ART IN AMERICA (1990)
An exuberant but shizoid display, the recent São Paulo Bienal divided its loyaties between Latin American artists and Euro-American art stars.
The emblem heralding the 20th International Bienal of São Paulo is a banana on a yellow field framed by a grass-green border. The banana has been severed above its midsection, one segment rotated 180 degrees, and the whole fastened together again with industrial staples. This banana is at odds with itself. The poster, by Rodolfo Vanni, refers to the clichéd notion of tropical republics and also brings to mind Warhol’s peelable album cover for the Velvet Underground; its an image and celebration of popular culture. Perhaps it also refers to the ambivalent ambitions of this recent Bienal, which touted the art of Latin America while continuing to observe the superstar hegemony of Europe and New York. Anchored by the prominent placement of Joseph Beuy’s massive installation, “Lightning with Stag in Its Glare,” 1958-85, and Ulrich Rückriem’s granite Pentagon, 1987, and distinguished by the elegantly installed survey of the work of the award-winning representative of the United States, Martin Puryear, the Bienal nevertheless asserted the variety and stregth of contemporary art in Latin America, in particular that of Brazil.
Oscar Niemeyer’s vast glass-and-concrete structure of elongated, stacked curvilinear ramps is located in São Paulo’s Parque do Ibirapuera. It was originally built, on the eve of a massive expansion of the Brazilian economy, to display agricultural equipment. The building now plays host to various trade fairs and finds its zenith every two years in the Bienal. Within the walls of Niemeyer’s building from Oct. 14 through Dec. 16, 1989, some 41 nations (in addition to Brazil) each presented the art works of one to eight representative artists.
Recent Bienals struggled to give shape to what is inherently an ecletic presentation through vaguely articulated themes voiced by a single curator (see A.i.A., Mar. ’86). For 1989, in the interest of diversity, Brazil fielded three curators: Carlos von Schmidt for international projects, Stella Teixeira de Barros for International projects, Stella Teixeira de Barros for national selections and João Candido Galvão for special events. Brazil showed 24 artists in its national section, mounted five Brazilian special exhibitions and invited curators from 10 nations to organize special international shows, which mostly presented the works of single artists. All these programs – national and international, official and invitational, past and present – were assigned rooms or subdivided spaces on the three floors of the sprawling Niemeyer building. Both by intention and by chance, installations often played off the structure of the building or off each other, resulting in an unexpected coherence and a readability reinforced by the building’s open central core. The erratic orchestration often succeded, just as the absence of a theme often allowed individual istallations to be seen more clearly. Many particular exhibitions (those of Puryear, Canada’s Betty Goodwin, Brazil’s Jac Leirner and others) demonstrated that with appropriate curatorial decisions and clarity of vision, the São Paulo Bienal can maintain an impact and a level of engagement consistent with the best international exhibitions, advancing global communication on the subject of art.
Some of the most outstanding art works in the Bienal were installations. The Beuys work seemed intended to lend authority by association with its previous venues: the Royal Academy, 1985; MOCA in Los Angeles, 1986; Documenta 8, 1987; and the 1988 Beuys exhibition in Berlin. Suspended from an I beam three floors above ground level, the beefy bronze slab of “lightning” might be said to have “illuminated” the collection of bronze, aluminum and steel elements below, while overshadowing the more elegant Rückriem work – a flat floor piece – displayed nearby. On the second floor, in Great Britain’s official display, abstracted forms of ordinary architecture played off one another.
Cheek-by-jowl installations by Britons Richard Wilson and Richard Hamilton also succeded, by opposing strategies, in involving the visitor.
Wilson’s untitled glass greenhouse, suspended above the floor, penetrated a wall that separated the admistrative and exhibition spaces of the building, making a private place public. By contrast, Hamilton’s iconic “Hotel Lobby”, 1988, made a public space private. The intimate interior consisted of a patterned floor covering, a simplified set of stairs and a central square column. This distlled evocation of a place was multiplied in works on paper and in a large oil painting depicting a similar hotel lobby, which hung within the installation and were reflected by the four sides of the central mirrored pillar. A survey of some 70 prints and drawings by Hamilton, dating from 1953 to 1981, was presented elsewhere in the Niemeyer building as one of the specially curated international exhibitions. Another Bienal work which abstracted ordinary architecture was on the floor below: the Israeli sculptor Micha Ullman showed rusted-steel house-shaped vessels filled with tons of Paulistan earth of the same rust-red color.
Jac Leirner’s environmental installation “Nomes” (Names), 1989, consisted of a room padded and lined-floor, walls and ceiling – with logo-rich plastic shopping bags, numbing in their disparate repetitiveness. Although Leirner is young – born in São Paulo in 1961 – both her participation in the Bienal and the character of this installation confirmed her position in the vanguard of contemporary Brazilian artists. Her use of the detritus of the marketplace in ths installation was consistent with her earlier series of discrete objects such as ropes made of bank notes (cruzados) rendered worthless by incredible inflation, no longer worth the paper they’re printed on. “Nomes,” as an environment, had an engulfing presence that her single sculptures could not effect. In place of the official signage required by the Bienal adminitration, Leirner affixed a padded desgner sack bearing her own name at the entrance to the room. The installation seemed to refer not only to the marketing of art but to the commodification of the Niemeyer building, which was decked all along its exterior walls with banners or signs advertising the festiva’s corporate sponsors (about 95 percent of the 2.5-millin-dollar cost of the Bienal was carried by private initiative). The signs drew protests from preservationists who viewed the practice as a desecration of Brasil’s architectural heritage.
Leirne’s work shows the influence of the Rio artist Cildo Meireles who has also used currency in the making of art. In the late 1960s, the very young Meireles worked in a politically repressive climate that had no use for his obsessions, creating objects and installations of “politicized conceptualism, ” as Guy Brett puts it, among them portable boxes containing altered common objects and standards of measure (see A.i.A., Jan. ’89). For the Bienal, he produced “Olvido” (Oblivion), an installation consisting of a tepee-shaped shelter ringed by a wall of 70,000 paraffin candles and a moat of bones. The skin of the tepee wa papered with currency from countries involved in teh exploitation of Indians, and its blackened interior wa floored with charcoal. A recording of the shattering sound of a power saw was intended to accompany this vision of depredation (and acutally worked at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, where the re-created installation was on view Mar. 16-May0. “Olvido” is reminiscent of the installation Meireles showed at “Magiciens de la Terre” in Paris in 1989, which included a floor of 6000,000 coins and a ceiling of 2,000 bones, joined by a spine of 8000 communion wafers. It was called “Massão/missões (How to build cathedrals),” a comment on the role of the Romman church in the exploitation of the New World or on any colonial situation that includes an aristocracy of First World priests.
Leirner and Meireles showed the most powerfull installations in the Brazilian section, but a number of other sculptors, evidently more concerned with physical concepts than with socio-economic or political comment, exhibited interesting works employing found and industrial materials. Marco do Valle laid out connecting sheets of corrugated steel, paving a massive, diagonal corridor through the contemporary Brazilian section. The length of steel was figured with simple folds of sheet rubber: a common building material was inflected by a traditional product of the nation’s economy in a composition that defied entrance by its corrugation while inviting the eye by its elegance. José Resende, a participant in the Venice Biennale of 1988, has a history of production associated with Arte Povera. His works created for the Bienal showed a tension and compaction of materials – bales of shredded paper, an arc of steel and canvas, his characteristic paraffin combined with copper in a suspended kitelike form. Resende also showed sculptural sketches derived from the familiar bird-foot installations of Luciano Fabro but reduced in their linear quality to a kind of drawing with metal. Hilton Berredo continued his presentation of serial reliefs of cut, shaped and painted rubber in organic shapes reminiscent of Guston’s, althouh their baroque structure obviously refers to Stella. His reliefs interacted attractively with trees beyond a glass wall, the floral and leaflike shapes of the painted rubber repeating the exterior play of light and shade. Ester Grinspum’s monumental vessel of welded steel towered over the viewer, its impact enhanced even as it was limited by the ceiling.
Although at present Brazil’s strongest expression seems to be found in the innovative use of materials in sculpture and installations, painting still represents a vital tradition. The newest works of Daniel Senise (see A.i.A., Jan. ’89) continue his poetic involvement with figure ans ground. Senise has begun to work on a support large enough to be consistent with the scale of his imagery. In creating the Bienal works, he spread canvas on the floor on top of layered glue and pigment, then peeled the canvas free. In the controlled chance surface that resulted from the separation of canvas from the floor, Senise located and enhanced with paint both dominant and recessive images. Clearly depicted, almost familiar shapes haunt the completed work. Flávia Ribeiro uses encaustic, asphalt that, like Senise’s, are frontal and direct in terms of image and evocative in their materiality. The correspondence ends there, as Ribeiro’s work clearly occupies a position in a lineage of Brazilian planar abstraction.
Another of these vanguard painters, Jorge Guinle, wrote, before his death in 1987 at the age of 40, of his interest in incorporating the devices of one school into those of another and particularly in altering the “tragedy” of the heroic gesture of Abstract Expressionism-say, Franz Kline’s – with the “joy” of Matisse’s palette. His exuberant canvases shown at the Bienal testified to the artist’s pleasure in eschewing any reconciliation of approaches. A similar palette and painterly interest invite a comparison of Fábio Miguez’s production with that of Guinle. Miguez, however, seems more involved in the push-pull of Hofmann and less in the drawing with paint that is characteristic of Guinle. The color of Miguez’s new pictures bounces away from his previous series, which used modulated blacks and whites.
The Brazilian section presented awards to Ribeiro, Marcos Benjamim and Flávio Shiró. Benjamim’s totemic sculptures combine natural materials such a leather and wood tht are associated with indigenous craft techniques in assemblages that suggest ceremonial tools or icons. His works show a kinship with Puryear’s in their abstraction from actual, useful objects, but Benjamim’s sculptures are more intimate, mor revently objectified and less distinct in their vocabulary of forms. Shiró’s painting seemed representative of a genre of expressive, formal abstraction widely practised in Brazil and served to remind visitors that more than a few of Brazil’s most celebrated contemporary painters are ethnic Japanese.
A special exhibition in the Brazilian section, “Abstração, ‘Efeito Bienal,’ 1954-1963,” showed the works of 23 Brazilian painters. Organized by the curator and critic Casimiro Xavier de Mendonça, the exhibition looked back at Brazilian abstraction from the time of the second through the sixth Bienals and included the works of Antonio Bandeira, Frans Krajcberg, Glauco Rodrigues, Iberê Camargo, Ivan Serpa, Mira Schendel and Tomie Ohtake. By inviting a comparison with the production of the schools of Paris and New York (not shown), the show provided valuable background for an understanding of Brazil’s contemporary informal abstraction. The selection also solidified an impression that whatever analologies may come into play, the work of the artists of Brazil, and for that matter of much of Latin America, should be discussed on its own terms, acknowledging that the cultural information that goes into its production is, simply, different from that of Europe and the U.S. This survey suggested that although the European and North American emissaries to the Bienals in question may have directly affected the work of Brazilian artists, the Brazilians themselves were active participants, rather than simply followers, deeply engaged with the developments of their time.
Among the various national presentations, artists of Argentina, Cuba, Japan, Canada and the U.S. earned special attention. Guillermo David Kuitca, an Argentinian who was represented in the Indianapolis Museum’s 1987 exhibition “Art of the Fantastic: Latin America 1920-1987 (see A.i.A., May ’88), established an authority of presence with a series of pop lyric paintings incorporating maps, some on canvases hung on the wall, others painted on mattresses set on box springs and legs. In his paintings, Kuitica juxtaposed lyrics of Bruce Springsteen songs to the geography of wartime Europe. These disquieting maps represent the juncture of countries, some reconfigured by the partioning of Europe following World War II. They seem saturated with military memories, perhaps also calling to mind the fact that Argentina was long a refuge for many notorious losers of that war. Kuitca has also made theatrical sets, and this painting installation was itself a dramatic locus for engagement.
Gustavo Acosta Perez, from Cuba, presented a series of large paintings of bleak, uninhabited urban landscapes along the roads that lead to Rome; the paintings bear Latin inscriptions identified with the Roman Church (Urbi et Orbi), the history of Rome (Via Appia) and the United States (E Pluribus Unum), plus (perhaps) an editorial comment – Sic Transit Gloria Mundi. His compatriot Ruben Torres Llorca creates politcal and quasi-religious icons-large figures in relief, sometimes approaching life-size. They were in some instances powerful and seem to draw on the icongraphically rich history of religious figures, a source also tapped by one of the representatives of Japan, sculptor Katsura Funakoshi, for his polychrome wood figures. Both artists draw on ancient traditions to make sculptures that grow out of today’s culture and take on a folkloric resonance in the multicultural Brazilian terrain.
Representing Canada, Betty Goodwin showed, in addition to her enormous figurative drawings (often two meters tall), a number of recent small tablets in forged steel that involved another kind of drawing, but not figurative. These intimate wall and pedestal reliefs bristle with metal fillings, Twomblyesque scrawls, patches of raw pigment and other intense surface incidents. Through their resenblance to memorial tablets, the steel works seem to be about mortality. A skillful installation of Goodwin’s work enhanced its impact. After building and painting new walls, the Canadian preparators, rather than repainting the gallery floor, permitted the white wall spray paint to edge the ground.
Puryear’s sculptures were installed on a polished concrete floor, with a perfectly stretched canvas scrim modulating the exterior light and concealing the temporary partitions that blocked all but the top of the building’s glass skin. The dramatic presence of the works was emphasized by the simplicity of the installation. The laborious, often elegant craftsmanship of Puryear’s sculpture is one of its salient features. Puryear works in a variety of materials and his abstract objects often evoke containers or tools. (For mor on Puryear, see Nancy Princenthal’s article (A.i.A., Jan. ’90) Puryear’s receipt of the Bienal’s grand prize, awarded by an international commitee, obviated a public controversy in the local press, precipitated by curator Carlos von Schimidt, over what had been perceived as Puryear’s lack of seniority and renown.
Bienal trivia always commands front-page attention in the São Paulo dailies. As the press avidly reported, a miscommunication of specifications resulted in the construction of reinforced partitions that proved too short for the works of Frank Stella, one of von Schimidt’s international superstar selections. As a result, two of Stella’s three reliefs jutted precariously beyond the ends of their walls, endangering passersby. The press also highlighted additional misadventures, including the trouble-plagued but ultimately powerful survey of the work of Yves Klein. News commentator delighted in facile analogies, connecting Readymades Belong to Everyone – a French collective involved in installations of common objects and text-with the ephemeral fax installations of David Hockney, and recounted the presumed (not actual) theft of Dale Chihuly’s glass sculptures. These last two artists were delivered to the Bienal by another of von Schmidt’s cultural invitees, curator Henry Geldzahler.
These enormous international roundups are not easy to accomplish. The workings are often byzantine. But if art anedotes were everyday news in São Paulo, a more productive and vigorous communication took place inside the Niemeyer building, among the far-flung practitioners of art the show’s various organizers.
Director of visual arts for the City of Los Angeles. He curated a survey of the Brazilian paintings of the late Neil Williams for the Bienal.