A Tale of Two Modernisms

Mira Schendel (Brazilian, born Switzerland. 1919–1988) Untitled. 1964. Oil and tempera on composition board and wood, 57 7/8 × 44 7/8 × 13/16″ (147 × 114 × 2 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Patricia Phelps de Cisneros through the Latin American and Caribbean Fund in honor of Andrea and José Olympio Pereira.

Modernism was first conceived by Nicaraguan poet Rubén Darío (1867–1916) who first published the term modernismo in his essay in the Chilean Revista de arte y cultural. He discussed how author Ricardo Contreas was using “absolute modernism in expression through his synthetic style”. This might as well describe most of the works in “Sur Moderno”, part of the MOMA reopening, as a suggestion that modernism was as strong a phenomena in the visual arts of Latin America as it was in the literature of the region. Sur Moderno draws from the 200 paintings, sculptures, and works on paper from 85 artists donated by the Colección Patricia Phelps de Cisneros between 1997 and 2016. This exhibition manifests that it was through modernism, specifically constructivist and international abstraction, that we have “Latin American Art” that transcended national borders. This modernism was a movement forged by artists who found a common voice a century after their emancipation from colonial powers and for whom “modernismo” was a term that encompassed relations, compositions, and tectonics.

More obvious than in modernisms around the world, Latin American Modernism was propelled by a desire to change people’s consciousness and spark a political transformation of the world. The exhibition is the latest of several explorations of Latin American modernism that began more than a century ago. Devoting an entire wing of galleries on the third floor, the MOMA hosts the strongest attempt to dispel, once and for all, Latin America’s invisibility in the modernist vernacular. While the effort is unprecedented, framing it in the futile differentiation between geopolitical “North” and “South” weakens the potential for reclaiming modernism as a phenomenon that originated in Latin America.

Modernismo was born in the minds of Latin American poets and artists and crossed the Atlantic via their experience of exile and cross-cultural exchange. It  echoed in European cafes and universities and thereafter came to be associated with certain formal strategies and thematic concerns in the visual arts. The interwar years sent more Latin Americans artists to Europe and North America, establishing a solid connection between continents. On the run from Nazi persecution, European artists would, in turn, flee to South America in the years leading up to and after World War II. This guaranteed the bridging of distant continents, resulting in a practical circumnavigation of a cultural phenomenon that emerged in Latin America and was cultivated simultaneously in Europe. The thread of continental exchange can be seen in the works of Jewish emigres Gego (Gertrud Goldschmidt) and Mira Schendel.

Mira Schendel’s Untitled (1964) is like a flipped open surface of a black and white Mondrian. The meditative short film “Movement and Vibration in Space”, created by Carlos Cruz-Diez on Gego’s optical rotating sculpture from 1959 demonstrates a subtle sense of light and shadow. Theirs is the Constructivism reclaimed from Europe. But while European constructivism sought rational order and placed form in the service of revolutionary ends, these works place form at the service of building ever more dynamic spaces.

The grid, one of modern art’s central motifs of experimentation, approaches a transformation and expansion in Gego’s Eight Squares (1961) and Hélio Oiticica’s Painting 9 (1959). Gego warps planes into lines and treats them as shapes in space. Her sculpture explores, in the artist’s words, “the transparency of volume”.  Oiticica disrupts the strict geometric system with his rhythmically arranged rectangles. In the same gallery, Spatial Construction no. 12 (1920) by Aleksandr Rodchenko highlights the lineage of Oiticica from Russian Constructivism. The grid becomes elastic and three-dimensional, to the point that it now appears like an ornamental contraption.

The work of Piet Mondrian had a great impact on the development of abstraction in the region. His Broadway Boogie Woogie (1942–43), on view in the exhibition, inspired the kineticism of Jesús Rafael Soto, whose Double Transparency (1956) is an attempt to transform the two-dimensional work of Mondrian’s painting into a three-dimensional experience. Mondrian’s carefully calculated colors, surfaces, spaces, and structures can be seen in many of the works, which share a geometric precision that suggests a region-wide aesthetic movement to create a comprehensible objective art. Unbound by the model world, it became an authentic expression of a reality and desire for technological development, not confined to painting but also in architecture and design. Thus the inclusion of Bowl and Butterfly chairs, designed in Buenos Aires but mass produced in the United States. 

The thought-provoking works in the exhibition indicate a search for cultural identity. The desire to assert a Latin American identity wrestles with the representation of the region that is synonymous with pre-Columbian, indigenous, and colorful figurative imagery. This struggle with identity culminated in the 1920s with the so-called Muralistas (Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros and José Clemente Orozco), and Frida Kahlo’s complex dialogue with this movement. Yet, even without colorful figurative imagery, the theme of cultural identity may be glimpsed in the shamanisms and cosmologies suggested in works that use them as formal motifs. The political connotations of the works have been unfortunately understated but a criticism of consumption and capitalism and the focus on the body can be deciphered. Oiticica was after all the same artist who reinvented the grid but also the artist who asked random strangers in the subway to dance in his Parangolé cape.

The exhibition ultimately demands that we question our received notions of art history. Would you have counted  Lucio Fontana as a South American artist? In any museum, he is firmly labeled as an “Italian avant-garde artist”. This is one among many subtle gestures in Sur Moderno that questions our European art-historical consciousness. Another is Jesús Rafael Soto, the Venezuelan artist often referred to in the context of Victor Vasarely, whom he worked with in the Optical Art Movement in Paris in the 1950s. The relationship of European and Latin American modernism is inverted in an exciting context, short of moving the cradle of modernity out of Europe and North America towards Brazil, Venezuela, Argentina and Uruguay. Indeed, the impact of modernism does not end in shores of Europe or the border wall with the United States.

It would be a great blunder if the title of the exhibition refers to a distinct Latin American Modernism. If anything, Latin America is the reason it is called by its other famous tag: International style. The show proves how much of modernism has no clear demarcation between two cultural spheres. Such an attitude turns out to be an illusion since the works are as much a part of the “global West” insofar as they do not come from or engage indigenous imaginary worlds, but rather ground themselves in the urban and “modern” environments of capitalist societies. Conversely, some of the parameters that are commonly associated with “the South” – be it a shamanic understanding of art or the political charge of artistic expression, to name but two examples – are equally found in works of European or Anglo-American provenance. The so-called “Southern”, “Northern” and “Western” categories are not geographically fixed, but structural features that are primarily relative and secondarily global. Ultimately, the exhibition concept of relating two worlds of art makes sense only on the basis of such structural relationship, since it would be impossible to gain much insight from something that is presumed to be self-referential and internally coherent. The assumption of a categorical “otherness” between “North” and “South” is just as outdated as the conception of discrete cultures and their firm association with static categories such as “center” and “periphery”. 

Based on the diagnosis that the institution of the museum is in a deep crisis in a society shaped by globalization, migration and transculturality, the critical examination of MoMA may yield a model of how museum practice can be rethought from a global perspective. “Sur moderno” is not the culmination of Latin American modernism, as much as it has become an instrument to address the demand for cultural and political relevance as an appropriate museum strategy in times of rapid globalization. From the time of Columbus and Magellan, history is replete with narratives of “discovering” Latin America as if it struggled to remain visible. “Sur Moderno” has not yet escaped this antiquated paradigm but it is remarkable enough as a question to a one-dimensional art history, proffering a timely reinterpretation that focuses on a network of relationships between artistic traditions, all responding to the lived reality of inhabiting a borderless world in constant flux, a global modernity. 

Sur moderno: Journeys of Abstraction―The Patricia Phelps de Cisneros Gift runs from October 21, 2019 – March 14, 2020 at The Museum of Modern Art.

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