Thursday, April 16, 2009

south american tangled alphabets

Alternative Modernism via South America
Published: April 2, 2009

At least one work in “Tangled Alphabets: León Ferrari and Mira Schendel” at the Museum of Modern Art should raise some hackles. It is “Last Judgment” by Mr. Ferrari, an Argentine artist born in 1920 who is still active. It consists of a large reproduction of Michelangelo’s “Last Judgment” fresco in the Sistine Chapel that Mr. Ferrari left sitting beneath a cage of pigeons.

Museum of Modern Art

Tangled Alphabets: León Ferrari and Mira Schendel, at MoMA through June 15, includes the above example of what Ms. Schendel called Graphic Objects. More Photos »

The whitish substance dotting much of the image has a beautiful softness reminiscent of volcanic ash; damp, blossoming plaster; and loosely brushed oil paint. A mechanical reproduction of the best-known depiction of the world’s end becomes an object that is either riddled with decay or luxuriantly hand-worked. Michelangelo may have populated his fresco with the minions of the Devil, but Death itself seems to be seeping gently through the walls of Mr. Ferrari’s version.

First made in 1985, “Last Judgment” neatly combines Process Art, appropriation art and political provocation. A violated ready-made (like Duchamp’s mustachioed Mona Lisa), it hangs in the final gallery of the Modern’s show a few feet from a polar opposite: “Still Waves of Probability (Old Testament, I Kings 19)” by Ms. Schendel (1919-1988), a Brazilian artist.

The sheer simplicity of “Still Waves” may also raise hackles. It consists of thousands of strands of nylon thread hanging to the floor from tiny jeweler’s eye-hooks covering a 12-by-14-foot area in the gallery’s 18-foot-high ceiling. In such quantity, the threads form a silvery, wafting, quasi-visible shaft that could almost be light or rain. Hanging nearby, a sheet of clear plexiglass is printed with a quotation from I Kings 19 concerning the voice of God, which is not found in wind, earthquake or fire, but is simply “a still small voice.” The religious subject matter is not as embedded as it is in the Ferrari piece, but “Still Waves,” from 1969, is an early and rather monumental instance of Post-Minimalism.

“Tangled Alphabets” is the Modern’s latest attempt to explore modernisms beyond the narrow Euro-American version that it did so much to lock in place. Organized by Luis Pérez-Oramas, the museum’s curator of Latin American art, it is essential viewing for anyone interested in 20th-century art and often displays a taut aesthetic repartee. But it also sometimes feels halfhearted.

The news release lauds Ms. Schendel and Mr. Ferrari as “two of the most important South American artists of the 20th century.” But the combined retrospectives suggest an unwillingness to commit. Wedging a double survey into galleries usually occupied by single ones doesn’t help.

Still, “Tangled Alphabets” brings together more work by Ms. Schendel and Mr. Ferrari than has been seen in a North American museum. It opens a window on a complex regional artistic history similar to that of the United States in its assimilation of European models, embrace of both abstraction and popular culture and oscillation between purity and politics. Expect to find analogies here to Abstract Expressionism, Fluxus, word art, Arte Povera, appropriation art and even Neo Geo.

Ms. Schendel and Mr. Ferrari knew each other only slightly and exhibited together only once in a large group show. They represent, at heart, very different sensibilities. Mr. Ferrari is extroverted, even grandiose, and peripatetic, hitting so many different notes over the course of his career that inevitably more than a few are off key. Ms. Schendel was more consistent, an introverted purist, a focused student of Eastern mysticism and a Post-Minimalist before the fact.

They both emerged in the 1960s, when progressive ideas flourished in art and politics, albeit beneath the gathering clouds of military juntas. Their alignment is closest during these years, when both worked extensively with ink and paper, in vocabularies that mixed words, letters, illegible writing and line, as well as aspects of transparency and automatism. In the show’s center gallery, it is sometimes hard to know who did what.

“Tangled Alphabets: León Ferrari and Mira Schendel” continues through June 15 at the Museum of Modern Art; (212) 708-9400,

No comments: