Concrete art in Latin America
- Gabriel Pérez-Barreiro
The development of geometric abstraction in 20th-century art in Latin America was heavily influenced by European Concrete art. The latter emphasized the objective nature of abstract painting.
In 1930 Theo van Doesburg, with Otto G. Carlsund, Jean Hélion, and Leon Tutundjian (1905–1968) published “The Basis of Concrete Art” in the single issue of Art Concret magazine. In it they advocated a completely objective approach to abstract form conceived by the mind prior to its execution. This approach was in stark contrast to that of many of the pioneers of non-figurative painting, such as Piet Mondrian or Vasily Kandinsky, for whom abstraction aimed for transcendental and quasi-religious meanings.
2. Impact in Argentina.
In 1944 in Buenos Aires the young Argentine artists Tomás Maldonado and Gyula Kosice and the Uruguayans Carmelo Arden Quin (1913–2010) and Rhod Rothfuss (1920–1969) published a single-issue magazine Arturo, in which they declared allegiance to many of the principles of Concrete art. By 1946 this original group had split, and one group in particular, the Asociación de Arte Concreto-Invención, led by Maldonado and the poet Edgar Bayley, practiced a rigorous geometric art that further developed the initial precepts of Concrete art, while also incorporating a commitment to free invention (as the name of the group suggests) and a commitment to Marxist materialism. Concrete art’s anti-idealism was in line with the revolutionary and collective art that this group aspired to practice, in which geometry provided an artistic language free of the shackles of the past, and a template for a universally legible art that would contribute to a future revolutionary society. The Inventionist Manifesto of 1946 expresses these ideas: “Scientific aesthetics will replace the ancient speculative and idealist aesthetics. Considerations around Beauty are no longer relevant. The metaphysics of Beauty have withered away. Now we have the physics of beauty” (author’s trans. of Amor 2016, 53).
The mathematical and anti-idealist nature of Argentine Concrete art was further reinforced by the contact in 1948 between Maldonado and other members of the group with the Swiss artist Max Bill, who was also practicing a form of strict geometry that developed many of the principles of Concrete art in the postwar period. The contact with Bill and his group coincided with the expulsion of Maldonado and other members of the group from the Argentine Communist Party which accused them of elitism, in line with official Soviet policy. After 1948 Maldonado and Alfredo Hlito continued to work in a strict geometric language, but without applying the original Marxist theoretical framework that had led them, between 1944 and 1946, to a radical reconfiguration of the pictorial plane.
3. Impact in Brazil.
Concrete art had a second wave of influence, in Brazil, starting in the early 1950s. In the inaugural edition of the São Paulo Biennial in 1951, the grand prize for sculpture was awarded to Max Bill, confirming geometric abstraction as a leading tendency in the country. Several younger artists, such as Geraldo de Barros (1923–1998), Abraham Palatnik (b 1928), Waldemar Cordeiro (1925–1973), and Ivan Serpa, had been experimenting with abstract forms, and soon began to coalesce into movements that enthusiastically adopted some of Concrete art’s commitment to mathematics and rationalism. In 1952 Waldemar Cordeiro led the formation of the Ruptura group in São Paulo, and in 1954 Grupo Frente was created in Rio de Janeiro, bringing together Serpa, Lygia Clark, Lygia Pape (1927–2004), Hélio Oiticica, and others. Both movements created works based on rigorous geometric principles with impersonal, quasi-industrial surfaces in which the artist’s hand was almost invisible. Unlike their Argentine predecessors, these artists generally welcomed optical illusion in their work, and often incorporated elements of Gestalt theory and perceptual psychology, ideas that had been introduced by art critic Mário Pedrosa.
In 1959 the poet Ferreira Gullar led a revolt against what he saw as the mechanical and sterile nature of the Concrete art being practiced in Brazil to date. He organized a new group in Rio de Janeiro under the name Neoconcretismo (Neo-Concretism) and published a manifesto that same year. For Gullar, the promise of Concrete art had been reduced to a series of overly systematic formulae, and he proposed a new language in which the very status of the artwork would be questioned by creating a more organic relationship between the viewer and the object. The principles of Neoconcretismo were visible in the works of artists Lygia Clark, Lygia Pape, Willys de Castro (1926–1988), Hélio Oiticica, and Amílcar de Castro, among others, from 1959 and into the 1960s. In the choice of the name of the movement, Gullar was simultaneously rejecting and paying homage to the great importance of Concrete art in the development of Brazilian abstraction.
- Ramírez, Mari Carmen and Héctor Olea, eds. Inverted Utopias: Avant-Garde Art in Latin America. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, in association with Houston: Museum of Fine Arts, 2004.
- Pérez-Barreiro, Gabriel, ed. The Geometry of Hope: Latin American Abstract Art from the Patricia Phelps de Cisneros Collection. Austin: Blanton Museum of Art, 2007.
- García, María Amalia. El arte abstracto: intercambios culturales entre Argentina y Brasil. Buenos Aires: Siglo XXI, 2011.
- Cold America: Geometric Abstraction in Latin America. Edited by Osbel Suárez and María Amalia García. Madrid: Fundación Juan March, 2011. Exhibition catalog.
- Amor, Mónica. Theories of the Nonobject: Argentina, Brazil, Venezuela, 1944–1969. Oakland: University of California Press, 2016.