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 episode, we talk with Pia Gottschaller, senior research specialist at the Getty Conservation Institute, and Andrew Perchuck, deputy director, and Zanna Gilbert, research specialist, of the Getty Research Institute. We focus on the exhibition title, relationship between concrete art and poetry, and cultural context in which these works were made.
More to Explore
Concrete Art in Argentina and Brazil GCI project
Modern Abstract Art in Argentina and Brazil GCI article
Featured works in this episode:
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.
ANDREW PERCHUK: What we’re doing is really bringing a whole new knowledge, a new way of doing art history by combining the technical and the interpretive.
CUNO: In this episode, I speak with Pia Gottschaller of the Getty Conservation Institute, and Andrew Perchuk and Zanna Gilbert of the Getty Research Institute in part two of a conversation 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.
A few months ago we met to discuss the development of the Getty exhibition of geometric abstract paintings made in Uruguay, Argentina, and Brazil during the second and third quarters of the 20th century.
The idea was to get together every few months to see how the exhibition was coming, what discoveries were made, and what old ideas were abandoned.
In our previous conversation, we discussed various questions the paintings raised regarding the materials with which they were made, the means of their manufacture and installation, and what tentative conclusions Tom Learner and Pia Gottschaller of the Conservation Institute, and Andrew Perchuk of the Research Institute, had reached by that time in the development of the exhibition.
Today, in our second conversation we’ll be having about this project, I’ll be discussing with Andrew, Pia, and Zanna Gilbert, research specialist in modern Latin American art at the Getty Research Institute, about the broader cultural context in which the paintings were made and first seen in the dynamic, cosmopolitan centers of the rapidly modernizing, post-World War II capitals of Latin America.
At the time of the first episode, the working title for the exhibition was The Material of Form. I started this conversation by asking if the title had changed.
PERCHUK: Well, putting up with my rather rudimentary Spanish, it is Limites Concretos: Postwar Abstraction in Argentina and Brazil.
CUNO: What compelled the change in title?
PERCHUK: Well, a few reasons. Switching to English, “concrete limit,” which would be the English translation of “limites concretos,” is very much about what the works in the exhibition are about, both on a quite literal level, in the sense that much of this Concrete art was—
CUNO: Which is the term that was used at the time, right?, [Perchuk: Which is the term that was used at the time] to define this art.
PERCHUK: Correct, right. I mean, abstraction was not a term in particular that the Argentinian artists liked to use.
ZANNA GILBERT: Yeah, so the artists were very concerned to differentiate themselves from being called “abstract artists.” And they used the term “concrete” instead of the term “abstract,” because they weren’t abstracting from reality; they were inventing. So they—
CUNO: [over Gilbert] And is that true of all the artists in this exhibition, or was it true of the dominant artists in the exhibition?
GILBERT: That goes for the Argentine artists in the exhibition. And the Brazilian artists, all from a slightly later period, but they’re also making work in the concrete and later, neo-concrete vein.
CUNO: What do they mean by “concrete?”
GILBERT: This is a subject of much discussion. One of their main aims was to try to make art objects that would be a part of their everyday world. So there was concern for making something that would be part of concrete reality. And there are references to, you know, as much as an airport sign or something like that. So there’s this concern for, you know, being part of the everyday world.
CUNO: Did it have any association with concrete, the material, and the use of the material in modern architecture? Was there any kind of modernity about concrete as a material?
GILBERT: We specifically didn’t use the term “concrete art” because we didn’t want to—people to think that it was art made of concrete. There is no direct relationship between our works and the material concrete. But in—there is a relationship between the building of Brasilia, for example, and—the great modernist city, capital city of Brazil, which used concrete. So there were parallels drawn with these kind of great moves in architecture.
PERCHUK: But as Zanna’s suggesting, concrete limits, the desire not to separate works of art from the everyday, meant that the limit of the work itself became one of the most important aspects that artists concentrated on. I think it’s also the idea of the limits of concrete art. So many of these artists, both in Brazil and Argentina, there was an enormous social—these were revolutionary and, to certain degree, utopian. And the idea was, for many of them, that these artworks could figure in in the restructuring of society. And how much they were able to, or what the limits of concrete art or any art as a social force is another aspect to the…
CUNO: So was it a kind of an aesthetic or was it an intellectual distinction you were trying to make from the previous title, The Material of Form, to the new title?
GILBERT: I think it was a bit of both. And The Material of Form is still the name of our research project, actually, you know, which is broader than the exhibition itself. But we really wanted to, you know, just start again with the title, knowing that that title didn’t have to be the name of the exhibition as well as the name of the research project. And one of the things that I think is extremely interesting that Pia has written about in her essay is the gap between the discourse of the artists and their actual execution of their works.
So they were very bombastic about their claims and, you know, there’s a lot of rhetoric. And you know, what the exhibition title, the new exhibition title of Limites Concretos suggests is, you know, what were the material limits of what they’re able to achieve in relationship to their claims and hopes and desires, you know, of what their artworks would get to.
CUNO: Well, that gets us to Pia. I want to ask a question, because you’re a conservator in the company that we’re talking with today, of course, you’re the only conservator. So that you’re principally concerned with the materials of the works of art themselves and the properties of the paintings and the objects in the exhibition. And since we last spoke about all of this you’ve had time to examine the paintings more closely and in more detail, and even to speak with some of the surviving artists. You’ve had conversations with at least one that I know that we talked with the other day. So what do you know now about the paintings that you didn’t know some four months ago?
PIA GOTTSCHALLER: First of all, I would say that I feel somewhat more confident making more generalizing—you know, coming to some more generalizing conclusions about what they were up to. Because as you know if you start to work in a new field, it takes a while until you feel, especially as a conservator, where you need to look very closely at the original objects. So it takes a while, until you’ve actually been able to look at so many works by the same artists, that you feel you begin to see what was usual for somebody to do and what was maybe very unusual. If you just have one work and there’s something very exotic about it, it’s very hard to know if that was, however, a regular practice of the artist. So in that sense, I feel I’ve come a way. You know, coming back to one subject that we discussed in the other podcast, I said that we found that the Argentine artists, working also a few years earlier than the Brazilian artists, that they were for the most part using traditional artist oil paints. And that still holds true. But because we’ve taken more samples and we’ve been able to do more analysis, it now appears as if there were sort of two subgroups within the group, with Alfredo Hlito and Tomás Maldonado still being very, you know, classically trained. And when I spoke to Maldonado, he actually made a point of saying that he was trained at the academy, that he’s a technically conservative artist. And he sort of took some pride in that. And they knew how to prepare a canvas and they liked working on canvas. While Rothfuss, the Uruguayan artist who worked with or was associated with them, and Raúl Lozza also worked with house paint. And Lozza is maybe a particularly interesting case, because he worked out over time that a mixture of house paint and traditional oil paint gave him the ideal paint. Because on the one hand, he required the paint to have a certain intensity of hue. He wanted, you know, because house paints very often have a lot of extenders and cheap materials in them that make them less brilliant in color. The oil paints generally have a lot more pigment and a lot less additives. And the house paint on the other hand dries more quickly and allowed him to polish these individual elements that he liked to work with in this period.
CUNO: And did they—did he like the house paint for its material properties? Or was it less expensive and more available? It was a new—
GOTTSCHALLER: [over Cuno] I suspect both, yeah. ’Cause I think that’s not always the most glamorous conclusion to come to, but I think cost was a big factor for all of them. Certainly, for the Argentines, but also for the Brazilians later on when importing paints became—you know, made them extremely expensive. And so yes, I think economic considerations are always involved. But in Lozza, I find it interesting that he sort of picked the two primary qualities of both paints to combine them to make the ideal paint for him.
PERCHUK: But one of the the fascinating things you could talk about is how the house paint is made not to show brushstrokes and the [Gottschaller: Yes] hand.
GOTTSCHALLER: Yeah. Adding the house paint to the traditional oil paints from the tube also means that you have an easier time applying a paint that is self-leveling, that doesn’t preserve brushwork in the same way. So that helped him, because he was trying to, like many of them, trying to create surfaces that were as devoid of individual handwriting and subjectivity as possible.
CUNO: Zanna, I want to ask you a question because you’ve come to the project recently.
So you’re new, at least to our conversation about it all, and you’ve come as a specialist in this area, as a specialist in the avant-garde of Latin American painting and literature, I think, and perhaps music as well. So what questions did you bring to this team that weren’t being asked before?
GILBERT: Well, I think I came already with an interest in archives and documents, particularly from a curatorial perspective. So you know, trying to understand how is the best way to show the kinds of material that you find in the Getty Research Institute’s special collections, and how that could inform our project, or how we could think about our project in looking from these very material remains—you know, not the paintings, but different kinds of material remains from the period. And one of the things that got me started thinking about this was seeing in a book a photograph of the 1956 exhibition of concrete art in São Paulo, where the poems were hung alongside the works of art. So I just started looking at the relationship between poetry and concrete art in both of the movements and also the sort of multidisciplinary aspects of these movements.
CUNO: Is it the case that in the process of developing the ideas of the exhibition, the first wave of concern was with the material of the paintings themselves? You’ve spent a lot of time looking at them, you’ve spent time to—taking samples from them, whatever you might’ve done. In other words, to understand what it was with the physical remains of this period. Then there were the literary remains that come along that enrich the context in which the physical remains were first considered by you. Is that fair enough, to say it that way, that you proceeded that way in the course of the exhibition?
GILBERT: I think we continue to be very concerned, still, with the paintings and the objects that we’re working with. For me, I think it’s very important, you know, from an art historical perspective and from the perspective of our project and would be a great mark of success of collaboration, if we’re able to really, you know, think about the ways in which these materials might work together or inform each other in a kind of holistic view.
PERCHUK: We don’t want, in these projects, to come in with our minds too set by previous anecdotes, scholarship, other things. We want to start with what the physical object can tell us, but we then wanna go back to the archival material, the artists, the oral histories, and
have a parallel track that digs deeply into primary accounts and historical material. Because one of the interesting things about this project is that the technical analysis that Pia and her team were doing is really completely new to this work. There also hasn’t been a great deal of archival work done on this material, either. And the work that Zanna and others is doing are really leading to new insights, just as much as the technical analysis is.
CUNO: Our conversation turned to a group of literary materials, including a publication called Arturo by Tomás Maldonado, the Argentine artist, with text by Rhod Rothfuss, an Uruguayan artist. Tell us about the text, and tell us about the importance of this publication. And why did it only last one issue, if I’m correct that it lasted just one issue?
GILBERT: Yeah. That’s the mystery. Well, first of all, the magazine Arturo was published in the summer of 1944, which is—in the Southern Hemisphere, you know, could be between January and March. The cover was designed by Tomás Maldonado, and it had an editorial committee that didn’t include him. What’s very interesting about this, which is the first publication of what would later become the concrete art group, is that it has this kind of automatist cover.
CUNO: What do you mean by that?
GILBERT: Well, it’s an expressive drawing, which could bear some comparison with surrealist automatic drawings, [Cuno: Uh-huh] which are made by sort of submitting to the unconscious. But then when you open the inside, in the inside cover is the statement, “invención contra el automatismo.” So, “invention against automatism.” So already, you know, within the first few seconds of encountering this magazine, you know, there are contradictions. And the whole magazine is rife with them. And that’s been much commented upon by art historians.
CUNO: Well, the cover doesn’t look like a Maldonado that I would’ve recognized.
CUNO: So as you described, it’s like automatic drawing. For those who are imagining this listening to the podcast, one might think of, as you say, surrealists, one might think of early Jackson Pollock and that kind of free drawing. Why did he do it if it doesn’t look like what we think of his work generally?
GILBERT: [over Cuno] Well, this is much before—or at least a little bit before the declaration of concrete art and the association with concrete art. And I think at this time, he was very young, still younger than twenty; I think he was nineteen. He’s still experimenting with abstraction. So already, they’re committed to abstraction, which is already a leap in the context that they’re living in. But it’s very interesting to think about it in relation to their—to later works, you know, from a year later, even.
CUNO: He—his later work?
GILBERT: His later works and the rest of the concrete artists. Then the most important contribution to the magazine is, in terms of kind of art historical significance, is the essay by Rhod Rothfuss which is “The Frame: A Problem of Contemporary Art.” And in it, he proposes that the frame is a device that is connected to illusionistic painting, figurative painting, and really can be discarded in the context of abstraction. It’s considered to be a window into the world, and it’s really connected with art all the way back to the Renaissance. So his proposition is to start working with the shaped canvas. And that is an art object in which the composition is the determinate of the shape of the work itself.
CUNO: Right. Was it like a manifesto on his part or just simply an article? [Gilbert: Yeah] Or is he making a case for it?
GILBERT: Yeah, it’s not a manifesto, but he’s making a case, yeah. He’s arguing for it. And subsequently, these artists really adopted that proposition. The reason that they only publish one is a mystery to me. But I think that there were conflicts between the group, and that later saw the division of artists like Maldonado and Hlito and the other group, Kosice, Arden Quin, and Rothfuss. And they split into two. [Cuno: Uh-huh]
CUNO: And what does Arturo mean?
GILBERT: That, again, is a mystery. We were just speculating on that. Actually, it’s interesting that I haven’t read any accounts that, you know, give us a reason for the naming of the magazine.
CUNO: We then looked at a concrete poem titled Lygia by the Brazilian poet Augusto de Compos from the Poetemenos series from 1953. De Campos was a concrete poet. I asked Zanna about his association with the development of the term “concrete” as it was applied to different art forms.
GILBERT: As we discussed before, concrete art was already in existence, you know, from the thirties and in Argentina in the forties. And then, you know, in the fifties, it was employed by the artists in Brazil. And in particular, in relation to the architecture as I mentioned. They were very interested in internationalism as well, they were interested in color and composition and the gestalt, and they were intimately connected with the Brazilian artists that are part of our study. So we can see a lot of common interests. And one of the greatest, I think is this attempt to not have traces of individualism in the work. So they all use the same font in their poems. They don’t sign them individually. You really can’t tell the difference between one poet’s poem and another by looking at them. Or really by reading them or experiencing them. They were interested in the sonic and visual qualities of—
CUNO: [over Gilbert] Well, describe to us the visual qualities of the poem and why it would have some bearing, some relationship to the paintings.
GILBERT: So in the case of the work that we have here in front of us, it’s actually a love poem, but not as you know it. And each of the words is colored—the text is a different color. So “Lygia” is in red and the next word, “finge,” is in green. And these words are not arranged in a traditional right-to-left sequence for reading, but they’re arranged on the page as a composition, a visual composition.
CUNO: And is the color determined by the visual composition or by the meaning of the word?
GILBERT: Both. Yeah. In terms of when to stress. And they’re very interested in the rhythm. So when this poem would be read, you would hear gaps between each of the words, and then in some cases, they’d be read all as one word. So there’s a definite play, in terms of the physical experience, the kind of sonic experience of the work. In some cases, the color—the use of a color—two colors within one word picks out another word within the word. So if you’re—for example, let me use the English example at the bottom. This poem is written in five different languages. And the last line reads, “So only lonely t t.” So in this case, you know, there’s this play of sounds. But in this text, the “ly” of “only” and the “ly” of “lonely” are in red, whereas the rest of the text is in blue. So it’s trying to emphasize the “ly, ly,” the sound.
This is actually one of the series that was exhibited as part of the concrete exhibition in 1956 that I mentioned before. Not this exact one, because they made what they called “poster poems.” But what I think is very interesting for us, in relation to the paintings, is that they redeployed their poems across time. So they may have written the poem in 19—so he wrote this poem in 1953, or he composed it. But then there’s another edition in 1968, where maybe he intervenes in it and he changes some of the words from Portuguese to French. And then there’s another version of it, in which Caetano Veloso is performing it in, you know, the next iteration. And then there’s another iteration. So something I think that has challenged us is thinking about the authenticity of the works and, you know, whether they were made on a given date, or if later on, they reworked them, or if they conceived of the work at a given date, and later on executed them in terms of the painted objects. So we’re really thinking about that in terms of their methodology.
CUNO: Were they equally sound pieces as visual pieces?
GILBERT: In the case of the concrete poems? [Cuno: Yeah] Certainly, yeah.
CUNO: So they had readings, and they had readings in the galleries with the paintings, or—?
GILBERT: I don’t know. In the case of the concrete art exhibition in 1956, I don’t know if they were ever performed. That’s something that would be really interesting to find out. In the case of the concrete artists in Argentina, they had recitals. Most of the Madí artists’s exhibitions were introduced or closed by a recital of concrete music.
CUNO: Ah, so we introduce another exhibition group and a name to this podcast, Madí. Andrew or Pia, you wanna tell us about the Madí group and what distinguishes that group from the others?
GOTTSCHALLER: Well, all of these artists seemed to have been very strong personalities. And so the Madí group underwent a split, at one point. But initially, after the Madí artists, Kosice, Rothfuss, and Arden Quin had split away from the Argentine concrete artists, they underwent another split, when Arden Quin moved to Paris in 1948. And he and Kosice both came, but they were the sort of founding fathers and—and so from that moment on, there were basically two Madí groups, one in Europe and one in Buenos Aires. The Madí artists were—had a more playful side to them. They were interested in Dada, which the others weren’t. They were interested in making moveable sculptures that really involved the viewer to be physic—like there’s this beautiful sculpture by Kosice called Röyi which consists of a number of wooden pieces that are bolted together but they remain movable. And the viewers, the visitors, are invited to make their own sculpture as it were.
CUNO: So you have, in the process of this exhibition, come to terms with the exhibition. You’ve spent some time with the objects themselves, and you came to understand the material conditions of them, the material manufacture of them and so on. And then you put them into context with the literary materials, kind of to enhance the kind of art historical context for them, and you begin to map out the relationships between the individuals and the centers of production, whether Buenos Aires, wherever that might be, and so forth. Did you find, Pia, as a conservator, and in the process of, all of you, writing this technical art history, there being technical relationships of real interest and revelation for you, between the painted works you were looking at and the literary materials that you associated with them? Other than the kind of general one that we were talking about the de Campos and the kind of colored poetry?
GOTTSCHALLER: Yes, I would say that was definitely the case. You know, they’re even—because most of them were sort of very left-leaning Marxist, sometimes, you know, Communist party card-carrying members, they felt very strongly about dialectical materialism. And even though that’s not the same as, you know, materialism when I think about it, I would say that the eternal conflict that every visual artist is in, where on the one hand, you have, you know, high-flying utopian ideals about how you want an artwork to be, you know, dissociated from reality and a thing of its own that can be appreciate by any member of society, who maybe has never even see another abstract artwork before, and on the other hand, however, having to realize these very idealist aims is tricky. And Umberto Eco, at one point, wrote very beautifully about this gap between the intention of the artist and the actual execution. And that’s where you often find the most interesting moments in an artist’s creative career, where this gap—where the artist moves to the gap and when he or she moves out again, and what that gap actually is.
PERCHUK: Something that Zanna and Pia and I have been talking about this connection between the literature and the visual arts, is what concrete means in both, in the sense that in the poetry, they don’t use a lyrical language. They use a very concrete, everyday language. And just as the artists used everyday materials and wanted their works very much to be within an everyday and not a fine art environment—not museum objects, but objects of everyday use. And then something that I know Pia and Zanna have been thinking about are the whole question of individuality versus collectivity in both groups. That as Zanna’s pointed out, the poets didn’t sign their work and used the same font, so that it was—made it difficult to tell one individual from another. And Pia’s looked quite a bit at how the artists have either made their work unique or not.
GOTTSCHALLER: Or not, yeah. The different degrees of desire to eliminate any trace of the hand. So in Argentina in the beginning, I would say, it’s not so pronounced. And the artists we were discussing already were actually okay with having brushwork seen as an indicator of the fact that it was handmade by an individual. And then as you move on, some artists, especially the ones in São Paulo who very often also had careers as graphic designers and architect and lithographers, they did a lot of polishing, for example, in order to get rid of those traces again. And then later on, in the neo-concretist period, we have two examples from Lygia Clark, who then started using a spray gun or craftsmen that she asked to execute the work for her. Because she desired to create surfaces and work with materials like car lacquers, that are everyday, as Zanna was saying. But they’re actually requiring of a great skill. You know, it’s very difficult to spray paint a car well, without making and tears and things like that. So she outsourced that to other people. But she still insists—and that’s what I maybe also meant by the gap—but she still insisted on making them, on having them made by a craftsman with his hands or her hands rather than having a machine make them.
CUNO: We then turned to a larger discussion about technical art history, that is, looking at the material properties of an artwork and how they inform our understanding of a work’s meaning and art historical importance. This is something that art historians—or museum-based art historians, in any case—are increasingly interested in, but it’s something that is not often explored in great depth in exhibitions. I asked how the conservation aspects of this project will be represented in the exhibition.
GOTTSCHALLER: I think our aim is to present some that information to the visitors of the exhibition, which in—you know, is a bit of a challenge, because in many cases, the things that we’re finding are either on a minute scale, on a microscopic scale, or are requiring the visitors to walk up really closely to the surface, where they can see for themselves what it is that we’re talking about. But one way that this kind of information has been presented to visitors in the past in a very successful way, it seems, was in the Pollock exhibition, where a number of videos were made, each one focusing on a particular subject. And the videos were displayed in a separate room. I think what we would maybe go for is to have a number of stations in the exhibition space so that viewers can listen and look at the same time.
CUNO: Andrew, from an art historian’s point of view, how do you see the interrelationship between—or the showing in the galleries, between the technical material, the technical information, and the paintings themselves?
PERCHUK: Well, I think it’s one of the really interesting challenges of the project, ’cause I think it’s very important that the artworks, for the viewers, work as artworks and not as illustrations of a technical analysis. Their importance is not just whether they were polished or made with house paint, but really, that they work on an intellectual and aesthetic level. At the same time, what we’re doing is really bringing a whole new knowledge, a new way of doing art history by combining the technical and the interpretive.
CUNO: I guess I’m hearing from you that this interest in and maybe even emphasis on the technical investigation into these works of art, is not arbitrary, but is actually central to a somewhat greater understanding of the ambitions of the artists at the time or what they intended their works to suggest or to represent. So it’s got to be—got to be in there. But it’s also, as I understand it, there’s going to be a publication after the exhibition opens that’ll be the result of sustained research. Because I don’t know that the people listening to the podcast know that essays have to be delivered up to the editor of the catalogue about a year in advance of the exhibition itself. So that doesn’t mean you stop research at that point. You continue to do research. And once the exhibition is up and you’re looking at all these works of art in the room and you’re talking to people, and you might have a conference, people come and so forth. And you’ll be thinking about new things and new information will come up, and things you hadn’t thought of, you’ll think up at that point. So are you going to put some of that into a second publication? Like a conference paper publication or something. Tell us about that.
PERCHUK: Well, I think one of the more exciting parts of this project is that at the Getty in Los Angeles, we have about fifty works from the Patty Cisneros collection, the greatest private collection of this work. But in terms of the larger Material of Form project that we were talking about before, we also have partners, teams of conservators, scientists, art historians, working both in Buenos Aires and in São Paulo who are studying additional works in public collections there. And the larger project, the publication that will come afterwards, combines the research of all three—we hope will combine the research of all three groups.
CUNO: Yeah, well, we’re gonna come together again one more time with this podcast. And that’ll be when the pictures are hung in the galleries. And it will be interesting to see what decisions you’ve made about putting it in the galleries and how you’ve come to some conclusion about integrating the technical materials and information in the galleries as well. So I want to thank you for the time you’ve given us this afternoon, and we look forward to seeing you again in about twelve months.
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.
ANDREW PERCHUK: What we’re doing is really bringing a whole new knowledge, a new way of doing ...