The first time I saw Marcia Schvartz’s work in the US was at the Brooklyn Museum, in the sprawling group exhibition Radical Women: Latin American Art, 1960–1985. On view was her 1981 audiovisual piece “Doña concha,” a rather unsettling photo slideshow of the artist in a half-smiling papier-mâché mask, flowered apron, and rubber gloves, gratingly humming a bolero off-key while hanging her laundry to dry on the terrace of a run-down building. It struck me as the kind of abject image that certain museum visitors might look away from: an unflinching portrait of the working class, of the unseen, of barrio culture, of women involved in the innocent yet staunchly political act of simply being. Schvartz’s work flowered in the aftermath of Argentina’s military dictatorship of 1976-83, and the story it tells is unmistakably Latin American: at once an echo of the losses she suffered to the brutal regime, and a reflection of the motley underground culture ushered in by its fall and the ensuing transition to an imperfect, choppy democracy.
These threads run through Marcia Schvartz: Works, 1976–2018, the Argentine artist’s first US retrospective, curated by Amanda Schmitt at 55 Walker, a joint exhibition space of the Bortolami, Andrew Kreps, and Kaufmann Repetto galleries in Manhattan. A starkly frontal self-portrait of the artist, serious and orange-haired like a lioness, hangs prominently at the entrance to the first room. Titled “De cara al futuro” (2010) — roughly translated to “with my face to the future” — the painting looks resolutely forward while an adjacent piece, “Fondo L” (2008), turns to the past. The red-tinged horizontal panel, coated in an unknown gritty mixture, is set with seashells and animal skeletons culled from the Buenos Aires shores of the Río de la Plata, where many of the bodies of the desaparecidos — disappeared — were tossed during the “death flights” of Argentina’s Dirty War. The soft outline of a woman’s face is drawn as though with a stick in the sand, a gaping silhouette of loss.
In 1976, Lieutenant General Jorge Rafael Videla deposed President Isabel Perón and formed the notorious military junta responsible for the forced disappearance of tens of thousands of Argentinians. Among them was Hilda Fernandez, a close friend of Schvartz and her partner in political activism, who was abducted in 1977. Fearing persecution by the right-wing regime, Schvartz self-exiled in Barcelona, returning only in 1983 during the HIV/AIDS epidemic that would claim the life of another close friend, artist Liliana Maresca, a decade later.
If grief and rage inform Schvartz’s work, the living color and energize it. Street performers, gay men, lovers, friends, and strangers from the Abasto, Once, and Constitución neighborhoods of Buenos Aires, whose very existence cut through the conservatism that lingered after years of state-sponsored repression, populate her paintings. Equally radical are Schvartz’s renderings of women — splayed, older, and unconcerned with or even bored by the male gaze, like the lounging protagonist of “Desnuda y con zoquetes” (2012).
In the case of “Ensueño (daydream)” (1992), which depicts a dark-skinned woman against a beachy backdrop with her body curved in the shape of a hammock, Schvartz stumbles into exoticism. The work is uncomfortable and hard to read, especially without the context of the artist’s travels in South America in the ’70s and ’90s, but its inclusion in the show attests to the curator’s interest in depth and fidelity over glamorization.
Schvartz’s life and career are illuminated in an essay by Lucy Hunter published by the Institute for Studies on Latin American Art (ISLAA), printed in a small leaflet book that visitors to the show can take with them. Unlike so many written-for-the-show catalogues these days, peppered with puffery to lure collectors, Hunter’s text probes beyond the surface. She identifies the primitivist patina of Schvartz’s paintings of Indigenous women, but also elaborates on the many marginal spaces Schvartz herself has occupied (Latin American, female, political dissident, exiled) — and how they’ve kept “an artist who is a household name in Argentine circles” relatively unknown here.
The artist’s contributions can and must be read in the context of the destape, the 1980s cultural phenomenon that saw a flooding of images of sexuality in the post-dictatorship era. In “Luciérnaga furiosa (raging firefly)” (2000), a semi-abstract composition whose dusky palette conjures a cityscape, sloped and bone-like forms in the foreground trace the severe arc and tilted head of a body grasped by pleasure. (Visible drips at the bottom of the canvas led the gallery to ask questions; Schvartz flatly responded that she had splashed the work herself, as it was inspired by a wet dream.)
The intimacy of Schvartz’s portraits, her interest in everyday people, and her multigenerational approach to representation require that viewers expand their understanding of what beauty can be; this is one of the artist’s greatest achievements. Downstairs, a dainty, close-up painting of a tuberose flower has been placed next to a candid nude sepia drawing of Schvartz staring out from plain burlap, aged 55, as its title suggests; the juxtaposition speaks for itself.
Marcia Schvartz: Works, 1976–2018 continues at 55 Walker (55 Walker Street, Manhattan, New York) through September 7. The exhibition was curated by Amanda Schmitt.