- Megan A. Sullivan
Term applied retrospectively to a range of non-figurative art characterized by a reliance on geometric forms and a rejection of representation, illusionistic space, and symbolic meaning. Pioneered in early 20th-century Europe by Kazimir Malevich, the Russian Constructivists (see Constructivism, §1), and the Dutch de Stijl group, among others, geometric abstraction found new adherents in the urban centers of many Latin American countries from the 1940s through the 1960s, most prominently in Argentina, Brazil, and Venezuela. Despite declining in popularity in the last decades of the 20th century, it still maintains a presence in art practice in the region.
Scholars generally agree that geometric abstraction from Latin America cannot be encapsulated within a single regional framework or conceived of as a unified continental movement. While many of its practitioners knew each other’s work through exhibitions, publications, and travel, ties with European predecessors were often stronger. Not only did Latin American artists position their projects in dialogue with developments of abstract painting in Europe, they also often conceived of their work in universal—rather than national or regional—terms.
Key developments that geometric abstraction underwent in the hands of its mid-century Latin American practitioners include: an exploration of autochthonous forms of Pre-Columbian abstraction, a sustained challenge to the frame as a boundary between the space of painting and that of the world, and an increasing focus on the viewer’s participation, both perceptual and tactile.
1. Early theory and European influences.
By most accounts, the history of geometric abstraction in Latin America began with the return of artist Joaquín Torres García to his native Uruguay in 1934 after several decades in Europe. Advancing his theory of “constructive universalism,” he sought to establish abstraction as a new art for the Americas that would no longer be limited to the fragmentary, anecdotal representation of history or everyday life, but rather construct a new, coherent, and totalizing cultural worldview not known in the region since before the Spanish conquest. Although Torres García had worked alongside de Stijl artists Piet Mondrian and Theo van Doesburg in 1920s Paris, he came to see his work as equally in dialogue with ancient South American forms of abstraction. Torres García’s effort to recast abstraction as autochthonous and link it to the telluric power of the continent would prove influential, but many others sought to replace this cultural framework with a fully universalistic rationale.
With the 1944 publication of the single-issue journal Arturo, a group of Argentine artists in dialogue with the propositions of Torres García began to experiment with a non-referential formal language that drew from European Concrete art. Writing in Arturo, Rhod Rothfuss (1920–1969) declared the frame to be the key problem of contemporary painting. He argued that it inevitably turned painting into a window that revealed only a sliver of a larger reality. Rothfuss’s call for a new form of painting that would “begin and end with itself” was taken up by the two factions into which the original Arturo group broke down: Arte Madí and the Asociación Arte Concreto-Invención (AACI), resulting in some of the first sustained explorations of the shaped canvas. The Madí artists explored the concept of an art of pure invention (i.e. one that did not represent or symbolize) across media, including painting, sculpture, music, and poetry. For its part, the AACI favored a more “rational” and step-wise process of overcoming illusionism in painting. Despite these differences, both groups understood the concrete object as enacting a break with passive modes of viewership, either through actual manipulation, as in Madí artist Gyula Kosice’s articulated sculptures, or perceptual activation, as in the AACI’s theory that fully anti-illusionistic painting would break the viewer from her habitual contemplative mode and “generate the will to act.”
2. Concretism and Neoconcretism.
Related questions of universal rationality and perceptual experience emerged among Brazilian abstract artists in the 1950s. Influenced by the Swiss concrete artist Max Bill, who had exhibited in Brazil in the early 1950s, the São Paulo–based Grupo Ruptura (formed in 1952) aimed to erase individual expression and compositional choice via an objective, mathematically planned art. They understood these forms to communicate readily across media, making them applicable to industrial and graphic design and thus to Brazil’s burgeoning industrial sector.
Others, however, became increasingly critical of concrete art’s rationalist underpinnings. The “Neoconcrete Manifesto” (1959), written by the poet Ferreira Gullar and signed by a group of artists based in Rio de Janeiro, championed a form of abstract art that stressed experience and affect over communication and planning. Inspired by the work of Lygia Clark, Gullar proposed the “non-object” as a new category of art object that, free from the plinth and the frame, would exist fully within the time and space of the viewer and acquire meaning only through being viewed. The Neoconcrete Group’s increasing interest in the experience of the work rather than the object itself would prompt some of its members, most notably Clark and Hélio Oiticica, to shift toward participatory practices that did away with the object in the mid-1960s.
3. Architectural integration and kinetic art.
As a result of its integration with architecture, geometric abstraction in Venezuela took a particularly public and monumental form. Its origins lie with a group of expat artists and intellectuals who formed Los Disidentes in Paris in 1950. Upon their return to Caracas, several members collaborated with the architect Carlos Raúl Villanueva on various projects in the capital, including new Modernist housing complexes and the Ciudad Universitaria, home to the Universidad Central de Venezuela. The latter, responding to the Congrès International d’Architecture Moderne’s (CIAM) call for a synthesis of the arts, contains works and interventions by a number of Venezuelan and international geometric abstract artists.
Another Venezuelan based in Paris, Jesús Rafael Soto became a key figure in the development of kinetic art, an international movement that emphasized the viewer’s perceptual experience by incorporating actual or perceived movement into the work. Both he and fellow Venezuelan kinetic artist Carlos Cruz-Diez produced monumental and interactive public works in their home country and elsewhere during the 1960s and 1970s. The Argentine Julio Le Parc, who co-founded the Groupe de Recherche d’Art Visuel (GRAV) in Paris in 1960, was another prominent figure in the rise of kinetic and Op art.
4. Other artists and trends.
Other Latin American exponents of geometric abstraction in the 1950s and 1960s include: Los Diez Pintores Concretos and Carmen Herrera in Cuba; Mathias Goeritz in Mexico; the Agrupación Espacio in Peru; the groups Rectángulo and Forma y Espacio in Chile; and Edgar Negret in Colombia. Since the 1970s, artists in the region have continued to experiment with geometric abstraction, many in an explicitly critical vein. Some contemporary artists (e.g. Felipe Mujica [b 1974]], Eugenio Espinoza, Horacio Zabala [b 1943], Magdalena Fernández [b 1964], and Alessandro Balteo-Yazbeck [b 1972]) have positioned their work as commentaries on the legacy of modernist abstraction and the perceived utopianism of their mid-20th-century predecessors.
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