Kinetic art in Latin America
- Abigail Winograd
Following World War II, artists across Latin America embraced the newly emerging language of optical and kinetic art—art movements concerned primarily with the vagaries of visual perception and bodily spectatorial engagement. Kinetic artists throughout the Americas sought out these new visual languages to more accurately describe and reflect upon the changes occurring in postwar societies. They appeared at the forefront of a growing international movement that coalesced in part around the Galerie Denis René in Paris and in a series of exhibitions titled New Tendencies that took place in Zagreb between 1961 and 1973.
Movement has long been central to the development of abstraction in Latin America. Joaquín Torres-García, a seminal figure in Latin American modernism and founder of Taller Torres García, began producing interactive wooden sculptures in the 1920s while still living abroad in Paris, a practice continued upon his return to his native Uruguay in 1934. Torres-García’s sculptures influenced a group of artists in Argentina who would go on to found the movement Arte Madí. One of those artists, Gyula Košice, created Royi in 1944, an articulated wooden sculpture intended to be manipulated by the viewer. The Arte Madí manifesto (1946) written by Carmelo Arden Quin, Rhod Rothfuss, and Košice explicitly called for the incorporation of movement into works of art including painting, sculpture, and architecture. By the late 1950s Košice was including such ephemeral elements as air, water, and neon light into his sculptures. Argentine artists not associated with Arte Madí also worked in kinetic modes, such as Martha Boto (1925–2004), Rogelio Posello (1939–2014), and Gregorio Vardanega (1923–2007). Boto and Vardanega emigrated to Paris in 1959. Along with the leading members of the avant-garde in Buenos Aires, they formed part of a growing number of artists in Paris working in optical and kinetic modes.
The first Bienal de São Paulo, organized under the auspices of that city’s newly built Museu de Arte Moderna, opened in 1951. The first prize for sculpture was awarded to the Swiss artist Max Bill, who would become an important figure in the development of abstraction and kineticism in both Argentina and Brazil. Abraham Palatnik (b 1928), the Brazilian-born son of Russian immigrants, won an honorable mention for his light installation—a work that did not fit into any existing artistic categories, and thus not deemed eligible for the biennial’s grand prize. Palatnik created his first Aparelho Cinecromático in 1949. These colorful works, which contained electrical wires, lamps, and rotating cylinders, represented Palatnik’s attempts to revolutionize painting using light and technology.
In 1954, the Grupo Frente opened their first exhibition in Rio de Janeiro. All former students of the influential teacher Ivan Serpa, including Lygia Clark, Hélio Oiticica, and Lygia Pape (1927–2004), the artists of the Grupo Frente dispensed with a mathematical or empirical approach to abstraction in favor of a more experiential and experimental path. Their rejection of constructivist orthodoxy would lead to a formal rupture with constructive artists in São Paulo, culminating in the publication of the Neoconcretismo (Neo-Concrete) manifesto written by the poet and art critic Ferreira Gullar (1930–2016) in 1959.
Neoconcretismo rejected the commodification of the art object, advancing the embrace of a poetic, participatory, and multisensory artistic experience instead. Neo-Concrete artists, including Clark, Oiticica, and Pape, increasingly favored three-dimensional works that turned spectators into participants. Clark, for example, began producing a series of objects known as Bichos in 1959. These articulated aluminum sculptures were small enough to be held, and designed to be manipulated by the viewer. In the 1960s Oiticica produced two series of three-dimensional works that engaged viewer participation: Bólides and Parangolés; the former consisted of vessels containing items meant to be handled, the latter capes intended to be worn and danced in.
In the 1950s Paris became a popular destination for Latin American artists—those studying abroad as well as those fleeing political turmoil in their home countries. On the evening of April 6, 1955, Le Mouvement opened at the Galerie Denise René in Paris. The goal of the exhibition was to create a lineage for kinetic art. The show included the work of Jesús Rafael Soto, a young Venezuelan artist recently arrived in France who began making kinetic works in 1952. Soto’s experimentation reached its climax with the Penetrables, a series of immersive installations begun in 1967: grids of surgical tubing suspended from steel frames which, as the title suggests, the artist invited the viewer to enter, thereby guaranteeing a multisensory experience of art. Soto’s compatriot Carlos Cruz-Diez arrived in Paris in 1960. Cruz-Diez chose to explore the possibilities of color and its ability to create an impression of visual vibrations. The potential of immersive full-color environments was fully embraced in the Chromosaturations series begun in 1965. Julio Le Parc, a young Argentinian artist, likewise arrived in Paris in the late 1950s; by 1960 he was producing mobiles and incorporating light into his artistic practice. Le Parc would go on to found Groupe de Recherche d’Art Visuel (GRAV) in 1961 together with several other South American expatriate artists such as the Argentines Hugo Demarco (1932–1995) and Horacio García Rossi (1929–2012).
Soto, Cruz-Diez, and the artists of GRAV were at the forefront of artistic experiments exploring the incorporation of light and the activation of space as a means of producing a universally legible aesthetic encounter. Contrary to many of their chastened European peers and counterparts, they also shared a continuing belief in the utopian possibilities of art as well as the desire to remove any intermediaries between object and spectator to create aesthetic experience of unprecedented directness. The accessibility and broad appeal of Op and kinetic art—amassing a canon of artworks that did not rely on prior knowledge or art historical literacy of any kind—made them supremely democratic, egalitarian modes of making.
Artists not associated with particular groups or movements were also actively investigating the possibilities of motion, space, perception, and the activation of the viewer (though it must be said that the spirit of collectivism was tellingly central to the scientific curiosity of many Op art protagonists). Two European immigrants to Latin America, Gego in Venezuela and Mira Schendel (1919–1988) in Brazil, likewise produced sculptures that were responsive to the presence and movement of the viewer and activated ambient space. Other Latin American artists working in optical and kinetic modes included Feliza Bursztyn and Omar Rayo (1928–2010) in Colombia, Grupo Rectangulo in Chile, and Mathias Goeritz in Mexico. This wide reach partly helped to secure the form a degree of popular appeal and even state-sanctioned acceptance that would elude Op art in the northern Atlantic artistic sphere, a circumstance that would eventually lead to its art historical marginalization as mere novelty.
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- Ramírez, Mari Carmen and Olea, Hector. Inverted Utopias: Avant Garde Art in Latin America. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004.
- Pérez-Barreiro, Gabriel. The Geometry of Hope: Latin American Art from the Patricia Phelps de Cisneros Collection. Austin: Blanton Museum of Art, University of Texas at Austin, 2007.
- Suarez, Osbel and Fontaneda, Eugenio. Los Cineticos. Madrid: Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, 2007.
- Ramírez, Mari Carmen. Joaquín Torres-García: Constructing Abstraction with Wood. Houston: Menil Collection, in association with The Museum of Fine Arts, 2009.
- Cameron, Dan. Kinesthesia: Latin American Kinetic Art, 1954–1969. Palm Springs, CA: Palm Springs Art Museum, 2017.
- Dziewanska, Marta, Roelstraete, Dieter, and Winograd, Abigail, eds. The Other Trans-Atlantic Kinetic and Op Art in Eastern Europe and Latin America. Warsaw: Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw, 2017.