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MoMA Opens First Museum Exhibition to Explore the Work of Leon Ferrari and Mira Schendel
León Ferrari, (Argentine, born 1920), Untitled from the series Relecturas de la Biblia (Rereadings of the Bible), c. 1988. Cut-and-pasted printed papers on black paper, 10 7/16 x 13 3/8" (26.5 x 34 cm) Fundación Augusto y León Ferrari. Archivo y Colección, Buenos Aires © 2009 Fundación Augusto y León Ferrari. Archivo y Colección, Buenos Aires Photograph by: Adrían Rocha Novoa.

NEW YORK, NY.- The Museum of Modern Art’s exhibition Tangled Alphabets: León Ferrari and Mira Schendel is the first major museum retrospective in the United States to survey the work of León Ferrari (Argentine, b. 1920) and Mira Schendel (Brazilian, b. Switzerland, 1919–1988), and to explore their significant contributions to contemporary art. Working separately over several decades in neighboring Latin American countries during the latter half of the twentieth century, each created an oeuvre of works of art fundamentally based in language. At a time when Western artists were incorporating letters, words, text, and language as a functional component of their art, Ferrari and Schendel distinctively addressed language as a major visual subject matter, considering the material body of language, its manifestation as a written word and voice, and its use as a metaphor for the human world. As contemporaries, though never collaborators, the two artists shared experiences of disillusion and exile that determined parallels and divergences in the art they produced.

Tangled Alphabets: León Ferrari and Mira Schendel brings together some 200 works in a range of media, including ceramics, paintings, sculptures, installations, and drawings, from public and private collections in São Paulo, Buenos Aires, London, and the U.S., including that of The Museum of Modern Art. The majority of the works in the exhibition come from the Mira Schendel Estate (with thanks to the collaboration of Galeria Millan in São Paulo) and León Ferrari’s personal collection, and many of these works are being shown in the United States for the first time.

Organized by Luis Pérez-Oramas, The Estrellita Brodsky Curator of Latin American Art, with the assistance of Geaninne Gutiérrez-Guimarães, Curatorial Assistant, The Museum of Modern Art, the exhibition is on view from April 5 through June 15, 2009, in The International Council of The Museum of Modern Art Gallery on the sixth floor.

“While the exhibition is intended to juxtapose the common themes shared in the work of these two artists, it constitutes a full retrospective of each artist’s career,” says Mr. Pérez-Oramas. “Ferrari and Schendel are visual artists who never abandon the word. They make it the center of the work—the word as a limitless substitute for the human voice. Ferrari and Schendel give us opaque texts as visual fields; wounded, fragmented, obsessive signs; abandoned, delirious, solitary letters. It is not language that shines through, but writing—whether abstract or textual, alphabetic or architectural, deformed or infinitesimal, nominal or transitive—and, above all, its body: the graphic gesture.”

Tangled Alphabets presents many groupings of works, and is organized loosely chronologically, presenting the evolution of the two artists’ work from the late 1950s through the late 1980s for Schendel, and from the late 1950s through 2007 for Ferrari. The exhibition begins in the late 1950s with an examination of the artists’ use of line, form, and texture, starting with early still-life paintings by Schendel and ceramic vessels by Ferrari. This is followed by a comprehensive look at the artists’ use of words, letters, and phrases, as exemplified through a selection of their language-based works on paper from the 1960s and 1970s. Next, a dramatic display of their three-dimensional works from the 1960s and 1970s—Ferrari’s steel sculptures and Schendel’s paper sculptures and graphic objects—features many works that hang from the ceiling. Both artists made work of political and religious protest, examples of which are on view in a subsequent gallery, and range in date from the mid-1960s to the late 1990s in the case of Ferrari. The exhibition concludes with Schendel’s last series of large paintings from the late 1980s, and Ferrari’s most recent hanging sculptures in polyurethane from 2006 and 2007.

The early 1960s were crucial years in the development of the artists’ work. Ferrari and Schendel started to derive work from language, making intricate works on paper. During this time in North America and Europe, the 1960s saw the emergence of Conceptual art. Although the work of Ferrari and Schendel is contemporary with the birth of Conceptualism, it is distinctively different. Since they address language as a material presence, a body of signs and traces, brushstrokes and gestures, far more than as a vehicle of concepts or ideas, they are more concerned with the visual appearance of language. In fact, the essence of their art lies in its execution, making each work an unrepeatable operation, which is the opposite of Conceptual art.

Highlighted in the first section of the exhibition are two key works from the 1960s. Ferrari’s Cuadro escrito (Written Drawing) (1964), is a “written drawing” on which a handwritten text on the surface of the paper describes a nonexistent painting and what this painting would look like, while also producing an argument against religion, God, and the deification of painting. Schendel’s Untitled (Achilles) (Sem titulo [Achilles]) (1964) is a large oil painting depicting a doorway, over which an English sentence that references Achilles, taken from the introduction to a book of religious poems, has been written in stenciled capital letters.

The exhibition proceeds with works by Ferrari and Schendel that use symbols and patterns based in poetry rather than actual text. Both artists maintained friendships with significant poets—Haroldo de Campos in the case of Schendel; Rafael Alberti in the case of Ferrari. Ferrari’s Sin titulo (Sermón de la sangre) (Untitled [Sermon of the blood]) (1962), is based on a poem by Alberti and is comprised of two planes of lines that join in a complex labyrinth of black and blood-red linear gestures and crisscrosses. This work can be compared to Schendel’s series of sculptural works begun in the 1960s, such as Droguinha (Little nothing) (1966) and Objetos gráficos (Graphic Objects) (mid-1960s), which hang from the ceiling of the galleries. The Droguinhas are made of pieces of Japanese paper, twisted into ropes, which are then knotted and reknotted, thus symbolizing a chain that links embroidery with language and the frustration and confusion of a knot that cannot be untied. The Objetos gráficos emphasize Schendel’s interest in graphic letters, signs and symbols, and address the notion of transparency as the works are placed in between plexi sheets that encourage the viewer to see them from both sides.

Further in the exhibition are dramatic works in which the artists expressed their ideas about politics, history, religion, faith, and the Catholic Church. Schendel’s series of works on paper from 1975, Homenagem a Deus-pai do Ocidente (Homage to God-father of the West) examines the contradictions in the Catholic Church through floating words, symbols, hermetic paraphrases, and sentences taken from the Bible. Also included is Schendel’s Ondas paradas de probabilidade (Still waves of probability) (1969), a monumental work comprising thousands of translucent nylon threads that extend from ceiling to floor besides a Biblical text from the Book of Kings that is printed on an acrylic sheet. It was first shown at the São Paulo Biennial in 1969, and was installed there again, in her honor, in 1994, and has only been shown once since then until its debut in this exhibition. Juxtaposing these works is Ferrari’s Juicio final (Last Judgment) (1994), a large poster of Michelangelo’s famous painting of the same title, the surface of which Ferrari covered with bird excrement, which acts as a form of writing expressing the artist’s desire to question the concept of Hell and the Bible’s writings about torture for sinners in the afterlife.

The exhibition concludes with the most recent work of each artist. In Schendel’s final series of paintings, Sarrafos (Splints) (1987), large white monochromes with attached black bars appear as incomplete frames, mute gestures that might redeem the silence of painting. Ferrari’s recent hanging sculptures, which are untitled and date from 2006 and 2007, are made from polyurethane and plastic, and include bones and other materials.

León Ferrari was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in 1920. His earliest works were done at the end of the 1950s, while he was working in Rome, Italy. He made sculptures in clay and plaster stylistically connected to the abstract tendencies of the period. Beginning in the 1960s, Ferrari conceived a personal style of abstract drawings in which gestural elements and writing intermix. Later, he abandoned avant-garde formalism to practice more political and confrontational forms of art-making. He played a key role in the Argentine vanguard during this period and participated in important artistic and political events such as Tucumán Arde, an avant-garde movement in Argentina in the late 1960s. Forced into political exile, Ferrari lived in São Paulo, Brazil, between 1976 and 1991, a time in which he reconsidered the techniques of his work and concentrated on forms closer to conceptual art. León Ferrari is still fully active in the contemporary Argentine art scene, and at 89, is today one of the most productive artists in Latin America.

Mira Schendel was born in Zurich, Switzerland, in 1919, and began her artistic training in Milan, Italy, in 1936. As a child, she was immersed in the most cultivated intellectual milieu in Italy, where her mother married Count Tommaso Gnoli, an aristocrat and intellectual in charge of the famous Biblioteca Nazionale Braidense. She studied art, philosophy, and theology, and spent her early youth in the Brera Palace, privately experiencing one of the most exquisite collections of art in the world. Schendel went to Sarajevo, Bosnia, in 1941, while fleeing Nazi persecution during World War II. In 1945, she moved to Rome, Italy, and later to Porto Alegre, Brazil, in 1949, where she began to produce paintings and ceramic works while teaching and publishing poetry. Following an invitation to show at the first São Paulo Biennial in 1951, she moved to that city in 1953. A solitary artist, Mira Schendel was aware of the most important avant-garde chapters in her adopted country and exchanged with crucial intellectual figures of the XXth Century, from poets to philosophers and critics and fellow artists, becoming a central reference for the Brazilian cultural scene after 1965. Schendel died in Brazil in 1988.

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