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Being Singular Plural
Then & Now: Abstract Art from Latin America at 60 Wall Gallery
Beuys and Beyond in Buenos Aires: Deutsche Bank Collection in dialogue with contemporary Argentinean art
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Then & Now
Abstract Art from Latin America at 60 Wall Gallery

Following its exhibition of works by Imi Knoebel from the Deutsche Bank Collection, the 60 Wall Gallery in New York is now devoting a show to a further area of nonrepresentational art. "Then & Now" documents the immense importance of abstract tendencies for the development of Latin American art from the 1950s to the present.

A black rectangle into which two green triangles bore at the top and the bottom - a dynamic composition that is as simple and clear as a traffic sign or a flag. Carmen Herrera's painting Wednesday from 1978 illustrates Mies van der Rohe's dictum that "less is more" in a virtually perfect way. At the same time, it shows why the New York Times recently called the 94-year-old Cuban artist a "hot new thing in painting". Herrera, who studied architecture and who has lived in New York for a long time, orients herself to modern European art, Bauhaus and De Stijl. Long ignored by the art market, in the 1950s and 60s she developed her cool, reduced artistic vocabularly, which she has continued to refine up to the present day.

Carmen Herrera is one of 30 artists whom the guest curator Mónica Espinel selected for her exhibition at Deutsche Bank's 60 Wall Gallery in New York. The show, entitled Then & Now: Abstraction in Latin American Art from 1950 to Present, illustrates how different nonfigurative tendencies have influenced Latin American art up to the present day. "For a long time Geometric Abstraction, Op and Kinetic art were disregarded as lame, detached and noncommittal. So despite the fact that these artists were working with one of the most radical forms of 20th-century art, abstraction, they were set aside by collectors, curators and critics", says Espinel. "In the 90s the focus on identity based art further submerged the legacy of these artists and their offspring. Now though, many young artists see identity-defined art as limiting. Thus, a return to the story of earlier artists who struggled and effectively coped with that same view has happened. Abstraction as these artists envisioned it, was about freedom and possibility, and to this day those tenets hold true to the younger artists in the show."

Since the early 1950s, very distinct kinds of nonobjective art developed throughout the region, especially in Argentina, Brazil and Venezuela, particularly in an engagement with Concrete art. The most important proponent of Concrete art, the Swiss artist Max Bill, had a highly regarded exhibition at the Museu de Arte de São Paulo in 1950 and a year later won the Grand Prix at the first São Paulo Art Biennial. In this decade, Brazil and Venezuela experienced an enormous economic upswing. The new capital Brasilia with its modernist architecture became a symbol for the dawning of a new era. In Then and Now, Brazilian arte concreta is represented by Judith Lauand, whose geometrical compositions have been on view at São Paulo Biennials since 1955. María Freire and Antonio Llorens, on the other hand, represent the Uruguayan artists around the Grupo de Arte No Figurativo established in 1952. The members of this group often refrained from using conventional rectangular shapes in their paintings. Instead, the dynamics and asymmetry of their motifs is reflected in incisions, curves and bulges in the canvases and frames.

"From the implicit universality of the 'international style' in modernist architecture to the 'international' vision of Constructivism, or the cross-cultural borrowings of Americans like Pollock or Marden, abstraction has always been associated with internationalism", explains Espinel. "In Latin America, abstraction was adopted as a Utopian notion linked to progress and to voice opposition to mainstream political and cultural establishments. Entangled in politics, abstraction was conceived as a language that transgresses national borders but creates new cultural ones, and it serves context-specific desires too. It's interesting to note the differences between each country and how they developed singularities, optical and kinetic (Venezuela), bodily (Brazil), phenomenological and kinetic (Argentina), Andean (Colombia, Uruguay), conceptual (Venezuela, Argentina) which they all shared but were stronger in certain places."

In the course of the 1960s, the abstract vocabulary of form became increasingly politically charged - among other things, as a reaction to the restrictive policy of military dictatorships. Moreover, the artists started working with new materials, including fabric, plastic, Plexiglas and soil. Elements such as the active participation of the audience in the works became more and more important for "neo-concrete" Brazilian artists. Artists such as Lygia Clark and Hélio Oiticica have lately aroused renewed international interest. The same applies to Mira Schendel, who is represented in Then & Now and whose hermetic works were presented at New York's MoMA in a double exhibition with works by Léon Ferrari. Schendel and Ferrari share an interest in language, words, calligraphy, and the act of writing. Ferrari's gestural composition on exhibit at 60 Wall Gallery is an hommage to Jackson Pollock. But Ferrari does not only have an art-historical bent. His works emerged in opposition to the Argentinean dictatorship. Alejandro Otero's collage of pink and blue dyed newspaper pages titled Hoy en TV (1965) also combines formal reduction with allusions to political events of the day, such as the Vietnam war.

Contemporary artists such as Arturo Herrera have advanced the collage techniques and also unite them with an abstract language of form. The Venezuelan artist picks up on the image bank of global popular culture. In his works, he overpaints pictures from comics, children's books and magazines. By contrast, Alejandro Corujeira's paintings, executed in pale colors, are almost meditative. Showing the influence of Agnes Martin and Brice Marden, nearly transparent, monochrome color surfaces overlap with organic looking lines or shapes reminiscent of cells or corpuscles. One of the youngest participants in the show is William Cordova. The works on paper, sculptures and installations by the Peruvian artist, who was born in 1971, are influenced by his transcultural biography: Cordova divides his time between Lima, Miami and New York, addressing hip hop and Peruvian culture, classical modernism and radical political movements such as the Black Panthers.

Then & Now presents the whole spectrum of trends in abstract Latin American art and at the same time explodes clichés about the art of this region. Going beyond Frida Kahlo or Fernando Botero, the exhibition shows that a number of very distinctive works were created in the field of tension between the international language of nonfigurative modern art and different regional influences in Latin America. In addition, the show explores a formal vocabulary that is constantly being developed by young contemporary artists.
Achim Drucks

Then & Now: Abstraction in Latin American Art from 1950 to Present
60 Wall Gallery, Deutsche Bank
May 24 - September 3, 2010

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