‘I have dreamed geometry / I have dreamed the point, the line, the plane, and the volume / I have dreamed yellow, blue and red.’ These lines from Jorge Luis Borges’s poem ‘Descartes’ (1981) are found on the opening page of the catalogue to ‘Géométries sud, du Mexique à la Terre de feu’ (Southern Geometries, from Mexico to the Tierra del Fuego). A fitting epigraph, they announce the vertiginous profusion of coloured shapes in the nearly 250 works by more than 70 artists and creators from the pre-Columbian period to the present.
Exploring the predominance of geometric motifs across a wide variety of media, the exhibition is an impressive display of the diversity of aesthetics and discourses derived from a limited repertoire of forms. For Juan Araujo, for instance, the square is imbued with the legacy of Josef Albers. In Homage to the Square #1 (2016), Araujo carefully re-creates one of Albers’s iconic works, recording even the simple metal frame and the oblique shadow that it casts on the wall from which it hangs, slightly crooked: constructivist modernism presented as something a little less than perfect or universal.
For Mathias Goeritz, another artist with Bauhaus roots, the square – or, rather, its three-dimensional cousin, the cube – is a modular form symbolizing the arrival of minimal art in Mexico at the end of the 1950s and the artist’s attempt to engage with the myths of his adoptive home. His Pirámide de doce cajas apiladas (Pyramid of 12 Piled-up Boxes, 1961) evokes the stepped forms of pre-Columbian architecture and the proclivity for gold that inspired the bloodthirsty conquests of Spanish and Portuguese explorers.
The desire to synthesize regional traditions with European modernism unites many of the artists in ‘Southern Geometries’, not least Joaquín Torres-García. The Uruguayan painter sojourned in Paris between 1925 and 1934, where he befriended Piet Mondrian and formed a review and avant-garde group with the Belgian critic Michel Seuphor called Cercle et Carré (Circle and Square). He is best known, however, for inventing a style of painting that blended the neo-plastic grid with a vocabulary of symbols possessing something of the cryptic charm of Mesoamerican figurative hieroglyphs.
Examples of these prehistoric inspirations are some of the earliest works on display in the show. Three volcanic stone statuettes, two of which are said to represent a shaman turning into an owl, while the perforated façade of the third appears to be purely abstract, were produced by the Valdivia people who populated the coast of Ecuador over 6,000 years ago. The squared contours of these statuettes give them the pixilated appearance of figures from the universe of early computer rendering.
The exhibition also gives much-needed space to female artists whose contributions to 20th-century avant-gardes have only recently begun to receive their dues. Among them is the Cuban artist Carmen Herrera, who received her first retrospective for her hard-edged paintings at the Whitney in 2016, at the age of 101, despite having been a New York resident since the 1950s. My personal favourite, the Brazilian artist Lygia Clark, was granted a posthumous retrospective at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 2014 – almost three decades after her death. ‘Geometries’ presents several of Herrera’s paintings and one of Clark’s ‘Bichos’ (Critters, 1960–64), a series of sculptures that mark a crucial transition in the artist’s work away from abstract painting and towards a form of object-based therapeutic performance.
On the museum’s upper level, Bolivian architect Freddy Mamani has transformed an entire room with his eccentric architectural style, defined by bright colours and geometric forms integrated directly into buildings whose contours meander and zigzag with the postmodern flare of Memphis furniture. His style is actually a blend of the geometric vocabulary of different Amerindian cultures. As such, Mamani’s buildings assert the continued relevance of Latin America’s 6,000-year-old affair with geometry.
The works presented in an exhibition of such scope and ambition attest to the profundity and originality of these artists’ engagement with abstract modernism. After visiting, you cannot help but feel, like Borges, swept up in their geometric dream.
'Southern Geometries, from Mexico to Patagonia' was on view at Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain, Paris, from 14 October 2018 to 24 February 2019.
Main image: Maria de Fátima Matchua, Untitled, 1998, felt pen on paper, 22 × 39 cm. Courtesy: the artist and ACIRK, Mato Grosso do Sul
First published in Issue 202