Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
January 9, 2018
Abigail McEwen and Susanna Temkin Concrete Cuba: Cuban Geometric Abstraction from the 1950s New York: David Zwirner Books, 2016. 192 pp.; 138 color ills.; 55 b/w ills. Hardcover $55.00 (9781941701331)
Concrete Cuba
David Zwirner Gallery, New York, January 7—February 20, 2016
Installation view, Concrete Cuba, David Zwirner Gallery, New York, January 7–February 20, 2016 (photograph © 2016; provided by David Zwirner Gallery)

To a degree unparalleled in many other subfields of art history, twentieth-century Latin America has come into focus through exhibitions and accompanying catalogues. Indeed, these exhibitions often presage scholarly immersion in—or even assembly of—a related archive. Witness the dominance of selected institutions in establishing the canon for study of modern and contemporary Latin American art in the anglophone world: the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York; the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (MFAH); and (to a lesser degree) the Tate Modern in London. These museums have built or acquired crucial collections, as with the MFAH’s stunning Adolpho Leirner Collection of Brazilian Constructive Art or MoMA’s receipt of numerous Latin American masterworks from Patricia Phelps de Cisneros. However, more to the point, a number of these institutions are forging ahead with scholarly projects. With the Documents of 20th-century Latin American and Latino Art project at the MFAH, and the newly established Patricia Phelps de Cisneros Research Institute for the Study of Art from Latin America at MoMA, the field now looks to be driven by the tastes of a handful of collectors and curators rather than the more plodding—and perhaps more contentious—process of academic research.

One relatively new entrant to this field is the blue-chip gallery, in this case David Zwirner’s London and New York locations, which mounted the double exhibition Concrete Cuba in late 2015 and early 2016. While two Miami galleries, Tresart and ArtSpace/Virginia Miller, had mounted similar exhibitions of Cuban abstract and concrete art as recently as 2013 and 2014, David Zwirner’s visibility renders Concrete Cuba uniquely powerful in shaping viewpoints on modern art from Cuba. The David Zwirner exhibitions included a dozen works from the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, Havana, one work from MoMA, fifteen from private collections, and sixty from sources that went unnamed in the exhibition catalogue.

The catalogue, published in November 2016, benefits from research by art historian Abigail McEwen; McEwen’s own art-historical monograph, Revolutionary Horizons: Art and Polemics in 1950s Cuba, was published by Yale University Press the same month. Additionally, the David Zwirner catalogue features 138 color plates, with most of the works newly photographed for the catalogue, as well as an interview of artist Pedro de Oraá conducted by Lucas Zwirner (son of David Zwirner, currently managing the gallery’s publishing arm), and a chronology by Susanna Temkin, a PhD candidate at the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University. Though one could quibble with the layout of the chronology, which makes it difficult to quickly situate events on a timeline, it offers a rigorous grounding in the aesthetic and intellectual history of 1950s Cuba, landmarked with political events in that country and beyond. Additionally, reproductions of key primary texts and exhibition installation views offer a window into the rich primary sources grounding the work of both McEwen and Temkin.

The catalogue includes a single essay, in which McEwen chronicles the emergence of geometric abstraction in 1950s Cuba, focusing on the artists surrounding Galería Color-Luz in Havana and the group Los Diez Pintores Concretos. More broadly, as McEwen recounts, abstract artists in 1950s Cuba worked with and against the lineage of two earlier Cuban vanguards: the interwar Generación del 27, whose work combined School of Paris modes with local Cuban themes (peasants, the tropics); and the lush colorism of the 1940s Havana School. However, the other key artistic movement of 1950s Cuba—the gestural abstraction of Los Once—merits barely a mention, as McEwen adopts an almost teleological stance that echoes the Concrete artists’ own self-fashioning. In contrast, McEwen’s monograph, Revolutionary Horizons, more broadly examines the competing aesthetic and political claims surrounding abstraction in 1950s Cuba, including the gestural abstraction of Los Once, the institutionalization of various forms of abstraction in relation to the Cuban state, and the Concrete art of Los Diez Pintores.

Aside from downplaying Los Once, McEwen’s Concrete Cuba catalogue essay is notable—and admirable—for its efforts to internationalize Cuban Concrete art. McEwen identifies resonances between Cuban Concrete art of the late 1950s and international currents, such as interwar Dutch Neo-Plasticism, Grupo Madí in 1940s Argentina, and (the somewhat later) Brazilian Neo-Concretism of 1959 through 1961. While the historical links to Neo-Plasticism and Neo-Concretism are more tenuous, McEwen relates the fascinating story of Romanian-Cuban Concrete artist Sandú Darié’s involvement with the Argentine Madí movement, which he discovered when Greek-American artist Jean Xceron introduced Darié to Hungarian-Argentine artist Gyula Kosice. Thus, as McEwen asserts, Cuban Concretism is “a highly periodized phenomenon” (7)—part and parcel of postwar elaborations of geometric abstraction following the culmination or demise of the interwar avant-gardes.

One would have liked to see more detailed analysis of the terminology employed by the Cuban artists. Like their better-known (to anglophone readers at least) Concrete counterparts in Argentina and Brazil, Cuban artists were not always consistent in their use of the term concreto, with early discussions of geometric abstraction often employing the term arte abstracta or—more often—pintura abstracta. Just as Brazil saw the term concreto crystallize around a 1956 exhibition, in was only in 1955 that Mario Carreño penned the text, “What is concrete art?” in conjunction with an exhibition of works by Luis Martínez Pedro and Sandú Darié.

More problematically, McEwen’s text implies that geometric abstraction was a natural reaction to the Cuban modernizing project. In Darié’s art, for example, “geometric abstraction matched the maturing modernist project on the island” (7), while writings by artist Mario Carreño presented “Concrete art as the natural corollary of the modernizing nation” (10). In McEwen’s words, Cuban Concrete art embodied “the national zeitgeist of the decade” (7; emphasis added).

In the context of an exhibition catalogue devoted to valorizing Cuban Concrete art, this is perhaps unsurprising, but it points to a larger issue plaguing the field of modern and contemporary art of Latin America. The David Zwirner exhibition emphasized geometric abstraction, Concrete Cuba, rather than the broader field that McEwen surveys in her monograph. One is tempted to write this off as the difference between a historically grounded scholarly work, with its emphasis on the Cuban Revolution (or revolutions, if one considers the 1952 military coup of Fulgencio Batista as the primary foil for politicized artists in 1950s Cuba), versus the formalist approach of a gallery exhibition, more interested in validating these works in aesthetic terms to boost current and future sales of these artists. As the gallery’s press release itself states, “The hard-edged, geometric abstract works executed by Los Diez were decidedly more cerebral than the overtly political aesthetic tactics deployed by preceding abstract expressionist painters in Havana during this decade.” To take this in the bluntest sense, gallery exhibitions necessarily highlight the depoliticized (or lightly political) “universalist” aesthetics of geometric abstraction, downplaying by contrast the comparatively more agitational Cuban artists working in gestural and expressionist abstract modes. In this view, it is telling that the names of owners and provenance were not given for the majority of the works included in the exhibition, suggesting that they were then or were soon to be offered for sale to collectors desirous of the frisson of art from revolutionary Cuba, without overtly invoking the messiness of revolutionary politics.

But this is part of the longer story referenced at the start of this review. The predominance of geometric abstraction as a key trope of modern Latin American art originated around 1990, as Latin American and Latinx critics and curators sought—quite justifiably—to counterbalance prior approaches to Latin American art that emphasized the folkloric, primitivist, and sensual. (See Kaira Cabañas’ excellent 2010 Oxford Art Journal article, “If the Grid is the New Palm Tree of Latin American Art,” 33, no. 3: 365–383, for one take on this shift.). On the one hand, incorporating art of Latin American and Latinx artists into a broader account of modernism has seemed to necessitate a turn to formal considerations on the most minute level, and the “discovery” of ever more artists working through the legacies of the interwar avant-gardes. However, the result has also been to affirm the predilections of selected collectors who are cashing in on the resulting emphasis on abstract painting and sculpture, shaping the field around attractive, saleable objects rather than other types of art historical inquiry. Along with MoMA’s new Patricia Phelps de Cisneros Research Institute for the Study of Art from Latin America, the David Zwirner Concrete Cuba exhibitions contributed to the enshrinement of this model of Latin American art—object based, coolly aesthetic, faintly political without offering real bite.

Adrian Anagnost
Assistant Professor, Modern and Contemporary Art, Tulane University