Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Partners with Mercantil Bank and Colección Mercantil Arte y Cultura, Caracas, to Present First Comprehensive Exhibition of Venezuelan Informalism

More than 130 works in “Contesting Modernity: Informalism in Venezuela, 1955−1975” explore the expressive richness and historical significance of the movement

HOUSTON—September 2018—In October, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, partners with Colección Mercantil Arte y Cultura, Caracas, to present Contesting Modernity: Informalism in Venezuela, 19551975, a groundbreaking exhibition that charts the trajectory of the Informalist movement from the mid-1950s through its last manifestations in the 1970s. Though Informalism ushered in an era of expressive richness in Venezuela, and later functioned as a rite of passage for subsequent generations, until now, no exhibition or publication has comprehensively studied its history. The exhibition is presented by Mercantil Bank and will be on view from October 28, 2018, to January 21, 2019.

Contesting Modernity features more than 130 works of art that showcase the variety, richness, and complexity of an underrepresented movement that developed in Venezuela opposite Abstract Expressionism in North America and Tachisme and Art Informel in Europe. Drawing from the collection of Mercantil Arte y Cultura, the nonprofit organization established by Mercantil Servicios Financieros, as well as from other public and private collections across the United States and Venezuela, the exhibition encompasses a wide range of media, including collage, painting, assemblage, and photographs.

“We are thrilled to partner with Mercantil Bank and Colección Mercantil Arte y Cultura on this exhibition, and grateful for their generous contributions which have allowed us to share these important, yet historically overlooked, works of art to U.S. audiences for the first time,” said Gary Tinterow, director of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

“Barring few exceptions, focused research and study of Informalism has remained an outstanding gap in the history and historiography of Venezuelan and Latin American art,” added Mari Carmen Ramírez, Wortham Curator of Latin American Art at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and organizing curator of the exhibition. “More than 60 years after the movement’s emergence, Contesting Modernity, along with its related publication, fills that gap and sheds light on these influential artists and their significant contributions.” Ramírez also noted that the exhibition is the direct result of a long-standing partnership between the ICAA and Colección Mercantil Arte y Cultura, Caracas involving the Documents of 20th Century Latin American and Latino Art Project. Project researchers unearthed, scanned and annotated important documents related to this important chapter of Venezuelan art history while drawing attention upon the need to present it to American audiences.

Represented in Contesting Modernity are chief practitioners of the movement—Alberto Brandt, José María Cruxent, Francisco Hung, Fernando Irazábal, Mercedes Pardo, Luisa Richter, Maruja Rolando, and Humberto Jaimes Sánchez, among others; members of the avant-garde group El Techo de la Ballena (The Roof of the Whale); abstract-geometric creators like Carlos Cruz-Diez, Gego, Alejandro Otero, and Jesús Rafael Soto who had brief brushes with Informalism; painter and sculptor Elsa Gramcko, who exemplified a unique approach to Informalism; and artists Mario Abreu, Jacobo Borges, Marisol Escobar, Régulo Pérez and Tecla Tofano who experimented with Informalism but did not officially identify with the movement. The number of women artists associated with the movement, and represented in this exhibition, is extraordinary by any standard of the period.

The History of Informalism
The Informalist movement emerged as a response to a critical Cold War moment in Venezuelan history, marked by a tumultuous transition to democracy, a rapid social transformation fueled by a booming oil business, and increasing inequality due to newfound wealth. Rising tensions as a result of the country’s unbridled modernization created the environment for artistic dissent. Rejecting order, rationality, and clarity, the Informalistas sought to distance themselves from legitimate art practices and instead, embraced radical modes of experimentalism. Its adherents destroyed the two-dimensional support, disintegrated form, and subverted the use of traditional media, such as painting and sculpture. Their purpose was to call attention to the uncertainty that plagued all levels of life in Venezuela, the art world and its museums, galleries, markets, and critics included.  

Exhibition Overview
Contesting Modernity is organized into five sections. The first, Surface Tensions, displays works that disintegrate form into texture and matter. In both Sin título (Untitled) by Fernando Irazábal and Composición implícita (Implicit Composition) by Mercedes Pardo, the dissolution of recognizable shapes subverts the rational processes traditionally associated with geometric abstraction, while their viscous, corroded surfaces question the idea of painting as a noble art.

The second section focuses on the critical contributions of the radical avant-garde group El Techo de la Ballena (The Roof of the Whale). El Techo emerged in Caracas in 1961 as one of the first artistic groups to emphasize the inequalities brought on by the growing modernity in Venezuela. Motivated by political conditions and dissatisfied with conventional artistic taste, artists such as Juan Calzadilla, Carlos Contramaestre, Ángel Luque, and Gabriel Morera embraced an anti-art aesthetic. In contrast to the clarity, simplicity, and order of geometric abstraction, they experimented with sordid objects and subject matter, such as cow bones, animal hides, and trash.

Return of the “Real” explores artists who began incorporating refuse and other everyday objects into their works. By using discarded and found objects, these artists, including Elsa Gramcko, Alejandro Otero, and Jesús Rafael Soto, sought to exploit the capacity of everyday objects to produce new meaning and thereby connect art to its immediate reality. Despite their connections to Constructivism and Kinetic Art, Otero and Soto experimented with the “real” in key works exemplified by Soto’s monumental Mural (1961) on loan from the Colección Fundación Museos Nacionales, Galería de Arte Nacional, Caracas.

The fourth section traces the career and extraordinary achievements of Elsa Gramcko (1925−1994), a leading exponent of a unique brand of Informalism until now completely unknown to audiences outside of Venezuela. In the 1950s, Gramcko experimented with a version of abstraction based on highly stylized forms of machines and primitive, totemic structures. After 1959, the largely self-taught artist grew increasingly interested in matter, and began to incorporate sawdust and pigment into her works. By 1960, her textured work transitioned into a black period, with surface reliefs reminiscent of nighttime or lunar landscapes. In 1961, her steadfast embrace of Informalism—a distinction that Gramcko, ironically, rejected throughout her life—led to her use of unconventional materials, including car battery cells, headlights, cement, and pieces of rusted scrap.

Marginal Strategies, the final section of the exhibition, presents artists who used figuration and depictions of the transmuted human body, in particular, to corrupt traditional artistic values. The distorted figures of Jacobo Borges and Régulo Pérez offer a biting criticism of politicians, the military, and the upper classes in Venezuela. At the same time, Mario Abreu’s assemblages incorporate found objects and materials that emphasize popular culture and syncretic religions as an antithesis to high art and bourgeois taste. Featured in this section is the visual arts project Imagen de Caracas, a multi-media environment developed by Jacobo Borges, in collaboration with his then wife Josefina Jordan, the writer Adriano González León, and the architect Juan Pedro Posani. On display in the United States for the first time, Imagen de Caracas—which was selected to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the city of Caracas in 1967—presents documentary footage by Jacobo Borges and Abraham Tovar and photographs by Paolo Gasparini that display the violent history of Caracas and the country since the colonial period .

Curatorial Team
The exhibition is co-curated by Tahía Rivero, Curator, Colección Mercantil Arte y Cultura, Caracas and Dr. Mari Carmen Ramírez, Wortham Curator of Latin American Art and Director, International Center for the Arts of the Americas at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. They were assited by Dr. María Gaztambide, formerly Associate Director, International Center for the Arts of the Americas at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; and Rachel Mohl, Assistant Curator of Latin American Art at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

The International Center of the Arts of the Americas at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, produced a fully-illustrated, 256-page catalogue to accompany this exhibition. The catalogue consists of essays on the history and artists of Venezuelan Informalism, a chronology of the movement, artists’ biographies, and documentary period texts (manifestos, artist’s statements, critical essays). Contributing writers to this publication include Ramírez, Rivero, Gaztambide, Gabriela Rangel, and Josefina Manrique.

About the Colección Mercantil Arte y Cultura, Caracas
Colección Mercantil Arte y Cultura, Caracas is a non-profit organization established by Mercantil Servicios Financieros to foster cultural and artistic expression, and engage communities in Venezuela and abroad. Mercantil Arte y Cultura is also dedicated to advancing the arts through its gallery space, Espacio Mercantil, and the Mercantil Collection by participating in national and international exhibitions, conducting research and promoting conferences in support of Venezuela´s artistic talent. 

About the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
Established in 1900, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, is among the 10 largest art museums in the United States, with an encyclopedic collection of nearly 70,000 works dating from antiquity to the present. The main campus comprises the Audrey Jones Beck Building, designed by Rafael Moneo and opened in 2000; the Caroline Wiess Law Building, originally designed by William Ward Watkin, with extensions by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe completed in 1958 and 1974; the Lillie and Hugh Roy Cullen Sculpture Garden, designed by Isamu Noguchi and opened in 1986; the Glassell School of Art, designed by Steven Holl Architects and opened in 2018; and The Brown Foundation, Inc. Plaza, designed by Deborah Nevins & Associates and opened in 2018. Additional spaces include a repertory cinema, two libraries, public archives, and facilities for conservation and storage. Nearby, two house museums—Bayou Bend Collection and Gardens, and Rienzi—present American and European decorative arts. The MFAH is also home to the International Center for the Arts of the Americas (ICAA), a leading research institute for 20th-century Latin American and Latino art.

Organization and Funding
This exhibition is organized by the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and the Colección Mercantil Arte y Cultura, Caracas.

Lead Corporate Sponsor:

Mercantil Bank


Media Contacts
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