Bright Geometry 2010 Summer

Bright Geometry

Abstract Geometric Paintings and Sculptures by Artists from Argentina and Uruguay, 1950-1980.

Featuring the work of María Freire, Antonio Llorens, César Paternosto, Rogelio Polesello, Carlos Silva, and Horacio Torres

With the 1934 arrival of Torres-García in Uruguay, the development of modernism in the region accelerated.  He created the Association of Constructive Art (1935-1940) and the Taller Torres-García (1943-1962) in Montevideo. Simultaneously in Buenos Aires, Argentinean and Uruguayan artists created the Madí and Arte Concreto groups.  As expressed by Gyula Kosice one of the artists, Madí destroyed the taboo of the painting by breaking with the traditional frame.  The Madí invention of the irregular frame freed painting from the laws of composition that up to then had circumscribed it for centuries.

The originality and vitality of geometric art in Buenos Aires and Montevideo caught the interest of several museums in the U.S. in the 1960s and a few scheduled exhibitions of South American art. 

Two artists in our show, Rogelio Polesello and Carlos Silva were included in the 1964 survey New Art of Argentina at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis that traveled to Akron, Atlanta, and Austin.  In the catalogue introduction for that exhibition,  Jorge Romero Brest, then director of the Di Tella Visual Art Center in Buenos Aires, traced the inspiration for Argentine artists to the De Stijl, the Bauhaus  and Max Bill, and in turn, noted their participation in geometric art developments in Europe as early as the 1940s when the Madí artists showed their irregular shaped canvases at the 1948 Salon des Réalités Nouvelles, and to Julio Le Parc (b. 1928) and Hugo Demarco (1932-1995), organizers in Paris of the Groupe de Recherche d’Art Visuel in 1960, two instances of the exchanges between Argentina and Europe.  The 1946 publication in Buenos Aires of Lucio Fontana’s Manifesto Blanco further illustrates how ideas of international effect were launched from the banks of the River Plate.

The Buenos Aires Museum of Modern Art (MAMBA) was founded in 1956, and in 1963 the family of the Argentine industrialist Torcuatto Di Tella created a foundation, the Di Tella Center for Visual Arts, that played a central role promoting the local and international avant-garde.  According to Marcelo Pacheco, MALBA’s (Museo de Arte Latinoamericano Buenos Aires) director, the influence of the Di Tella Institute has been a principal subject in modern Argentine art history, stirring nostalgia for that cultured, international, and progressive lost Utopia.  The Institute’s director was the art critic Jorge Romero Brest, one of his great achievements was to create the Di Tella Center international painting prize.  Among the prominent jurors who were invited to Buenos Aires were Alfred Barr, Jean Cassou, Clement Greenberg, Jacques Lassaigne, André Malraux, Pierre Restany, James Johnson Sweeney, and Lionello Venturi.  In 1962, Louise Nevelson won the International Prize, as did Kenneth Noland in 1964.

Rogelio Polesello (b. 1939) was considered a young prodigy, at fifteen he worked as a graphic designer in an advertising agency where he designed posters for industrial companies, and learned printing techniques, the use of airbrush and color transfer.  He later applied these processes to his abstract paintings.

According to the Argentine critic Mercedes Casanegra, 1959 was a key year for Polesello, who was only twenty when he started researching optical effects recalling his childhood fascination of looking at things through glass.  His later transparent acrylic panels with optically carved lenses are already suggested in these 1959 black and white geometric drawings as they reveal Polesello’s inclination towards the Op side of kinetic art.    

In 1966, Thomas Messer the Director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum curated the exhibition The Emergent Decade: Latin American Painters and Paintings in the 1960s.  He invited Cornell Capa, to photograph the artists working in their studios.

Capa photographed Polesello spray painting on the terrace of his Buenos Aires studio using wire screens and metal grills to filter the successive coats of sprayed colors.  By superimposing the patterns of grills as if they were Benday dots, zones of color are juxtaposed with black or with a contrasting color, creating middle tone areas.  According to critic Oscar Masotta, in these paintings Polesello aimed to give the sensation of a glowing, luminous quality that is simultaneously airy and watery.

Polesello’s Plexiglas panels feature carved concave lenses of different sizes in geometric configurations which magnify and multiply the objects seen through it.

They were first shown in Buenos Aires in 1966 in the exhibition Plastic Art in Plastic at the Museum of Fine Arts.  These works come alive with the active role of the viewer as he/she circulates around them multiplying and magnifying or shrinking the body image, so the viewer has a priority over the transparent object itself which disappears due to its translucence.  As Casanegra explains, these works constituted Polesello’s passage into the three-dimensional plane, and are a playful investigation into transparency and transfiguration.

We present three early works by César Paternosto (b. 1931), who in 1966 was awarded the First Prize at the III Biennial of American Art in Córdoba, Argentina by a jury led by Alfred Barr, Jr., the Chief Curator at MoMA, who acquired Paternosto’s Duino, a two part shaped canvas composition for the museum.   The work was shown in MoMA’s 1967 exhibition The 1960’s: Painting and Sculpture from the Museum Collection.  By the end of 1967 Paternosto settled in New York.    

In 1969, his painted three-dimensional assemblage, Untitled Complex Unit, was exhibited at the A.M. Sachs Gallery in New York along with El Sur, a lateral vision painting.  Paternosto has written that he took the title from a short story by Jorge Luis Borges, but that he also used “South” in the titles of other works to indicate his awareness of his own “southern” [marginal] condition. 

By moving the emphasis of the depicted surface to the outer edge of the canvas, and extending it over a much deeper than usual stretcher and leaving the frontal surface unpainted, Paternosto challenged the tradition of experiencing a painting head on by looking at it frontally.  The possibility of a lateral or oblique viewpoint developed from his observation of Mondrian’s compositions, where the color areas delineated by black lines, are pushed to the edge and prolonged onto the side of the support.  Paternosto stated that his lateral or oblique vision canvases take Mondrian’s space structuring to its ultimate consequences.

In 2007, El Sur was included in High Times, Hard Times: New York Painting 1967-1975.  This travelling ICI exhibition curated by Katy Siegel covered a period largely overlooked by museums and critics, when both Abstract Painting and New York City were struggling to survive.  Raphael Rubinstein in a review in Art in America (September 2007), explained that one reason so many artists in the exhibition have been forgotten is that they were working very much against the grain, in a period when the medium of painting was deemed by many artists and critics to have reached its conclusion, to have been surpassed by other art forms, to have died. 

Art in America, on the same page, illustrated Jo Baer’s 1970 Speculum, one of her white ground wraparound canvases, and Paternostos’s 1969 El Sur, underscoring their resemblance.  Paternosto described the impetus behind this format: “I was breaking away from what I felt painting had become by then: an altogether tired, formalist marking of the frontal plane which no longer appeared to offer significant new options.”  Lynne Cooke in Jo Baer: the Minimalist Years 1960-1975 wrote that challenged by similar assertions, from Morris and Judd in particular, that painting was moribund, "antique," "almost finished"- in contrast to novel forms of three-dimensional work that were neither painting nor sculpture but "specific objects"- Baer fired terse verbal ripostes, most memorably to Morris in 1967, offering a characteristically polemical defense of her practice. 

In his 2001 book White/Red, Paternosto related that as a parallel development to Baer’s, his Oblique Vision canvases have been ignored by New York critics and curators.  He has been intrigued, to say the least, (he actually wrote of being furious), by the reluctance to acknowledge his work in relation to Baer’s ever since 1970 when Art Forum published a review of Baer’s show at Noah Goldowsky up until the celebration of the High Times, Hard Times exhibition in 2007.

The Paternosto painting Fathom II from 1975 is a large horizontal canvas which was included in Paternosto’s second exhibition at Denise René Gallery in New York.  He wrote that by then the “modernist white” of the frontal surfaces had given way to sandy grays or pale terracotta, while some of the elements painted on the sides re-entered the frontal surface, as is the case in this serene composition. 

In 1964, Carlos Silva (1930-1987) won the National Di Tella Prize, and the following year was invited to participate in the VIII São Paulo Biennial.  The theoretical basis of his work was shaped by the writings of Kandinsky, Mondrian, Vantongerloo, Max Bill and Tomás Maldonado.  His preference for simple geometric shapes also owed something to the theories of the French mathematician Jules Henri Poincaré.  

Using a rectilinear grid as a framework for marks of different color, Silva created suggestions of movement as in the 1972 tempera in the exhibition.  A grid lightly drawn in pencil was altered and painted with black and bright color dots to create within the paper sheet an illusion of depth and undulating motion.  

In the 1950s and 60s Montevideo hosted important international exhibitions such as Contemporary Painting in the Netherlands, that featured work by Mondrian, Van Doesburg, Vondemberge-Gildewart, Ouborg, Van Der Leck, Hunziker, etc.,  (1954), followed by shows of Antoni Tápies, Alberto Burri and the Brazillian Manabu Mabe.

We present two brightly colored enamel on board (one with an irregular shape), and two canvas paintings by Antonio Llorens, an Argentine artist and graphic designer who worked with the Madí in Buenos Aires and then settled in Montevideo, where he died in 1995.  The precision and energy of his graphic designs successfully translated to canvas and Masonite panels.

Antonio Llorens, María Freire, her husband José Pedro Costigliolo, and Rhod Rothfuss, a leader of the Madí, created Arte No-Figurativo (1952), a short lived group of hard edge formalism.  They paired geometric form with modern materials in bright vibrant colors that reveal their concern to preserve the purity and refinement of the work characterized by an almost mechanical technique.  

Striking examples are Costigliolo’s fired enamel on steel panels that evoke an industrial aesthetic, and many works by Freire of this period look at first glance like screen prints, only to discover that they are in fact hand painted with gouaches.

María Freire’s 1953 sculpture is a drawing in air, a single line made of a forged iron rod.  According to Gabriel Pérez Barreiro, unlike many artists working in geometric abstraction at the time, Freire’s sculpture evolves in a sinuous and suggestive rhythm while never abandoning simplicity of construction. 

While these artists adopted a language derived from Max Bill and Suprematism, at the Taller Torres-García, artists pursued a painterly abstraction rooted in the long tradition of geometry found in archaic cultures and tribal art.

Although structure was the backbone of their paintings, it is not visible in Horacio Torres’ 1959 oil on paperboard where a black line meanders in wave like curves and spirals.  But in this apparently free form composition there is an underlying structure that the artist erased, leaving only the points where the orthogonal lines crossed.  Those points mark the places the line follows, stops, turns and coils, creating an enigmatic and sensuous abstraction like no other similar example, with its subtle suggestion of volume that recedes and swells.

Until now, critics and art historians have for the most part treated North and South American modernism as separate movements, the exhibition at the Newark Museum is the first to open up the discussion of abstraction in the Americas as a unified front and to consider what artists in the North and the South shared in their efforts to forge an indigenous abstract art.  As Tricia Laughlin Bloom wrote in the Museum’s catalogue, the exhibition “traces similarities in compositional structure, materials, techniques, and a common language of linear designs and geometric patterning, as a fuller picture emerges of this foundational period in modern art.” 

Geometric art has continued to evolve, proving it is a vibrant language with endless possibilities as the works presented here so eloquently demonstrate.


María Freire

b. 1917, Montevideo, Uruguay - d. 2015, Montevideo, Uruguay

María Freire is one of the Southern Cone's most productive and engaged, if also one of the least-known, artists working in the Constructivist tradition. Freire trained at the Círculo de Bellas Artes in Montevideo from 1938 to 1943, studying under José Cuneo and Severino Pose and at the Universidad del Trabajo under Antonio Pose. Her first sculptures indicate the profound influence of African art on her work, something of an anomaly for an artist in South America at that time. In the early 1950s, after meeting her future husband, the artist José Pedro Costigliolo, her art became more influenced by European non-figurative art, such as Art Concret group, Georges Vantongerloo, and Max Bill. In 1952 she co-founded the Arte No-Figurativo group with Costigliolo in Montevideo, and exhibited with them in 1952 and 1953. Freire exhibited regularly in the National Salons from 1953 to 1972.  In 1953 Freire and Costigliolo were invited to the 2nd Sao Paulo Biennial, where they came into contact with Brazil's enthusiasm for geometric abstraction. In 1957 Freire and Costigliolo won the “Gallinal” travel grant which they used to live and study in Paris and Amsterdam, and to travel throughout Europe until 1960, meeting many of the historical pioneers of abstract art, including Antoine Pevsner and Georges Vantongerloo. In 1959 they exhibited in Brussels, at the Galerie Contemporain. She was invited again to the Sao Paulo Biennial in 1957 and the XXXIII Venice Biennale in 1966.

Freire developed her work within a strict, yet variable formal vocabulary, often switching between periods of greater or lesser degrees of abstraction.  Her series Sudamérica, worked on from 1958 to 1960, employed cut planes and polygonal forms in a reduced palette. Freire taught drawing in an Architecture Prep School and wrote art criticism for the journal “Acción” from 1962 to 1973.  Around 1960, she began to experiment with looser forms of abstraction, and a more expressive range of colors, resulting in her series Capricorn and Cordoba, 1965-1975, and later on she would create volumetric disturbances by dividing the surface with repeated forms or by creating chromatic modulation sequences in her series Variantes y Vibrantes, 1975-1985. In 2000, she began to produce large-scale public sculpture in Uruguay. 

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Augusto Torres

b. 1913 Tarrasa, Spain - d. 1992 Barcelona, Spain

The eldest son of Joaquín Torres-García was born in Terrassa in the province of Barcelona. While living in Paris in the 1920s, Augusto met many of the great figures of twentieth century art, including Pablo Picasso, Piet Mondrian, and Joan Miró. During the 1930s, he worked as an assistant and apprentice to the sculptor Julio González and studied drawing in Amedée Ozenfant’s Academy. It was also in Paris that Augusto developed his lifelong passion for tribal and primitive art. The artist was introduced to American Indian art by the painter Jean Hélion, a friend of his father’s. He later formed a great collection of American Indian art.

After Torres-García brought his family to Uruguay in 1934, Augusto participated in the Taller Torres-García. He later went on become a teacher himself. In 1945 he began his long collaboration with the Spanish architect Antonio Bonet. In 1960, he was awarded a grant by the New School in New York where he lived for two years. During this time, Augusto traveled to Montana to visit Blackfoot Indian reservations. From 1973 on, he divided his time between Barcelona and Montevideo. 

Augusto Torres’ art is included in the collections of the Museo Artes Visuales, Montevideo; the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Santa Bárbara Museum of Art; the Houston Museum of Fine Arts, and the Miró Foundation, Barcelona.

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Antonio Llorens

b. 1920, Montevideo, Uruguay - d. 1995 Montevideo, Uruguay

Antonio Llorens was a student at the Círculo de Bellas Artes, Montevideo and became a member of the MADÍ group during the 1940s.  Also a founder of the Uruguayan Group of Abstract Art, his work was in numerous exhibitions of the MADÍ group including the important 1958 Parisian MADÍ International, Groupe Argentine at the Galerie Denis René; the 1961 15 Years of MADÍ Art, Museo de Arte Moderno, Buenos Aires; Vanguardias de la década de los 40, Arte MADÍ Perceptismo, Museo Sivori, Buenos Aires in 1980; the 2001 Abstract Art From the Rio de la Plata, 1930s to 1950, Americas Society, New York and Tamayo Museum, Mexico City.

Llorens was an influential proponent of geometric and abstract art in Uruguay. He was commissioned to paint public and private murals, taught from 1962 to 1972 at the Escuela Nacional de Bellas Artes in Montevideo, and in 1987 was awarded the National Prize Pintura INCA in Montevideo.  Llorens work is in the prestigious Blaquier Collection, the Museum of Modern Art and the Museum of Fine Arts in Buenos Aires, the Cisneros Collection in Caracas, Venezuela, and the CIFO collection in Miami, among others.    

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Horacio Torres

b. 1924 Livorno, Italy - d. 1976 New York City

Horacio Torres was born in 1924 when his father, the painter Joaquín Torres-García was living in Livorno, Italy. The family moved to Paris in 1926 where Horacio grew up, and was introduced to Alexander Calder's Circus. In 1934 the family left Europe to settle in Montevideo. Horacio was a member of the Association of Constructivist Art and The Taller Torres-García. In 1942 he traveled to Perú and Bolivia with his brother Augusto to study pre-Columbian Art. He painted two large constructivist murals in the walls of a hospital in Montevideo, a collective project launched by his father with the Taller Torres-García artists. In 1947, Horacio won a competition to paint a large mural for the offices of A.N.C.A.P. the state owned "National Administration of Fuels, Alcohols and Portland." After his father's death in 1949, he traveled to Europe, lived at the Maison du Mexique in the Cité Universitaire, and travelled throughout Europe visiting the great museums. Having returned to Uruguay, Horacio began collaborating with the architects Antonio Bonet, in Buenos Aires, and in Montevideo, with Mario Paysee Reyes, who commissioned large wall reliefs in cut brick for the church of the Archdiocese Seminary.

In 1969 he settled in New York where he began painting large representational canvases of nude figures. Curator Kenneth Moffet wrote “that this change to the figurative involved perceiving that his veneration for tradition and his desire to be modern were problematic and related impulses. His modernity had to be won, his traditionalism justified, and the friction that their conjunction generated proved fruitful." The figurative canvases were first shown at the Noah Goldowsky Gallery in 1972, and two years later, in an individual exhibition at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Horacio died in New York in 1976.

His work is in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art; the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C.; the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; Brandeis University Museum, Waltham, Massachusetts; Hastings College, Nebraska; Rhode Island School of Design Museum, Providence; Musée d’Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris; the Edmonton Museum, Alberta, Canada; the Biblioteca Nacional, Montevideo; and the Museo Blanes, Montevideo, Uruguay.

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Rogelio Polesello

b. 1939, Buenos Aires, Argentina - d. 2014, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Rogelio Polesello studied at the Escuela Nacional de Bellas Artes Manuel Belgrano and graduated from the Escuela de Artes Visuales Prilidiano Pueyrredón as a professor of print, drawing and illustration in 1958.

Polesello took on the Constructivist tradition in Latin America, with its search for order through geometric abstraction, to a new level, defining geometry in human terms in his work that is both full of vitality and sensual interaction.

He had numerous individual exhibitions in major galleries and museums in Latin America, Europe and the United States and his work is part of the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, and the Museum of Modern Art of Latin America in Washington D.C., among others.

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César Paternosto

b. 1931 La Plata, Argentina – lives in Segovia, Spain

Around 1957, César Paternosto started creating artworks based on Geometric Abstraction. After attending a serial music concert, he was enthralled by Anton Webern's pregnant silences, which influenced the next development in his art. By the end of the 1960s, Paternosto moved the emphasis of depicted matter in his paintings to the outer-sides of the canvas, leaving the front blank. By shifting the attention to the sides, he was questioning the traditional viewing of paintings frontally, and as the range of the pictorial field was expanded to the sides, the three dimensionality of the painting turned it into an object. His 2012 essay, “Painting as Object: Geometric Forms and Lateral Expansions,” explained the evolution and continuity of his idea, from the early lateral vision canvases, to his most recent work.
In 1977, Paternosto began to travel to Bolivia and Peru to study the archaeological sites Tiwanaku, Ollantaytambo, and Machu Picchu. These trips marked an important turning point in his work sparking new formal explorations in form, composition, and color. By rooting his art in American autochthonous traditions rather than in the modern European model, Paternosto created a new and original type of abstraction based on the centuries-old woven textiles and sculptural stones of the Inca.
Paintings by Paternosto are found in various prestigious collections, including the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; the Museo Reina Sofia, Madrid; the Kunstmuseum, Bern, Switzerland; and the Städtisches Museum Abteiberg, Mönchengladbach, Germany, amongst others.

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