Tobias Ostrander, Chief Curator at PAMM. Talk at Durban Segnini Gallery, on 07-14-2015. Round table "Abstraction and Constructivism (...)"

First I want to thank  Dennys Matos and Durban Segnini Gallery for the kind invitation.

In the catalog essay of "Abstraction and Constructivism: Continuity and Breakdown of Latin-American Modernity" and with his framing of the exhibition, Denny Matos presents these works in relation to how they speak to the obsession for order and organization within Modernism and concurrently to the breakdown and the inherent instability political-economic systems of which Modernism was a part.

I must say that in my view, I find the selection of works in themselves much more optimistic about the transformative role of geometric abstraction than the title of the exhibition and Matos’ text imply. I do not see the critique that these comments suggest of the Modernist project within the works themselves. There are many examples of artists who began in the 60s and 70s to critique the mature generation of Latin American artists working in Geometric Abstraction and it might have been interesting to point to them within the exhibition or catalog. At the Pérez Art Museum Miami currently, we are presenting an extraordinary exhibition on the 1970s work of Eugenio Espinosa, curated by Jesus Fuenmayor- Espinosa being an interesting example of an artist who began to directly react and play against of the dominance and institutionalization of Geometric Abstraction in Latin America- and through his movement of the modernist grid out into streets and other social spaces, and creating his “impenetrable” and other humorous and subjective manipulations of the grid, speaks to Geometric Abstraction’s growing inability to address the socio-political issues of the period.

But in a way it does not matter that the works in the exhibition do not directly address these questions. The truth is that failure of the modernizing project is always implicit in the way that we look a geometric abstraction today. The clean, ordered, rational forms of these works symbolize a moment of growth, economic development and aspirations within many Latin American cosmopolitan contexts during the post-war period. And we see them and value them now through eyes that have seen the destruction of these utopic and economically prosperous times. So these works carry a nostalgia with them. And I wonder how useful that nostalgia is within today’s moment, how it pushes or impedes the development of imaginaries about present conditions and possibilities.

It is interesting to look at the current and sustained interest in Geometric Abstraction from Latin America over the last two decades internationally. When we think of an increased attention globally to the history of Latin American art during these last years, we are most often discussing the rise of exhibitions related to these particular artistic tendencies from the region. And it is interesting to think about why Geometric Abstraction in particular has been so attractive. One reason may have to do that from the beginning, it was involved in an international dialogue- it was “global” before globalization and many countries and contexts outside Latin American often find that there are historical intersections between this work and with their own art histories; some of these artists having been shown and collected within foreign contexts in the 50s, 60s or 70s. Or that many of these artists had direct ties to Europe or the United States. Particularly European interest derives from a new understanding of the continuity or re-working of pre-World War II ideas, particularly those of the Bauhaus and De-Style within the Latin American contexts- these interests tied into creating a sense of continuity or flow of cultural ideas between these contexts that reflects current socio-economic interests. 

In the case of the United States it is interesting of course to witness the continual desire to merge Constructivism with Minimalism; with Minimalism as a central movement to an understanding of the origins of Conceptualism and a critique of Greenbergian formalism. At times Constructivist work looks like minimalism. And there are roots between them with Russian Constructivism- but they emerge from very different needs and contexts. The powerful role of Minimalism in New York art history, and the aesthetic of elegance related to reduced forms that it has propagated, has helped promote Latin American Constructivism’s entrance into the “cannon” or general acceptance and value within a US context. In terms of the promotion of Latin American geometric art by Latin American collectors, we see an interest beginning in the late 2000s in turning away from attraction to figurative Latin American art, as it was increasingly becoming associated with Multi-culturalism of the 80s and 90s. We see a turning away from these highly subjective and culturally specific works, toward a cooler- more rational genre within Latin art histories.

I personally think that Felix Gonzáles-Torres has had a defining impact on how we look at reduced form of abstraction. While he was more directly critiquing minimalism, by injecting reduced forms with both personal and highly politicized content- his works opened new ways of looking at abstraction. I think the manner in which we fill these abstract works with socio-political content today, owes much to Felix Gonzáles-Torres. His legacy is implicated in how we look at form today, as signifiers, through exclusion as much as inclusion, of the cultural contexts from which they emerge.

Matos in his text highlights the example of Joaquin Torres Garcia’s attempts to translate reduced European abstraction into a Latin American context and writes on influences seen in some of the works of indigenous abstract traditions, in Colombia with Carlos Rojas or example in Peru with Fernando De Syslo. This emphasis on the influences of each cultural context on artists’ work is something we understand as implicit now and something we value and look for. What is harder to grasp or contemplate today is the extreme desire for “universality” that these geometric languages represent. Even when these artists were looking to local aesthetic or spiritual histories, their search was to search for the universal through them. This desire, beyond the personal or subjective- is harder to understand today. It implies a shared humanity of deeper connection across cultural contexts- which is harder to grasp or imagine within today’s world where we stress cultural specificity, even as we become an increasingly similar culture globally.

increased attention in Latin American Geometric Abstraction- his work is being Recent interests in Geometric Abstraction in Mexico, where I worked for 11 years, are interesting to look at. When I began working in Mexico in 2001, there had been few exhibitions of Geometric Abstraction from Brazil, Argentina, Venezuela- and I pursued many of these shows during my nine years at the Museo Tamayo. Concurrently during this time, there was increased interest internationally in Latin American Constructivism and the continued propagation of Minimalism. What is interesting to me is that many younger artists began looking at Minimalism and Latin American Constructivism at the same time and mixing their histories within their work- reading Judd through Hélio Oiticica, which has led to an interesting generation of artworks.

I worked at the Museo Experimental El Eco for two years as its director, this space designed by the artist Mathias Goeritz. The recent interest in his work, with the show at the Reina Sofia and more visible within art fairs- is a direct result of this re-evaluated as one of the few artists working in this mode in Mexico during the post-war period. His work was not widely shown within his lifetime locally, even while architects continued to invite him to collaborate on projects. His internationalism is an aspect that is also noted and highly valued within today’s Global emphasis.

Returning to Universalism as central to the goals of Geometric Abstraction’s investigations, one wonders what kind of over-arching forms or goals we might find pursued within contemporary practices. Globalization, or more specifically, Global Conceptualism might be an interesting and provocative subject to compare with the Universalism of Modernism. For the ten past years it has dominated many artistic contexts and spoken across cultural lines. Globalization is of course tied to economic structures and forms, but it is an interesting comparison with Universalism, in terms of it being a reference or problematic being wrestled with my many international artists working today.

“Abstraction and Constructivism: Continuity and Breakdown of Latin-American Modernity” at: Durban Segnini Gallery. Until October 30. www.durbansegnini.com

Image: Courtesy Durban Segnini Gallery