MOMA Features Anti-Authoritarian Art From Eastern Europe, Latin America

Sandra Bertrand


If art for art’s sake is your main reason for visiting the Museum of Modern Art’s latest cross-current crazy quilt, Transmissions: Art in Eastern Europe and Latin America, 1960-1980, then this exhibit may not be for you.   But if art as persuasion, as process, as anti-authoritarian political protest whets your curiosity, then go.  It’s an in-your-face look backwards—when the Prague spring revolts were in full bloom and uprisings from Cuba to Argentina were creating seismic changes in public sensibility.  It’s still relevant and worth the trip.


If acting out against repression is the lion’s share of this show, it’s not the whole picture.  By the early 1960s, an international cadre of artists was revitalizing the formalism of pre-war constructivism and abstraction.  Edward Krasinski and Henryk Stazewski maintained a studio in 1970s Warsaw that fostered transmissions between Poland and Paris-based artists.  Krasinski is represented by a wall spear broken into segments, which takes a stationary object and creates a feeling of motion.  Alejandro Puente’s grid of primary and secondary colors is brought up to white as an exercise in color perception.  Optical phenomenon was only one way to take the viewer out of his or her comfort zone of what art should be. 


On an adjacent wall, Lea Lublin’s Interrogations into Art, A Discourse on Art (1963) provides a grocery list of possibilities to explain what art is.  She asks us to consider the following definitions among others:  Exaltation, sublimation, neurosis, sexual problem, religious phenomenon, symbolic language and amusement for starters. Not to be overlooked is Lygia Clark’s The Inside Is The Outside, a somewhat ubiquitous stainless steel sculpture that can stand alone without looking for deeper resonances.


These artistic thrusts toward process and minimalism, for instance, were obviously part of the many parallel developments in a constantly changing global map, particularly during the period in question.  Exhibitions such as the Bienal de Sao Paulo in Brazil and venues like the Galerie Denise Rene in Paris became breeding grounds for such freeform expressions to take root. 



There’s no doubt, however, that the show’s overarching concentration is on the sensibility of the artist as outsider, the anti-institutional gesture.  Such collectives sprung up from Czechoslovakia to Venezuela.  For the inquisitive visitor, intent on exploring an exhaustive spread of snapshots and notations in the various glass vitrines on display, there is a mother lode of ephemera.  With a little luck, one could even come away with a significant personal discovery rather than the merely anecdotal.  Groups from Yugoslavia like OHO (a synthesis of oko for eye and uho for ear in the Slovene tongue) pursued an immersive journey, taking art to nature, stressing the importance of things in themselves.  Festooning trees, drawing circles in the ground, or mounting druid-like performances might summon thoughts of the master of such enterprises—Cristo himself.  Who can forget his recent orange flags adorning the walkways of New York’s Central Park?  Many such groups, operating on the margins of state-sponsored cultural policies, developed radical manifestos or participated in “mail art”—disseminating their ideas across borders.


Serbian performance artist Marina Abramovic, for instance, is observed in photos during one of her signature events.  Entering a flaming giant star creation, after cutting bunches of her hair as well as finger and toe nail clippings and flinging them into an open circle, she lies down, supposedly creating for her audience an act of purification.  Such transcripts of these actual events are fascinating but can leave one with that secondhand sensation of having missed the actual show.


The artist as feminist?  She is right at home in this exhibit.  Certainly Ana Mendieta’s large color blowups of herself—features pressed flat against panes of glass—create grotesque distortions of what a face is.  It begs the issue of what is acceptable or objectionable in how one views oneself.  Second-wave women’s libbers like VALIE EXPORT (caps intentional) is shown in a series of screen prints, pant legs splayed open to reveal her pubic patch.  In another exhibit of street art displayed on various TV monitors, she appears again, holding up a cardboard box with a flap over her bust.  In this “Tap and Touch” exercise, a curious male approaches, lifting the flap for a “feel.” Here is Woman as Object writ large.



Censorship under a host of dictatorships was a given, and the manipulation of news through film, television and the telex was a ripe subject for the politically-engaged.  A nonprofit epicenter for avant-garde experimentation was The Instituto Torcuato Di Tella that operated in Buenos Aires from 1959 to 1970. Artists like Oscar Bony, David Lamelas and Marta Minujin exhibited at the institute and interactive installations that project the potentially repressive nature of the media are on display here.  Oscar Bony’s contribution is a chilling example—visitors upon entering a dim room must walk on a chain link fence placed on the floor, a lone projector flashing a video upon the wall, presumably of a detention camp with similar fencing.


Posters were a great platform for expression and dissemination.  Because posters for cultural events were not as strictly censored, subversive messages could be relayed with brilliant, iconoclastic imagery.  Polish and Czechoslovakian artists produced highly memorable work for institutions like the Warsaw Opera and international exhibits such as Zgraf2, held in Zagreb in 1978, helped in cross-fermenting this art form.  There are standout examples provided, and I couldn’t help wishing even more examples had been shown. Perhaps a curator in MOMA’s Department of Drawings and Prints might consider a more comprehensive show of this dramatic medium in the future.  Last year’s show from this department, The Paris of Toulouse Lautrec, was an elegant and enticing entry into the world of 19th century poster art.


One might ask what role the family played during these turbulent decades, and a nod is given to Oscar Bony’s La Familia Obrera (The Working Class Family), 1968, with a predictably bland portrait of a happy domestic unit.  More startling is the 1967 La familia presidencial (The Presidential Family) by Fernando Botero.  This is surely one of Botero’s masterworks, featuring the artist’s familiar bulbous figures but with pointed differences.  The little girl in the grouping holds a toy war plane while a general is pictured saluting and a priest looks on benignly.  The president’s wife proudly shows off her foxtail stole while in the background a volcano is seen erupting. 



Marisol (a Venezuelan artist born in France in 1930) is represented here by a somewhat innocuous family of wood cutouts, while nearby, her sculpture of an open mouth guzzling a bottle of Coca Cola catches the eye.  Consumerism by the mid-1950s onward was in full-flower.  Not unlike Warhol’s portrayal of the Campbell’s soup can, this market-driven imagery carried a mixed message for the underfed citizenry of Latin American countries, beset with foreign-backed military coups. 


An obvious effort has been made to break down exhibit rooms by themes—from early formalistic works to performance art, street protest events, sexual politics, responses to the information glut in mass communication networks, the subversive power in poster art, to family life as fair game for parody.  The inherent problem for the average onlooker—the accidental art tourist, let’s say—is finding a meaningful means of transit through such a dense and diversified exhibit.


Whether the artists represented chose a direct assault on prevailing sensibilities or took a safer, more subtle approach in their methodology, they are worthy of more than just a cursory glance. Chief Curator Stuart Comer from the Department of Media and Performance Art, and an impressive team culled from the respective departments of Photography, Drawings and Prints can be congratulated for such a difficult undertaking.


 I’d wager that this is one exhibit that will prod many viewers to question, like artist Lea Lublin did in her own way, what is and is not, art.


(The current exhibit, Transmissions: Art in Eastern Europe and Latin America, 1960-1980, will be on view through January 3, 2016.)


Author Bio:

Sandra Bertrand is Highbrow Magazine’s chief art critic.

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