Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
February 12, 2018
Abigail McEwen Revolutionary Horizons: Art and Polemics in 1950s Cuba New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016. 272 pp.; 68 color ills.; 61 b/w ills. Hardcover $75.00 (9780300216813)

In Revolutionary Horizons: Art and Polemics in 1950s Cuba, Abigail McEwen, associate professor of Latin American Art at the University of Maryland, offers an original and meticulously researched account of an understudied episode in the history of Latin American modernism: the rise of abstract art in Cuba during the 1950s. The book’s main protagonists are not so much artists or works of art as the complex field of discursive and ideological formations that structured Cuban cultural politics during the tumultuous decade leading up to the 1959 revolution. In the absence of a single figure or group that might naturally bind the book together, McEwen organizes her study via two main lines of inquiry. The first is a genealogy that situates 1950s abstraction within a longer lineage of vanguard generations that originated in the late 1920s. Relying on the work of historian Antoni Kapcia, McEwen links this generational development of modernist painting to a larger notion of cubanía, defined here as a utopian, historicist national discourse—the “teleological expression” of cubanidad (3). Secondly, alongside this historical reconstruction, the author situates abstraction within the ongoing debates about dictatorship, democracy, freedom, and revolution that defined the Cuban art scene from the eve of the US–backed coup that put Fulgencio Batista in power in 1952 through the immediate postrevolutionary era. Weaving these two strands together, McEwen argues that abstract painting served as a crucial critique of the Batista regime, one that was nevertheless rooted in a much longer, progressive history of national self-realization.

The book’s six chapters follow a roughly chronological sequence. Chapters 1 and 4 are devoted to broad overviews of the cultural scene at key junctures in the decade, while chapters 2, 3, and 5 examine the formation, exhibition history, and politics of Los Once, a group of nominally eleven (once) painters and sculptors who pioneered gestural abstraction in Havana, and Los Diez (an abbreviation of Los Diez Pintores Concretos—the Ten Concrete Painters), McEwen’s two primary case studies. After a brief introduction, the opening chapter introduces the reader to the intellectual and artistic forces—groups, magazines, and institutions—that triggered and supported the renovation of the vanguard that would give rise to a new generation of abstract painters and sculptors.

Chapters 2 and 3 examine the formation and then dissolution of Los Once, the self-proclaimed third generation of the Cuban vanguard, between 1953 and 1955. McEwen bases her analysis of the group largely on its exhibitions and their critical reception, rather than on individual works or their production. This is in keeping with her overall approach that privileges exhibitions as abstraction’s primary means of intervening within larger debates, but might also be a concession to the fact that key works of this generation seem not to have survived. In chapter 2, McEwen casts Los Once as the inheritors of the vanguard tradition inaugurated by the Generation of 1927 and furthered by the 1940s Havana School. While taking up the legacy of cubanista painting, Los Once favored a more “universal” understanding of cubanía vis-à-vis the “tropicalist and essentializing tropes” (65) that characterized the previous generations. Los Once’s interest in Abstract Expressionism and gestural abstraction more broadly represented both an acknowledgment that New York had become the new yardstick for contemporaneity and a recognition that action painting, firmly embedded in a discourse of freedom, could serve as a form of resistance to the Batista regime. Chapter 3 traces the increasing politicization of abstraction on the island in the context of the Bienal Hispanoamericana, sent to Cuba in 1954 by Francoist Spain, and the anti-biennial that served as a riposte. Thanks to its central role in the anti-biennial, McEwen argues, abstraction was validated as a “politically mobile and implicitly revolutionary” practice that embodied the cubanista values of freedom and revolution (75).

Chapter 4 examines the shifting politics of abstraction in the wake of Los Once’s brief but intense exhibition history. Here McEwen discusses what she terms the “semantic plasticity” (95) of Cuban abstraction in the mid-1950s. While the Batista regime came to see abstraction as a useful aesthetic complement to its modernization projects, José Gómez Sicre, the director of the Visual Arts Section of the Pan-American Union, positioned it within his budding canon of “internationalist” Latin American art. Chapter 5 accounts for the consolidation of geometric abstraction in Cuba over the course of the 1950s, focusing on the group Los Diez. McEwen argues that concrete art’s supposed political agnosticism, while out of step with Los Once’s more radical understanding of abstraction, allowed it to serve as an acceptable, if not entirely welcome, international face of the Cuban avant-garde in the final years of the Batista regime. Nevertheless, she claims, Los Diez’s continued exhibition program in the dark days of 1958 served as a form a resistance to the Batista dictatorship. Despite the sparse geometries it employed, concrete abstraction could, like its gestural counterparts, be absorbed within the discourse of cubanía, here “a spiraling national narrative poised on the brink of revolution” (175).

The final chapter tracks the fate of abstraction in the years immediately following the revolution. Although realism was not adopted as an official state program in the immediate postrevolutionary period, abstraction’s individualism and perceived distance from pressing social problems made it increasingly suspect. The futurity of abstraction, so central to its role in the generational lineage and prerevolutionary political valences, no longer had a place in a postrevolutionary world that demanded action in the here and now. If Cuban abstraction did not end in the early 1960s, McEwen concludes, it nevertheless abandoned its place in a progressive, generational history of the vanguard in pursuit of a cubanista utopia.

Revolutionary Horizons succeeds in incorporating a wealth of information gleaned from original archival research and interviews into an engaging, crisply written narrative. Moreover, McEwen is clear and consequent in her methodological approach, locating the field of cultural politics as a privileged lens through which to analyze the stakes of Cuban abstraction. McEwen thus argues that the “forcework” (a term she adopts from Krzysztof Ziarek) of abstraction in 1950s Cuba did not lie primarily in the direct impact of the works themselves but rather in two extrinsic factors: the ability of abstract artists to graft their work onto cubanía as an unfinished historical teleology, and second, their effective use of the “exhibition-manifesto” as a strategy by which to intervene within the Cuban cultural field and its power structures. The book’s limitations, such as they are, are closely linked to its substantial accomplishments, the result of inevitable methodological tradeoffs. While McEwen offers sharp and insightful descriptions of individual paintings, she cedes their significance to the polemics, critical assessments, and institutional frameworks into which they were subsumed. As a result, other questions, more intrinsic to the works of art and their making, go unasked. And McEwen’s considerable talent for conveying the rich texture of the debates and discourses of the era leaves the reader at points wanting more robust explanations of their terms. From the outset, she convincingly argues for her choice to use certain terms, such as revolutionary, without judgment and with a full embrace of the ambiguity with which they were associated during the period under study. But in other cases, the decision to let certain words go unexamined represents a missed opportunity to press harder on the stakes of the rhetorical armatures so central to the argument. This is particularly the case with the group of adjectives that orbit around the terms cubanía and cubanidad: national, universal, cosmopolitan, and utopian.

But these quibbles don’t take away from the timely and significant contribution that Revolutionary Horizons makes to a number of fields and debates. Most immediately, as the first English-language study of this generation, it fills a major gap in the literature on the Cuban vanguard. But the book will also appeal to a broader audience beyond the circle of dedicated Cubanists. McEwen’s study serves as an important counterpoint to the dominance of geometric abstraction in recent scholarship on Latin American modernism, perhaps paving the way for a renewed attention to gestural abstraction in the region. Finally, it will be a welcome addition to the growing bodies of literature on global modernism and Cold War cultural politics, offering not only new case studies but innovative methods as well. 

Megan Sullivan
Assistant Professor, Department of Art History, University of Chicago