South American art shines as Radical Geometry is radical once more at the RA

By Mark Sheerin | 07 August 2014

Exhibition review: Radical Geometry: Modern Art of South America from the Patricia Phelps de Cisneros Collection, Royal Academy, London, until September 28 2014

Black and white painting of a packed out arrangement of rectangles and squares
Joaquin Torres-Garcia, Construction in White and Black, 1938© The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Patricia Phelps de Cisneros in honour of David Rockefeller, 2004. Photo Coleccion Patricia Phelps de Cisneros
Here in the UK, a cultural powerhouse and former imperial power, we take for granted our place on the world stage. But in post-war South America a group of oft-travelled artists were planning a transfer of soft power to the Eastern seaboard of the Atlantic.

The balance did shift, of course, but chiefly in the Northern hemisphere. Pop Art, Ab Ex, Minimalism, conceptual art and performance:  these were movements which swept across the ocean. But this might say more about international relations than the art.

Buenos Aires and Montevideo may have been cosmopolitan places. Caracas may have benefited from considerable oil money. And Brazil may have built a capital city from scratch and founded a Bienal in Sao Paulo. But the region’s abstract art failed to set the world on fire.

Dates on the wall at the RA begin to tell us why. In the 1930s and 1940s, Joaquin Torres-García was pushing, muddy grids filled with polite pictograms, reminiscent of Klee. Europe was going to war.

In the 50s, painter Tomás Maldonado was plying a restrained form of constructivism and Lygia Pape was using woodgrain in tasteful abstract compositions. And we were settling in for a cold war.

By the 1970s, Gego was turning heads in Caracas with her spidery arrangements of hooked wires. But many in the so-called West were by now getting excited about dispensing with materiality in our art.

Clearly this was a whole continent dancing to a different drum. The fact that the ‘west’ recovered so quick from World War II that by the 1950s we had established a new world order must have perplexed some of the artists in this show.

But today they offer something welcome and even fresh. During the second half of the 20th century, the artists of Latin America were standard bearers for geometric abstraction, a rational and cerebral art which gestures towards a Utopia we need just as much today.

And despite the lack of Marilyns and drip paintings, Radical Geometry is not without its breathtaking moments. Franz Weissmann’s Neo Concrete Column (1957) oscillates between square and spherical form as you walk around it.

Jesús Soto, meanwhile, offers another piece of optical trickery with his shimmering installation, Nylon Cube (1990). Last but by no means least, Carlos Cruz-Diez offers a panorama of abstraction with his Physichromie No.500 (1970).

The bench here invites you to meditate on this piece and perhaps, as Torres-García famously did, invert your own mental map of the globe. Imagine for a minute that all eyes were on this Latin avant garde. Just what might the world have come to look like.

  • Open 10am-6pm (10pm Friday). Admission £8-£11.50 (free for under-16s), book online.

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Visit Mark Sheerin’s contemporary art blog and follow him on Twitter.
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