In fall 2017 the Getty will present Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA, a regional exploration of Latin American and Latino art in dialogue with Los Angeles. In a three-part series, we hear about the development of one of the Getty exhibitions that is part of this initiative, a show featuring postwar abstract art from Argentina and Brazil from the Patricia Phelps de Cisneros Collection.
In this first conversation, Tom Learner, head of science, and Pia Gottschaller, senior research specialist, at the Getty Conservation Institute, and Andrew Perchuk, deputy director of the Getty Research Institute, talk about the foundational research for this exhibition, which is rooted in both art-historical research and scientific analysis.
More to Explore
Concrete Art in Argentina and Brazil GCI project
Modern Abstract Art in Argentina and Brazil GCI article
Featured artworks in this episode:
- Ritmos cromáticos III (Chromatic Rhythms III), 1949, Alfredo Hlito
- Cuadrilongo Amarillo (Yellow Rectangle), 1955, Rhod Rothfuss
- Planos em Superficie Modulada (Planes in a Modulated Surface), 1956, Lygia Clark
JIM CUNO: Hello, I’m Jim Cuno, president of the J. Paul Getty Trust. Welcome to Art and Ideas, a podcast in which I speak to artists, conservators, authors, and scholars about their work.
TOM LEARNER: We have two galleries. We have forty-seven-odd works to choose from. And we’re just trying to figure out themes we really wanna focus in on. In the setting of an exhibition, you can really only, you know, choose one or two and do those in depth.
CUNO: In this episode, I speak with Tom Learner and Pia Gottschaller of the Getty Conservation Institute, and Andrew Perchuk of the Getty Research Institute about the exhibition they’re preparing for the Getty-funded regional project, Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA, Los Angeles/Latin America, to be launched in Fall 2017.
Several months ago, I met with Tom, Pia, and Andrew at an art warehouse facility about twenty-five miles southeast of the Getty in Compton, where the works are being housed.
This exhibition features experimental, geometric, abstract paintings and reliefs made by mid-20th century avant-garde artists working in Argentina and Brazil. The paintings and reliefs are part of the celebrated Patricia Phelps de Cisneros Collection, founded in 1970. Some have been shown in exhibitions elsewhere in the US and Europe, but none has been the subject of sustained technical analysis. That is the subject of our exhibition: what modern materials were used to make these works, how have the materials changed over time, and how does their materiality relate to the modernist ambitions of their makers? For these were purposefully experimental, modernist works compromising new compositions made of new forms and new materials for a new age.
Tom, Pia, and Andrew have been examining the works for many months already. I thought it would be interesting to check in with them from time to time to see how their exhibition is progressing. This episode, the first in a series on the making of this exhibition, will focus on the questions the exhibition seeks to answer.
We started by talking about the title of the exhibition, which at that point was still in flux. This happens all the time. Exhibitions often have many titles before the final one is selected.
PIA GOTTSCHALLER: Well, the working title that we have come up with so far is The Material of Form, because one of the things that we’re focusing on is the materiality of the works.
CUNO: Okay. Well, why is it a working title?
GOTTSCHALLER: We thought that we would like to have a little bit of flexibility to see what we’re actually finding while we’re doing the research, so that might have an influence on the title.
CUNO: Andrew, what about you?
PERCHUK: There’s been a lot of interest recently in how much industrialization factored into the art production in Argentina and Brazil during this era. And one of the thoughts was to highlight that in the exhibition and the research project. However, when Pia started doing the research and looking at the technical analysis, particularly of the Argentinian works, she found that instead of being synthetic paints, industrial house paints, car paints, that sort of thing, they were pretty much traditional artist oils. Isn’t that right, Pia?
GOTTSCHALLER: Yeah, especially in the period that we’re focusing on in Argentina. So from ’46 to ’52, ’54, the majority of the artists that we’re looking at worked with oil paints, and only a few of them later on, one of whom is Rothufss, who we also have in the exhibition, they then started using house paints. But the group of artists that really did use house paints beginning in the fifties, early fifties, were the Brazilians. So there’s a big difference between those two countries in that sense.
CUNO: So if the two points of the title, let’s say, at this point, the working title, materiality and industrialization—industrialization by itself might go away, but materiality remains, ’cause it’s as much a scientific investigation into the materials of the works of art, is that right, Tom?
LEARNER: Absolutely. And I think one of the things we’re drawing on have been a couple of other exhibitions that have been at the Getty that the GCI and GRI have been involved with where we have been exploring some of these issues that Pia and I and Andrew live with everyday about how artists, the choice of materials, how it has an effect on appearance and that kind of stuff, through surface, through gloss, through color, through the way materials are being used, but isn’t immediately obvious, perhaps, to a general public. I think we’re finding with these works from Brazil and Argentina, but perhaps particularly from Brazil, where the surface is so key that if you look at these works of art in a book or a publication, even online, you can see the color and the shape and the form, but you have no idea of what the surface is like. And a lot of these artists play with gloss a lot, with texture, even very subtle textures where the same colors are used, just the brush is being applied in different directions. And it’s amazing the difference, when you start to see these paintings in the flesh. So we’re just trying to draw attention to some of those things as part of this project.
CUNO: Right. So in the last fifteen years or so, there’ve been a number of exhibitions that have looked at Latin American Modernism, and actually, museums in the United States that have begun to acquire examples of Latin American Modernism. But your focus on the materiality is going to be something new. I mean, that’s what’s intrigued you about this.
GOTTSCHALLER: Yes, that’s absolutely right. There’re basically no publications on what these paintings are made with, how artists approached their making. There’s one conservator in Argentina who’s interviewed a lot of the artists that we’re looking at in Argentina. But other than that, there’s basically nothing. And so we feel that we could really start from scratch and look at the entire period and at, you know, a big part of a continent from a completely new perspective to see how much of what they were doing was completely their own thing, that had nothing to do with what was going on in America and in North America and in Europe at the time, and how maybe some things actually coincide because they were looking towards Paris and towards Switzerland for a number of reasons.
PERCHUK: And how crucial this kind of research is was really brought home to us. We went together to the Lygia Clark retrospective at MoMA last year, as we were—
CUNO: Who’s a Brazilian artist.
PERCHUK: Brazilian artist, Lygia Clark and Hélio Oiticica are probably the two most famous Brazilian artists of the era. And this was the first major American retrospective of Lygia Clark’s work. And as we were looking around, there were five identical works on the wall. Meaning five works in a series. But when you looked at the wall labels, they were listed as being made of five different materials. Because over the years, people had just, you know, written something on the back or put a label, and that just got sort of written into history without anybody actually doing—
CUNO: So they were the same material, but mistakenly identified as five different materials?
PERCHUK: That’s correct. And that’s one of the reasons we knew that this kind of technical analysis that Pia and Tom and others are doing was so crucial because it had never been done and these mistakes then are circulated out in the world.
LEARNER: This is quite common, this sort of—mislabeling sounds a bit cruel, but it’s just, it’s very, very hard to know exactly what paint is on a work of art. I mean, you rely, perhaps, on the artist writing something on a label or something. But if that hasn’t been written down, the kind of sources you go to are sort of documentary sources. So you can try and find evidence of paints that were being used. If the artist is still alive, you can certainly talk to them. With this group of artists, you know, the vast majority have passed away. But the aspect that we rely on so much now is scientific analysis. The GCI, as you know, has been involved for a long time in a project on modern paint, the analysis of modern paints. And we’ve had to develop, with partners around the world, accurate ways of detecting the different paint types. And some distinctions are very straightforward and others are very complicated.
GOTTSCHALLER: We have a wonderful opportunity to work with a team in Argentina, in Buenos Aires, and also another team in Brazil, who are—their teams are composed of art historians, a conservator, scientists. And they are going to work on works of art that are in their own country, in private collections, and in museums. So they’re also going to take samples from these works. The idea being that in the end, we can come up with a large database of information that we have collected and that they have collected from other works that compare to ours because they’re from the same artists or the same period so that in the end, we’ll have a big comprehensive view of what was being done at the time.
CUNO: Tom, tell us—when we—earlier, we mentioned, or you mentioned, that a change had taken place in your understanding of the questions of the exhibition. Which is to say, the presumption was that the industrial materials were used, industrial paints, in particular, were used, perhaps because that’s what was available, perhaps because this is a time, in the thirties and forties, when there was a great industrialization of South America. And then you discovered that that’s not, in fact, the case. In fact, these are artist materials, not industrials. Or at least they’re—more often are artists materials, more often than you thought they might be. Tell us about the sort of moment in which you discovered that. And also the context for considering the materiality. That is, the industrial context for considering materiality.
LEARNER: Well, I’ll make a few general comments about this, ’cause we’re just bang in the middle of actually determining all the paint that are on the works of art and actually what that means. ’Cause of— often, you might find a material like oil that could be on a painting. It doesn’t necessarily mean it’s from a tube paint. There’re all kinda things where oil can creep into paints. For example, oil was used in house paints in the early part of the twentieth century.
CUNO: [over Learner] What kind of oil?
LEARNER: Well, linseed oil is the most commonly used oil.
CUNO: [over Learner] The conventional oils, yeah.
LEARNER: Yeah. Because you actually—the important thing about oil is that it dries. And most of the oils out there are not very good driers, linseed being the best drier. Things can be added to any paint to speed up the drying, chemicals and et cetera. But the point is, this takes a long time to actually get the answers that we’re looking for. And I think one of the things that came up very quickly was this realization that on a lot of the Argentinian works we’re looking at, which are mainly from the 1940s, oil comes up time and time again. So we’re just now trying to put that into the context, ’cause there are a few things in play here. One of which is that even though this was a great period of industrialization, in the paint world, and I’m basing this on the experience I had with the Western markets, the US and the European paint markets—really, the big changes in paints came in the 1950s. It’s the late forties, fifties, exactly where you start to see, for example, alkyd paints, which is now the sort of—the very, very predominant sort of paint for house paints you’d paint your doorframe or your window with. We did lots of work when I worked at the Tate, looking at Picasso’s paints, where he was a very famous user of house paints throughout his career. And when you start to analyze them—and we know they’re all house paints, in certain cases—it’s only in the about mid-fifties when you see alkyds start to appear analytically. So there is this—
CUNO: [over Learner] Is that an industrial term or a chemical term?
LEARNER: Is both. I mean, it’s a very short chemical name, which most chemicals, as you probably know, are very hard to repeat. They’re very, very long. But it actually comes from a combination of—of what this paint is, which is a polyester-based paint, where you have an alcohol, ALC group, an acid, ID, combining to form a polyester type paint which is modified with oil and other things, too. But the alkyd term was coined in the very late 1920s, I think, by the inventor of this process. But it took a long time for these materials to really work their way—it was actually post-World War II where you start to see them really make their way into actual paint products that people were buying.
GOTTSCHALLER: One thing that also makes it complicated or not that easy for us to be able to say this is oil, this is—or, you know, a tube oil paint, this is a house paint, is that sometimes—like we have one work by an artist called Judith Lauand, a Brazilian artist who’s still alive. She’s the only one, along with Tomás Maldonado, who’s still alive. And she wrote on a work that she made in the fifties, on the back, that she painted it with industrial paint. But when we did the analysis, we found that it’s based on oil. So even though the artist might be thinking that she’s being very progressive at this moment because she’s using house paint, in fact, she might not have been all that progressive, because it was still oil-based.
LEARNER: And then what we’re finding with the Brazilian artists is that we’re getting the full range of synthetic paints that were the main type of paints being used in industrial paints, in car paints, particularly house paints. Which is always nice, where you do your initial analysis and you find everything from, you know, acrylic to polyvinyl acetate, nitrocellulose to alkyds. So there’s a whole bunch of things that we now need to pick apart and, yeah, come up with some answers which we can be proud about and publish, and actually say this artist used these paints in this way.
CUNO: Yeah, well, let’s start to look at some of the paintings and some of the sculptures or reliefs that we’re looking at, because very clearly, they are geometric abstraction and they do bear evidence of having seen and understood what was happening in Paris and what was happening in the Netherlands, with Mondrian and van Doesburg, for example. How did they even know that?
GOTTSCHALLER: It’s one of the questions that I think the art historians are still trying to figure out. The only bit of story that I’ve found so far about how they first discovered Mondrian in Buenos Aires in 1945, ’46, is of Lidy Prati, who was married to Tomás Maldonado. Tomás Maldonado was, I think one could say, the intellectual leader of the concrete artists in Buenos Aires at that time. And so his wife, at one point, said that she had gone on a regular basis to libraries and to shops where you could buy magazines. And she was leafing through one of the magazines—unfortunately, we don’t know which one—and she saw a black and white reproduction of Mondrian. Now, the fact that the Argentine artists for, at least until 1948, when Maldonado first goes to Europe—he was the first one of them to go—they were entirely reliant on perceiving Mondrian through black and white reproductions. They were not aware of his writings, and they were certainly not aware of the spiritual dimension of his work. So when Maldonado first goes to Paris and then Hlito, who is one of our other Argentine artists, when they go to Paris and first see the works in person, and also become aware of this metaphysical interest that Mondrian had, which they did not share, there was a great sense of disappointment. They hated the ha—you know, the way that the surfaces looked handmade. They thought they were messy-looking. They were really, really disappointed. And—
CUNO: [over Gottschaller] So they were glossy, as it were, the photograph reproduction, huh? They didn’t see the actual painted surface.
GOTTSCHALLER: Exactly. It just looked like black and white shapes.
PERCHUK: So when the art historian Yve-Alain Bois was working on the Mondrian retrospective, he was saying that it was so hard to find really great Mondrians anymore because people have destroyed, by lining the paintings and doing other things, that beautiful facture of Mondrian’s brush—
CUNO: [over Perchuk] The texture of the surface.
PERCHUK: The texture of the surface, Mondrian’s brushstrokes. But when these Argentinian artists went and saw them, you know, relatively soon after they were painted, they hated that. They hated the things that we now prize in a good Mondrian.
CUNO: [over Perchuk] The sign of a handmade painting.
GOTTSCHALLER: It’s because they were so, you know, utopian in their outlook. They thought the Russian constructivists were their heroes, and they wanted the work of art to be an agent of social change.
CUNO: As an example of the way these artists worked the surfaces of their paintings, we turned to a 1949 painting by Alfredo Hlito titled Chromatic Rhythms III. Hlito was born in Buenos Aires in 1923 and studied there at the National Fine Arts School. He soon became interested in the European constructivist avant-garde, and with other young artists formed the Associación Arte Concreto-Invención, influenced by the geometric abstraction of the Swiss modernist painter, Max Bill. On a visit to Europe in 1953, Hlito saw the work of Mondrian for the first time. The painting we are looking at is some 39 inches square.
GOTTSCHALLER: One of the things that Andrew and I, when we last talked about this work, discovered was that even though these concrete artists, who were really big on publishing manifestos and writing and explaining to the public what they were about, they said relatively little, if not basically nothing, about color. And yet this work, even in the title, has, you know, an emphasis on color because it means “chromatic rhythms.”
CUNO: And the colors are principally secondary colors, is that right?
GOTTSCHALLER: Exactly. So one of the questions—
CUNO: Which would be radically different than a Mondrian, for example.
CUNO: There’s purple, green, blue. There’s kind of a turquoise-y, olive—
GOTTSCHALLER: [over Cuno] And he loved these very odd dirty yellows. We haven’t done any actual analysis of the pigments yet but under the microscope I could see that the yellow here is definitely a mixture of some yellow pigment mixed in with something like black or green that makes it a little dirty. So he was definitely very intentionally trying to not just use primary colors that would make everybody else think of Mondrian.
CUNO: And the colors all seem to be about the same width, let’s say. About an inch or so. Even if they might be different lengths, right?
GOTTSCHALLER: [over Cuno] Yes, they’re two centimeters…
CUNO: [over Gottschaller] Because the ground is a white ground.
CUNO: And it’s broken up into geometric sections. And the black lines that divide these sections one from another are of different widths themselves, right? So there’s a kind of a rhythm that comes from the black lines, as well as from the color patterns, right?
GOTTSCHALLER: Yes. And all of the structural lines, as he would have called them, they, you know, basically point to beyond the edge of the work.
CUNO: And they were laid down by hand, but the edges were taped down? What gets that very straight line?
GOTTSCHALLER: So what a lot of them used—and Hlito, I think, was a particularly gifted man in that—is they used something called a ruling pen, which is an instrument that’s generally used, or was generally used, by architects and designers, specifically for being able to draw a very straight line. Normally it’s used with ink. So these painters had to adapt this particular tool to the use of oil paint, which is quite tricky, because you have to thin the oil paint to a degree that makes it quite dilute, so you can actually draw a line without making any blobs or anything. So it did require quite a lot of technique. Almost all of them were also graphic designers. That’s how most of them made a living because they didn’t sell a single work at this period. So it would’ve been natural for them to use a tool that they knew very well how to use as graphic designers in their paintings.
CUNO: So this ruling pen that you described is marking out the quadrants, the sections, on a white ground. And when looking at this, one might, if one thought that it was lying flat on a surface, as opposed to up vertically on a wall, one was looking at the plan of a city, of kind of a modern city, where you’ve got the streets going north, south, east, and west, and you’ve got blocks of development and the development is represented by these modernist lines of color.
PERCHUK: Well, that’s a fascinating comment, Jim, because this group of artists was very much against the idea of the autonomous easel painting. They saw that as bourgeois and reactionary. They very much did not want their work to be a window onto the world, but to be in relation to its environment, in a kind of architectural way. And they moved from paintings like we’re looking at now, which are traditional rectangles and squares, very quickly to irregularly-framed objects or even colored shapes that are not framed. So that that relationship between the artwork and its architecture and its setting and its world and the rest of the world became really crucial to their work.
CUNO: So the one that we’re looking at is paint on canvas. Tom, can you describe the surface and how that surface was achieved? Because it’s about as mechanical a surface as one could paint, I would guess.
LEARNER: Yeah. [chuckles] There’s really no real play on severe texture or impasto, differences in gloss that we see in some of the other works. So this, to me, is, you know, a beautifully executed, fairly traditional technique of an oil-on-canvas painting.
CUNO: [over Learner] Uh-huh. With a fine ground, I guess, beneath the surface of the paint, huh?
GOTTSCHALLER: [over Cuno] It’s a pre-primed ground. It’s a— [Cuno: Pre-primed. So commercial] So it’s industrially made.
CUNO: Oh, I see.
GOTTSCHALLER: So it’s very fine. And I think this is a perfect example of them trying, although with different means than the Brazilians would do it, but they were already trying to avoid facturas. I think that’s what the Russians will call it. Impasto, highlights, layering. You know, anything that kind of enlivens the surface. But with the means that they had been trained to use.
PERCHUK: But as Pia was talking a little bit about, what to us is absolutely unique about this is the color palette. That you—it is really hard to think of where else geometric abstraction is going on where it’s entirely in secondary colors.
CUNO: [over Perchuk] Van Doesburg did a lot of these odd secondary colors, right?
PERCHUK: And that’s a really interesting thing about this project, when you start looking at art history from a different perspective. So for us, Mondrian is the great geometric painter of this era, and van Doesburg and someone like van Tongerloo are relatively minor figures. For these artists, van Doesburg and particularly van Tongerloo are the major artists. And Mondrian is the negative example of someone who does all of these things like the handmadeness, the facture, that they don’t like. So they—they really are much more influenced by someone like van Tongerloo than they are by Mondrian.
CUNO: Next we turned to a work by the Uruguayan artist Rhod Rothfuss who was part of a Buenos Aires group of abstract artists formed in 1946 and called Grupo Madí. They emphasized the concrete reality of their materials and often employed irregularly shaped canvases.
GOTTSCHALLER: The reason why people are fascinated by Rothfuss is because very little is actually known about him. We know that he comes from a Jewish family that at one point emigrated from somewhere in Europe to Uruguay. So he lived most of his life in Montevideo in Uruguay, which is just a boat ride from Buenos Aires. So when we actually talk about the Argentine artists, we, at the moment, subsume a number of Uruguayan artists in there, who because they—you know, because the formed the concrete group. So that’s why we talk of them as the concrete group. But—
CUNO: But describe the work to us, ’cause it’s [Gottschaller: This—] very different than the painting we were just looking at.
GOTTSCHALLER: [over Cuno] Yes. So this is a work that has been painted on a—what is by now a rather fragile fiberboard, which is a very inexpensive support to use.
CUNO: Was that because that’s all they could afford or because they liked the effect of the fiberboard?
GOTTSCHALLER: I mean, in this particular case, I would say that he probably went for a panel because he could more easily cut it to shape, which would’ve been much more difficult with canvas. Only Frank Stella, I think, would go, later on, to the length of doing that. It also happens to be very inexpensive, and he did have to make a living in other ways. So I think that was a consideration.
PERCHUK: And it also gave them that hard, flat surface without the texture of the canvas. And it’s actually interesting because some artists liked texture, and therefore, painted on the rough side of the fiberboard or Masonite. Most of these artists, though, wanted that smoothness and painted on the smooth, uninflected side of the fiberboard.
GOTTSCHALLER: And I think one of the reasons why this probably stands out, also a little bit in our group is because it’s, as you can see, from 1955. There’s an inscription on the back in ink by the artist, which says, “Pintura 1955.” And it also gives us the title, Cuadrilongo Amarillo, which means yellow rectangle. And so if you look at the surface, you can see that the yellow, the very narrow yellow rectangle on the left-hand side of the painting is what defines the irregular outline of the work. So what we’re looking at is the support, to which the artist then adhered one, two, three, four, five, six pieces, which are also fiberboard, which he cut into rectangles and squares, which he then painted with the three primary colors and green. So again, there’s a you know, an effort being made to show, yes, we’re abstract artists, but we’re not just acolytes of Mondrian. And—
CUNO: And it’s on a white ground, which is now not so white. Was it white, intended to be white at the beginning? Or did it have always this kind of grayish, yellowish tinge to the whiteness?
GOTTSCHALLER: I can actually show you probably what it looked like because as this work was restored not very long ago, the conservator removed one of these elements and after she was done with the treatment, she decided to use a magnetic mechanism to put it back.
CUNO: Along the edges you can see some whiter lines.
GOTTSCHALLER: So this opaque paint which is underneath the largest green rectangle at one point was a lot more creamy colored than what we see now. But keep in mind that the surface has been treated by a conservator at one point. And we—because we wondered if this paint layer, because it has been protected from light by this panel for a long time, if that paint layer perhaps also has yellowed a little bit more. Because oil paint, which is, you know, part of that paint does yellow if you don’t expose the painting to light. So we asked one of our colleagues at the GCI, Vincent Beltran, to do a microfading test, which basic—
CUNO: What exactly is that?
GOTTSCHALLER: It’s a technique where you point a very small light source at a paint surface, and it, you know, and on a minute scale, basically, fades. It shoots so much light at a material that it—you can measure how much it changes color as you do it. And then you can extrapolate from there how much the paint overall perhaps [Cuno: Changed] has changed color.
LEARNER: It’s a technique we use a lot, and the profession uses a lot, for understanding how light sensitive certain artworks are. And it, you know, could be a paint, it could a feather, it could be anywhere, where it’s a way with—the spot size of this light is under about a millimeter in diameter. So you can see where the light’s going. But the amount of fading you measure is less than the eye can detect. So it’s, in effect, a nondestructive technique. By doing this very quick test—I mean, it’s a case of minutes you actually shine this bright light. You get a very good sense of roughly what color it would’ve been and how rapidly that discoloration is happening.
CUNO: [over Learner] So the entire surface would’ve been rather consistently this creamy color, and it’s now become kinda cloudy over the course ’cause this is now sixty years later, huh?
GOTTSCHALLER: The painting would have gone a relatively interventional conservation treatment. So the paint—yes, the paint surface originally would’ve been much more homogenous, and it would have been a bit shinier, as well, because I think the surface texture changed with the conservation…
CUNO: [over Gottschaller] It’s almost enamel in that part of the painting.
GOTTSCHALLER: [over Cuno] Exactly, yeah. ’Cause it’s an alkyd paint, what he used. And so originally, it would’ve been, you know, devoid of brush work, more homogenous, and slightly creamy color, but not as dark as what we see in our—
CUNO: [over Gottschaller] Uh-huh. What about the colored rectangles? Are they the color that they were in 1955 or have they changed as well?
GOTTSCHALLER: [over Cuno] I doubt it, because it seems to me that there’s quite a thick layer of varnish on top of the paint. The paint, I also, you know—we found out it’s also an alkyd paint. And you can see, for example, over here in this very corner where there’s an abrasion, you can see that the original color underneath the varnish is actually a bit more intense in color. And the same is also true for the yellow. But we would not consider ever, if this was our work, would never consider doing a treatment, as in removing the varnish, because the black outlines on these elements were painted on top. So the artist first painted the color, then varnished it, and then painted the black paint. So there is no way that you would safely be able to remove this discolored varnish. So I think that’s going to be always part of the work.
CUNO: And was this artist as much a craftsman as the painter that we have been talking about? Which is to say, did craftsmanship matter to them?
GOTTSCHALLER: In this particular case, it’s very difficult to say, because there are essentially only two or three works by this artist that survived that we feel comfortable were really made by him. The other by him, which is even earlier than this one, is from ’46, which is called Harlequin, is also in the Cisneros Collection. And it’s painted on a very, very rough piece of burlap. It has an irregular outline, and it looks, you know, much, much more handmade, rough, than any Mondrian could ever aspire to look.
CUNO: And that was nine years earlier than this. [Gottschaller: Yes, exactly] It was a rapid transformation, [Gottschaller: Yes] in those nine years, in this work.
GOTTSCHALLER: Yeah. But since we have so little to go on, it will be very hard to extrapolate for—you know, for—with Hlito, who, you know, went on to have a long career—he died in the nineties, and he developed his work in many different other directions—it would be easier to say yes, for him, craft meant a lot. With him, I don’t think we have enough to really—
PERCHUK: But what we can, I think, point to is the varnishing, the gloss is another way of hiding the sense of the handmade, the brushstroke. I mean, one of the interesting things, between Rothfuss and some of the other Argentinians was an argument over how to construct a work of art. So Rothfuss, you’ll see, well, you could plan out that these shapes, these seven shapes from very, very thin polygons to more regular squares are based on a golden mean. So they—
CUNO: So there’s a system.
PERCHUK: So there is a system to his work, which is not true. The others believed, many of the others believed that any of these systems should be rejected for a new kind of invention, and that they wanted to break with Western traditions, where the golden mean and other things came into play. And so that was an argument. Even though the works look very much alike to us today, they certainly were not all of the same mind at the time.
CUNO: The next thing we looked at was a 1956 work by Lygia Clark. I noted that its paint colors—airplane gray, reddish brown, a pale green—seemed quite deliberate, as if they were making a statement of sorts.
GOTTSCHALLER: That’s interesting, because, you know, she would then basically switch to black and white and never go back to any color in her work. But I think one of the reasons—
CUNO: [over Gottschaller] Is that because she denied the inherent attractiveness of color? Because this seems to be anti-color. This is putting color together in such a way as to not attract attention to it as color.
GOTTSCHALLER: [over Cuno] Yeah. Well, I think one of the things that we as conservators always think about is what happens to the color palette of an artist when he or she chooses to use with certain—to work with certain materials? And this particular work was made with nitrocellulose paints, which we think were probably originally meant to be car paints. And the paint was also sprayed. So the—
CUNO: [over Gottschaller] The paint was—it was sprayed onto this—
GOTTSCHALLER: It was sprayed, exactly. So—
CUNO: [over Gottschaller] And it seems to be canvases within canvases or cut pieces of wood within cut pieces of wood, so that the thing is put together from multiple pieces. Is that correct?
GOTTSCHALLER: They’re actually panels. They’re cedar panels, which you can smell. So you can see that we basically have an inset.
CUNO: [over Gottschaller] And you can see from the back that it’s all put together, inset, yeah.
GOTTSCHALLER: Yes. Which is held down by another strip of wood.
CUNO: [over Gottschaller] It gives a kind of industrial look to it. I mean, has that kind of hard-edged surface to it, so that it seems to be manifestly made, whereas the others are pictures [Gottschaller: Yeah] of something, representations of something. But this is of their making. This is actually emphatically made.
GOTTSCHALLER: Well, Lygia Clark was interested in something which she called the “organic line.” And—these pieces develop this idea of the organic line that also can just exist in space by having, as you do here, two colors abut, but there’s a space in between them, and that creates a line in and of itself. So this is, we know, in her work, one step in a long evolution, where she’s working with the line in many, many different ways.
CUNO: Do you know what she meant by organic? Because the look of the painting is anything but organic. I mean, it looks like it’s not grown from a seed, but rather it’s something that has been manufactured, two pieces put together, hammered tightly together by some industrial process.
GOTTSCHALLER: Yeah. If I’ve understood her correctly, what she meant by organic line is that she—you know, in the very beginning, when she started out as a painter, she was fascinated by stairways, by doors, by windows, by any delineation between one space and another. And she—as time went by and she became more and more interested in Max Bill.
GOTTSCHALLER: A Swiss painter who trained at the Bauhaus—
CUNO: Who comes to—at least to Venezuela, and maybe to Brazil, as well.
GOTTSCHALLER: [over Cuno] But especially to Brazil. [Cuno: Especially to Brazil] He spent a lot of time in Brazil. He was very lauded for his work.
CUNO: And he’s of the same generation precisely or close ?
GOTTSCHALLER: [over Cuno] He’s a little bit older. [Cuno: A little bit older?] But the—Bill is such an important figure for all of them—he trained himself at the Bauhaus, he was sort of the ideal bridge figure between them and the European tradition. But because he, in his own work, was so interested in industrial design and how you make something reproducible, he—you know, he was considered by many of them a father figure in that way. And so I think with the presence of Bill and this encouragement that they received in their endeavor to be as concrete as possible in their work—concrete meaning, you know, not subjective, [Cuno: Physical] nonmetaphysical, not—so following the way that concrete was defined in the Art Concrete Manifesto by van Doesburg. She also then, Lygia Clark, decides, at one point, that hand painting a line is no good, that it still denotes a subjective, not very interesting mode of communication, and she discovers many other ways of making a line. There’s this beautiful quote by Barnett Newman where he says that he felt free, at one point, to make any kind of line, and I think Lygia Clark felt the same way. And she later on would then create lines by cutting into panels. You know, she would never really go back and do anything less mechanical than this. But basically, by just creating a space between two panels and creating a line that way
PERCHUK: Well, you can see now, when you look at the two panels, that the line is not truly straight anymore. And whether it was originally a straight line or not, certainly, the line is formed by the two panels not completely—
CUNO: [over Perchuk] And that line is a shadow…
CUNO: …of space in there, yeah.
GOTTSCHALLER: And we need to come back to the color. I’m sorry to interrupt you.
GOTTSCHALLER: You know, one thing that we as conservators think about a lot is if you decide to use car paints, you’re a lot more limited in what kinds of hues you can use. So if this palette wouldn’t have been to her liking, of course, she wouldn’t have used them. But by choosing to work with something industrial, she also agreed to using something that is quite opaque. Oil is much more transparent, so you can layer, in a way that you can’t with opaque paints. And you know, I suppose to some degree, you could mix a green with a brown, but you know, you will not be able to create a really pure hue if you use—
CUNO: [over Gottschaller ] And that was intentional on her part. That’s what attracted her to the paint, huh?
GOTTSCHALLER: She certainly accepted it.
CUNO: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
LEARNER: It’s very hard to answer that question, Jim, about, you know, what an artist intended. I mean, you can try and look at readings and everything. But I think Pia’s right. This was a surface quality that was used and she accepted it. And I think what’s—one of the things that we found with the very preliminary investigation in this painting is that it’s one thing to say we found what we think is a car paint compared to an oil paint. But different paints often need very different types of application. I mean, in this case in particular, it’s a very, very fluid paint, it’s very runny. It’s designed to dry very quickly. And the very best applications of a car is to have the paint sprayed. And to prevent, you know, runs of paint and drips, it has to be sprayed very, very thinly, and very, very many layers. And we see this in this painting. It’s possible to look at layer structure in works of art. A fragment is literally removed and embedded in a resin. It’s then turned ninety degrees on its side, so you’re looking down through the actual layers of the paint that have been put on top of each other. And then by sanding, grinding, you can get this very, very smooth surface. But when you look through a microscope, you see perfectly the layer structure, the order in which the layers were applied. And you see very clearly, things like if a paint can be redissolved when another layer’s put on top. So when Pia was talking about nitrocellulose that can’t be applied, brushed on top of the other, that’s ’cause if you brush it, you redissolve the layer beneath it. But if you spray it, then you don’t actually have a physical contact, and you can build up a beautiful, opaque, glossy layer in that way.
CUNO: [over Learner] And I guess you could also determine whether this dark green or this olive green, you know, whether they were always that—those two separate greens, [Learner: Yeah] or whether they were different greens that turned to this color that we’re looking at.
GOTTSCHALLER: In this particular case, actually, in ultraviolet light, you can see, based on the different degrees to which materials fluoresce, that there was a different shape on the part of the light green—what’s now light green and the brown. And when I took a cross-section here at the intersection, I could see that there’s a bright pink underneath.
CUNO: A bright pink?
CUNO: Goodness gracious.
GOTTSCHALLER: I haven’t, you know, done any more analysis on it. I don’t know if it’s also nitrocellulose or something else, but it’s startling.
CUNO: Wow. Lygia Clark doesn’t seem like a pink girl, [Gottschaller: No (chuckles)] if you know what I’m saying.
LEARNER: I mean, that’s something we’ve been finding on many of the works, where we’ve been looking not—you don’t always have to take a cross-section; you can literally look through a microscope. And you often do see very different colors beneath the existing, you know, color that you’re seeing on top. This is true of both the Argentinian and the Brazilian artists. So that’s one of the really nice things we’re piecing together. If we can figure out, you know, whether some of these works were—would look very, very different, then the artist would’ve actually gone on and changed colors, or this was a very rapid cha—you know, playing with color as he or she were working with composition. But it’s come up quite a bit, and often the colors are very different to what you’re seeing on the surface.
CUNO: Now, I think we’ve come to a good place to stop. But I’ll ask you each something about the next steps, because we want to come back in a number of weeks and to see what you’ve learned or what questions you’ve—now are pursuing, because this the nature of an exhibition. The exhibition begins with a set of presumptions and a set of issues that one wants to explore, and in the process of exploring these presumptions, these issues, others pop up. And one learns more in the process. What’s the next step in the exhibition?
LEARNER: I think the next step in the exhibition is doing that really difficult thing of making choices about what we’re trying to show. We have two galleries. It’s not a big exhibition. We have forty-seven-odd works to choose from. And we’re just trying to figure out the themes we really wanna focus in on. The exhibition will have to function as a—
CUNO: [over Learner] Art historical themes?
LEARNER: Well, and [Cuno: Scientific themes?] technical themes, too, yes. I mean, we’ve been talking about quite a few of those questions today, but in the setting of an exhibition, you can really only, you know, choose one or two and do those in depth. I think some of the things, like the various ways that the sharp edge, the straight lines were being drawn is something that we can probably talk about quite visually.
CUNO: Yeah. Andrew, what about you?
PERCHUK: One of the major questions is how this work should be displayed. These artists clearly did not want their work to be thought of as easel paintings hung at eye level, which is now, you know, sort of standard museum practice. Do you recreate what they historically did, sometimes hanging things by wires or other things? Or do you give a flavor of that, without making it seem like a ersatz historical recreation? I think that’s one of the main questions.
CUNO: And Pia, we started this podcast by talking about the title of the exhibition. You defended yourself by saying it’s a working title. Do you anticipate having a title next time we talk?
GOTTSCHALLER: [laughs] I think we must. No, definitely. Because I, as Tom also said, I’m doing the actual examinations of the works, and I’ve only done half of them. So I feel under a lot of pressure to get to the end of that, and then also write an essay for the exhibition catalog. And I very—you know, I know that I will feel a lot more comfortable saying what I think the overarching theme is once I’ve really looked at everything.
CUNO: Yeah, yeah, I’m sure. Okay. Pia Gottschaller, Tom Learner, Andrew Perchuk, thank you very much. We’ll see ya in a few weeks.
We’ll pick up this conversation in the next part of this series when I check in to see how the exhibition is progressing, and most importantly, to find out whether Tom, Pia, and Andrew have settled on an exhibition title.
Our theme music comes from “The Dharma at Big Sur,” composed by John Adams for the opening of the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles in 2003. It is licensed with permission from Hendon Music. Look for new episodes of Art and Ideas every other Wednesday. Subscribe on iTunes, Google Play, and SoundCloud or visit getty.edu/podcasts for more resources. Thanks for listening.
JIM CUNO: Hello, I’m Jim Cuno, president of the J. Paul Getty Trust. Welcome to Art and Ideas, a podcast in which I speak to artists, conservators, authors, and scholars about their work.
TOM LEARNER: We have two galleries. We have forty-seven-odd works to choose from. And we’re ju...