Magazine article Artforum International

Leon Ferrari and Mira Schendel: MUSEUM OF MODERN ART, NEW YORK

Magazine article Artforum International

Leon Ferrari and Mira Schendel: MUSEUM OF MODERN ART, NEW YORK

Article excerpt

A PAIR OF PHOTOGRAPHIC PORTRAITS of the artists adorn the entrance of the Museum of Modern Art's joint retrospective "Tangled Alphabets: Leon Ferrari and Mira Schendel," the first major North American survey for either of these two key figures of postwar Latin American art. Similarly framed, equally expressionless, and each flanked by abstract sculptures, the two artists look strikingly alike. This coincidence reflects the show's primary operation: The dearth of actual historical connections between Ferrari and Schendel is repeatedly eclipsed by immediate visual affinities. While a retrospective of even one of these early exponents of what critic Craig Owens once called the "eruption of language into the field of the visual arts" would have been welcome and overdue, curator Luis Perez-Oramas has a more ambitious aim: for the artists to clarify each other's contributions through a series of formal comparisons.

To this end, "Tangled Alphabets" juxtaposes some two hundred works while following a rough biographical chronology. Ferrari, who was born in 1920 to Italian parents in Buenos Aires, left Argentina for Sao Paulo in 1976 to escape the "dirty war," returning to his hometown (where he still lives) only in 1991; while Schendel, who died in 1988, was born in Switzerland in 1919 and emigrated to Brazil in 1949, settling in Sao Paulo in 1953. In the early 1960s, both artists began systematically exploring combinations of drawing and writing, which supplanted their earlier, more traditionally modernist investigations: for Schendel, Morandi-like still lifes; for Ferrari, Picassoid ceramics. In series such as "Letras" (Letters) and "Escritas" (Written), both 1964-65, Schendel made prints of isolated abstract markings, numbers, and fragments of different languages by first placing sheets of rice paper between plates of glass treated with ink and a layer of talc, and then pressing onto the glass to transfer the ink to the paper. In contrast, Ferrari made ink drawings that linked compositional elements together with lines, organizing elegant gestural abstractions into textlike syntax, as in the series "Cartas a un general" (Letters to a General), 1963- Expressionism and writing are here mapped onto each other so that the former is rendered regular and the latter illegible. Ferrari subsequently incorporated actual writing into his works, including Cuadro escrito (Written Painting), 1964, which describes a painting he would have made but could not.

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In his catalogue essay, Perez-Oramas contends that the artists' focus on the materiality of writing over its ability to advance ideas sets them apart from North American or European Conceptual artists. Considering the subsequent interest in language as matter in the work of Robert Smithson, Hanne Darboven, and many others, however, it might be argued that Ferrari and Schendel offer an alternative picture of language's appearance in '60s art: not as rupture but as a result of rigorous experimentation with abstract form. For Schendel's "Objetos grdficos" (Graphic Objects), begun in 1967, she veiled her drawings, which were now double-sided and included transfer type, behind sheets of translucent acrylic. Ferrari used Letraset characters in mad profusion in his "Heliografias" (Heliographs), ca. …

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