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In this article, the poet, painter and art critic Juan Calzadilla provides a broad historical overview of the major changes in Venezuelan avant-garde art, focusing especially on the shift from figurative schools to abstract and participatory strategies in the late 50s/early 60s. The essay examines both institutional forces and artistic strategies, arguing that avant-garde group galleries like the Sala Mendoza offered welcome alternatives to the state-run Museum of Fine Arts. The Sala Mendoza, founded in 1957, produced several key exhibitions that facilitated the spread of avant-garde styles like abstraction and constructivism in Caracas. He also discusses the influence of artists’ alliances such as Los Disidentes (formed in 1950) in this transmission. Despite inter-generational conflicts among Venezuelan artists regarding the importance of figurative art, the paradigm of geometric abstraction was firmly in place by the end of the 1950s and ready to give way to more participatory strategies.
Juan Calzadilla co-founded the avant-garde group El Techo de la Ballena (Caracas, 1961-68) and was heavily involved in the Sala Mendoza from its inception. He argues that smaller galleries like Sala Mendoza were instrumental in shifting public attention away from large institutions and Caracas’s Museum of Fine Arts. The latter institution supported the Caracas School, which was the main artery of artistic expression in Venezuela and was almost exclusively figurative. Calzadilla pays close attention to transnational forces that shaped the Caracas art scene, particularly the influence of The Dissidents, an international group of artists that formed in 1950 in Paris and whose Venezuelan members facilitated the spread of abstract and concrete styles. He also emphasizes the role of collaboration and participation in Venezuelan art from 1957 to the mid-60s, noting Carlos Raúl Villanueva's design for the Universidad Central de Venezuela in 1940s, which incorporated work by 28 avant-garde artists, creating a framework for the integration of arts and urban space that characterized the Venezuelan 60s. Another structural force was the shift of the center of advanced art from Paris to New York, which facilitated the spread of movements like Op, Pop, and conceptual art within Caracas. [For more on Villanueva’s project, see ICAA digital archive (doc. no.864316). For more essays by Calzadilla regarding shifts in Caracas’ art scene, see (doc. no. 865589)].
Calzadilla’s narrative of the art history of this period is a networked one, focusing on institutions like galleries that acted as organs for advanced art. He uses the model of the "sala", or living room, as a framework for understanding the art of this moment. As a direct collaborator with many of the artists mentioned in the article and a central figure in Caracas' artistic and literary scene, Calzadilla’s perspective is uniquely valuable. His insight into the relationships between museum salons, juried exhibitions, and emerging galleries, for example, is based on direct observation; one section contains several notations of artists’ approaches to the publicity-making potential. From Calzadilla’s account it is clear that the approval of avant-garde groups like Los Disidentes was vital to artists’ survival from the late 1950s onward; most purely academic artists were ignored by critics despite fame and honors received. Readers have a particularly strong sense of the Sala Mendoza and its descendants in relation to Venezuelan art history, as well as to the revisions of value that took place.