Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
December 8, 2020
Karen Benezra Dematerialization: Art and Design in Latin America Studies on Latin American Art. Oakland: University of California Press, 2020. 256 pp.; 14 color ills.; 8 b/w ills. Cloth $50.00 (9780520307063)

In Dematerialization: Art and Design in Latin America, Karen Benezra offers, with impressive theoretical sophistication, new grounds for understanding the criticism, experimental art, and design practices in Argentina, Mexico, and Chile in the 1960s and 1970s. Focusing mainly on the work of Oscar Masotta (Argentina, 1930–1979), Octavio Paz (Mexico, 1914–1998), Felipe Ehrenberg (Mexico, 1943–2017), Tomás Maldonado (Argentina, 1922–2018), and Gui Bonsiepe (Germany, b. 1943), Benezra employs “dematerialization” to frame how debates over materiality were concerned with the capacity of art and design to generate social transformation; her approach stands in contrast to the more familiar use of the term to describe the “loss of aesthetic qualities and the content of the objects themselves” (2). Less concerned than predecessors with the need to position the region’s conceptual productions in relation to the Anglo-European canon, shed their derivative status, and claim for Latin America a global position, Benezra moves beyond the pathbreaking work of Luis Camnitzer, Ana Longoni, Cristina Freire, Mari Carmen Ramírez, and others to brilliantly engender a discussion of how each of these men “questioned the role of the aesthetic in the structure and experience of social transformation” (10). Positioning dematerialization as the focus of her study, she turns away from the culturalist and formalist emphases of early studies to discuss the role that ideology, myth, cultural labor, and appearance played in structuring the roles of aesthetics, artistic collectivism, and industrial design. In choosing to discuss industrial design and cybernetics along with art and criticism, this book redresses art historians’ long-standing inability to connect these fields within Latin American discourses. Equally significant, in making visible the broader connections between debates on aesthetics, technology, design, and labor management, this book illuminates our current algorithmic world order.

Benezra’s is the second volume in the Studies on Latin American Art series edited by Alexander Alberro. It is divided into four chapters, dedicated respectively to Masotta; Paz; the Mexican art collectives known as Los Grupos, via the work of Alberto Híjar and Ehrenberg; and the Chilean Cybersyn project. Each chapter provides a brief historical contextualization followed by an elaborate exposition of the dense and interwoven sets of institutional, ideological, political, and economic determinations that informed the creative and theoretical work of each. As the complexities that informed their diverse proposals regarding art and design’s immateriality are uncovered, the antagonisms and differences between these artists and groups slowly emerge, as Benezra’s study moves beyond the “explanatory historicism” (12) and tendency to obscure difference characteristic of critical and historical discourses on art from this period. In considering how these proposals responded differently to the uneven and contradictory development of capitalism in the region, Benezra demonstrates admirable critical agility. She not only highlights the multifaceted critical thought surrounding Latin American art and design in the 1960s and 1970s but also shows that it stood beyond the need to claim either exceptionality or universality. In doing so, Benezra challenges dominant discourses that render all of Latin America’s experimental art from this period as either driven by leftist politics or “as a sign of the recovery of art’s premodern ethical function” (22).

In her introduction, Benezra frames her approach to dematerialization through Masotta’s unique definition of the term. Echoing Miguel A. López’s provocation in “How Do We Know What Latin American Conceptualism Looks Like?” (Afterall: A Journal of Art, Context and Enquiry 23, 2010: 5–21), Benezra reads Masotta’s talk “Después del Pop,” delivered at Buenos Aires’s Instituto Torcuato Di Tella in 1967 (and subsequently published), alongside and against Lucy Lippard and John Chandler’s influential essay “The Dematerialization of Art” (Art International 12, no. 2 [February 1968]: 31–36). She posits Masotta’s assertions as an alternative to “the reification of the concept of dematerialization” within art historical discourses, which she traces back to the paradoxes articulated in Lippard and Chandler’s essay and its reception (12). As Benezra points out, following the publication of that essay, dematerialization became a “generic stylistic marker” and was historicized “as part of a lineal and teleological account of visual art since the Second World War,” which obscured how “Lippard and Chandler attempted to address the changing relationship between art, aesthetics, and society” (12). Benezra shows how in “Después del Pop” Masotta addressed this changing relation by locating it outside the art object and instead in the emergence of mass consumer culture, which redistributed the logic and structure of social experience. From Masotta, Benezra derives her own approach to dematerialization and the works analyzed, highlighting how, by questioning the autonomy of the artwork or the object of industrial design, these authors turned attention to the logic that structures society, the experience of social life, and the potential subject that these imply, thus locating “the structuration of the social both in and beyond materiality or the sensible appearance of the object” (17). Each chapter, rather than signaling a concern for how the art object defines the essence of art, articulates how the dematerialization of art and the design object is indicative of “the problem of the subject in the structuration of social relations” (166).

Chapter 1 delves more deeply into the development of Masotta’s ambitious materialist framework, which combined Marxism, structuralism, and psychoanalysis to articulate the relation between structure, experience, and history by way of an overdetermined subject still capable of intervening in society. Giving special attention to Masotta’s writings on Pop art and his accounts of a series of happenings produced by Grupo Arte de Los Medios at the Di Tella, Benezra shows how “to dematerialize does not mean to leave behind the sensuous aspects of the art object, but rather to underline their irreducibility in simultaneously generating and obfuscating social structure” (58). Here the subject that emerges is the place of consciousness in the structuration of the social. The second chapter focuses on Paz’s writings on both aesthetics generally and Marcel Duchamp specifically to address “myth as a guise of the relation between art and ideology” (19). In Paz’s readings of Duchamp’s antiformalism, Benezra underlines “how the dissolution of the autonomous art object stands in place of the common cause or matter mediating the relationship between the individual and the collective” (20), thus positing the nation as the subject implied in the relation between art and ideology. Contrasting Paz’s liberal and alternately Romantic and religious assessment of this relationship, chapter 3 focuses on the notion of collectivism proposed by Los Grupos. Focusing on Híjar’s utopian articulation of cultural work(ers) and Ehrenberg’s theoretical and artistic production as a member of Los Grupos and the Polygon Workshop in London, Benezra shows how by assigning labor as the creative source of value, both Ehrenberg and Híjar signaled “the potential of considering the ethico-political role of the artistic collective and collectivism as a social form of labor” (130). The truncated Chilean cybernetic management project Cybersyn is discussed in chapter 4 as a preconception of the dematerialization of both industrial design and labor in the 1960s. Benezra offers a detailed historical and theoretical analysis of the roots of the project that encompasses Bonsiepe and Maldonado’s involvement and their interactions with Max Bill and the Ulm School of Design (Germany), the ideological role of the project within Eduardo Frei Montalva’s presidency and the Popular Unity government, and the participation and influence of British cybernetician Stafford Beer’s Viable Systems Model (VSM) in the design of Cybersyn.

What emerges from this discussion is an indication of how “the question of appearance inscribed in the logistics of the graphic interface mediates the emergence of a recursively structured self-regulated corporate worker in the cybernetic management of Cybersyn” (166). This last chapter, which has a less apparent connection with the other three, stands out as a welcome addition to discussions regarding materiality, aesthetics, and labor within art historical discourses outside the science and technology framework, such as Eden Medina’s visionary study on the subject (Cybernetic Revolutionaries: Technology and Politics in Allende’s Chile, MIT Press, 2011). It is also the only discussion that considers patriarchy as a dominant force structuring the social (it also considers the gendered organization of the operations room of Cybersyn). If there is more to be wished for in this magnificently argued study, it would be greater acknowledgment of patriarchy as an ideological force determining these men’s thought and creative work—their projects and how they conceived of the subject structuring the social. Considering the historical horizon in which they were developed, what are their proposals obscuring and reproducing? Such questions do not detract, however, from Benezra’s critical contributions in this impressively researched and argued study that uniquely brings together artists, authors, and designers to shed light on the role of aesthetics in transforming the social in a discussion that will be of interest to art historians, critics, designers, philosophers, and cyberneticians.

Gabriela Aceves Sepúlveda
Assistant Professor, School of Interactive Art and Technology at Simon Fraser University