Home > Art > 
Madrid exhibition

Geometric Abstraction in Latin America

11 February to 15 May 2011

Colorhythm 45A
Alejandro Otero:
Colorhythm 45A – 1960
Duco paint on wood


Any discussion of art produced in Latin America, perhaps especially within the tradition of geometric abstraction, seems condemned to engage with questions of context and locale, and by extension, the thornier issues of originality and derivation, or invention and copy. In this essay I would like to take a case study involving the relationship between European and Argentine artists of the 1930s and 1940s, specifically through a group of works by Alfredo Hlito, Georges Vantongerloo, and Richard Paul Lohse, to analyze how images and ideas travel through time and space, and how we try to attribute meaning according to the interface between artistic intention, context, and history.

In the case of Latin America this question of context has been one of the fault lines along which different approaches and ideologies have formed. For some, Latin America is a context in its totality, constructed separate from and in opposition to a so-called “West” (Europe and North America). In this model Latin America is necessarily a place of difference, a contemporary El Dorado where art will do all the things it doesn’t do elsewhere: full of the eternal promise of the real and the oppositional. But this model is also limited as the true cultural geography of artworks consists of a combination of physical contact and coincidence, and also virtual networks, influences that travel via publications, discussions, letters, magazines, and so many other mechanisms that create a web of influences and debates that supersede a city’s limits. Then, of course, there is the model that entirely de-contextualizes the work in favor of a purely formal analysis, which has the advantage of often being closer to the artist’s stated intention at the expense of a more complex historical study. What is clear is that context can mean many different things, and that the configuration of these things will inevitably have an effect on the reading of an artwork and therefore on its place in art history.

Before this becomes too abstract, I’d like to propose the following conundrum: four works produced by three different artists in three different contexts [fig. 1, 2, 3, 4]. Without attributions and dates, it is near impossible to guess which was painted in Paris in 1937, which in Zurich in 1945, and which in Buenos Aires in 1947 and 1949. The works are so similar in style, format, and technique that they are virtually indistinguishable, even to the trained eye.

The question of context and Latin America/Europe is further complicated by the implicit universalism of abstract art in general, and the inscription of this tradition within a region (Latin America) that has often been considered too ‘backward’ to participate fully in anything other than folkloric or magical realist art. Up until the 1990s Latin American abstraction was generally dismissed from international discussion of Latin American art for being too cosmopolitan, too internationalist, and therefore not ‘Latin American’ enough (whatever that may mean). Nevertheless, in the case of Alfredo Hlito’s homeland, Argentina, these abstract works of the 1940s were often interpreted as a triumphant moment in which Argentina ‘caught up’ with the rest of the world.

For the Argentine artists of the 1940s, the search for an objective, non-representational language of art was inseparable from their political agenda. As sympathizers of the extreme left, the members of the Asociación Arte Concreto-Invención (including Alfredo Hlito) founded in 1946 had declared their intention to rid art of all vestiges of illusionism in order to make it an effective weapon in the class struggle. The Argentines’crusade for art’s autonomy was a direct equivalent of the battle for social justice and a key weapon in a broader political struggle. The geometric order represented in the works was a symbol of the new social order that would be collective, objective, and rationally structured.

In mid-century Europe, in contrast, the implications of concrete art were rather different, and this may be partly due to the direct experience of war, from which Argentina was spared.

Given this fundamental ideological difference between the Swiss and the Argentine artists, we might ask ourselves why the works look so similar. What I think was happening is that both groups were working in the same formal vocabulary, but with different intentions and diverse backgrounds. Swiss works [fig. 10], we see a concern above all with color, and more specifically with variations between colors. One of the results of this is that many of these works implicitly continue beyond the limits of the frame, as fragments of a larger series extendable beyond the artwork itself. If we look at a sketch by Hlito [fig. 11] we can see almost the opposite process, where the geometric composition is more important than the colors and the relationships. There is clearly a concern to relate the composition to an elementary system, and also to place it in dialogue with the frame.

So if we have seen how apparently similar works can have diverse intentions shaped by contextual factors, this also begs the question of how ideas flow between different contexts, and how that information is then understood.

In 1953, Alfredo Hlito traveled to Europe and came across his first real Mondrian painting. The effect was traumatic and instant. The 1940s paintings of Hlito, Maldonado, and his colleagues in Buenos Aires, the painted surface is invariably flat and pure.

We might ask ourselves why Vantongerloo and Lohse also painted in flat and perfect planes when they must have seen Mondrian’s work close up. Surely they had seen the originals, the difference is that they would also, like Hlito in 1947, have been looking for a pure expression of geometry and the articulation of grid within which to create serial variations. Perhaps context boils down to, rather than geography, nationality, distance, or borders, a question of reading seen through a lens of desire.

(Extracted from Invention and Reinvention: The Transatlantic Dialogue in Geometric Abstraction, by Gabriel Pérez-Barreiro (catalogue). This essay is a reworking of a paper presented at the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University, on April 15, 2010, under the title “The Reinvention of European Abstraction in Argentina 1944–1950.” I am grateful to Mary Kate O’Hare for her helpful readings of the early drafts.