The Geometry of Hope at The Grey Art Gallery

Diagonal Function

Geraldo de Barros, Diagonal Function (1952), lacquer on board; courtesy of The Grey Art Gallery

* * *

The Geometry of Hope: Latin Abstract Art from the Patricia Phelps de Cisneros Collection, an exhibition at N.Y.U.’s Grey Art Gallery, poses two interesting questions: What characteristics identify art as provincial? And what does hope have to do with making art?

Organized by the Blanton Museum of Art at the University of Texas at Austin, The Geometry of Hope seeks to expand our preconceptions of the avant-garde. It focuses on six urban centers—Montevideo, Buenos Aires, São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Caracas and, as an indispensable adjunct, Paris—and their relationship to Modernism (or, at least, its standard narrative). The time frame is roughly 40 years, from the 1930’s to the 1970’s.

The Uruguayan painter Joaquín Torres-García spent his formative years in Paris, befriending Piet Mondrian and Theo van Doesburg, and absorbing and putting into practice their utopian longings. In both art and teaching—he founded the Taller Torres-García in 1934 to proselytize on behalf of Modernism—Torres-García sought to embody spiritual and philosophical archetypes he felt were common to all civilizations. “Constructive Universalism,” as he called it, was his optimistic transformation of world culture through art.

Torres-García cautioned Uruguayan artists against blunt reference to South American folk traditions. Yet he was also acutely aware of Europe’s preeminence, and aspired to make Latin America a player in the international avant-garde. Universalism is one thing, but nationality will out.

Or will it? Curator Gabriel Perèz-Barreiro wonders how best to explore art peculiar to a specific region. Relegating it to “Latin America” is unfeasible: It’s “too big a term,” he writes in the exhibition’s catalog, “encompassing too much diversity and disconnection.” He’s averse to pegging, say, Waldemar Cordeiro’s kinetic Visible Idea (1956) as a Brazilian painting. Given Cordeiro’s fascination with the golden rectangle—a compositional armature that fits well within Torres-García’s Constructivist Universalism—such a claim is constraining and silly.

But neither is Mr. Perèz-Barreiro comfortable with art as, well, art. “The formalist model radically decontextualizes artists,” he writes, imagining a conversation between Mira Schendel, Kazimir Malevich and Jesús Rafael Soto wherein they talk “in terms of the tension between icon and ground, in a true ‘constellation of meanings,’ one in which there is no a priori geographical or contextual framework.” He doesn’t go so far as to imagine that the artists might have enjoyed the conversation.

Mr. Perèz-Barreiro settles on a third way, placing an emphasis on the city, and overall, it seems a fair alternative. Cities are hotbeds of cultural miscegenation; they are intrinsically open to diverse and sometimes radical viewpoints. Paris is included in the exhibition’s purview, not only as acknowledgement of its artistic centrality, but as an example of urban sophistication, energy and openness.

The Geometry of Hope acts locally, then, but thinks globally. It’s an argument for internationalism. The extent to which Mr. Perèz-Barreiro’s thesis refutes provincialism is dubious—physical proximity to a vibrant cultural center is often the primary determinant of major art. The proof is in the art itself, and, truth to tell, most of the artists at Grey Art Gallery reiterate, rather than reinvigorate, an established canon; they elicit yawn-inducing respect. Alejandro Otero’s gouache studies on paper—floating, gridded structures that recall El Lizzitsky’s cosmic abstractions—are as dull and dated as myriad neoplasticist knockoffs found in, yes, provincial museums the world over.

But there are artists—including the later Otero, whose startlingly fresh Pampatar Board (1954) beats Ellsworth Kelly at his own game—who beg for wider consideration. Tomàs Maldonado and Alfredo Hilto locate razor-sharp quirks within Suprematism’s seemingly finite confines. The best artists—the toughest artists—interrogate the limits of painting: Cordeiro, Geraldo de Barros and, especially, Judith Lauand, whose investigations of shape and format are relentless and smart. Who’s going to do this woman up right?

The sculptor Gertrude Goldschmidt, working under the name Gego, is a find: Her spidery constructions explore line, gravity and volume with exquisite, almost reticent understatement. Square Reticularea (1971), a topographical netting made of brass, copper and stainless steel, is as organic and delicate as the veins of a leaf. Lygia Clark works in a minor key, but there’s much to admire in her planar constructions.

The exhibition’s title refers to the “geometry of fear,” an umbrella term coined by historian Herbert Read to describe postwar British art. Mr. Perèz-Barreiro proffers Latin American abstraction of the time as its antithesis, as a call “for joy and the negation of melancholy.” It’s indicative of a golden age “when Latin America was a beacon of hope … in a world devastated by war, genocide, and destruction.”

Which means, I suppose, that Geometry of Hope is an exhibition about failure. For the umpteenth time, we’re reminded that utopian longings are delusional, and art’s political efficacy is nil. This isn’t the intent of its organizers, of course, but if we take at face value art’s dependence on “conditions and mechanisms of production,” as they put it in the catalog, then we’re left abandoned in a world where art is subservient and sometimes quashed by factors extrinsic to it.

The best art rises above theory, politics and sociology. Pretty much all of the art at Grey Art Gallery does just that: It’s entirely possible for an artist to be true to a native culture even as he transcends it through a particular medium. In the end, art is about freedom. And if that isn’t cause for hope, I don’t know what is.

© 2007 Mario Naves

Originally published in the October 9, 2007 edition of The New York Observer.

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