How Artist-Run Salón Independiente Challenged the Aesthetic Language of Mexico’s Repressive Government

An exhibition at MUAC, Mexico City, revisits how the artists searched for new forms of collective expression during the late 1960s

El Salón Independiente (SI), or the Independent Salon, was an artist-run initiative affiliated with the Mexican students’ movement of the late 1960s which challenged the aesthetic language of the country’s repressive government, who favoured traditional media and devices such as figuration and abstraction. In 1968, 45 artists – among them Lilia Carrillo, Felipe Ehrenberg, Helen Escobedo and Manuel Felguérez – formed an autonomous self-governing association in order to renegotiate the role of art in society and experiment with new forms of collective expression, such as the dematerialization of the art object and audience participation.

Exhibition poster of Salón Independiente 68, 1968, offset on paper, 45 × 44 cm. Courtesy: Brian Nissen Fund / Independent Hall, Arkheia Documentation Center, MUAC, UNAM

That August, 50,000 students marched in protest of government repression; when they reconvened on 2 October, more than 300 were shot and killed by military police in what is known as the Tlatelolco Massacre. Days later, SI mounted the first of three exhibitions (before their dissolution in 1971) in response to the ‘Exposición solar’ (Solar Exhibition), a group exhibition organized by the Mexican state to showcase an official narrative of contemporary art during the Olympic Games. Gathering works by Mexico’s most radical dissident artists on the campus of the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM), it was eventually relocated due to military occupation of the university. On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of that first salon, the Museo Universitario Arte Contemporáneo (MUAC), on UNAM’s campus, has organized a survey documenting and re-creating parts of the exhibitions – a fragmented but nevertheless panoramic illustration of archival material, artifacts and original as well as reconstructed artworks. The exhibition opens with documentation of the protests and the ‘Exposición solar’, placing SI firmly in its sociopolitical context.

Helen Escobedo, White Corridor, 1969, exhibition copy, 2007, lacquered wood, cardboard, 3 × 2,4 × 11 cm. Courtesy: MUAC, UNAM

For the second SI, in October 1969, participating artists produced new works. Helen Escobedo’s White Corridor (1969), for instance, has been reconstructed at MUAC: a passageway of white painted wooden and cardboard panel walls and a ceiling with a mirror at its end, recalling later installations by Dan Graham. Other works borrow the language of pop art: in Felipe Ehrenberg’s Arte Conceptual (Conceptual Art, 1968), serial, colourful graphic symbols borrowed from consumer advertising collide on wooden wall panels. The axiomatic shapes in untitled paintings by Kazuya Sakai and Ricardo Regazzoni (both 1969) appear to be computer-generated; Regazzoni’s are installed diagonally in the corner of the gallery. Though disparate, such artworks are a fitting reflection of the varied aesthetic approaches taken by SI artists, who were unified above all by their pursuit of the freedom to experiment.

The third and last SI exhibition opened its doors in December 1970. Short on funds, participating artists produced their installations solely out of donated newsprint, cardboard and paper. Large installations fashioned from these humble materials commented on systemic corruption, military brutality, repression and censorship: Gilberto Aceves Navarro, for instance, built an untitled cube-like structure, its walls plastered with abstract human forms made of newsprint, their poses suggesting violent revolt. In protest against press misinformation about his work, he set fire to the installation, and parts remained visibly scorched.

‘Art without Guardianship: Salón Independiente in Mexico, 1968-1971’, 2018, exhibition view. Courtesy: MUAC, Mexico City

After the exhibition, the remaining works were destroyed. MUAC has reconstructed some of these for their permanent collection, and several are on display here, such as Aceves Navarro’s sculpture and Marta Palau’s Ambientación alquímica (Alchemical Environment, 1970), a structure of wooden panels coated in newsprint and painted with the form of a television set, large enough to be entered so visitors can interrupt an imaginary broadcast.

Although it is impossible to contest SI’s importance in Mexican art history, a fragmented presentation may not be the best form of remembrance. The works on display mostly serve as didactic illustrations; reconstructed installations, in particular those made with photocopies of newsprint, are poor imitations of the originals. The photographic documentation and films on display much more effectively convey SI’s spirit of experimentation than these reproductions. This begs the question: do we deprive an artistic proposition made for a specific context of its political dimension if we copy it and present it elsewhere?

‘Art without Guardianship: Salón Independiente in Mexico, 1968-1971’ runs at Museo Universitario Arte Contemporáneo, Mexico City, until 24 March 2019.

Main image: Members of the Salón Independiente collaborating on the mural Autorresurección (Autoresurrection), 1971, photograph. Courtesy: Brian Nissen Fund / Independent Hall, Arkheia Documentation Center, MUAC, UNAM

Anna Goetz is a curator and critic based in Mexico City, Mexico. Previously, she was curator at MMK, Museum für Moderne Kunst Frankfurt am Main, Germany. 

Issue 201

First published in Issue 201

March 2019

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