Art

The Venezuelan Modernist Who Took Inspiration from Graphic Design

Gerd Leufert’s visual art carries a freedom that the branding, emblems, and logos that he made as a graphic designer did not have.

4.Gerd Leufert, Chichiriviche, (1966). Acrylic on canvas 67 3/8 X 40 X 2 3/8 in. Courtesy Henrique Faría Fine Art, New York
Gerd Leufert, “Chichiriviche” (1966), acrylic on canvas, 67 3/8 X 40 X 2 3/8 in. (image courtesy Henrique Faría Fine Art, New York)

Gerd Leufert is known for having established the foundations for the profession of graphic design in Venezuela, though throughout his lifetime he also produced paintings, sculptures, drawings, and photographs. Analogues and Opposites, on display at Henrique Faria Fine Art and organized by Venezuelan curator Tahía Rivero, is the artist’s first solo exhibition in New York and highlights Leufert’s career as a visual artist, presenting work produced between 1956 and 1990, next to a few selected examples of his graphic design.

Leufert was born in Memel, Lithuania (then Germany) and studied graphic design in Munich where he worked in advertising. In 1951, after World War II, he emigrated to Venezuela and, a year later, met German-born artist Gego (Gertrud Goldschmidt), his life companion and with whom he collaborated in some art projects. Leufert became a central figure in Modernism in Venezuela: from 1959 to 1976, he worked as a curator and designer at the Museo de Bellas Artes (MBA) in Caracas, where he was also featured as an artist in several exhibitions. He was a faculty member of the School of Architecture at the Universidad Central de Venezuela and a founding member and professor at the Instituto de Diseño Fundación Neumann-INCE. And yet his name has not traveled widely abroad.

2.Gerd Leufert, No. 5 from Serie Nenias (1986-1985), silkscreen 25 ¾ x 20 in. Courtesy Henrique Faría Fine Art, New York
Gerd Leufert, “No. 5” from ‘Serie Nenias’ (1986–1985), silkscreen, 25 ¾ x 20 in. (image courtesy Henrique Faría Fine Art, New York)

In the first room of the two galleries that comprise the show, color and abstraction dominate in paintings and multi-dimensional works from the ‘60s and early ‘70s. In the second, there is a restricted palette and emphasis on the materiality of the oil or acrylic paintings and works on paper on view, like a superb 1973 ink drawing on ripped white paper, where scratches on a blank sheet constitute the only pictorial gesture.

Beginning in the late ‘60s, Leufert created Nenias, which are perhaps the best work he ever produced: a series he worked on for three decades which consists of more than 100 simple, organic, and abstract black and white forms, some of which are symmetric and resemble calculated inkblots. These shapes that could be associated with Gestalt theory, explore the tension between figure and background. While the Nenias do not convey specific meaning beyond themselves, they adopt the language of signs, which Leufert perfected as a graphic designer. However, as the Venezuelan writer Victoria de Stefano suggested, Nenias carry a freedom that the branding, emblems, and logos that Leufert made as a graphic designer did not have. According to de Stefano, Leufert’s Nenias are like living beings that alternate between the organic and geometric. Nenias are more like an alphabet or system of signs, and are less interesting as individual signs. This becomes clear when seeing them together, in larger groups, as was the case in Leufert’s exhibition at the MBA in Caracas in 1985, where the signs were painted directly on the walls.

3.Installation view (Listonados (1960-1970), acrylic on wood). Courtesy Henrique Faría Fine Art, New York
Installation view of ‘Listonados’ (1960-1970), acrylic on wood (image courtesy Henrique Faría Fine Art, New York)

Leufert’s works often seem to be floating in space. In Listonados (“Strips”), displayed in the first room, he painted empty wooden frames white and animated them with colored stripes. He seems to reference Renaissance polymath Leon Battista Alberti, who in his treatise on perspective, Della Pittura (“On Painting”), defined painting as an open window, though Leufert rejected single-point perspective, implicit in Alberti’s concept. The Listonados were envisioned as three-dimensional paintings to be hung from the ceiling so that their bright, floating colors surrounded the viewer. Using the frames as one would canvas, Leufert also incorporated the surrounding negative space, creating works that are both pictorial and physical. They make me wonder if Leufert was familiar with the painted frames and shaped canvases of MADÍ artists like Diyi Laañ and Carmelo Arden Quin, who addressed similar concerns in the mid-forties.

The paintings “Chichiriviche” and “Coro” (1966), titled after Venezuelan toponymic surnames, are large planes of color that cover most of the canvases’ surfaces. The flat paintings refuse any illusion of depth, despite their visible tension with narrow, contrasting stripes nestled on the top and bottom of the canvases, and are in tune with the American Color Field painters. For these works, Leufert collaborated with Pinturas Montana, a household paint factory owned by one of his collectors, to create a series of unique hues that weren’t available in Venezuela. 

1-installation
Installation view, “No. 1” and “No. 3” from ‘Serie Nenias’ (1986–1985), silkscreens, artist book, and Imposibilia (1968) artist book by Leufert and Nedo MF (image courtesy Henrique Faría Fine Art, New York)

While Leufert’s first solo exhibition in New York is a necessary homage to the experimental nature of his work, it’s a pity the show didn’t cover his outstanding contribution to Venezuelan graphic design. It would have been an opportunity to illustrate the relationships between the different types of media he worked in, as well as the contrasts and crossovers between his graphic design and art.

Gerd Leufert: Analogues and Opposites continues at Henrique Faria Fine Art (35 E 67th St, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through October 29.

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