A number of previous museum survey exhibitions of 20th-century Latin American art have been hounded by legitimate criticism concerning how specific artworks were read, how categories were named, and how the history of art in the region was characterized. Within this somewhat fraught context, Inverted Utopias: Avant-Garde Art in Latin America, held at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, from June 20 to September 12, 2004, takes a refreshing approach to the contribution Latin American avant-garde movements made to the larger modernist project. Organized by Mari Carmen Ramírez, the Houston museum’s curator of Latin American Art, and Héctor Olea, architect and independent curator and scholar, Inverted Utopias is the latest and perhaps most incisive revision of the history of Latin American avant-garde visual art. Unlike previous efforts, the exhibition does not pretend to be a broad survey of the period. Instead, Ramírez and Olea reconsider avant-garde movements that developed in Latin America between 1920 and 1970, with a focus on Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Columbia, Cuba, Mexico, Puerto Rico, Uruguay, and Venezuela.
Inverted Utopias and its equally substantial catalogue published by Yale University Press (2004) posit a rigorous model for rethinking the significance of these movements. An important signifier is the exhibition’s title. As Ramírez notes in the catalogue’s introductory essay, the word “utopias” references the kind of world artists and writers in Latin America were attempting to create. This naming allows for a reevaluation of the early period (1920-1945) as not merely a phase of interest in cultural nationalism but as an era devoted to examining the possibilities of ideal social structures. Citing early avant-garde period “artist-theoreticians” such as David Alfaro Siqueiros, Ramírez explores how the language of inclusion and the notion of a pluralistic society informed aesthetic expression throughout the hemisphere. As a result, questions of race, authenticity, and the ultimate referents for these concepts were frequently debated.
It is in relation to this notion of engaged dialogue that one of the catalogue’s most noteworthy aspects comes into play, namely, its inclusion of many important translated texts from the period covered by the exhibition. These involve not only manifestos and letters that have already been widely published or cited (for example, in Dawn Ades’ Art in Latin America: The Modern Era, 1820-1980), but also crucial texts less known but equally decisive. A fascinating early example is a questionnaire disseminated by the Cuban avant-garde magazine revista de avance. The questionnaire, titled Indagacíon: ¿Qué debe ser el arte americano/An Inquiry: What Should Latin American Art Be? (1928), was sent to artists, writers, and critics throughout Latin America. Both the questions and responses shed light on the concerns of the period and reflect realities that cross national boundaries and permeate much of the aesthetic imagery of the 1920s and ’30s. Although a valuable document that asked artists fundamental questions about the relation of “Americanness” to identity and artistic production, the questionnaire is rarely cited and has never been translated for a publication of this stature
Insertions into Ideological Circuits: Coca-Cola Project, 1970-1975
Coke bottles and silkscreen sticker messages
Rather than engaging in a geographically-bound reading of the objects in the exhibition and the history of art in the region, Ramírez and Olea have placed the work in six categories: Universal and Vernacular, Play and Grief, Progression and Rupture, Vibrational and Stationary, Touch and Gaze, and Cryptic and Committed (each of which are elucidated in comprehensive catalogue essays). While this strategy is not new, it remains a legitimate way to consider a variety of objects within categories that are not based on an artist’s national origin. For example, works in the Play and Grief category might include paintings by the well-known Mexican muralist José Clemente Orozco as well as works by the Argentine artist Antonio Berni. This approach also serves to illustrate what other critics and scholars have discussed as the circulation of objects (and artists) across the artificial boundaries of nation-states and through the more nebulous terrains of modern, non-modern, central, and peripheral.
The disparate terms paired in the exhibition’s various categories emphasize the divergent nature of artistic production in Latin America and the sometimes dichotomous relationships the works evoke. This is a reflection of what the curators have termed the “paradoxical constellations” into which the objects are organized. By using this model, the curators hope to “reveal points of contact and significant divergences” between European and Latin American realities, thereby reflecting the endless flow and counter-flow of influence and thought, philosophy and practice that are key to perceiving the development of modernism as a global series of creations, events, and endeavors. Yet, while there are clear affinities between Latin American and European avant-gardes, the exhibition and its catalogue explore considerable differences, characterized by Olea in an essay preceding the selection of translated texts as “versions, inversions, and subversions” of positions taken up by European avant-gardes. Hence, the weight given to the first part of the title, “inverted.
José Clemente Orozco
Makeup and Perfume, 1946
Oil on canvas
The exhibition unites these semblances and divergences in its consideration of a variety of political expressions and the ways in which such views and convictions were transmitted via a broad range of aesthetic objects. The curators draw this line of persuasion from the early Latin American avant-gardes through the post-WWII period. The idea of the “inverted utopia” is alluded to over and over again in objects seen in the exhibition. Lygia Pape’s playful “Divisor/Divide” (1968) incorporates several (seemingly) paradoxical relationships. The social and physical parameters that unite and divide people throughout the world are underscored in this brilliant conceptual and performative piece that references the ebb and flow of populations and the accumulation of individual selves.
Another example of inversion—or perhaps subversion is more precise—is embodied in Cildo Meireles’ “Inserções em circuitos ideológicos: Projeto Coca-Cola/Insertions into Ideological Circuits: Coca-Cola Project” (1970-75). In this and other related works, Meireles intervened in the sphere of mass-circulated commercial and economic products. The artist inscribed several Coca-Cola bottles with a statement that is equal parts reminder, command, and philosophical musing: “Engrave critical opinions on the bottles and return them to circulation.” With this instruction, Meireles asks us to consider products not merely as something to consume, but also as ordinary objects rife with political meaning. Meireles’ “Coca-Cola Project” mirrors many of the concerns about “Yankee” imperialism published in avant-garde texts of the 1920s and ’30s that are included and mentioned in the catalogue. In this way, Inverted Utopias contributes to an understanding of the avant-garde from the 1920s through the 1970s as an extension of artistic production often influenced by political climates.
Germane to the organization of Inverted Utopias is a rejection of the inferior role that has frequently been accorded to Latin American art, as well as an attempt to divorce the public from prejudices concerning art from this part of the world. By selecting work not frequently exhibited, Ramírez and Olea expand the scope of what is deemed recognizably “Latin American.” Institutions with collections of Latin American art are in large part responsible for forming the public’s understanding of what constitutes Latin American art. The recent exhibition at El Museo del Barrio in New York City of Latin American art from the Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection is a case in point. While the collection at MoMA is extensive and eclectic, very little of what might be called “avant-garde” has ever been displayed there. Instead, the same seven or eight paintings by well-known Mexican artists from the early 20th century are typically on view, usually in the context of surrealism. MoMA at El Museo allowed for a more complete vision of artistic production in Latin America, including abstract and conceptual work never seen, at least in recent memory, at MoMA. Similarly, Inverted Utopias proposes that although surrealism and primitivism are the main movements with which Latin American art is continually associated, this limited vision serves to extend gross misreadings of the work. Instead, by exploring through a matrix of provocative categories paradoxes evident in Latin American art, this art begins to be freed from the rigid constraints of historicized artistic movements and national boundaries.
Rocío Aranda-Alvarado is the curator at the Jersey City Museum where she organizes exhibitions of historical and contemporary art, drawing on the permanent collection and work by established and emerging American artists. This article was originally published in NYFA Quarterly, the arts and culture magazine of the New York Foundation for the Arts.