By John Carter RA
Artist John Carter RA explains how his work resonates with Buenos Aires artists in ‘Radical Geometry’.
There is some remarkable work in ’Radical Geometry’ and some famous artists appear in the exhibition: Carlos Cruz-Diez, Hélio Oiticica, Jesús Soto, Lygia Clark and others. The two I am writing about in detail here are not necessarily the most significant ones artistically, nor are they well known in Britain, but their work has unexpected connections to my own interests and practice. They they are Tomás Maldonado and Carmelo Arden Quin.
My interest in the work of the Swiss Concrete artist Max Bill led me to the Argentine artist Maldonado. As Gabriel Pérez-Barreiro discusses, Bill’s geometric art had had quite an extensive influence in South America, particularly in Brazil. In 1951 he held a major retrospective exhibition in the Museum of Modern Art in São Paulo, and won the international prize for sculpture in the first São Paulo Biennale. During that visit he met many of the continent’s artists and gave a series of very influential lectures.
This must have been an amazing time for Bill, because in the early 1950s he was also involved with founding the School of Design in the German city of Ulm. It was to become the new Bauhaus, establishing itself as the most influential design school of the postwar era. Bill not only designed the school’s building, in a role as architect, but also became its first director. While on that visit to South America he recruited Maldonado to join the staff at the school. Maldonado had already met Bill when he had visited Europe in 1948. He was later to succeed Bill in becoming the second director of the school, a role that he occupied for 12 years. During this period he became internationally known as a designer and a philosopher of design – a surprising British connection is that in 1965 Maldonado delivered the Lethaby Lecture at London’s Royal College of Art. Maldonado was born in Buenos Aires in 1922 and studied at the city’s National Academy of Fine Arts. In 1944 he was part of a circle of radical abstract artists that collectively produced the art publication Arturo. As the ‘Radical Geometry’ exhibition shows, the Argentine capital during the decade was in a ferment of avant-garde activity. But in-fighting, which was characteristic of that swiftly changing world, caused a permanent rift in the circle. In 1945 Maldonado co-founded the Concrete Art-Invention Association, a breakaway group, and artists including Carmelo Arden Quin established the group Arte Madí. There is dispute over the meaning of the name Madí: one possibility is that it stands for ‘Movimiento Artístico de Invención’, another is that it comes from the combination of the first two letters of the words ‘materialismo dialéctico’, the Spanish for dialectical materialism. Magazines were as important as the exhibitions to Arte Madí, as were performances, poetry readings and Dadatype activities. ‘Neither Searching nor Finding: Invention’ was a slogan from a 1946 manifesto.
Whereas the Concrete Art-Invention Association would return to the convention of painting on a rectangular canvas in works such as Maldonado’s Development of a Triangle (1949), Arte Madí continued its more radical programme by creating shaped canvases. They proposed that the edges of the forms themselves should determine the overall shape of the work. There are strong echoes of my own approach in this idea; my recent work On Either Side (2012) is an example. But my source in the 1960s was the American artist Frank Stella’s shaped canvases, from a different artistic lineage. At that time I did not know about Arte Madí.
Arden Quin’s Trio No. 2 (1951) is typical of his work and of Arte Madí in general. The concept of the shaped canvas was further elaborated by Raúl Lozza when he grouped separated shapes together as one artwork, linking them with a curved metal rod in works such as Relief No. 30 (1946). Arte Madí catalogues were also made in non-rectangular shapes, sometimes with holes in, and their typography followed the same non-orthogonal principle.
Arden Quin came from Uruguay, but lived in Buenos Aires during these key years. Then he, like so many of the South American artists, moved to Europe after the Second World War to develop his career. Arden Quin arrived in Paris in 1948 and lived in France until his death in 2010. The Madí itself, which he actively promoted,continued its existence in France, and continues today – with many international affiliations – especially in Italy. There is even a Madí museum in Dallas. It’s extraordinary to report that the late Academician Michael Kidner took part in two Madí exhibitions in 1998, and that I, myself, was asked to consider membership.