HOUSTON — Twentieth-century kinetic and light art has long been the redheaded stepchild of the art world. The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston’s (MFAH) Cosmic Dialogues: Selections from the Latin American Collection is part of an emergent shift toward inclusivity driven by identity politics and the rising centrality of media art. Mari Carmen Ramírez, curator of Latin American art and director of the International Center for the Arts of the Americas at the MFAH, is well known for her feisty and brilliant development of an alternative narrative of modernism. With shows like Heterotopias at the Reina Sofiá in Madrid in 2000 and Inverted Utopias at the MFAH in 2004, Ramírez has been working to redirect the discourse about art of the Americas beyond Socialist Realism and the phenomena of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. She has gone to great lengths to set the thinking about modernism on a new path, raising the ire of many when she said of Kahlo, “she wasn’t such a great painter either.”
Like her exhibitions of the early 2000s, which highlighted the work of then lesser-known conceptualists Hélio Oiticica and Lygia Clark, Cosmic Dialogues directs attention to the forgotten mobile-makers and light-casters of the mid 20th century. Hungarian-born Argentinean Gyula Kosice’s water-based works take center stage, alongside skeins of wire by the German-born Venezuelan Gego (Gertrud Goldschmidt), Argentinean Julio Le Parc’s hallucinatory light mobiles, Argentinean Gregorio Vardanega’s cascading and luminous geometries, Argentinean Martha Boto’s boxy optical displacements, and Abraham Palatnik’s motorized and colored shape-shifters. Most of the artists shown are modernists, with the exception of two Gen Xers: the Argentinean Gustavo Díaz (b. 1969) and the Mexican Pablo Vargas Lugo (b. 1968).
While it is something of a standby summer exhibition that will not travel and draws on works from the permanent collection, it is stellar nonetheless because it showcases works that are rarely exhibited. The show is a bold representation of the direction Ramírez has taken the MFAH’s collection of Latin American art and an intriguing statement on the ghostlike but timely resurgence of mid-20th century Constructivism, geometric abstraction, Op, New Tendencies, kinetic, and light art.
Work is shown across several galleries with varied lighting that accentuates the Rorschach play between light and dark on opposite walls, like those holding Díaz’s fastidious drawings of lines, bits, and pixels across from Lugo’s coins embedded in large and long frames of grey-black felt. Though the title is overloaded with ironic references, Díaz’s “Development of a Darwinist Worm-type Viral Code from a Square while Prigogine and Sol Lewitt Converse in the Existentialist Remainders” (2011) appears weightless. Drawing meets sculpture as Díaz makes patterns of cloud-like circuits and striations across the wall. Turning the wall into a linear landscape of pixelated and raised orthogonal forms, the drawing passes from flat to box-shaped acrylic.
Kinetic light art, the pieces’ movements driven by motors, the museum’s HVAC system, and passersby, occupies a dark gallery at the center of the exhibition. Mounted here are works of art rarely seen much less fully understood in their necessary four dimensions. Images online or in books of Kosice’s “Luminscent Circles and Line of Moving Water” (1968) and “Movable Drop of Water” (1980), Palatnik’s “Chromo-kinetic Set” (1962), Boto’s “Electronic Optic” (1965), and Vardanega’s “Chromatic Spaces Turning in a Sprial” (1968) never do justice to the work. It is virtually impossible to get your mind around these works without seeing them in person. How is one ever to know that Le Parc’s “Continuous Light Mobile or Unceasing Light Mobile” (1960–66) looks from afar like digital ellipses moving on a screen or light box but upon approach reveals itself to be discs dangling on strings cast in light without experiencing it in the full dimensionality of walking through space?
Kosice’s visionary “Hydrospatial City” (1946–72) is given its own gallery, where it is installed under a type of dappled light ideal for acrylic sculpture. The centerpiece of the exhibition, it is a utopian statement consisting of 19 three-dimensional space habitat models and seven two-dimensional light boxes imagining everyday life in outer space. The habitats are half and full orbs, hung from the ceiling, ringed like planets, and populated with tiny, crystal-headed humans to establish scale. The light boxes house protruding sculptural reliefs in the form of plastic half-spheres and constellations of small mirrors and dots, some of which have photographs collaged inside. One even shows a tiny photograph of Kosice himself. Presented to and rejected by NASA scientists, Kosice’s theoretical city was modeled on a philosophy about the ebb and flow of water. He envisioned an architecture in space that surged like water, without boundaries. The orbs were to be habitats without division: there would be no separation between kitchen, bathroom, living room, dining room, or bedrooms. Kosice’s “Descriptive Memories: The Habitats of the Hydrospatial City” reveals that the unbounded flow of form spread to the programming of spaces as well. The floating orbs aimed to encourage an expansive functionalism of the flesh, their individual elements conceived by the artist as “a pearl in the great vagina of the world” and a “place to say mamma.”
Cosmic Dialogues foregrounds a forgotten body of work from the middle of the 20th century. The work in this show is part of the deeper history of media art (what was formerly known as “new media art”), which by and large receded into the crevices of history because of its essentially genetic relationships to technology and science. By “technology,” I mean the greater military industrial complex and the defense-based development of communication infrastructure (for instance, the internet); and by “science” I mean the cognitive, behavioral, and psychological sciences. After championing kinetic, robotic, and software art in the late 1960s, curator and critic Jack Burnham ultimately rued these types of work, claiming in 1980 that they were too cumbersome, expensive, and closely affiliated with the US military. This art’s mechanization and laboratory-like connection to the Gestalt, cognition, and perception made it antithetical to linguistic and performance-based conceptualism. These works became tainted by suspect political economy and branded as pure kitsch while conceptual art came to the fore because of its politically correct, anti-military position, and anti-capitalist bravado.
This stance of resistance seems naïve if not romantic now that we, in the US at least, are perpetually at war. There is no Archimedean point from which to stand in resistance and wag a moralizing finger at the world. And media art needs a history, of which kinetic and light art are essential parts. It has been 35 years since Burnham’s regrets, and even longer since the postwar neo-avant garde. Cultural mores have changed. So, as the taste-making of Clement Greenberg loses more of its monolithic authority and we are forced into a world where the formative presence of the military industrial complex is simply normative, we can look with open eyes and deliberative minds at this work, taking pleasure its plays of light and mechanized movements.
Cosmic Dialogues: Selections from the Latin American Collection continues at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (1001 Bissonnet, Houston, Texas) through August 23.