Not long ago, a Dutch artist of Colombian descent working in a pop-nouveau-réaliste vein in 1960s Amsterdam might have seemed an art-historical anomaly. However, in the wake of several international exhibitions in recent years exploring the global dimensions of pop, the work of the late Miguel Ángel Cárdenas appears more typical than exceptional. Despite this, his experiments, by turns jocular and bawdy, have lost nothing of their visual impact. Oscillating between drawing, assemblage and hybrid sculpture, Cárdenas developed an unclassifiable body of work, which glints with the slick sheen of polyvinyl chloride seamed with zippers, and routinely courts bodily – and erotic – analogy.
Born and educated in Colombia, Cárdenas won a fellowship in 1961 to study Graphic Arts in Barcelona, before settling the following year in Amsterdam, where he resided until his death in 2015. His arrival coincided with both the burgeoning of nouveau réalisme and the dawn of pop: styles he pursued almost immediately in various media and materials. Working under the pseudonym Michel Cardena, he participated in the landmark 1964–65 exhibition ‘Pop and New Realism’, which travelled from The Hague to Brussels, Berlin and Vienna, further disseminating these phenomena across Western and Central Europe. From 1970, Cárdenas began experimenting with video, of which this exhibition at Andrea Rosen Gallery – his first ever solo show in the US – includes a good cross-section, along with several paintings and works on paper, as well as various hybrid objects.
The latter figure prominently in two of the exhibition’s opening pieces: Nog slechts enkele dagen (1) (Only a Few Days, 1, 1963) piles the detritus of shaving-cream cans, foot spray and other merchandise inside a glass vitrine, the front of which drips white paint and bears the work’s title, a seemingly truncated advertising slogan. The most obvious points of reference here are Arman’s ‘accumulations’, which – in framing the debris of postwar, bourgeois creature comforts – ventured a critique of commodity culture.
Dada, and in particular the legacy of Francis Picabia, lurks elsewhere in Cárdenas’s aesthetic. This is most notable in his sculptures, several of which bear a sexual resonance that is anything but subtle. Somewhere between painting and sculpture, Open Fly Silver Star (1964) has a lower quadrant – sheathed in silver PVC – that unzips to reveal a mesh-covered, make-shift face, composed of a miniature plastic watermelon and fake eyelashes. The work’s emphasis on synthetic materials and products is rivalled only by the über-campness of its erotics. Hot Vagina (1969) takes this playfulness to superlative levels: two aluminium buckles flank a coiled heating device that glows a smouldering red. But Cárdenas is not always so hyperbolic: if the plastic yellow banana hanging from Blue Lovers (1965) is hardly subtle, the folds that wrap around and between the paired canvases evince a more nuanced sexual tension.
The exhibition also screens four of Cárdenas’s pioneering videos, some of them featuring the artist himself. In Un cube se transforme en cercle par la chaleur de cardena (A Cube Turns into a Circle by the Heat of Cardena, 1973–74), the artist repeatedly takes into his bearded mouth a piece of solid, indeterminate white food. As the substance melts, he spits the resulting liquid onto a plate. The ritual suggests a kind of vulgar, semi-erotic transubstantiation; yet, it also evokes the transformation of rational geometry into a more messy substance. Precisely at the moment of its ascendance in European and American art, this insistence upon the body evidences not Cárdenas’s affinities with the zeitgeist so much as a natural evolution of his earliest aesthetic concerns.