BY Evan Moffitt in Reviews | 30 JAN 19
Featured in
Issue 201

How Venezuela’s Informalist Artists Called for Revolution

A survey at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, revisits the artistic movement and sheds new light on its demand for political change 

BY Evan Moffitt in Reviews | 30 JAN 19

Caracas, Venezuela in 1955 was a city of new money and new freedoms: a brutal dictatorship had yielded to democracy, and an oil boom funded modernist construction projects the likes of which Le Corbusier could only dream. New highways laced the Venezuelan capital, while at its Central University, the Aula Magna had just been unveiled: a magnificent concert hall with biomorphic cladding designed by Alexander Calder. Freed from censorship, caraqueño artists experimented brazenly in the period covered by this exhibition. Superbly curated by Maricarmen Ramírez and Tahía Rivero, ‘Informalism in Venezuela, 1955-1975’ features a dizzying variety of artistic practices unified only by their irreverence to the canon.

Commonly known as Art Informel, Informalism first emerged in France in the years following World War II. Characterized by abstract gestural tendencies, in Venezuela the term has a particularly textural connotation. Rope netting, rubber tires, metal wheel spokes: the earliest works on view, in a section titled ‘Surface Tensions’, feature a wide variety of found objects affixed to the surface of heavy canvases, in gritty encrustations of paint and plaster that recall the best experiments of Alberto Burri. In two striking paintings by José María Cruxent, Sans erotisme il n’y aurait pas d’amour (Without Eroticism There Would Be No Love, 1965) and Une forme speciale d’hipocrasie ‘La Pudeur’ (A Special Form of Hypocrisy ‘Modesty’, 1968), decomposing vegetable fibres give a canvas slathered with green and black paint the look of a stormy sea. Similarly, gesso-soaked paper lends the surface of an untitled 1961 painting by Fernando Irzábal the appearance of soggy newspaper trampled on a city sidewalk. The abstract canvases of Mercedes Pardo, meanwhile, would vie for attention alongside those by her contemporary, Joan Mitchell.

José María Cruxent, Sans erotisme il n’y aurait pas d’amour (Without Eroticism There Would Be No Love), 1965, mixed media on canvas. Courtesy: The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

A small, dimly lit gallery contains works by Venezuela’s modern masters. Most are monochrome, from the scintillating white wooden slats of an untitled Carlos Cruz-Diez composition from 1961, to a small 1968 Gego sculpture of unpainted woven wire, spot-lit menacingly like the jaw of an angler fish. These are the only hints in the show of the geometric abstraction for which Venezuela is best known – here rusted, bent and cast in shadow.

1961 saw the formation of El Techo de la Ballena, or Roof of the Whale, a radical collective whose works, exhibitions and manifestos sought to expose the inequality of the Venezuelan government’s ruthless modernization programme. The symbol of the whale recalls the story of Jonah trapped in its belly: El Techo’s artists strove to destroy the bourgeois establishment from within, what Uruguayan critic Ángel Rama called ‘art terrorism’.

In striking ink drawings by Juan Calzadilla, hundreds of prostrate human bodies slowly resolve themselves into an abstract fleshy alphabet. If such indecipherable language seems Dadaist, it also reflects a sense of alienation El Techo artists shared with their contemporaries in the San Francisco-based Rat Bastard Protective Association, such as Bruce Conner and Jay DeFeo. This is evident in Carlos Contramaestre’s ‘Necrophilia’ (1962) paintings piled with the jawbones of wild animals, or his satirical political cartoons, in which military generals are revealed to be machines. Named for the Fascist Union of British Workers, a far-right organization in 1930s Britain, Dámaso Ogaz’s striking FUBW (1968) similarly depicts mutilated bodies (animal or human?) gliding through steely pipe fittings: the fascist machine and the hapless working class it swallows whole.

Elsa Gramcko, Número 21 (Number 21), 1958, oil on canvas. Courtesy: The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

An entire section has been devoted to Elsa Gramcko, one of the few prominent female artists of informalismo who is clearly owed her own retrospective. Crisp, early abstract paintings recall ‘snap fit’ plastic model kits or circuit boards; around 1961, these machines appear to devour her canvases, which she began layering with rusted or pulverized sheet metal. A suite of decomposing car batteries on the wooden backing of Grieta subterránea (Underground Crack, 1963) resemble clogged subway grates. The circular car headlight at the centre of El sol ha descendido (The Sun Has Descended, 1967) seems to stare back with a wicked gleam in its eye.

In 1968, a monumental tent appeared in a park in central Caracas. This strange pale spaceship of a structure, designed by painter Jacopo Borges, was built to house the Imagen de Caracas (Image of Caracas), a theatrical phantasmagoria celebrating the city’s four hundredth anniversary. Inside the tent, the audience was instructed to wander through a geometric cityscape while filmed re-enactments from the colonial and modern history of Caracas flickered on suspended cubes above their heads. Amplified monologues and a Theremin soundtrack play in the gallery at MFA, where documentary photographs give only some sense of the delirious Debordian spectacle.

The techno-utopianism of Imagen de Caracas contrasts sharply with Daniel González’s Muerte en el asfalto, una lectura de la calle (Death on the Asphalt, a Lesson from the Street, 1970), a contact sheet of canine roadkill that hangs nearby. Here, death has been tinted a lurid rainbow. Gonzalez’s lesson is even more gruesome in light of photographs from recent protests in Caracas against the repressive government of Nicolás Maduro, human bodies littering the streets. Three million people have fled Venezuela in the past two years, and cultural institutions have been shuttered. What better time to revisit informalism and its calls for revolution?

'Contesting Modernity: Informalism in Venezuela, 1955-1975' was on view at The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, from 28 October 2018 until 21 January 2019.

Main image: Francisco Hung, Pintura n° 5 (Painting No. 5) [detail], 1964, oil, acrylic, and gesso on canvas. Courtesy: The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Evan Moffitt is a writer, editor and critic based in London, UK.