“If I knew how to paint,” begins Ferrari’s Cuadro escrito (1964), “if God in His haste and bewildered by mistaken confusion had touched me, I would clutch the sable hairs at the tip of a branch of limber ash soaking wet submerged in bright red oil…” The most important of Ferrari’s written drawings, Cuadro escrito inveighs against God and against painting in wry, involuted prose, its words self-deprecating and agnostic. A conceptual provocation at a time when the “end of painting” was widely rumored, the piece rendered existential unrest in terms of creative impotence, questioning the contemporary plausibility of painting in searching, elliptical words. As Luis Camnitzer has suggested, Ferrari “worked with language as a starting point to explore the limits that were encircling art – as he saw it at the time – and the ways of destroying them.”
“I do not know the artistic value of these pieces,” Ferrari wrote in response to public outcry over an exhibition at the Instituto Torcuato Di Tella, for which his infamous and oft-censored piece Western Civilization and Christianity (1965) – featuring a nearly life-sized Christ crucified on an American fighter plane – was prepared but ultimately withdrawn. “The only thing I ask of art is that it help me, as clearly as possible, to devise visual and critical signs that will allow me to condemn Western barbarism in the most efficient way. It is possible that someone may show me that this is not art. I would have no problem, I would not change my course, I would only change its name: I would cross out art and call it politics, corrosive criticism, whatever.” Ferrari abandoned traditional painting over the decade that followed, directing his work more explicitly into the political sphere. “Art will be neither beauty nor novelty,” he declared in 1968. “Art will be efficacy and perturbation. Successful art will be the one with an impact somewhat equivalent to a guerrilla attack in a country that is freeing itself.”
A foundational figure in the development of conceptual art in Latin America, Ferrari made iconoclasm the keynote of a practice that relentlessly redefined the boundaries of language and structured new modes of communication. For more than fifty years, his work bore critical witness to his ethical engagement of art as political praxis, uncompromising in its commitments to aesthetic and ideological freedom. From the Escrituras deformadas series of the 1960s to the present Untitled, Ferrari explored the myriad ways in which language can suggest, convey, and withhold meaning. In the idiomatic delirium of his script, in which his line simultaneously anatomizes and recuperates language, he both dematerialized drawing and aestheticized language – conflating art and anti-art and, like others of his generation, re-politicizing the aesthetic field. For years in the shadow of the Argentine military junta, in “the daily hell of one-sided truths, whether of martial law or of excommunication orders,” Ferrari cultivated what Héctor Olea has described as “a haven to shelter his raging desire for artistic freedom from rigid oppositions such as black and white, beauty and ugliness, Good and Evil. From this safe retreat, Ferrari forged an enduring link between ethics and aesthetics, the two poles around which his entire oeuvre resides.” He received the Golden Lion Award for Lifetime Achievement at the 52nd Venice Biennale in 2007.
Ferrari returned to abstract drawing in 1975. He drew through a fifteen-year exile in São Paulo, which began in 1976, and continued thereafter without pause in such series as Heliografias, enormous pages of maps that he mailed from Brazil, and Códigos. A large, square painting, the present Untitled presents an intricate, all-over scrawl of black and red pigment that churns across the canvas, the lines turning and tangling one into another. The labyrinthine pattern dilates and contracts, in some places the color dense and congealing and in others more sparse, a web of fine lines. Ferrari’s late-career paintings retain the residual memory and traces of his historical corpus of work, and in this mania of red and black lines there resides, obliquely, the obduracy and resilience of his lifelong political critique. “And because even drawings that may be mere doodles are composed and executed with care, they all convey the impression of carrying coded and encrypted information known only to the artist,” Holland Cotter wrote in his review of Ferrari’s exhibition, Politiscripts, at The Drawing Center in 2004. “In short, they are like a taunting gesture of counter-censorship. Through its very opaqueness, abstraction, real or imagined, becomes a political tool.”
Abby McEwen, Assistant Professor, University of Maryland, College Park
1 León Ferrari, “Written Painting,” in Listen, Here, Now! Argentine Art of the 1960s: Writings of the Avant-Garde, ed. Inés Katzenstein (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2004), 276-77.
2 Luis Camnitzer, Conceptualism in Latin American Art (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2007), 126, 129.
3 Ferrari, “La respuesta del artista,” Propósitos (Buenos Aires), October 7, 1965, quoted and trans. in Andrea Giunta, “León Ferrari: A Language Rhapsody,” in Luis Pérez-Oramas, Tangled Alphabets: León Ferrari and Mira Schendel (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2009), 52.
4 Ferrari, “The Art of Meanings,” in León Ferrari Retrospectiva: Obras 1954-2006 (São Paulo: Cosac Naify, 2006), 439.
5 Héctor Olea, “León Ferrari: From the Drawing of Texts to the Texture of Poetry,” in Mari Carmen Ramírez and Héctor Olea, Inverted Utopias: Avant-Garde Art in Latin America (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004), 411-12.
6 Holland Cotter, “Art in Review; León Ferrari – ‘Politiscripts,’” New York Times, October 8, 2004.