A Return to the Objects

Latin American concrete art shows us how formal experiments, utopian ideas and social concerns can overlap in unexpected and dynamic ways.

Alejandro Otero, Estudio 2 (Studie 2), 1952.

Moderna Museet’s exhibition Concrete Matters is an exposé of 20th century Latin American art that entices its viewers with a playful and challenging aesthetic. It presents paintings in a development out of the frame, a sculpture about to crawl down from its podium and a myriad of other other experiments with form and color – assembled here under the heading concrete art. Swedish artists Olle Baertling and Otto G. Carlsund are shown in parallel, the latter one of the authors of the manifesto Art Concret in Paris 1930. In this way, the exhibition makes several interesting connections between Swedish and South American art against prefigured notions of geographical and cultural distances.

Concrete Matters deals with a time in art that coincided with political tensions and an accelerated modernism in countries such as Brazil, Argentina and Venezuela. The term “concrete” is used to capture several different art movements from the 1930s to the 1970s, rendering an overview of Latin American modernism and the contemporary significance of concrete art. The exhibition presents concreteness as a general approach to art making that emphasizes kinetics, force, light, color and geometry rather than an historically distinct movement in art.

A national and chronological narrative

Concrete Matters is located in Moderna Museet’s large gallery and leads us along several parallel paths in Latin American art history. These paths follow national and regional borders which are emphasized by white separating walls. At the same time, there is a highway through the exhibition, from Uruguayan artist Joaquín Torres-García – who in the thirties combined European constructivism with pre-Columbian symbolism – to Brazilian neoconcretism in Rio de Janeiro during the 1950s and 1960s.

This rather conventionally presented history requires us to recall that this national and chronological narrative occludes alternative readings based on anachronous perspectives and other displacements. Contemporary research is often open to less disciplined readings, as when art historian Kaira M. Cabañas associates Brazilian concretism to the mediation of images made by psychiatric patients. Additionally, several artists have made anthropophagic re-readings that tie concrete art to Latin American popular culture and local craft traditions. 

Mira Schendel, Sem título (Objeto grafico), 1973.

Subtle and exploring works

That said, echoes and side tracks within the exhibition open for other possible narratives. I am especially intrigued by Swiss-Brazilian artist Mira Schendel’s work that is shown at the far end of the gallery. Schendel belongs to none of the established groups of artists, and her identity as a concrete artist is unclear. In her 1973 monotype Untitled (Objeto grafico), a large number of letters have been randomly distributed on the paper in a way reminiscent of an optician’s test chart. As by a reflex I begin to read the letters to myself, thereby creating an interesting synergy between graphical signs and voice that turns the letters into concrete sounds. I also notice the way that the image oscillates between clarity and obscurity. Some of the signs are not letters, and encountering them produces a mute hesitation that halts the reading. 

A mute communication can be experienced as well in Brazilian artist Lygia Pape’s Book of Creation (1959), displayed in the next gallery. Pape designed the book while part of the neo-concrete movement, and the work can be seen in relation to the group’s interest in phenomenology and new expressive styles. Her contribution consisted of inserting narrative as a concrete element in a way that other more dogmatic concrete artists, such as Grupo Ruptura and Grupo Noigandres, consistently dismissed. Pape’s work demonstrates the potential of creating narratives that replace words with geometric forms, movements, folds and creases in a way that opens the book onto the physical surroundings as well as a history of the earth and the genesis of humanity.

Lygia Clark, Radar – Pq, 1960/1984.

Transgressive aspects are Played down

The works in Concrete Matters combine reduction and critique in ways that seem unfamiliar to me. Through phenomenological reduction, the works gravitate toward basic elements such as form, color, light and kinetics – not to guard the constrains of any medium, but instead to deconstruct and renegotiate them in a way that questions the medium specificity that is often considered characteristic of modern art of the mid 20th century.

From this perspective the exhibition lacks more examples of artists that attempted to develop concrete art outside the gallery space. We catch a glimpse of this history in a film about Brazilian artist Hélio Oiticica, but in fact most of the artists included in Concrete Matters were doing other kinds of work, including everything from furniture design, fashion and engineering to landscaping, computer programming, pedagogy and psychiatry. At the same time, there was a strong overlap between the arts, and several examples of transgressive collaborations between artists, poets, dancers and musicians.

By contrast, the exhibition’s one-sided focus on sculpture, painting and other object-based practices risks misrecognizing concrete art as a dissociated experimentation with forms and colors. Certainly, this interpretation would cause many of the artists to turn in their graves.

Installation view from Concrete Matters at Moderna Museet, Stockholm. Photo: Åsa Lundén.

Prototypes, not objects for collection

According to Moderna Museet, Concrete Matters offers a unique chance to view art from the other side of the world in a Swedish museum. While this is true, most of the works in the exhibition have for a long while been canonized in western art history. Therefore it is noteworthy that Concrete Matters almost exclusively features works borrowed from the private foundation Colección Patricia Phelps de Cisneros (CPPC). With its large collection of modern and contemporary Latin American art, the foundation has been involved in a score of similar exhibitions, and has donated hundreds of works to museums worldwide in recent years. CPPC is part of the multinational Cisneros corporation, whose business involves tourism, mass media and soft drinks, and it would be interesting to examine the organization’s influence on how Latin American Art is presently being exhibited and incorporated into North American and European museum collections.

Many concrete artists did not identify their works as objects for collection, but viewed them as prototypes or perceptual and cognitive exercises. This view could possibly be dismissed as an ideological blind spot that makes concrete art unable to recognize its own sociological and economical conditions. Yet is is a historical fact that many of the artists in Concrete Matters sought to extend their art outside the gallery space, in some cases ceasing to produce objects altogether. Since 2000, there have been several exhibitions in Latin America and Europe that have used photographic documentation, interviews and other visual materials to render this aspect of concrete art. Aside from the utopian aspect of concrete art, which is emphasized at Moderna Museet, these exhibitions exposed a more pragmatic tendency among artists that attempted several different strategies to make art relevant to the rest of society.

Rhod Rothfuss, Cuadrilongo amarillo, 1955.

Lost tensions between art and social reality

Furthermore there are several important ethical aspects that fail to find their place in the exhibition. This regards especially the Brazilian neo-concretists who wanted to reinterpret concrete art by way of a critique of how it reproduced the enlightenment ideal of white male rationality. Neo-concrete ethics is difficult to recreate today, because it often involved inviting audiences to manipulate or in other ways physically participate in the making of art. Many exhibitions have solved this problem by displaying replicas next to the original works and other kinds of staging. Although there is no clear-cut way of treating this problematic, it could be used to generate critical and creative discussions that involve the art institution reflecting on itself as a contemporary medium, which in turn could lead to more daring reinterpretations. What is disappointing about Concrete Matters is that it fails to even try. Lygia Clark’s Kreatur (1960/1984) – an aluminum sculpture on which Brazilian art critic Ferreira Gullar based his understanding of the concrete work of art as a phenomenological “non-object” – is displayed inside a glass vitrine. Hélio Oiticica’s political dance work Parangolé mantel (1964) brought the body into the concrete tradition in ways that made possible reflections on ethnicity and queerness. Here, it hangs like a lifeless kitchen rag.

The exhibition catalogue presents several manifestos (in excellent Swedish translation) authored by artist groups such as Madí in Argentina, Los Disidentes in Venezuela and Grupo Ruptura and Neoconcretismo in Brazil. As a contemporary reader, it is difficult not to wonder before the gap between the ethical and political dogmatism of the manifestos and the prodding playfulness of the artworks. Yet, perhaps this is precisely the point. The tension between art, utopia and social life appears as typical of concrete art, yet is partly lost through Moderna Museet’s narrow focus on aesthetics. That formalism is possible without getting caught within the limitations of art, is something that Latin American concrete art invites us to reflect on presently. For my own part, I would have liked to see an exhibition that dared to relate more radically to the collection of Patricia Phelps de Cisneros, perhaps creating an exhibition not as enticingly beautiful, but in retrospect possibly more relevant.

Installation view from Concrete Matters at Moderna Museet, Stockholm. Photo: Åsa Lundén.

Oscar Svanelid is a PhD student in art history at Södertörn University in Stockholm, and is writing a thesis on the relation between art and life in Brazilian art from modernism to postmodernism.