By Daniel Reskin
By Hans Morgenstern
By George Martinez
By Pablo Chacon Alvarez
By Ciara LaVelle
By New Times Staff
By Rich Robinson
By Hannah Sentenac
Following World War II, the epicenter of the art world moved from Paris to New York City. Though Europe was wholly occupied with its recovery from the conflict, advances in art were taking place all over the continent, some of them comparable to those on the other side of the Atlantic.
For instance, Tachisme in France and Abstract Expressionism in the U.S. shared figuration and methods. Pop, commonly thought to be an American invention, may actually have started in England. Neo-dada, Minimalism, and Conceptualism had striking similarities with Nouveau Realisme and art concret. On the other hand, Latin America was never considered capable of generating cutting-edge art. It was viewed as a mirror image of Europe and America, at best a fantastic land immersed in Surrealist and aboriginal imagery.
The Miami Art Museum's "Beyond Geometry: Experiments in Form, 1940s-70s" is a novel exhibition in that it provides a fresh look at some of the significant connections among contemporaneous works produced in America, Europe, and Latin America. The picture that emerges is complex, one in which the New York scene is more influenced by international trends than previously imagined. And as might be expected, there are behind-the-scenes accounts of nasty politics, power grabs, and a bit of nationalist chauvinism.
"Beyond Geometry" debunks the myth that certain trends which evolved into movements, such as Minimalism, Conceptualism, and Op Art, were exclusively American. The exhibit ascribes a prominent role to Latin American developments from 1945 to 1970. Art concret, for example, had roots in Brazil, Venezuela, and Argentina. By affording importance to art-related ideologies, contexts, and methods, the show revisits the notion that "form" in modern art should not be used as the sole criterion in determining stylistic analogies.
The exhibit is divided into sections: the Object and the Body, Light and Movement, Repetition and Seriality, and the Object Redefined. Each describes a stage in the development of geometric art, while exploring its ideological and constructive tenets. A catalogue accompanying "Beyond Geometry" features essays by curator Lynn Zelevansky, Valerie Hillings, Brandon LaBelle, and others. It is extremely informative and fun to read.
Art concret started with artist Theo van Doesburg (founder of the journal De Stijl), for whom it meant a sort of abstract/objectivist style, where clarity and mechanical technique were favored over organic forms and subjectivity. When van Doesburg died in 1931, Swiss artist and architect Max Bill (a Bauhaus alumnus) took the mantle of concrete art all over Europe and South America. Bill's contribution to art concret was to promote and canonize the movement through exhibits, publications, and his pedagogical career in Europe and South America (he co-founded the College of Design in Ulm, Germany).
Bill's influence reached Argentina's Grupo Madí and la Asociación Arte Concreto-Invención, which (since the early Forties) had rejected Surrealism in favor of Marxism and dialectical materialism. At "Beyond Geometry" don't miss the works of some of the artists associated with Grupo Madí, such as Gyula Kosice and Carmelo Arden Quin. They are unique in their rejection of the picture frame and as a result express an amazing inventiveness. As a bonus, check out Max Bill's Tripartite Unity, a distinctive sculpture in stainless steel resembling an infinite surface folding upon itself. (This sculpture won him a first prize at São Paulo's First Bienal.)
Art concret reached São Paulo's Grupo Ruptura, a key nucleus under the spell of Bill's orthodoxy. Ruptura advocated artificial methods, such as enamel paint on metal surfaces, to reduce artists' involvement. See Mauricio Nogueira Lima's exquisite Rhythmic Object and Verena Loewensberg's Untitled, two original works of colorful optic energy and complexity.
In modern art, one movement's guiding principle becomes another movement's denunciation. And so it was with Ruptura's methods; they were rejected by the neo-concretists of Grupo Frente, including Hélio Oiticica, Ivan Serpa, and Lygia Clark. Oiticica, who lived in Rio's favelas, reclaimed for his art more "informal" actions, such as intuition, music, and dance. In retrospect his work seems to have had a better feel for the reality of Brazil during the early Sixties, a time of social and political convulsion.
"Beyond Geometry" includes Oiticica's Metaesquemas, a series of geometric, gouache-painted squares in blue and black, on paper. They have a dancing quality to them, analogous to his Parangolé performances, also shown in a video. (Also on view is Lygia Pape's graceful film Neoconcrete Ballet No. 1, portraying amusing dances of cylindrical and rectangular forms in red and white.)
Elsewhere in the exhibit are two strikingly similar works by Frenchman François Morellet and American Sol LeWitt. Morellet's piece was made twelve years before LeWitt's, which he created in 1972. The two pieces are testament to how comparable art-making methods can produce analogous works. If so, concludes Lynn Zelevansky, Morellet could be considered as much a conceptual artist as LeWitt, though Morellet was never part of the movement. (Stop by Morellet's diptych From Yellow to Purple and his 1965 Neon 0º 90º with 4 Interfering Rhythms, an interactive geometric piece activated by a pedal switch on the floor.)
Perhaps the most important (though ill-fated) moment for all these groups and their geometric styles was a landmark 1965 exhibition in New York titled "The Responsive Eye." I recommend Valerie Hillings's fine catalogue essay, in which she analyzes the rise and fall of groups like Düsseldorf-based Zero, with Otto Piene and Gunther Uecker ("zero" meant no nationalist affiliations). Zero had abandoned Max Bill's old views to embrace monochromatic painting and kinetic and light art. Their works actively involved the viewer. On display at the exhibit is Uecker's Big Cloud (1965), a white relief into which hundreds of nails have been hammered, which evokes a kind of optical illusion in which the nails seem to be moving.