If you don’t do what you must in painting, then where are you going to do it?
—Jorge de la Vega
Pitched at the crux of freedom and aesthetics, de la Vega’s question epitomized the emancipatory, countercultural impulse that fueled Argentina’s rising avant-garde in the 1960s. Self-taught, he improvised a highly idiosyncratic visual language based on transformation and anamorphosis, developing a new artistic syntax taken from the objects and symbols of the contemporary world—plastic tokens and children’s toys, pop culture and magazine advertising. De la Vega was a member of Argentina’s Nueva Figuración group, active between 1961 and 1965, and alongside Luis Felipe Noé, Rómulo Macció, and Ernesto Deira he evolved an expressionist idiom rooted in the period’s existential and anti-aesthetic convictions. He turned searchingly toward Pop and psychedelia—as well as to music—in later years, seeking alternative and creative means of communication at a time of mounting authoritarianism and political disorder.
Central to this final evolution of de la Vega’s work was his residence in the United States between October 1965 and April 1967. Invited to teach at Cornell University through the Latin American Year program, he spent considerable time in New York, where he saw Noé as well as fellow Argentines Antonio Berni, Marta Minujín, Liliana Porter, and critic Jorge Romero Brest. “The North American world is so potent and artificial that the human being stands out more against it,” de la Vega observed upon his arrival. “Everything is real, super-real; reality strikes you and forces you out of the unreality that you live in here [in Argentina]. Here we live in mythology.” The “little animals and monsters” that populated his earlier series, Monstruos (or Bestiario), soon ceded to “images [that] became more human,” if hardly less grotesque, as de la Vega “devoted [himself] to painting the happiness of Americans” (J. de la Vega, quoted in P. Frank, Painting in a State of Exception: New Figuration in Argentina, 1960-1965, Gainesville, 2017, p. 148). His Pop paintings projected a mordant critique of consumer culture and popular media stereotypes, exposing the hyperreality of capitalism—its advertising and alienation, its banal mindlessness—and piercing its false mirage of happiness.
De la Vega found meaningful international recognition during this time, highlighted by the Special Prize for Argentine painting at the III Córdoba Bienal in 1966. American critic and curator Sam Hunter, one of the jurors, declared him “one of the few powerfully original artists in the Bienal,” able to combine “the mechanically repeating imagery and grinning masks of Warhol’s movie idol cult with expressionist violence, distortion, and a grotesque suggestion that is one of the few authentic notes in the exhibition” (S. Hunter, “The Córdoba Bienal,” Art in America, vol. 55, no. 2, March-April 1967, p. 87). These works led to in an early iteration of Rompecabezas that he debuted at his homecoming exhibition, Blanco y negro: obras recientes de Jorge de la Vega, which drew an ecstatic audience of nearly 18,000 to the Instituto Di Tella over three weeks in November 1967. Back in Buenos Aires, de la Vega began to work across media, collaborating on a comic strip with the poet Federico González Frías, taking a position at the Cícero advertising agency, and reinventing himself as a singer-songwriter; he released the album, El Gusanito en persona, at Galería Bonino in 1968.
The present Untitled belongs to a series of black-and-white works, made both on paper and in acrylic on canvas, that began in 1966 and culminated with the large-scale Rompecabezas (1969-70), comprised of interchangeable panels that portray male and female faces among other body parts. Like the Rompecabezas panels and paintings such as Psicomatización (1967) and Me quiere no me quiere (1968), Untitled shows the stylized face of a young woman, her face tilted seductively as in an advertisement. But here in a departure from the delirious, giddily grinning faces seen in many other “puzzle pieces,” she does not smile; her downcast gaze, through mascaraed eyes, begins to crack open the charade of happiness, exposing the darkness beneath a blindingly white veneer. “Looking at my own paintings, I think that one can undoubtedly tell that a crime has occurred; because these people, first of all, have lost all their color,” de la Vega remarked during the installation of Rompecabezas at Galería Carmen Waugh in September 1970. “And also, there is not the slightest doubt that they are all dismembered. ...And certainly this crime is quite mysterious, because it seems that the victims are thrilled to have been assassinated. I think that tonight the mystery will lie in this: I will try to explain how it could be that they were all killed, that they are thrilled to be dismembered, and that they have not yet noticed that they are all dead” (J. de la Vega, quoted in Frank, Painting in a State of Exception, pp. 153-54).
Whatever the unwitting criminality of de la Vega’s black-and-white protagonists, his contemporary lyrics suggested a brighter, hippie-inspired outlook, emphatically in the song “Proximity” (1968) and its call for unity and communication:
"To be close, to be near each other,
to come together, to hold and embrace each other,
to brush against each other,
to skirt and mingle with each other,
to hold tight and squeeze each other,
to huddle and cuddle together,
to gather breath, to approach and be included,
to pile up, wrapped and knotted together,
and renew, settle, and coexist together."
Against the backdrop of student revolts and political radicalization, in Argentina and around the world, in the late 1960s, de la Vega’s protest songs registered the vicissitudes of modern life with quixotic humor, hope, and irony. If the alienated visages of his Pop-psychedelic paintings exude consumerism run amok, he nevertheless believed in the redemptive possibility of social reintegration, drolly venturing in the song’s final line to “imagine how much people could do if the dictionary were less imposing” (J. de la Vega, “Proximity,” in M. C. Ramírez and H. Olea, eds., Inverted Utopias: Avant-Garde Art in Latin America, New Haven, 2004, p. 482).
Abby McEwen, Assistant Professor, University of Maryland, College Park