World War II and the Holocaust implies a chronological distinction between prewar and postwar art, later evolved into the avant-garde and the neo-avant-garde. The prevailing paradigm in the scholarship produced in the United States geared toward explaining the shift from Paris to New York as the dominant art-world center, this model is not really useful to classify and analyze the objects in The Geometry of Hope or, in accordance with the curator’s terminology, the nascent coexistence of rational and irrational elements in them. The alternative geographical mode stops short of addressing the major problem of canon formation in relationship to a chronology developed from a centered, linear, and rational Western subject, while it manages to somehow address the geopolitical conundrum.

The title (and its terms of discussion in the introduction) also contains a puzzling omission: it refers only to abstract art, without mentioning concrete art. Abstraction is always a representation of something else, if not reality at least an ideal model; the concrete aspires to invent a world from scratch, which it does not represent, but is. This distinction is highly significant, applicable to all four philosophical models that have been consistently used in both the theoretical generation and the critical reception of the art in question: the Marxist critique of bourgeois idealism embodied by representation, and the characterization of abstraction as the ultimate form of representation by the Buenos Aires artists in the 1940s; Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology of perception, crucial to the notions of spectatorship and participation developed by Kinetic and Neo-Concrete art, as well as for the increasing number of comparative readings of Minimalism and Neoconcretism; Sartre’s existentialist critique of the object/subject relationship, instrumental to Ferreira Gular, Lygia Clark, and Hélio Oiticica; and Kant’s essentialist discussion of the artwork’s autonomy. Pérez-Barreiro himself is keenly aware of the precise difference between the concrete and abstract impulses, as his thorough discussion of Rhod Rothfuss’s text, “The Frame, A Problem in Contemporary Art,” in the Buenos Aires section of the catalogue demonstrates. Moreover, about half of the works exhibited are of self-proclaimed concrete pedigree.

Despite any shortcomings incurred by the curatorial model and the title, Pérez-Barreiro’s monumental experiment materializes in an extraordinary and precise exhibition. It is notable that a single collection contains punctual examples of each and every outgrowth in the subcontinent during the four decades covered. This is due to two entwined reasons. Firstly, except for Venezuelan Kinetic art, none of these productions ever had a firm and constant market or an audience, nor did they receive significant state support. Hence, the artists produced minimally and incrementally, devoting just the indispensable number of pieces to each given problem and, more often than not, keeping them in their studios for decades. Secondly, this selection of over 125 works is actually curating the endeavors of other curators. The Cisneros had approached their collecting in institutional terms, with long-term vision and goals, and over the years have hired and nurtured experts and scholars in each particular field with personal knowledge of many of the artists represented. The most visible of these curators have been Luis Enrique Perez-Oramas, Ariel Jimenez, and Paulo Herkenhoff.

Each room in the exhibition represents a city and accompanying chronology, as opposed to being organized in isomorphic terms locating visual cognates next to each other irrespective of their origin. Not surprisingly, since the development of modern visual questions is generally executed in incremental breakthroughs, this results in a clear, didactic, and elegant display. Perhaps the best example is the Rio de Janeiro room, where Neo-Concrete art is on display. There one could find a set of Lygia Clark paintings evolving the gestaltic problem of figure/background (Planos, 1957) into the complementary relationship between plane and void in spatial reliefs (Contrarelevo, 1958), finally making her first major breakthrough toward audience participation in the Bichos of 1960 and 1961, presented here with the injunction: “Do Not Touch.” (It is nearly unbelievable that these hinged three-dimensional metal structures of variable configuration to be handled and endlessly reshaped are not accompanied by replicas, and are still presented as autonomous sculptures fixed on pedestals.)

In the section devoted to Buenos Aires, where the Madi and Arte Concreto Invencion movements developed, and in which production was quantitatively scarcer, a universe of exceptions emerges. Mysterious and obscure artists, such as Alberto Molemberg, are represented with only one work (Composition, 1946), albeit indispensable to understanding the formal development that followed the emergence of the shaped canvas two years earlier. This is alternated with examples of the better known, such as Juan Mele, Carmelo Arden Quinn, or Raul Lozza. This section of the exhibit is Pérez-Barreiro’s tour de force, since it is much harder to discern a linear chronological logic of development in these movements and artists, as is more feasible in Brazilian Neoconcretism and in Kinetic art. The modest format of the pieces helps both the Montevideo and Buenos Aires sections. The rest of the exhibition feels overcrowded in the rather ungenerous space of New York University’s Grey Art Gallery. On the other hand, there is no single work that can be taken away from this already reduced version of the show without diminishing the fluency of the visual and historical narrative.

The room devoted to Paris is stunning, mainly for the presence of Physichromie 500 (1970) by Carlos Cruz-Diez, who has split his time between Paris and Caracas since 1960. This is perhaps the work that problematizes the question of time and space more pointedly due to its fifteen-foot horizontal expanse, which demands an extended movement of the spectator. Colors and orthogonal shapes rhythmically appear and disappear as you walk in front of the piece. The perceptual experience that unites the Kinetics Jesús Rafael Soto, Cruz-Diez, and Alejandro Otero with the ultimate exception of this show, their contemporary Gego, is that of simultaneously perceiving order and instability, in works that are dehierachical in nature and structure and never give in to any organizational or compositional principle based on centrality.

Exceptions, be they incremental as in the case of the artists that tackled successive problems with successive pieces, or unique as often happened in Buenos Aires, are the norm in this show. In that sense, the difference between South and North American production, specifically Minimalism, is blatant: in societies in which industrialization only reached certain sectors, the emergence of the organic and the contingent keep preventing the formulation of distinctive trademarks that artists can repeat to feed simultaneously a market and an attendant system of signification and representation that could in turn support hyper-production. Works of Judd could conceivably be interchangeable in an overview show, while each and every Clark piece does something the others do not. Repetition would have been meaningless in her conditions of production and reception.

The encyclopedic task that the exhibition sets forth to accomplish is daunting: to present in some form of organized fashion forty crucial years in six distinctive (but at times interrelated) centers of cultural production. Not surprisingly, abandoning contextual references such as manifestos and documents, at least in the exhibition space, deactivates the political, utopian aspirations that were behind the rupture of the frame and the activation of the space and the spectator—both singular constituents of this works’ uniqueness. There also seems to be an inherent failure of all modern movements to make good on the promises of their theoretical premises. (No object has ever been known to actually ignite a change without subjects.) However, this exhibition will remain a landmark departure point for the establishment of scholarship about the complex relationships between these artworks themselves, as well as their contexts. It presents no less than an alternative modernity—or better a multiple alterity—that has been neglected for more time than it took to develop. And it paradoxically exposes a reality that bespeaks the historical, economical, and geopolitical reasons for that neglect: the historical and theoretical fate of the discourses and objects contained in The Geometry of Hope will be ultimately decided in U.S. institutions in the first decades of this century.

Nicolas Guagnini
Visiting Professor, Department of Art History, Barnard College

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