ArtWeekend

A Rescue Mission for Venezuelan Modernism

A number of significant Venezuelan artists, whose work is focused on improvisational methods and art’s material nature, are virtually unknown in the US.

Contesting Modernity at The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, installation view (all images courtesy The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston)

HOUSTON, Texas — When I was recently in Houston, I had the opportunity to see the eye-opening exhibition, Contesting Modernity: Informalism in Venezuela 1955–1975 at the Museum of Fine Arts (October 28, 2018–January 21, 2019), curated by Mari Carmen Ramírez and Tahía Rivero. The exhibition catalog includes contributions by Maria C. Gaztambide, Josefina Manrique, and Gabriela Rangel, in addition to those by Ramirez and Rivero. If you cannot see the exhibition, do yourself a favor and buy the catalog.

In contrast to Brazil, Argentina, and Chile, Venezuelan art and literature are little known in the United States. For example, no Venezuelan poets were included in the widely read anthology, Another Republic: 17 European and South American Writers (1976, Reprinted 2008), which was edited by the well-known US poets Charles Simic and Mark Strand. (There were also no women poets in the entire anthology).

During the 20-year period covered by Contesting Modernity, a significant number of Venezuelan artists became associated with “Informalism,” which focused attention on improvisational methods and art’s material nature. This artistic foment is virtually unknown in the US.

Mercedes Pardo, “Composición implícita n° 1” (1959), oil on canvas, 51 3/16 x 45 1/2 inches, Colección Mercantil

First called “Art Informel” by the important French art critic Michel Tapié in his 1952 book Un Art Autre — a term that covered tachisme, matter painting, Abstract Expressionism, and lyrical abstraction in the Americas, Europe, and Japan, starting in the late 1940s — “Art Informel” was influenced by Surrealism’s emphasis on chance; Dada’s use of non-art materials; the paintings of the COBRA group, which lasted from 1949 to 1951; and Jean Dubuffet’s interest in the art of children, the untaught, and the insane. It was a term not widely embraced in the US, largely because the strong nationalist streak running through certain quarters of the US art world claimed that what was happening in Europe and Japan in the first decades after World war II was either derivative of or inferior to what was happening in New York.

The exhibition includes more than 130 works by more than 30 artists working in various mediums, from pieces of cut paper to ceramics, and from film to mixed media and assemblage. The exhibition is divided into six sections, including “Surface Tensions,” “Light and Shadow,” and “Marginal Strategies.” The importance of Jesús Rafael Soto (1923–2005) and Alejandro Otero (1921–1990) to Venezuelan art is acknowledged by the category, “Soto & Otero.”

“Contesting Modernity” at The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, installation view

Soto and Otero, who spent time in Paris, both worked in mediums as diverse as kinetic sculpture and paintings on Plexiglas. Soto and Otero are central figures who brought back to Venezuela the latest developments that they had absorbed in America and Europe between the mid-1940s and mid-1950s, particularly Op and kinetic art. Like other artists emerging in the first decade after World War II, they wanted to make art that was not just a picture. While we know that this shift in consciousness happened in Japan, Europe, and the US, Contesting Modernity makes it clear that it happened in Venezuela as well. That’s the first of many revelation this exhibition offers.

There are also small surprises, such as the single wall work, “Autoretrato” (“Self-Portrait”) (1972), by Marisol, which is a bronze sculpture of a woman’s face marked with words. Small objects hang from the ends of strands of twine that seem to sprout around the impassive face. Best known in the US for her carved wood sculptures combined with photographs and paint, “Autoretrato” is a talismanic self-portrait that reveals another side of this artist who deserves to be better known.

There are the torn paper works of Claudio Perna (1938–1997) and the explorations of Carlos Puche (1923–1999) into the relationship between object, photograph, and shadow in the works he titled “Objetografia” and numbered, all from the mid-1960s. These share something with conceptual works of Joseph Kosuth and Mel Bochner, but are more whimsical and less didactic.

Carlos Puche, “Objetografía N° 23” (1965), gelatin silver and iron on masonite, 23 5/8 x 19 11/16 inches, Private Collection

Dating from the mid-1960s, the dynamic abstract paintings of Francisco Hung (1937–2001), who was born in China to a Chinese father and a Venezuelan mother, were new to me, as were the multi-media works of Humberto Jaimes Sanchez (1930–2003) and the oil of paintings of Mercedes Pardo (1921–2005), who was married to Alejandro Otero. What comes though loud and clear is how active, sophisticated and interesting the Venezuelan art world was during the period covered by the exhibition. A vitrine full of publications underscores that view. In contrast to their American counterparts, Venezuelan artists were not interested in the pursuit of purity or art about art.

The upheavals Venezuela endured, beginning with the 1958 coup d’état  overthrowing the dictator Marco Pérez Jiménez and the country’s transition to a democratically elected president, are reflected in different ways in the art. As many artists and writers recognized, Venezuela’s reliance on oil to drive its economy was a recipe for disaster, as the past decade has proven. Writing about the extraordinary Elsa Gramcko (1925–1994), Ramírez observes: “Although she was not among the first artists of the region to engage machines, she was a pioneer in incorporating machine parts and industrial trash as part of a broader critique of humankind’s flawed embrace of technology.”

Gramcko was the biggest revelation of Contesting Modernity — the one that took my breath away. She has a larger, more extensive presence than her better-known counterparts, Gego (1912-1994) and Jesús Rafael Soto. Working across paintings, objects, and assemblage, Gramcko was a self-taught, visionary artist who is practically unknown outside of Venezuela. If the selection of Gramcko’s work is any indication of her accomplishment, she certainly deserves an in-depth survey in the US.

Elsa Gramcko, “El ojo de la cerradura” (1964), mixed media on masonite, 21 5/8 x 21 5/8 inches, Private Collection

According to Ramírez, “Gramcko worked exhaustively on series focused on formal or conceptual problems that expanded the definition of ‘painting,’ moving well beyond the canvas and into the territory of assemblage.” If that was not enough to gain our attention, here is what she writes in the next sentence: “This led her to develop at least eight series grounded in active dialogue with international tendencies of the 1950s and 1960s, including Informalism and Nouveau Réalism.”

It is a credit to the curators that they have selected representative work from the variety of series that Gramcko worked on during a career that starts in the mid-1950s and stops in the late 1970s. The amount of territory she covers in what amounts to a quarter of a century leaves no doubt to her openness to experiment, her restless ambition, and, finally, her greatness.

While her earliest works are geometric abstractions, they aren’t like anyone else’s. Made of repeated units superimposed onto a vertical spine, as in “Untitled” (1955), the asymmetrical, segmented forms are inspired by insects, machine parts, and totems. By 1960, Gramcko has moved in a totally different direction, making monochromatic textured works marked by circular or elliptical indentations. By 1962, she is working with rusted and distressed pieces of metal, arriving at a surface that looks decayed – a diseased skin. By 1963, she has incorporated parts of a car battery into the work as well as metal grating. By 1966, she was incorporating a car headlight into a textured surface, creating cyclopean assemblages.

She did all this in a decade, and by no means had she exhausted her inventiveness by the time she seems to have stopped making art a little more than 10 years later. Is there another artist that moved as quickly and decisively as Gramcko? Who would be her American counterpart?

According to a wall label, Gramcko began to withdraw from the art world and making art towards the end of the 1970s. Although Otero championed her work, and she had a couple of shows in the US during her lifetime, she eventually was overlooked and fell into obscurity. The curators Ramírez and Rivero are to be commended for bringing her work back into the light.

Contesting Modernity: Informalism in Venezuela 1955–1975curated by Mari Carmen Ramírez and Tahía Rivero continues at the Museum of Fine Arts (1001 Bissonnet, Houston, Texas) through January 21.

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