LATIN AMERICAN ART & ARCHITECTURE
In the period immediately following World War II, a group of young artists in Buenos Aires proposed a radical approach to art, art making, and the role that artwork plays in society. They envisioned their artworks becoming a part of everyday life, which they hoped would be transformed according to Marxist principles. In an effort to break with the tradition of paintings being read as illusionistic windows into the world, these artists—who eventually grouped themselves into the Asociación Arte Concreto-Invención and Movimiento Madí—developed the concept of the marco recortado. Instead of being a composition confined to the rectangular format of a traditional painting, the irregular outline of a marco recortado painting follows the edges of the composition based on abstract geometric forms.
Almost a decade later, in the early 1950s, artists in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo pursued similar goals and expanded the visual repertoire by adding, for example, deep hanging devices to the reverses, which made their painted objects appear to float in space. Artists in both Argentina and Brazil came to call themselves “Concrete,” a term they adopted from the Paris-based artist and former De Stijl movement member Theo van Doesburg. In 1930 van Doesburg published his manifesto “Art Concret,” in which he demanded that art be firmly rooted in what he considered an inner concrete reality, a realm without any references to the outside world. In 1944 Max Bill—a Swiss artist, architect, and designer, and the most important proponent of Concrete art in Europe—organized an international exhibition of Concrete art at the Kunsthalle Basel. Bill became a highly influential figure in Latin America in the 1950s through visits, exhibitions, and active exchange with artists in both Argentina and Brazil.
Artists in these two countries went beyond these initial European influences to create artworks of exceptional originality, including in terms of materials and techniques. Some of the artworks’ constructions call into question the age-old distinction between painting and sculpture. Their embrace of a wide variety of artistic and industrial paints, as well as application methods, allowed them to achieve surfaces that range from perfectly smooth to subtly textured. Most important, they developed a rich and unique visual vocabulary of geometric compositions that can have a powerful impact on the observer.
This interesting and creatively rich period in the artistic, political, and social history of Argentina and Brazil is currently the subject of a joint research effort carried out in institutions in the United States, Argentina, and Brazil.
The J. Paul Getty Trust initiative Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA—or PST LA/LA—has offered an opportunity for research teams in Argentina, Brazil, and the United States to conduct scientific studies of the artistic movements that occurred in Argentina during the 1940s and 1950s and in Brazil into the 1960s. Titled Concrete Art in Argentina and Brazil, this research project aligns with a threeyear joint initiative of the Getty Conservation Institute and the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles, which focuses on works in the Colección Patricia Phelps de Cisneros, including artworks by Argentine and Brazilian artists. The Argentine and Brazilian research groups are funded through grants provided by the Getty Foundation. The research carried out at the Getty and in Argentina and Brazil collectively represents the first comprehensive study of one of the most fascinating art movements in Latin America.
In Argentina, the research project is being conducted by TAREA, the Instituto de Investigaciones sobre el Patrimonio Cultural (Institute for Cultural Heritage Research) of the Universidad Nacional de San Martín in Buenos Aires. The Brazilian component of the project is led by the LACICOR–Conservation Science Laboratory team, based at CECOR, the Center for Conservation and Restoration of Cultural Properties at the School of Fine Arts of the Federal University of Minas Gerais in Belo Horizonte, Brazil.
Research in both countries concentrates on some of the world’s most representative artworks of the Concrete art movement. Aside from the paintings themselves, research has been carried out on samples from commercial paint containers, collected as part of the project. In both Argentina and Brazil, the research groups have collaborated with important professionals and collections in public and private institutions.
The methodological approach in both countries combines both knowledge and the traditional tools used in the art historical, conservation, and conservation science research fields, including scientific materials analysis and imaging documentation techniques. Work has also involved archival research; interviews with artists, artists’ relatives, and curators; and careful observation and recording of the objects’ characteristics, including texture, brittleness, roughness, shiny or matte appearance, crack patterns, stratigraphy, support, and preparatory design. The research results are evaluated and examined from an interdisciplinary perspective, putting the creative output between the 1940s and the early 1960s into its historical, political, social, and economic context. The result of this multifaceted approach has been a more thorough and nuanced understanding of art production in Argentina and Brazil during this period. As with so much art, the materials choices made by the artists were closely related to the final appearance they sought in these works. For instance, the use of synthetic resins and their application could produce a specific sort of finish, such as very smooth and shiny surfaces. Consequently, care must be taken with these works—as with any artwork—to ensure that neither their exhibition nor their conservation treatment alters the final effect the artist sought.
Many Concrete artists, especially members of Grupo Ruptura, endeavored to eliminate all signs of their hands in the finished work and surfaces. To achieve this, several approaches were taken, including the use of self-adhesive tape in Brazil, as found in paintings by Judith Lauand, and ruling pens, by Argentine artist Alfredo Hlito.
Surface finishing was a notable focus of the Concrete art movement. Again, various approaches were employed, and in most cases the result was accomplished by a combination of procedures, polishing the surface among them. This was the method used, for example, by Raúl Lozza in Argentina and Hermelindo Fiaminghi in Brazil. Lozza’s works are characterized by a smooth and even surface, achieved using pumice stone. He worked by applying several layers of color and polishing them with the abrasive powder diluted in water; later he also used sandpaper. This approach was time consuming since Lozza painted with slow-drying oil paint. To accelerate the process, he added resin to the painting, as he explained in an interview a number of years ago.1 This was confirmed later by gas chromatography–mass spectrometry analysis.
This highlights an important challenge faced by the research project. During the period under investigation, paint manufacturers were already adding resin to some oil paints, making it difficult to determine if the presence of this component was due to the intentional action of the artist or if the resin was already in the stock industrial paint. An additional issue arose during the research with the discovery that some additives in the commercial paints studied interfered with traditional processes for identifying these compounds. For instance, the addition of metallic stearates by the paint manufacturers altered some acid ratios commonly used in paint studies. Thus the project offered an opportunity to study the history of industrial chemistry in Argentina, with a focus on paint production. In Brazil, research on the history of the paint industry during the twentieth century revealed several facts about production and the business, including the regular use of inert materials including aluminosilicates as paint extenders; these were later replaced by other inert material, including precipitated calcium carbonate, mainly because of product availability in the internal Brazilian market.
Beyond the formal similarities between the Argentine and Brazilian artworks, the project sought to compare and contrast the materials used to achieve similar ends. The project team found that in Brazil there was a more general experimentation from the materials standpoint, while in Argentina the approach was more classical. Analyses of Argentine artworks show the use of only oil and alkyd resins. But analyses of Brazilian works disclosed the presence of diverse binding media, such as nitrocellulose, alkyd, and PVA, as well as oil and oil-resin mixtures—including, in some cases, beeswax as an extra component added to the main oil binding medium. In Brazil, industrial paints, which were ready to use and easily available at local stores, were widely used by Concrete artists during this period. Alkyd paints, for example, have been identified in fourteen out of the thirty-one paintings studied from Brazilian collections. Why were the paint materials used by Argentine artists less diverse than those used by artists in Brazil? Research in several archives indicates that during the 1930s and 1940s the recently established paint industries in Argentina produced a large variety of paint materials, including lithopone, alkyd, oil, and industrial paints, as well as artistic paints. An interesting art historical question raised by the project’s research was why Brazilian and Argentine artists who shared aesthetic interests did not engage in similar levels of materials experimentation.
The Concrete Art in Argentina and Brazil project undertaken by TAREA and LACICOR, along with the work carried out at the Getty, is the first systematic research into the Concrete art movement in Latin America. In addition to the scientific studies, the project has conducted an extensive bibliographic search covering the chemical industry and architectural history, giving a social and historical context for the artistic movement. Interviews were conducted with a number of the artists’ families and several of the surviving artists themselves; these proved to be among the most valuable resources for the project, providing comparisons and reference points for the findings of the scientific analyses.
The benefits of the project are diverse. First and foremost is a broadening of our comprehension of how this significant body of modern Latin American art was produced, providing us with a deeper knowledge of the paint materials and techniques used by these artists—information that can lead us to a better understanding of the artworks’ deterioration risks and how they might be appropriately stored. It has also provided an opportunity to strengthen national and international collaboration between academic and professional groups in conservation, conservation science, museum studies, and curatorship, especially in Brazil and Argentina.
Fernando Marte is a professor and secretary of research at the Institute for Cultural Heritage Research and professor of chemistry at the National University of San Martín, Buenos Aires. Luiz A. C. Souza is coordinator of LACICOR–Conservation Science Laboratory at CECOR, the Center for Conservation and Restoration of Cultural Properties at the School of Fine Arts of the Federal University of Minas Gerais, Belo Horizonte, Brazil.
The authors wish to acknowledge the following institutions for their assistance. In Argentina: Colección Cancillería Argentina; Colección Juan Del Prete / Eugenia Crenovich (Yente); Museo de Arte Latinoamericano de Buenos Aires; Museo de Arte Moderno de Buenos Aires; Museo de Artes Plásticas Eduardo Sivori; and Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes. In Brazil: Pinacoteca do Estado de São Paulo; Museum of Modern Art, Rio de Janeiro; Tuiuiú Collection, Luis Antonio de Almeida Braga; and Pampulha Art Museum, Belo Horizonte.
1. The interview was conducted prior to the project by Pino Monkes, currently a member of the project team. In the interview, Lozza also noted that it was a trialand-error process and that he settled on a technique involving mixing tube oil paint with alkyd house paint.