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Exhibition presents Latin American art in dialogue with the MMK Collection
Arman (Armand Pierre Fernandez), White Orchid, 1963 © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2017. Photo: Axel Schneider.

FRANKFURT.- In one of its largest exhibitions ever the MMK Museum für Moderne Kunst Frankfurt am Main is collaborating with the Museo de Arte Moderno de Buenos Aires (Moderno). The exhibition, A Tale of “Two Worlds: Experimental Latin American Art in Dialogue with the MMK Collection 1940s1980s”, is being presented throughout the MMK 1 between 25 November 2017 and 2 April 2018, and at the Museo de Arte Moderno de Buenos Aires between 7 July and 14 October 2018. The exhibition, jointly curated by Museo de Arte Moderno de Buenos Aires Director Victoria Noorthoorn and Senior Curator Javier Villa, and MMK Curator Klaus Görner, brings the masterworks of the Frankfurt collection into dialogue with key works of Latin American art. The exhibition accommodates some 500 artworks from private and public collections by 100 artists and collectives from Latin America, the United States and Europe and are displayed in Frankfurt on all levels of MMK 1.

“A Tale of Two Worlds” sets out to establish a dialogue between two narratives in Western contemporary art over the five decades spanning the 1940s and the 1980s: the European-North American canon – as represented in the MMK Collection – and Latin American experimental art. The exhibition is structured as a stream of conversations, whereby topics relevant to the history of experimental art practices in Latin America are presented in dialogue with artworks from the MMK Collection. The project has been conceptualized and curated over the past year and a half between the two museums in Buenos Aires and Frankfurt and has a strong Southern perspective. Indeed, it marks the first time a European Museum collection has allowed itself to be re-examined by curators of Latin American art. The project is an answer to the call by the Kulturstiftung des Bundes (German Federal Cultural Foundation) on major museums in Germany to endow their collections with a more global perspective.

For some years now the MMK’s exhibition programme and collection policy has opened up its view to non-European perspectives on international contemporary art and critically questioned the socio-political conditions of art in a globalized world. The invitation from the Kulturstiftung des Bundes was therefore timely. The interrelated perspectives of two continents and cultures represented in “A Tale of Two Worlds” presents the MMK with a chance to see its own collection from a striking new angle. Although emerging from divergent political, economic and historical contexts, the art on show will reveal parallel trajectories, crossover points and different approaches.

While the MMK Collection from the 1960s and 1970s focuses on European and North American art, the period of Latin American art addressed in this exhibition is somewhat longer: it starts in 1944, the year of the first expressions of the new Concrete Art movements in Argentina, and continues until the end of the military dictatorships in the late 1980s. Through the example of avant-garde artists from Latin America, the USA and Europe the exhibition attempts to locate the precise tipping point in the transition from modern to contemporary art. It foregrounds various forces of change in order to illustrate this moment of transition, when modernist models collapsed. It focuses on moments of empathy, shared concerns and intellectual bonds between artists from different parts of the world, as well as moments that emerge as counterpoints or challenges, or as tensions between different historical experiences.

During the 1940s Concrete Art evolved to become the focal point of experimental art in Latin America. Concrete artists in Buenos Aires and Montevideo tried to go beyond representation and the traditional format of painting. Paintings with an irregular frame (a precursor of the ´shaped canvas´), that promote a new relationship with the surrounding architecture or articulated sculptures that add movement to the object starting from the action of the artist or spectator, became foundation stones in the shift to contemporary art. A wave of progressive thinking emerged in numerous cities across the continent, and the Latin American art scene underwent a potent upheaval. This was an avant-garde way of thinking that did not just involve a way of thinking about the artist’s role in society and art’s potential to transform it; it was a response to real contexts that more often than not were riddled with tension and conflict. The exhibition opens a debate about the artists’ reactions to their different socio-political contexts. Latin America’s turbulent political past – decades of economic crises, colonialism, dictatorships, abuse of power, racial discrimination and censorship – has provided its artists with a platform to react forcefully and articulate their world-views.

Throughout this history – and specifically the five decades encompassed by the exhibition – the terms of the dialogue between European and Latin American practices have varied immensely. Earlier, during the first decades of the century (not covered by the exhibition), experimental art in Latin America first developed as a response to the European avant-gardes. With the advent of World War II artists stopped making educational trips to Europe. Instead they focused on their own origins and developed utopias that drew on intellectual exchanges between the two regions, but mostly on inquiries into each cultural hub’s intellectual circles. In a few cases artists working in Europe travelled to Latin America during the 1940s and 1950s, where they either took inspiration from the experimental practices developed there or found in the South a fertile ground to develop poetics whose reason to be had been lost in the devastation of war. Later, in the post-war period, when the experimental mind-set once again left its mark on many of the North’s practices, the dialogue became far richer and complex as artists travelled the world. They did so either out of intellectual interest or practical necessity (like Latin American artists who temporarily moved to New York, Paris or London to show or develop specific projects, or critics from North America or Europe like Clement Greenberg, Lucy Lippard, Pierre Restany or Kynaston McShine who travelled to the South in search of the hotbed of experimentation to be found there) or because of the political conditions in their countries of residence (fleeing the various Latin American dictatorships of the 1960s and 1970s).

The exhibition “A Tale of Two Worlds” is configured as an associative narrative ranging across the entire museum. Organized along three grand axes and sixteen sub-sections, it deals with the development of the history of art from the various continents of the world both chronologically and conceptually. They include such areas as ‘The Social Body’ or ‘When Pop Becomes Critical’, in which the Argentinian-German curatorial team emphasizes the ways colonialism, consumerist critiques, political repression and military rule have shaped the socio-political context for a specific artistic praxis to produce an explicitly political form of art.

The introductory first axis explores the art of Lucio Fontana as a response to the Concrete Art movements of the River Plate region (Rio de la Plata) in the 1940s and as a mirror to the destructive practices in the Europe and Latin America of the 1950s. The axis also examines the politics involved in cutting through a surface to critically see through it and expose a complex socio-political situation, as in the Neo-Concrete works of 1960s Brazilian artists and the works produced to denounce the various dictatorships in the Southern Cone in the 1970s. The second axis focuses on the shift produced by artists who redirected their attention from the material to the immaterial dimension of art and from the realm of the object towards the realm of the lived experience, as in the practices of Alberto Greco, Yves Klein or Franz Erhard Walter. This axis also presents artists who analyse the experience of the urban environment and its counterpart, the intimate domestic space. It addresses the complexities of an art that touches upon conceptions of Pop Art only to dismantle them and upon conceptions of colonialism to critically condemn the present. The third axis brings the figure of the artist back to the fore as they establish their roles in society and the environment (Joseph Beuys, Nicolás García Uriburu, Ana Mendieta) or obsessively record their actions in time (On Kawara, Arthur Bispo do Rosário, Edgardo Antonio Vigo). This final axis explores diverse strategies of enunciation, in particular writing as a tool to speak out in and about a broader socio-political context.

The exhibition ends with a remarkable analogy between the two worlds. Kenneth Kemble’s Gran pintura negra (1960) in Moderno’s collection and Roy Lichtenstein’s Yellow and Green Brushstrokes (1966) in MMK’s collection are displayed side by side to signal the complex appropriation of the painting tradition by conceptual strategies in answer to specific movements. While Lichtenstein creates a monumental brushstroke recurring to the language of the comic-strip with its solid colour and its Ben-Day dots, Kemble made use of a grid to rationally amplify and stage the single brushstroke on this canvas. Both of these works could be considered a homage to the pictorial gesture par excellence and, at the same time, a corrosive analysis and dismantling of the tradition it represents.

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