Anyone who has known a teenager will recognize in Marta Minujín’s early work a spark of that distinctive rebellious spirit. When she was around 16 years old, the Argentine artist began making paintings in the Informalist vein, applying layer upon layer of muddy acrylic tones onto rough surfaces constructed of carpenter’s glue, sand, hardboard, chalk, and other substances unbecoming of fine art. Debasing not just her medium but her approach — eschewing the easel, she worked on the floor — Minujín distilled the essence of postwar disillusion and her immediate political reality, holding up a mirror to an ugly world indeed.
Unlike so many adolescent dabblings, however, Minujín’s foray into Informalismo was not just a phase — though transient, it was foundational, paving the way for the Pop interventions, environments, and happenings she is best known for today. This is the central thesis of Born of Informalismo: Marta Minujín and the Nascent Body of Performance, a compact exhibition on view at New York’s Institute for Studies on Latin American Art (ISLAA). Through a trio of paintings, documentation of sculpture and performance, and archival materials, curator Michaëla de Lacaze Mohrmann stakes a claim for Minujín’s works of the late 1950s and early ’60s, a period of her career that has been alternately dismissed and spurned by critics. In doing so, the curator also makes the case for a closer look at the Informalist movement, a wave of irreverent artistic currents that sprouted in the mid-20th century and persisted into the 1970s. Spanning practices as diverse as tachisme in Europe and radical anti-goverment gestures in Venezuela, they coincided in an iconoclastic impulse to upset the logic of preceding genres of abstraction, like Concretismo, replacing clean geometry with a discomfiting chaos.
However honorable it may be to vindicate a forgotten art historical moment, the task of looking at Minujín’s Informalist artworks is not for the faint of heart. One of the paintings on view, “Gran mancha” (Big Stain) (c. 1959), conjures the architecture of poverty, its surface like a wall that has been eaten up by humidity, warped into grotesque, dolomite-like drips. If Minujín’s friend and Informalismo forerunner Alberto Greco would walk by a crumbling Buenos Aires facade and sign his name on it, claiming it as an artwork, Minujín instead seemed to capture the decay of interior spaces, the slow decline of that which cannot be seen. Another work, “Mancha” (Stain) (1960), alternates darker passages and cream-colored strips that bring to mind marbled flesh. The artist was likely channeling her own experience of physical degradation — the sick men and women she sketched when they frequented her house, where her father ran a medical practice; the loss of her brother to leukemia.
Subsequent photographs of Minujín’s Cartones (Cardboards) (1961-62), sculptures made of cardboard boxes procured from unhoused people who used them as shelters, offer little reprieve. By then the artist was residing in Paris in less than substandard housing conditions, unable to afford oils and instead using toxic industrial and car pigments in her artworks, which she lived with in a small space. The photos show the cartons collapsing onto themselves, twisting and bending at unsightly angles like wailing faces. In some of these sculptures, Minujín began incorporating soiled mattresses discarded by hospitals, explicit invocations of the body and of the human right to rest and refuge.
Before leaving Paris in 1963, Minujín disposed of all the works from this series in a performance titled “La destrucción” (The Destruction), rounding them up in a dead-end Montparnasse street and allowing other artists to manipulate them before lighting them on fire. Remembered as her first large-scale happening and represented at ISLAA through six black and white photos that read like documents of a cult sacrifice, “La destrucción” was the coda to the artist’s Informalist period.
Hanging on a back wall in the gallery is a final work, a color image — the exhibition’s only one — portraying a seated Minujín looking out at the camera. A group of her Colchones falsos (False Mattresses) sculptures hangs on a wall behind her, their kaleidoscopic, candy-striped patterns evincing a nascent Pop sensitivity; their title an acknowledgment that these sensual, appealing works had been preceded by other, more visceral mattresses, no longer present but forever haunting.
In an essay printed in a small booklet published for the exhibition, which visitors are free to take, de Lacaze Mohrmann weaves a compelling narrative, invoking the political tensions that accompanied and sometimes permeated Minujín’s Informalist production. The years 1962 and 1963 in Argentina were marked by deadly conflicts between two military factions, the hard-line, anti-Peronist Colorados and the opposing Azules, which fought for control of the nation. In a memorable 1962 exhibition at Galería Lirolay in Buenos Aires, Minujín displayed a selection of Cartones bestrewn with boots, gun holsters, and other accoutrements; for the show’s opening, she orchestrated a disturbing performance in which 80 military draftees marched about the gallery. As de Lacaze Mohrmann notes, such explicitly political actions were atypical of Argentinian Informalismo, anchoring Minujín’s unique role in the movement as someone who did not blindly embrace the irrational and unseemly as a fashionable counter-current, but instead probed and investigated its most perverse manifestations, including dogmatism and brute force.
The question is whether these works can still intrigue us today. Godspeed to the curious visitor who drops by this show without much education on Minujín or Informalismo, or why ugly art is important. The Manchas are unsettling, the Cartones will fill you with dread, and even the archival texts laid out neatly at the center of the room — mainly articles of criticism for or against Informalism — are frankly abstruse. The images in this exhibition thwart any remaining vestige of hope for sense, order, or reason. They are exactly what we need to be looking at.
Born of Informalismo: Marta Minujín and the Nascent Body of Performance continues at ISLAA (50 East 78th Street, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through June 3. The exhibition was curated by Michaëla de Lacaze Mohrmann.