Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
August 16, 2017
Elena Shtromberg Art Systems: Brazil and the 1970s Austin: University of Texas Press, 2016. 238 pp.; 32 color ills.; 41 b/w ills. Paper $29.95 (9781477308585)
Irene V. Small Hélio Oiticica: Folding the Frame Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016. 304 pp.; 50 color ills.; 85 b/w ills. Cloth $45.00 (9780226260167)

Irene V. Small’s Hélio Oiticica: Folding the Frame and Elena Shtromberg’s Art Systems: Brazil and the 1970s offer complementary perspectives on the postwar Brazilian avant-garde. At first, they have much in common, with key terms such as “art as social system,” “art as language,” “art as communication,” and “art and politics.” Both also propose a new social-art history, which posits the artwork as a gateway onto knowledge.

Small’s innovative monograph presents Hélio Oiticica’s work from the late 1950s to the mid-1960s, highlighting folding, diagramming, coloring, and the body as object as four foundational artistic procedures in four chapters, “The Folded and the Flat,” “The Cell and the Plan,” “Ready-Constructible Color,” and “What a Body Can Do.” Key works from the Nuclei, Relevo Especial, Penetrávels, Células, Bólides, and Parangolés series are situated in relation to contemporary Concretist, Neoconcretist, Minimalist, and Postminimalist concerns with form, space, material, and mode of address. In its focus on art as a network of sociality and how shared strategies introduce new artistic paradigms reverberating with politics, this well-researched and well-written study is both historical and theoretical without lessening its interpretive insistence on the formal and structural make-up of single artworks—in itself an admirable achievement. Art, Small seems to posit, is a form of artistic research, and as a form of knowledge production the creative process is considered an embodied intellectual pathway through which new insights, understandings, and products come into being. (The distinction between “art as research” and art-historical interpretive acts as “research on the arts” is by Henk Borgdorff, “The Production of Knowledge in Artistic Research,” in The Routledge Companion to Research in the Arts, eds., Michael Biggs and Henrik Karlsson, New York: Routledge, 2010, 46.) The interpretive practice of research on the arts, then, brings that knowledge to light and expresses new perspectives on art as a form of embodied experience.

Small foregrounds the role of the artwork as communicative discourse, following the contemporary writings of Brazilian critic Ferreira Gullar. Even when art merges into life, Small rightly insists, this concern needs to be situated within the frame of art and its debates. She therefore avoids the pitfall of much literature on Brazilian art (and postwar performance art and relational aesthetics in general) that posits a participatory practice as emancipatory and progressive for leaving art behind and immersing itself in life. A notion of the social as that which is no longer recognizably art is replaced here by a more complex examination of the work’s structure as an engine for affective and discursive engagement—with the author as one of the respondents exposed to its effects. This rests on the assumption that the artwork is an interpretive act, considered a process, event structure, or generative “system” of sorts. Art’s epistemic character, then, Small demonstrates convincingly, resides in its ability to offer reflections that are obscured from sight by the discursive and conceptual procedures of scientific rationality and the message-driven nature of normative communication. This hermeneutic position on art as non-conceptual seems to come close to what Sarat Maharaj considers in Deleuzian terms a “thinking through the visual” as a form of intellectual inquiry that necessitates “unpacking it, taking apart its components, scouring its operations” while acknowledging that it is an embodied force in its own right with its own unique “texture” and “thrust,” which does not compare to other practices and disciplines in its non-conceptualist approach to knowledge production (Sarat Maharaj, “Know-How and No-How: Stopgap Notes on ‘Method’ in Visual Art as Knowledge Production,” Art and Research, A Journal of Ideas, Contexts, and Methods 2, no. 2 [Spring 2009]: 2).

This approach is the diametrical opposite of Shtromberg’s culturalist-inclined analysis in Art Systems, which considers the artwork as an epistemic gateway onto Brazil’s economy and politics with a focus on issues of inflation, censorship, government propaganda, and land policies. Reminiscent of a visual studies turn in the 1990s, Shtromberg considers her book, with its chapters entitled “Currency,” “Newspapers,” “Television,” and “Maps,” to be a contribution for “historians working with cultural production and its intersection with social and political life in the latter half of the twentieth century” (2–3). What remains conspicuously absent in this well-written, clear, and easy to follow discussion of Sonia Andrade, Artur Barrio, Paulo Bruscky, Anna Bella Geiger, Antonio Manuel, and Cildo Meireles—all of whom were practitioners of an ideological Conceptualism in the 1970s—is a mention of the art-historical literature and the debates that have marked the field of Latin American Conceptualism and postwar art in general. With the exception of Liz Kotz and David Joselit, no art historians are cited, not even Marí Carmen Ramirez whose writings from the late 1990s seem to form the backbone of Shtromberg’s discussion of tactics of adversity, a politics of transgression, and circuits of circulation (see, for example, Marí Carmen Ramirez, “Blueprint Circuits: Conceptual Art and Politics in Latin America,” in Inverted Utopias: Avant-Garde Art in Latin America, eds., Marí Carmen Ramírez and Héctor Olea [New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004], 156).

The differences between Small’s and Shtromberg’s studies are therefore foundational. This emerges nowhere more clearly than in their respective chapters on the role the Brazilian newspaper Jornal do Brasil played in the formation of both geometric abstraction in the 1960s and Conceptual art in the 1970s. Both authors posit, albeit through different conceptions, that the newspaper functions not primarily as a material but as a structural agent of sorts for communicative exchange that sets in play a new sociality. The merger of legacies of geometric abstraction and Conceptual art into a shared yet varied postwar history of “art as system,” as Small’s book brings to mind, can be traced back to the Anglophone context in the mid-1960s by what Lawrence Alloway and others termed “Systems art” or “Systemic art” in reference to the idea-driven nature of U.S. Minimalism and its a priori conception of form. A sequence of exhibitions inspired by systems-thinking, be it as permutational thinking in mathematics; Marshall McLuhan’s communication theory; or biological, cybernetic, or information theory, such as Kynaston McShine’s Primary Structures (1966) or Software by Jack Burnham (1970) string those two traditions together in a shared historical arch that also connects the two studies on Brazilian art in question here. Shtromberg notes briefly that her usage of the term “system” derives from Burnham and his widely read Artforum essay “Systems Esthetic” from 1968 (7, no. 1 [September 1968]: 30–35). Burnham indicates a much-discussed paradigm shift from object to system, embodied in the famous Conceptual art catchphrase of the “dematerialized artwork.” In this view, the “system” of the newspaper or television brings forth an entirely new technological conception of the artistic medium in a post-medium age. Discourse, then, in Shtromberg’s use, is the circuit of all textual communication in diachronic order that marks the social as system.

Small, by contrast, situates abstraction in the context of McLuhanesque communication theory with the geometric object analog to an oral communication circuit with a four-part structure of receiver, sender, medium, and message. Concretist and Neoconcretist paradigms of art, Small asserts, move from a flat (a message-driven exchange between artist and viewer) to a folded one (an exchange harboring opacity and delay). Small’s first chapter, which lends Folding the Frame its evocative title, best elucidates the workings of this participatory paradigm by Neoconcretist artists Oiticica, Lygia Clark, Waldemar Cordeiro, and others. For Small, it is the operation of the fold that is key to the Neoconcretist’s call for a more involved viewer. The fold is a physical operation of bending and twisting planes into the third dimension in ways that break with established Gestaltist conventions of easy form recognition and recognizable figure-ground relations as practiced by the geometry of the Concretists.

Oiticica’s NC1 Pequeno Núcleo 1 (1960) challenges these conventions of embodied perception through a complication of familiar patterns of observation set in play by the complexity and unpredictability of its structure, which also adds a temporal dimension to the work. The fold, then, functions as an obstacle, a dispersal, a form of noise in the system of communication. It brings forth a new epistemological model of communication which directs attention to the process of perception and the norms of art making through a refusal to cohere. Thus, the fold (and this is very Deleuzian despite Small’s reluctance to term it as such) is a conceptual operation that also applies to Small’s sophisticated mode of art-historical writing, proposing an interventionist tactic of sorts, which breaks dichotomies between subjective and objective, inside and outside, the viewer and space, embodied perception and cognition, and the autonomy of the work and the sociality of space. The mirror inside of NC1 Pequeno Núcleo 1 propels the viewer to see herself or himself seeing, opening the work onto an awareness of the contingencies of perception, the intersubjective, and the social. It is here that this reader wishes Small would further elaborate on her concept of noise in communication, the intersubjective, the issue of awareness and the work’s reflexivity in relation to modernist defamiliarization, the distinction between different forms of awareness (some of them still within the realm of phenomenology), and the fold itself as an epistemic operation intervening in the way in which we perceive the world. While much of the literature on Gilles Deleuze and the arts continues to show stark deficiencies when it comes to detailed discussions of the formal makeup of single artworks, as well as with regard to issues of historical specificity (as Small well acknowledges), Small’s apprehension of offering up a philosophical exegesis that imports external theoretical formulations onto a work of art is somewhat problematic as her interpretive accounts seem to rely on them quite strongly (7–8).

The concept of the fold also stretches to include the act of handling a newspaper. For Small, Amílcar de Castro’s Concretist redesign of the layout of Jornal do Brasil in 1957 foregrounds the cooption of the aesthetic by the economic. Following Stéphane Mallarmé’s liberation of the fold from narrative and visual continuity, Neoconcretist artworks break down the coupling of the visual and the political by introducing free will and open-endedness. Shtromberg, by contrast, views the newspaper as a system of journalistic convention that the reader and the artist can relate to by understanding graphic choices symbolically. For example, censorship was temporarily undermined when an editor left the redacted articles visible as empty spaces, adopting an avant-garde strategy. Shtromberg’s insightful discussion of the complex bureaucratic and often arbitrary tactics of censorship set in play in 1968 with the Fifth Institutional Act (AI-5 for short) seems to head toward an alternative understanding of ideological Conceptualism and the subversive tactics of inserting counter-information as acts of one-way communication. She examines a reading of Cildo Mereiles’s Insercoes em jornais: Classificados (Insertions into Newspapers: Classified Ads; 1970), in which he adopts blankness together with the bureaucratic language of censorship notes in light of Niklas Luhmann’s ideas of how two systems interact symbiotically in processes of structural coupling. Different notions of sociality occur here interchangeably: the utopia of reaching a more mass audience, sociality as established by the paper’s daily reports on everydayness in Brazil, and journalism as system. Unfortunately, the reader has to work very hard to discern the novelty of Shtromberg’s approach as she only hints at the most promising framework for her discussion—Luhmann’s theories of the social as system—in a footnote.

The aforementioned key differences between Small and Shtromberg can be traced back to alternative readings of the notion of the system and how communication is imbricated by and constructs circuits of sociality. Two different theoretical frameworks of sociality are operative here, and they are both referenced by the two authors in early footnotes in the introduction rather than discussed explicitly. Shtromberg follows Francis Halsall’s critical attempt in Systems of Art: Art, History, and Systems Theory (Oxford: Peter Lang, 2008) to extend systems theory into the domain of the social as posited by Luhmann, and Small utilizes ideas from Bruno Latour’s Actor-Network theory, inspired by Deleuze’s writings. Since neither Small nor Shtromberg elaborate on the particular notion of the social, the implications of a sociality of systems, or how the two interrelate in acts of communication (or how an act of communication is defined), their proposals for an alternative social art history, though promising, remain somewhat intangible.

Nadja Rottner
Associate Professor of Art History, Department of Literature, Philosophy, and the Arts, University of Michigan–Dearborn