Published  30/07/2014

Radical Geometry: Modern Art of South America from the Patricia Phelps de Cisneros Collection

Radical Geometry: Modern Art of South America from the Patricia Phelps de Cisneros Collection

Interview with curator Adrian Locke

Royal Academy of Arts, Sackler Wing, London
5 July – 28 September 2014


Geometric Abstraction as the new visual language that ruled many artistic movements of the 20th century is a fact that has already been understood and scrutinised by both curators and art historians. Just how “radically” this modern feature was assimilated and recreated by South American artists is what the Royal Academy of Arts is demonstrating this summer in London.

Radical Geometry: Modern Art of South America from the Patricia Phelps de Cisneros Collection brings together more than 80 artworks by Uruguayans, Argentines, Venezuelans and Brazilians, a total of 26 artists who intensely transformed the visual arts in their countries from 1930 onwards. The curators Adrian Locke, exhibitions curator of the Royal Academy of Arts, and Gabriel Pérez-Barreiro, director and chief curator of the Patricia Phelps de Cisneros Collection, decided on a more direct methodology to present such complex content at the RA. The show begins with a huge map on which the artists’ cities are marked. The exhibition is then divided into chronological and geographical sections.

The first is dedicated to Montevideo and Buenos Aires. The display starts with artworks by the Uruguayan Joaquín Torres-García (1874-1949), one of the continent’s most important figures in the early 20th century, who was influential not only because of his paintings, but also because of his achievements as an art writer and thinker. He used to say that South American artists should stand up for themselves and create a powerful and genuine art. Torres-García’s Construction in White and Black (1938) is a painting made with clear, logical geometric premises, but the gesture of the artist is also visible. Torres-García believed the artist should leave his touch – his mark on the canvas – and for this reason there are little imperfections that freehand painting leads to. In the painting can also been seen the letters AAC – the abbreviation for the Asociación de Arte Constructivo (Constructive Art Association) – which he founded in 1935 to discuss Modern tendencies in art. In the later work Constructive Composition 16 (1943), one can see ideographic elements that, although figurative and related to his own national identity, are also treated by the painter as geometric components.

The set of works by Argentine artists include those by Tomás Maldonado (b1922), Juan Melé (1923-2012) and Alfredo Hlito (1923-93). This group of artists was very active politically: indeed, they spent more time writing manifestos than organising exhibitions. They embraced non-figurative paintings and believed that abstraction was a revolutionary and democratic new art form that could be grasped by everyone. Individuals such as Melé attempted to subvert even general initial stages of art-making. In his artistic process, he constructed compositions from the inside to the outside. He severed the bonds of the rectangular frame and created paintings with unpredictable shapes, as for example Irregular Frame N.2 (1946). Eventually, his paintings almost became objects.

In the section dedicated to Brazil, there are artworks from São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro by artists who participated in the Concrete and Neo-Concrete groups, including Willys de Castro (1926-88), Geraldo de Barros (1923-98), Lygia Clark (1920-88), Lygia Pape (1929-2004) and Hélio Oiticica (1937-80). Through careful selection, the gathered artworks enable the viewer to easily perceive the developments of Brazilian art from graphical geometry to integration of the human body’s presence. On display are key examples of great mathematical interest that reduced paintings or sculptures to minimal expression. The unfolding of this artistic thinking resulted in cutting-edge experiments targeting a full-sensorial and participatory experience.1

Next, the visitor is taken to Caracas to complete the journey through Radical Geometry from South America. The compelling final part of the show creates an intense dialogue among the artworks by major Venezuelan artists. There are objects and sculptures by Jesús Rafael Soto (1923-2005), who is considered the father of Op Art. His pieces offer diverse visual perceptions depending on light, space and how the viewer moves around each composition. He explored what, at the time, were new materials to make art, such as plastic and nylon. Carlos Cruz-Diez (b1923) also plays with visual and illusionary effects, but he addresses colour as the main subject, trying to invigorate colours by giving substance to them, as can be seen in Physichromie No. 500 (1970). At the other end of the spectrum, Gertrude Goldschmidt, known as Gego (1912-94), a wartime German refugee who spent most of her life in Venezuela, neither worked with colour nor invested in expensive materials. She expertly crafted artworks using elementary components consisting of basic steel wires, lines that when connected engender geometric structures that similar to mobiles, float in the space. She used to say that she did not make sculptures, but drew on the air.

Locke and Pérez-Barreiro, both alumni of the University of Essex in Colchester, house of the largest collection of Contemporary Latin American Art in the UK (known as ESCALA), organised a show in which the entirety of the artworks are intended to capture the viewer’s visual perception. If some works had stood out more than others, this could have had a destabilising effect on the exhibition. However, the curators did not let this happen: the artworks are well balanced and cleverly and pleasingly presented in the Royal Academy.

Studio International talked with Locke to provide more insight into this irresistible exhibition.

Caroline Menezes: Could you please describe how the exhibition was organised and what your curatorial approach was?

Adrian Locke: It was very easy and straightforward. I know the RA galleries very well, likewise Gabriel Pérez-Barreiro knows the Cisneiros Collection. We made our own selections and then we compared them. Actually, there were just a few discrepancies. First, we established the approach of the exhibition and how we would show the material. Would it be chronological, thematic or geographic? As this material would be very new to our audience, we needed to be fairly straightforward and being based on the chronology and the geography seemed to be the easiest way.

CM: I noticed that there is an almost pedagogical approach to the display’s arrangement.

AL: Right. Once we decided that we would do it by region, we separated the Argentines, Uruguayans, and so on. The layout of the exhibition fell into place determined by how our galleries are ordered. The main problem was what artworks we would use because the collection has strong pieces and we had to make difficult decisions regarding what to leave in and what to take out to best represent the artists and their countries.

CM: How big is the Patricia Phelps de Cisneros Collection? I tried to find information about it, but …

AL: … but they don’t tell you, and I don’t know either. I just know it is more than twice the number that we have in the show.

CM: Despite this directness, it is a complex context to be shared, and I enjoyed the fact that we are not overwhelmed with curatorial information. I am glad, for example, that much of the readable information is on the floor in front of each work. When we have artworks that are mainly visual, it is good that there is not any “visual noise”, distractions at eye level.

AL: The artists are very powerful. When you work with artworks that speak for themselves, you don’t need to provide too many details about them. We don’t have extended labels, just very minimal information in this sense. The art is already remarkably strong. We wanted to offer a feeling of that period of time. The display is quite dense, crowded, just like exhibitions used to be at that time. In a way, we also tried to convey a very subtle reference to the Modern architecture from those places in South America. The design of the gallery, the grey colour is also an allusion to the urban concrete, the new buildings that were emerging in those cities.

CM: In the past, how was the relation between the several artistic movements that you present in the show? When you were doing research for the exhibition, did you find a clear link between them?

AL: No. There is a clear connection between Torres-García and the Argentine artists, but that was because they were close, and Montevideo and Buenos Aires were similar in some ways. But the interesting thing is that the Argentine artists pretty much later rejected Torres-García and what he was trying to do. Of all the artists in the exhibition, he had a different vision from the others. He wanted to look into the continent, to celebrate South America, while the other artists were looking across the Atlantic towards Europe saying: “We actually want to be part of an international avant garde. We like what they are doing in Russia, we want to be part of that kind of movement.” The other thing is that only a few of those artists had travelled. They were quite isolated from the world, and the desire to be part of that other world made them much more resourceful.

CM: At the time, did they manage to make it happen? Did any of these several movements become part of the European avant-garde scene?

AL: To a degree. Arte Madí (a movement that emerged in 1946 with Argentine and Uruguayan members) showed in Paris in 1948. Brazilian artists did not show internationally until the exhibition at the Signals Gallery in London in 1964. Oiticica had a big show in 1969 in London too.

CM: But what Oiticica showed in London was already different from geometric abstraction research, wasn’t it?

AL: Yes, of course. It took a while for them to gain international recognition. Nowadays, we know people are valuing the artwork they made much higher. Oiticica and Clark in particular. People are giving them value that they didn’t have back them. One of the things you notice in the show is the big map. We wanted to show that the distance between Montevideo, Buenos Aires and Caracas is enormous. Venezuela was an exception, they were much more mobile there: they were far more integrated internationally than anybody else. They were close to Europe in a sense and they had more money.

CM: In the show we see artworks by Clark, who is currently having a major retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Oiticica had a great show in Tate Modern a few years ago and Gego had a splendid exhibition in the Kunsthalle Hamburg in Germany that has opened this month at the Henry Moore Institute in Leeds. They are examples of South American artists of this period with unquestionable international recognition. Which artists from your selection do you think are still unknown to the international audience and deserve a first-rate show outside South America?

AL: It is easier to begin by mentioning those who already have an international profile. Torres-García has a profile. Pape had a show in the Serpentine Gallery in 2012. Cruz-Diez is showing internationally, and has gallery representation in London, too. Soto may be a good candidate because he had a wide body of work and his career was quite a long one. Some of the Argentine artists had very short careers and some of the Brazilians don’t have a huge diversity of work. I mean we could do a beautiful show of De Castro but it would be a small show. Soto had this amazing career in which he did so many things, at different scales and sizes, he would be an interesting one.

CM: In comparison with Europe or the United States, what would be very singular or genuine from that period in South America? What would distinguish Geometric Abstraction from there, in relation to the artworks produced on the other continents?

AL: It would be interesting to have a show in which we could put the South Americans and Europeans together, to have a sense of that. There are visual similarities obviously, especially, it seems to me, in Buenos Aires. We have to remember that, presumably, at that time, when people saw reproductions of Malevich or Mondrian, they were looking at black-and-white illustrations. Thus, artists aimed to be quite inventive but limited by the material available to them, they created something on quite a small scale, but also quite interesting and different. In Brazil, it is an intellectual activity, especially in São Paulo, with the Concrete Poets, they were playing with certain principles, formulas and representations almost like a game. In Venezuela, it is quite different because they were playing with light, optics, illusion and the idea of movement, and that seems quite separate to what was going on in the other cities. What we could see is a sort of common ground that they looked at, then digested and reflected on, to subsequently respond differently.

What these South American artists have in common is that they were truly progressive and it was not easy for them to show their art. For example, in Buenos Aires, it was hard, they didn’t have any money and they didn’t sell anything. In Brazil, they had an emerging middle class that gave support, they wanted to show their national identity through art, to show sophistication. In short, we can see that these South American artists were exploring different ideas, but also all of them were of the belief that Abstract Art was the new visual language, was the modern art form and would help to change society.


1. More about this period in Brazil can be found in Studio International: From plane to space: the abstract art 
of Lygia Pape
; Oiticica returns to London


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