Artists Without Borders

An immense and provocative exhibit at MAM demonstrates that ideas ignore borders

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.

Another group whose path Hillings tracks is GRAV, or Groupe de Recherche d'Art Visuel, France's response to art concret. It included artists Julio Le Parc, Horacio Garcia Rossi, and François Morellet, among others. In Italy there was Gruppo N and Gruppo T (for time/space), with artist Gianni Colombo.

Suddenly monochromatic painting had become an objective of all these groups because it was in direct opposition to Bill's art concretprogram, though it turns out that French iconoclast Yves Klein had been trying monochromatism for some time. In 1961 GRAV sponsored the exhibition "Nouvelle Tendance" ("New Trend") from which South American neo-concretists Grupo Madí, as well as Zero, were excluded. Was that a betrayal? Hillings doesn't say.

Later the artists from GRAV modeled themselves after a research team to further separate themselves from Zero, which presumably still defended some kind of individualism in the art-making process. The group ended up with the name NTrc, for New Trend Continual Research.

When all these groups converged on the art market in the early Sixties, they were variably labeled as "kinetic," "light," "programmed," or "Op art." They had shown all over Europe and Latin America, but it was the Museum of Modern Art's "The Responsive Eye" that best embodied this long trajectory of twenty years. Unfortunately the exhibit was not well received by critics. The sacred cows of the New York establishment -- Barbara Rose, Thomas Hess, Rosalind Krauss, and Clement Greenberg -- decried the European participation as second-rate, derivative post-Cubist, post-Suprematist geometry.

"The Responsive Eye" coincided with developments within American art, such as color field and hard-edge painting, all based on a more conceptual approach -- devoid of intuition and self (something art concret had defended for almost two decades). Was this another global coincidence?

Hillings sees the outcome of the MoMA show as a battle of semantics. I see it as an exercise in aesthetic hegemony. At the time, New York (just like Paris 30 years earlier) was the highest point; its critics the decisive voices. Today we realize that many of the similarities among American, Latin American, and European artists were decisively (and opportunistically) dismissed in favor of the differences. And there are important differences, such as American individualism versus European utopianism. U.S. minimalists insisted that abstraction should not be suggestive of anything outside itself, whereas the Europeans and Latin Americans maintained that art was a revolutionizing social force.

I didn't like the fact that music and film play such a small part in "Beyond Geometry." The so-called sound room was no more than a little box. The idea that art and music must be separated in the context of this particular show seems archaic. Music by composers such as Pierre Boulez, Morton Feldman, John Cage, Steve Reich, and Terry Riley was as important a catalyst as anything in the history of these art movements; it should have played a more prominent role.

Still there are other treasures in the exhibit, such as Stanislaw Drózdz's Between (a whole room filled with letters), the concrete poetry of Eugen Gomringer, Ronaldo Azaredo, and Augusto de Campos (don't miss his superb 1957 Sem un numero). They all evince a compelling elegance and simplicity. You'll also enjoy Grazia Varisco's gracious Gnomons, an installation of triangular metallic units that suggest flying birds; Frank Stella's magnificent 1959 Getty Tomb; Jesús Rafael Soto's Almost Immaterial Vibrations; Doug Wheeler's hypnotic Light Encasement (in neon and plastic); and the delicate installation Continual Light by Julio Le Parc.

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