The Many Faces of Innovation

Inter-American Development Bank

Geometric Abstraction in Venezuela and Argentina

Geometric Abstraction in Venezuela & Argentina
Starting in the mid-1940s, several countries in Latin America experienced a boom in development and a growth in industrial capacity that transformed these nations into hubs of production. Venezuela and Argentina were among these countries, in part due to new initiatives established in the late 1950s that placed oil at the center of their economies. This shift in economic strategy led to a revival in urbanization projects and a growth in the production of industrial goods. While these years were marked by political instability, the influence of this industrial progress in Argentina and Venezuela led to a significant growth in the middle class and urban centers, along with a greater interest within each government to present an image of their countries as leaders of industrial growth and modernization. This period simultaneously marked a time of great innovation for the artists of Argentina and Venezuela, who rejected academic, representational artwork, and began to experiment with new visual forms through geometric abstraction. Paintings of landscapes, traditional portraits, and figurative artwork thereby gave way to novel modes of expression that relied on pure form, line, and color. These new works not only pushed the boundaries of artistic production in Venezuela and Argentina, but also directly reflected a new awareness of how industrial and technological advancement came to influence a young generation of artists. The contribution of such artists as Alejandro Otero, Eduardo Mac Entyre, Carlos Cruz-Diez, and Rogelio Polesello to a global history of art positions the artists from the region as central to the advancement of the many faces of geometric abstraction. It should be noted that geometric abstraction does not define a singular artistic movement, but rather is a category composed of several different movements and artistic groups. This exhibition presents a selection of works from the IDB’s permanent art collection that highlights the many facets of geometric abstraction in order to showcase artistic innovation, as well as reflect how technological advancement impacted the development of culture in Argentina and Venezuela in the mid-twentieth century.
Progress through Art: A Novel Aesthetic
In 1948, the Taller Libre de Arte in Caracas opened Venezuela’s first exhibition of non-representational art. The act was revolutionary as it directly challenged Venezuela’s dominant art academies that continued to promote traditional, figurative artwork. Two years later in Paris, a group of young Venezuelan artists continued to challenge the status-quo and what they considered to be an anachronistic vision by forming the group "Los Disidentes." These artists, among whom was included Alejandro Otero, aimed to look towards the future and to participate in the global exchange and production of modern art. These artists now joined an international dialogue on modernity and progress that laid the foundation for the future development of geometric abstraction in the region once they returned to Venezuela in the late 1950s - early 1960s. In Argentina, there was already a strong tradition of the avant-garde that had developed since the beginning of the century. Regardless, by the 1960s, several Argentine artists, from Op-artists to members of the "arte generativo" group, were engaging with new visual forms of geometric abstraction that explored perception, mathematic principles, and responded to an increasingly technologically advanced world. This period saw the establishment of private institutions and museums dedicated to the promotion of the new avant-garde, such as the Museo de Arte Moderno and the Instituto Torcuato Di Tella, founded in 1956 and 1958 respectively. These endeavors reflected a conscious effort to establish Argentine art as a source of innovation and progress and a desire to position the country as an active contributor to the arts within a growing sphere of internationalism. 

After moving to Paris in 1946, Otero’s style, which was once defined by luministic landscapes, began to shift dramatically as he began to experiment with a modernist, cubist style through still lifes of pitchers and coffeepots, as exemplified here by Cafetera azul. In his subsequent works, three-dimensional space was progressively replaced by the interplay of line and color on the flat plane (see Untitled). The dominance of these new elements was fully realized in his Coloritmos series, begun in 1955, in which he placed contrasting dark and light colors together in vertical bands in such a way that would create a sense of vibration upon the two-dimensional plane.

As a member of Los Disidentes, Otero contributed to the group’s inaugural manifesto written in 1950. The artists outright rejected what they perceived to be an antiquated vision of artistic production and instead proposed to look to a new future:

“We are against that which to us seems retrogressive or stationary, against that which has a false function […] ‘NO’ to the false Salons of Official Art. ‘NO’ to that anachronistic archive of anachronism called the Museum of Fine Arts. ‘NO’ to the School of Plastic Arts and its promotion of false Impressionists. ‘NO’ to those national and foreign artmongers’ exhibitions that number in the hundreds each year at the Museum.”

Vidal was the co-founder of the arte generativo group established in 1960 with Eduardo Mac Entyre. The group’s artistic philosophy was influenced by mathematics and physics and followed the idea that the interplay of line, geometric form, and color would produce art that generates perceived motion. Arte generativo, thereby, transforms the two-dimensional plane into a space of continual movement through the optical regeneration of forms. Vidal’s style began to evolve over time and by the 1970s and 1980s, his work took on a stronger interest in the effects of light across bands of color. His once rigid geometric shapes began to take on more fluid forms, as exemplified by Comenzando lo irreconocible.

With the first ever exhibition of arte generativo, held in 1960 at the Galeria Peuser in Buenos Aires, both Mac Entyre and Vidal contributed to a growing tendency in Argentine art to explore movement and perception through geometric abstraction. Their artistic philosophy spoke to the automatic regeneration of form that creates a sense of movement. Like Los Disidentes, who were known as both artists and theorists, the arte generativo group wrote their own manifesto through which they clearly established an autonomous aesthetic and identified the theoretical principals upon which their art would be analyzed. These artists, therefore, positioned themselves as innovators and inventors of new art forms.

Art and Industry
Starting in the late 1950s, political shifts in both Venezuela and Argentina called for a greater modernization of the industrial capacity of each nation. The 1960s, therefore, came to represent a moment of rapid transformation and economic growth in both countries. In Argentina, President Arturo Frondizi’s developmentalist economic plan (desarrollismo) called for greater economic self-sufficiency and less dependence on imports. Although his presidency lasted four years, his plan had a significant impact on the growth of the Argentine automotive, steel, and petroleum industries through the 1960s to the early 1970s. Meanwhile in Venezuela, economic expansion was specifically supported by the extraction and exportation of newly discovered oil reserves, which thereby facilitated the importation of the most up-to-date manufactured goods. This technological evolution was soon reflected in the artistic production of the time as artists started to experiment with new industrial materials such as plexiglass, aluminum, and colored and transparent acrylic sheets. The creation of geometric abstract artwork soon expanded beyond the two-dimensional canvas and became directly linked to the industrial process of production. Geometric abstraction, therefore, was transformed into a symbol of modernity, innovation, and advancement. In fact, in Venezuela, this style was patronized by the government through major public art commissions in an effort to showcase the modernization and urbanization of the country.

From pedestrian cross-walks in Caracas to the perimeter wall of the La Guaira Port, Cruz-Diez was responsible for the execution of several murals and artistic interventions in countless public spaces throughout Venezuela during the 1970s. His contributions to the country’s urban landscape marked an active moment in establishing a new public image for Venezuela highlighted by the rationality and precision of Cruz-Diez’s approach to geometric abstraction. Perhaps the culmination of Cruz-Diez’s unification of art with industry is exemplified by the monumental murals he produced in two of Venezuela’s most important hydroelectric power plants. In these spaces, the massive turbine and machine rooms are covered by abstract works much like Inducción cromática, thereby cementing a critical relationship between industry and art.

Of all of Venezuela’s kinetic artists, Soto was perhaps the most experimental in the media and methods he utilized to expand the possibilities of art beyond a two-dimensional surface. Beginning in the 1950s through the 1960s, the artist started to regularly employ wire over canvas or layered sheets of transparent and colored plexiglass that produced the optical illusion of movement and vibration through the superimposition of line and geometric form. His interest in industrial and synthetic materials and exploration of spaces that manipulate perception later translated to sculptural, immersive works called the Penetrables— the first of which was produced in Caracas in 1968. These monumental cube-like installations, composed of flexible nylon tubes, allowed the viewer to enter and move through the work of art in such a way that directly translated Soto’s earlier exploration of movement and vibration through geometric form into real life.

The artist’s awareness of the inescapabilty of the technological age is apparent as one reads from the “Generative Art Manifesto” (1960) written by Mac Entyre and Miguel Ángel Vidal. The coexistence of art and technology, therefore, became central to the Mac Entyre’s artistic project. Their manifesto reads, “It is also unquestionable that this kind of painting identifies itself with more technological terms created in the times in which we live, and that it would be illogical to try to escape from. Nonetheless, rather than try to evade the technological age, it is far more important to engender beauty within it, as these artworks produce STRENGTH and ENERGY as well.”

Soto wrote extensively on his own approach to art production. He states in regards to transparency and the use of acrylic sheets, “I wanted to activate the serial lines, to incorporate time and movement into the work in a new way. I found the solution by superimposing two painted surfaces: one opaque and one transparent, with a few inches separating them. I was able to incorporate into the work the space created by the two separate planes, and to solicit the viewer’s participation whose movement in front of the work would activate it.”

As a member of the arte generativo group with Vidal and Mac Entyre, Brizzi contributed to the ongoing discussion about the role of the contemporary artist to adapt to the world in which they live and to contribute to further progress through their art. The art critic Basilio Uribe writes in reference to Brizzi, “artists have an obligation to their era, and one of the strongest characteristics of our time is access to technology, which translates to new materials.” Brizzi himself not only experimented with the regeneration of geometric form through his compositions on paper and canvas, but also produced sculptural works in plexiglass and laminated acrylic.

The Art of Perception and Movement: Kinetic and Op-Art
Beginning in the 1960s, an international group of artists began to experiment with perception and motion, thereby establishing the Op and Kinetic Art movements. While these movements are inherently linked and many times function together, they reference two separate artistic principles. Op-art specifically references the optical manipulation of the retina through color and shape, while Kinetic art refers to art that creates movement either physically, or through optical illusion. These artistic practices were shaped by color-theory, the science of perception, knowledge of the anatomy of the eye, as well as the use of new industrial materials. In addition, these art forms offered a unique space of experimentation through which artists could activate the passive viewer whose sense of reality shifted either by optical manipulation or by the actual physical movement of the art object. While Kinetic and Op-Art lasted a relatively short while in the United States and Europe, Latin American artists (particularly those from Argentina and Venezuela) continued to explore the possibilities of these art forms well into the 1970s. For many of these artists, Op and Kinetic art was a platform through which to reflect on and contribute to the modernization and technological innovation of the time. This connection to modernization is particularly significant as it broke established stereotypes that defined art from the region as “primitive” or derivative from European models. These artists are therefore in a unique position as some of the most significant innovators in this artistic field within art history. 

Polesello represents a unique figure within the history of op-art due to his continual dialogue with fine art and design. His oeuvre ranges from painting, to sculpture, to graphics, to textile and object design. Due to this engagement with the world of design, the artist was always influenced by the newest and most technologically advanced materials available at the time, including acrylic and plexiglass. As an artist that occupied this space between design and fine arts, Polesello directly contributed to a growing tendency in the 1960s that expanded the range of what could be considered art and became a true pioneer for the graphic arts.

A Hungarian-born French artist, Vasarely is one of the leading international pioneers of op-art. His artwork was composed of intricate and precise intersections of line and contrasting color that created spatial illusion and depth. He became part of a transatlantic exchange between European and Venezuelan artists through his involvement in Carlos Raúl Villanueva’s project to renovate the Ciudad Universitaria de Caracas (1944-70) into an architectural complex that transformed the campus into a symbol of modernity and urban planning. Vasarely joined a group of European, American, and Venezuelan artists, including Alexander Calder, Fernand Léger, Antoine Pevsner, Alejandro Otero, Carlos Cruz-Diez, and Mateo Manaure, that contributed to the public artworks program for Villanueva’s now iconic campus.

Central to Soto’s approach, was the superimposition of different planes of line or geometric form on top of each other as to create a sense of separation that would produce several levels of depth on the surface of the work. The effect of these overlaid planes was the optical impression of movement or vibration as the viewer shifted their position in relation to the work of art. Soto shattered the boundaries of kinetic art in the 1970s as he began to create monumental, three-dimensional installations that transformed lived space into one of his kinetic artworks. The artist soon gained international recognition as a pioneer in transforming a work of art into an experiment in innovation that activates the viewer and alters their own sense of space.

Beyond his own exploration of industrial materials, what makes Cruz-Diez’s contributions to Op and Kinetic art so singular, is his unique understanding of color and color-theory. This mastery of color and understanding of the ways in which contrasting hues can produce optical effects or create the illusion of spatial depth was defined by a strong foundation in the science of color and perception. Mathematics, chemistry, and color-theory became central to the artist’s process. He explains, “I tried to combine all my artistic knowledge and the information on the simple phenomenon already studied in chemistry, physics, and optics, to elaborate a platform of work that I’ve tried to develop over the years under the concept that color is an unstable situation in continual transformation.” The artist’s whole career can therefore be understood as an almost scientific exploration of the mutability of color.

The Purity of Form: Moving Beyond Figurative Art
Geometric abstraction provided artists with a whole new visual vocabulary with which to produce art. Artists no longer looked to reflect their surroundings and rejected representational artwork. Instead, a new sense of beauty became possible through the reduction of the composition that explored visual relationships between color, line, and geometric form. For many artists, this novel, innovative aesthetic represented a certain purity and a newfound freedom that was only possible through geometric abstraction. The idea that a composition could support itself through pure form and could provoke a sense of beauty was revolutionary, as the reduced work of art directly challenged the unquestionable authority that representative painting once held. Geometric abstraction was thus transformed not only into an exploration of novel visual forms, but also became a platform through which artists could convey a sense of transcendence. This innovative expansion of the possibilities of art to include that which lay beyond representational artwork, paved the road for other art forms, including graphic and industrial design, to be considered as legitimate artistic endeavors in the future. 

Sakai’s undulating compositions are instantly recognizable as part of his signature aesthetic. What makes his paintings distinct from those of other artists engaging with geometric abstraction is how the fluidity and synthesis of colors that form curvatures and undulations juxtapose the rigidity of the clearly defined bands of color. His work was thereby defined by a dialogue between organic form and precise structure. For Sakai, color harmonies produced a sense of purity by reducing the compositions on the canvas to the rhythms produced from the interactions between different hues.

Pardo began as an abstract expressionist. Her paintings were characterized by the gestural, dramatic application of oil paint on the canvas that revealed her inner psyche and attempted to evoke a universalizing sense of emotion. By the late 1960s, however, Pardo joined many other Venezuelan artists at the time, including her husband Alejandro Otero, by turning to geometric abstraction. Nevertheless, Pardo never lost sight of her interest in exploring human emotion through abstract form. Through the geometricization of space, Pardo’s work focused on dynamic visual relationships produced by the juxtaposition of color and how color could reflect inner consciousness to the outside world. Her work, therefore, represents a unique synthesis between the compositional elements of geometric abstraction and the spiritual quality of abstract expressionism.

Central to the artistic philosophy of arte generativo, the artistic group Mac Entyre co-founded with Miguel Ángel Vidal, was the idea that through art they could “engender beauty” in the technological age. The cold, rational – at times even sterile – quality of industrialization was thereby transformed into a source of inspiration, and a space through which to create and reflect the ever-evolving quality of a period defined by dynamism and innovation. With the machine as muse, the artists in arte generativo established a visual vocabulary founded on the precision of line, geometric form, and color that revealed beauty in a time of rapid industrial development.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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