Documents of 20th-century Latin American and Latino Art

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Editorial Framework

The following research topics have guided researchers during the recovery phase and continue to be the impetus behind the Digital Archive and the Critical Documents book series. Developed by the project’s Editorial Board, each of the teams analyzed this framework and adapted it to their local contexts in developing their research objectives and work plans during the Recovery Phase.

A. Resisting Categories: Latin American and/or Latino?

The debates of the last decade have brought increasing attention to the complete inadequacy of terms such as “Latin American” or “Latino” to convey the complexity of these cultural groups. Indeed, these terms are nothing but reductive constructs aimed at homogenizing the complex identities of these groups into easily marketable or consumable identities. Latin American and Latinos are not circumscribed to single, homogeneous entities contained within national, community, or regional borders. Instead, these groups embody a discontinuous, fragmented ensemble of more than twenty countries, as well as a multiplicity of races, indigenous groups, and migrant communities. Despite the tendency to conflate them, the marked differences between these two groups resist almost any form of categorization. Documents in this category lay the groundwork for the archive by gathering in one volume writings by artists and critics since the beginning of the twentieth century that critically address issues of what it means to be “Latin American” or “Latino.”

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B. National Imaginaries/Cosmopolitan Identities

From the early decades of the twentieth century until the 1980s, the discourses of nationalism and modern nation-building served to frame artistic manifestations in Latin America and in the Latino United States. During this period, a large number of artists sought to give expression to a repressed national or communal ethos. While many of them engaged the most advanced artistic vocabularies of their time, others reverted to conservative local or vernacular traditions. In most cases, however, the articulation of a national or communal imaginary went hand in hand with their desire to transcend the constraints of peripheral societies or marginalized communities and to position themselves on an equal footing on the international stage. The tension between the “national” and the “universal” or, in other parameters, “tradition” and “modernity,” is thus a productive and flexible category capable of engaging a host of artistic manifestations that escape the more strict guidelines of Modernism or the Avant-garde. Mapping out this category will entail focusing on how these antinomies play out vis-à-vis specific local or regional contexts.

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C. Recycling and Hybridity in the Art of Latino-America

In Latino communities, as well as in most Latin American societies, the distinction between high and low art, or cultivated versus popular, has been far more elusive than in Europe or the United States. In most Latin American countries, as well as in Latino communities in the United States, uneven levels of modernization set the stage for the dynamic coexistence of the most sophisticated manifestations of avant-garde art with popular forms grounded in indigenous, agrarian, or other traditional social formations. In addition, the collision between secular art forms and spiritual and religious iconography has been a consistent artistic strategy in the work of both Latin American and Latino artists. The blurring of high and low was already present in the 1920s in movements such as Mexican Muralism and the Brazilian Semana de Arte Moderna. Yet it was not until the 1960s and 1970s when this operation achieved a fully original, creative status of its own. Spurred by the worldwide ascendance of Pop Art, artists from Latin America and the Latino United States responded with forms of art grounded in the recycling of religious and non-religious symbols with materials from both modern and vernacular forms of popular culture. The result was a shift of the market-oriented thrust of Pop Art into parodic forms that directly engaged the cultural and spiritual values of local audiences. The strength with which this phenomenon manifested itself across the cultural formations that we can characterize as inherent to Latino-America may work as a powerful matrix to re-envision and redefine some of the most important movements and artists of the last four decades.

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D. Issues of Race, Class, and Gender in the Visual Arts of Latino-America

The concern with issues of race, class, gender, and ethnicity has been an integral part of artists’ experiences and pronouncements in Latin America since the colonial period. The affiliation of the Chicano and Puerto Rican movements with the Civil Rights movement (1960s–1970s) led artists from these communities to denunciate early on all forms of discrimination. More recently, multiculturalism focused attention on the pervasiveness of racism in hegemonic institutions and discursive frameworks. Indeed, both in the United States as well as in most Latin American countries, art-historical discourse, constrained by outmoded forms of cultural essentialism or formal aestheticism, has taken little stock of the extent to which these inequalities have impacted artistic production in the region. And yet, since the late nineteenth century, artists’ testimonies and pronouncements were fraught with references to race or class, as well as with the awareness of the plight of groups or communities victimized by racism or class discrimination.

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E. Art, Activism, and Social Change

In Latin America, art has never enjoyed the degree of autonomy achieved in Europe since the late eighteenth century or in the United States a century and a half later. The precarious social and political conditions of these countries, together with very weak artistic infrastructures, forced a resistant form of activism on the part of generations of artists who saw themselves and their art as agents for social change. This activism became more pronounced in the twentieth century as a result of the impact throughout the region of two major revolutions: the Mexican Revolution of 1910–1917 and the Cuban Revolution of 1959. Activism was also fueled by the imperial presence of the United States as a threatening force in the region, particularly during the post-World War II period. During the Cold War period, in particular, pervasiveness of this activist posture in Latin American art led to the characterization and consequent marginalization of this art as “political”—versus “formally” or “aesthetically” engaged—art. To this date, however, there has been no attempt to elucidate the special character and specific manifestations of politically active art in the region.

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F. Suprarealism, Magic Realism, and the Fantastic

Within the prevailing canon of Modernism, the Surrealist movement provides the only window into understanding the cultural and ideological differences that separated Latin American and Latino artists from their European and North American counterparts. Even though the original Surrealist movement had no more than a handful of practitioners on the continent, both its artistic and political ideology shaped mainstream interpretations of Latin American art from the 1930s until today, becoming the skeleton key for the stereotype of “the fantastic.” In Latin America, however, both André Breton’s programmatic teachings and Surrealist approach became the focus of heated intellectual debates. In-depth research into the writings of key artists from the 1920s onward should thus significantly clarify their relationship to the trend, in terms of either appropriation or counterpoint.

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G. New World Geometric and Constructive Utopias

The abstract-geometric and Constructive tendencies that emerged in Latin America during the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s are considered to be among the most innovative contributions by artists from this region to twentieth-century Modernism. Proceeding from the legacy of Russian Constructivism and the work and teachings of Piet Mondrian, movements such as Madí, Perceptismo and Asociación Arte Concreto-Invención (Argentina), Neoconcretismo (Brazil), and Cinetismo (Venezuela) expanded the reach of these sources into previously uncharted formal and conceptual territories such as the cutout frame; the articulated sculpture; the physichromatics of movement; the activation of the plane-surface equation; and the notion of the vital structure.

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H. Abstracts vs. Figuratives in the Cold War Period

The politics of the Cold War set the stage for fierce battles between abstract and figurative artists worldwide. Beginning in the late 1950s, the consolidation of the United States as a world superpower and the consequent ascendance of Abstract Expressionism as the leading artistic movement provoked heated reactions in regions such as Latin America. Stimulated by the contentious writings of a generation of activist intellectuals seasoned in the politics of resistance of the Cuban Revolution (1959), a number of artists throughout the continent engaged in non-geometric abstract, Informalism, and neo-figurative modes as a means of opposing what was perceived as the onslaught of North American cultural imperialism.

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I. In Pursuit of Democracy: Graphics and Community-building

The post-World War II period saw a significant flourishing of graphics as artists worldwide sought to reach out to a rapidly expanding middle class with an increased taste, yet limited budget, for art. The impact of this trend was nowhere more influential than in underdeveloped or immigrant communities, where the low cost and accessibility of prints made them a likely choice for community-building and the creation of new art markets. From the early undertakings of Puerto Rican, Cuban, and Chicano artists in the 1950s and 1960s, through the revolutionary struggles of countries like El Salvador and Nicaragua in the 1970s and 1980s, prints became major forces in defining or defending the identities of countries and communities. Although the popularity of prints rises and falls, they always provide a means for investigating the social, political, and artistic concerns of Latin American and Latino artists from the 1930s until today.

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J. Exile, Displacement, Diaspora

The experiences of exile, displacement, and diaspora function as powerful links between Latin American and Latino artists. From its beginnings in the colonial period, Latin America can be considered a melting pot of multiethnic groups. Many of the artists who worked in this region during the twentieth century were born to European families or were themselves immigrants. In a similar way, with the exception of Mexican-Americans—whose presence in the United States preceded that of Anglos—Latinos are, for the most part, immigrants from Mexico, Central and South America, and the Caribbean. Immigration has indeed been a powerful factor in shaping Latin American and Latino art from its beginnings, but most particularly, in the last four decades. Artists’ testimonials on this topic will provide valuable insights into the fluid nature of identity and how artists have adapted themselves and their art to its ongoing changing parameters.

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K. Conceptualisms and Non-object-based Art

The worldwide emergence of modes of Conceptual art in the late 1950s and early 1960s represented the most significant shift in twentieth-century art since Cubism. Not only did a number of artists from Latin America participate in this trend, but their work anticipated some of the most iconoclastic developments of Conceptualism in Europe and the United States. Artists and collectives from Brazil and Argentina contributed highly original dimensions to global Conceptualism in its early stages. While the trend was originally circumscribed to these two countries, it quickly spread to Uruguay, Colombia, Mexico, Chile, and Venezuela. In the United States, too, the work of key artist-theoreticians and grass-roots collectives also opened up new avenues of investigation for Conceptual art. Additionally, Conceptual art re-emerged in the 1990s as the passport to a brand-new generation of artists to enter into the international artistic mainstream. Because Conceptualism required the expansion of art into the realm of language, the majority of the artists who engaged this tendency wrote extensively. While recent research has focused on unearthing the contributions of Argentinean and Brazilian artists to this international trend, significantly more research remains to be conducted on similar manifestations in other Latin American countries. Indeed, given the intensity of conceptual activity in the region over the last four decades, this remains one of the most fertile grounds for a transversal reading of artistic movements in the region. The ICAA Documents Project has recovered an important cache of the textual production of Latin American Conceptualism, significantly deepening our understanding of one of the most brilliant chapters of the avant-garde in Latin America while simultaneously allowing us to establish important links with related movements worldwide.

L. Mass Media, Technology, and Art

As twentieth-century Latin American countries were rapidly transformed from predominantly agricultural-based economies to cosmopolitan modern societies with important urban centers of cultural production, the changes introduced new debates among artists and critics about the role of mass media and technology. The various reactions toward the role of mass media, its technology, and the relationship between technological developments and society included questions such as how is a Latin American citizen integrated into mass culture and consumer society? To what extent have mass media and communication technologies transformed the idea of national identity as a mere symbolic representation grounded in nationalism? Researchers gathered materials regarding the critical positions of Brazilian Cinema Novo and Tropicalia, the Argentinean experiments of the Instituto Torcuato di Tella, Tucumán Arde, and Arte de los Medios, and the Venezuelan multidisciplinary event of Imagen de Caracas, as well as the critical texts that informed these groups.

M. Globalization and Its Latin American Dis/Contents

By the late 1980s and the 1990s—in countries such as Mexico, Brazil, Costa Rica, Chile, Cuba, Colombia, and Venezuela—alternative spaces (portable galleries, industrial spaces, and interdisciplinary magazines) opened outside the traditional network of the institution of art. The art debate moved from the local sphere to the international field of the visual arts. To this spectrum of changes the curator, the collector, the artist-promoter, and the gallery-owner emerged as new agents for the transformation of the field.

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