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Radical geometry: South America's surprising art

All eyes are on Brazil's World Cup but a new Royal Academy exhibition showcases
a different kind of South American artistry, and makes a stunning case for the
continent's geometric art
By: Paul Laity

Helio Oiticica's Metascheme, 1958. Courtesy of Projeto Helio Oiticica

In 1943, the Uruguayan artist Joaqun Torres Garca turned the world upside down.
His Amrica Invertida, or Inverted Map of South America, is a simple ink-on-paper
drawing that puts Caracas at the bottom and the south pole at the top. The south
becomes the north. After centuries of condescension (the north Europe, the US
assumed to be more important than the south), Latin America's importance was
deftly reclaimed. Thanks to the map, the artist wrote, "we have a true idea of our
position and not as the rest of the world wishes".
Torres Garca was determined to establish a distinctive and confident
art movement in South America. In many ways, the excellent, eye-opening Radical
Geometry at the Royal Academy sets out to do the same. It makes the case that
the different kinds of abstract paintings and sculpture produced in Uruguay,
Argentina, Brazil and Venezuela from the 1930s to the 1970s were as innovative
as anything being attempted in the "north". Most people, if asked about Latin
American art, think of the Mexican muralists and Frida Kahlo's self-portraits; this
show offers a rich alternative.
The exhibition arrives at a good time not only as the World Cup fixes attention on
a different kind of Latin American artistry, but in that several of the show's standout
practitioners are being talked about as never before. The Venezuelan Gego, best
known for her delicate, three-dimensional wire works, is increasingly feted, as is
the Brazilian Lygia Clark, whose 1960s sculptures, Creatures, designed to be
picked up and folded into different shapes, have been an attraction in a recent,
warmly welcomed MoMA retrospective. Along with the intriguing Inca-inspired

pictographs of Torres Garca and the approachable, agitated grids of Hlio


Oiticica (who also designed geometrically patterned capes "habitable paintings"
for samba dancers), the work of these artists will surprise sceptics expecting stale
variations of European modernism, or non-aficionados understandably wary
of such labels as concretism and neoconcretism.

Alfredo Hlitos Chromatic Rhythms II, 1947. Courtesy of Sonia Henrquez Urea de Hlito

Thanks to the recognition now given to Clark, Gego and others, if the world hasn't
been turned upside down, it has at least been tilted. It was a very different situation
the first time many of the Radical Geometry artists were shown in Britain at the
landmark Latin American show put on by the Hayward in 1989. The critic Tim
Hilton reviewing the exhibition in the Guardian remarked sniffily that "no group and
scarcely one individual artist attains the high and continuous creativity we expect
from admirable art", while Brian Sewell commented that the continent's art was no
more distinguished than the painting on Turkish donkey carts. Such views seem
embarrassing now.
So the Royal Academy show, curated by Adrian Locke and Gabriel Prez-Barreiro,
has no need to be defensive. It tells four main stories, each involving a different
country in a particular era. All the art displayed was propelled by radicalism of
differing kinds, all more or less political as abstraction swept through South
America. In the catalogue, Locke elegantly introduces the economic and political
contexts of the four radical moments. Montevideo was a modern capital with wide
boulevards, parks and intellectuals gathering in coffee houses; Buenos Aires was
"a cosmopolitan city of grandeur and sophistication". Brazil made itself a global artworld capital in the late 40s and 50s with new galleries and the So Paulo biennale
the big Brazilian cities were hot centres for abstract painters, not in a provincial
sense, but internationally. In prosperous Venezuela, the modern art movement,
influencing industry, science and architecture, also made political sense: it helped
the country appear vibrant and in vogue. The continent was a destination shining
with promise, chosen by many European immigrants over the US. An interchange

of ideas across the Atlantic between Europe and South America one that has so
often been written out of art history was inevitable.
The first of the four stories concerns Torres Garca, who spent decades in Europe
before returning to Montevideo in 1934. In Barcelona, he painted murals for Antoni
Gaud; in Paris, he mixed with Joseph Stella, Marcel Duchamp and Joan Mir, and
produced winning cityscapes. But his most recognisable work seems to have
arisen from two particular influences an intense interest in Latin American culture
pre-Columbus, and the compositions of Piet Mondrian.
The results were his 1930s grid paintings in earthy colours of box-like
compartments, variously sized, almost like a chic wall-storage system: an example
in the show is Construction in White and Black. The pattern suggests Inca stone
work, with regular-shaped blocks cleverly fitted together. In other works the boxes
contain child-like "signs" a fish, a clock, a face, a wheel, a boat, the sun. Torres
Garca began a movement, utopian and democratic in spirit, that argued for
geometry as the key to all art, and sought to incorporate pre-Hispanic ideas, in the
belief that simple symbols could be understood regardless of the viewer's
background. The divide between "high" and "low" art forms would disappear art
would be accessible to the masses.

Joaqun Torres-Garcas Construction in White and Black, 1938. Courtesy of the


Museum of Modern Art, New York

To spread his ideas, he had a radio show, delivered lectures and founded a school,
rather like the Bauhaus. As Prez-Barreiro explains in the Radical
Geometry catalogue, Torres Garca believed that "an artist should craft a coherent
lifestyle and environment as a prototype of a new social model". Such a cause
needed disciples, and his "Studio of the South" flourished, at least for a while.
Definitely not among his faithful followers was a group of young revolutionary
artists from across the Ro de la Plata, in Buenos Aires, who populate the second
story of the exhibition. For Gyula Kosice, Ral Lozza and Toms Maldonado, in the

mid-40s, Torres Garca's art was not universal and spiritual but dusty and rather
fey. They regarded abstract art as, according to Prez Barreiro, "an urgent
response to a primarily political problem: the construction of a new society along
collective, communist principles". Figurative art was the art of the bourgeoisie;
abstraction was the art of the people, and art could be dissolved into propaganda
(manifestos, leaflets distributed on the subway system). They condemned the
populist president, Pern, as "fascist", and looked to destabilise art conventions,
often with humour and irreverence. Unfortunately for them, their artistic heroes
were Malevich and Rodchenko, who represented an aesthetic long proscribed in
a Soviet Union, which now approved only social realism. In consequence, those
among the Argentinian tyros who were members of the Communist party were
soon expelled, after which their compositions of geometric shapes, diagonal lines
and colour planes became, in many ways, more beguiling, and they joined a more
general and international postwar abstraction movement.
A new development in Buenos Aires was the rejection by Rhod Rothfuss
and others of the conventional picture frame, and an adoption of asymmetricalshaped canvases. In Carmelo Arden Quin's Trio No 2 and Juan Mel's Irregular
Frame No 2, for instance, the idea is to allow the edge of the painting to play a
more active role an attempt to subvert even more thoroughly than other concrete
art the illusion of providing a representational "window on the world", an illusion in
which the rectangular frame plays a vital part.

Juan Mels Irregular Frame No 2, 1946. Courtesy of the estate of Juan Mel

In the third story, the scene shifts to 1950s Brazil, a far more nourishing
environment than Argentina for geometric painters. In the way that abstract
expression summed up an American idea of "freedom", the natural language of
Brazilian art at this time was concretism, carrying with it a sense of planning and

modernity. Oscar Niemeyer's brutalist capital Brasilia was in development and,


unlike in Argentina where Peronist politics had hollowed out the middle classes, in
Brazil the bourgeoisie was thriving. The new galleries in Rio and So Paulo
established a proper art ecosystem.
As with all the artists in the Radical Geometry show, Waldemar Cordeiro felt that
painting should be entirely free of any basis in observed reality and have no
symbolic implications. "We defend the real language of painting that is expressed
with lines and colours that are lines and colours and do not want to be pears nor
men," he wrote. The Brazilian concretists went in for rigorous geometry and bold
pigments in the pursuit of pure, two-dimensional visuality. Cordeiro is represented
in the show by the striking Visible Idea, a pair of interlocking shell-shapes on
a crimson canvas.
Then, in 1959, things changed again in Brazil with the arrival of the neoconcretists. The centre of gravity was now warm Rio rather than cooler So Paulo,
and the abstract art became less austerely rational and more organic, more playful
more comfortable with ideas of subjectivity and nature. Oiticica's grids from the
late 1950s have a bit of give: the squares seem to jostle, wanting to be free.
Lygia Clark's Composition from 1953, with its egg-yolk yellow, navy and emerald
rectangles, while gorgeously rendered, is a grid of planes from the same phase as
her small, monochromatic paintings in grey, black and white. In her new mode, her
structures drifted apart. Like Oiticica, she decided that ultra-rational abstraction
was art for bourgeois insiders rather than the people, and it wasn't particpatory
enough. (Both artists were inspired by the use of art therapy in a local psychiatric
hospital.) Clark's movable, aluminium origami-esque Bichos or Creatures are
designed to make the spectator an active part of the artwork. As the Guardian's
Adrian Searle put it last month when reviewing her retrospective, "as you play with
them these small hinged forms flip-flop and fold this way and that. They have
a nice weight, and handling them feels a bit like doing card tricks." Oiticica's capes
for use in samba performances were another expression of participatory art.
Similarly, Lygia Pape produced books with semi-abstract sculptural elements that
viewers were encouraged to pick up and investigate.
Radical Geometry's fourth Venezuelan story is characterised, like the first, by
strong connections between Latin America and Europe. The op and kinetic artists
Jess Rafael Soto and Carlos Cruz-Diez crossed the Atlantic and settled in Paris.
In the other direction, Gego, who was born Gertrud Goldschmidt, the daughter of a
Jewish banker, left Germany in 1939 as political tension mounted, bound for
Caracas. She arrived during an economic boom, and was surrounded by artists
consumed by a sense of new possibility.

Gegos Sphere, 1976. Courtesy of Fundacin Gego

Encouraged by Alejandro Otero and Soto, who were experimenting with light and
perception, Gego created three-dimensional works, first with paper and then with
iron and steel. She titled her beautiful, fragile, hanging wire structures a new form
of abstract, line-based art Drawings Without Paper, refusing to call them
sculptures. Radical Geometry has half a dozen of her works including Square
Reticularea 71/6, which takes the idea of the geometric grid so prevalent
throughout the exhibition and makes it floating, weightless, almost invisible;
Decagonal Trunk No 4, which stretches the grid down into a long Chinese lanternshape; Sphere, an intricate round steel net; and Flow No 7, which is all draped
lines, like a crestfallen chandelier. They mark a long distance travelled from the
original concrete art that influenced Torres Garca, and are among the visual
revelations that pack this fascinating show.
Radical Geometry: Modern Art of South America from the Patricia Phelps de
Cisneros Collection is at the Royal Academy, London W1, from 5 July
to 28 September.

Copyright The Guardian