Modernity’s canon and its changes through time – One must be absolutely modern

June 9th, 2003.

This year, arteBA has changed its institutional role. It’s no longer a Contemporary Art Gallery Fair, as it has been for the past eleven editions. Instead, it’s now a Contemporary Art Fair, a fair oriented by a specific style. One of the qualities that define works of art is their commitment to the present. How that need is articulated in a piece is another discussion. Or actually, a question: what does contemporary mean? During the nineteenth century, the institution in charge of regulating art practice was the French Academy. It determined what art was following the naturalist and neoclassical criteria of the time. Who remembers Alma Tadema today, the most successful English academic painter?  While Emile Zola supported the impressionists, the rejected ones, those who at that time weren’t art, the official critic was enraged with Manet’s painting’s <<palette scribbles>>. 

In 1873, Arthur Rimbaud wrote: “One must be absolutely modern.” That is, until what was new became tradition and academic. 

The “Duchamp misunderstanding” generated a great amount of works created from a silly thought, not from an idea. Contemporary art has incorporated different languages and mediums, such as photography, installations, objets d’art, interventions, environments, and the whole spectrum of digital and electronic mediums in all their digital art and video art possibilities. The question is then: does incorporating any of these elements necessarily mean an art work is up-to-date? 

Definitely not. 

This fair is an interesting case; let’s compare the innovation of alternative spaces (called Nuevas Expresiones de Arte meaning New Art Expressions) with the traditional choices of more conventional galleries. Walking through the historical section of the fair, we notice how the search for innovation was present in Argentine art from the nineteenth century, specifically in some artists from the Generación del ’80 (1980s generation). While on retreat in the Cordoba hills, Fernando Fader (1882-1935) fought with his marchand, Federico Muller, just as it had always been. As Baudelaire said, the relationship between art and the market is always conflicting. Even though his paintings show close care for lighting phenomena (which would mean a move in the direction of impressionism) the artist introduces something that would define him at the time, as a modern painter: subjectivity and emotion. In 1917 he declared, “Painting is a feeling, exclusively intimate as all feelings are, reflected on a canvas.” This way, he substitutes literary narrative for a pictorial idea. An art of ideas reflected on a canvas. Years later, the great Antonio Berni creates social realism without ever disregarding the plastic interest of his paintings, either if it’s one of his monumental paintings from the 1930s —Desocupados, Manifestación or through all the Juanito Laguna series, where he incorporates collage and assemblage. Many of his paintings anticipate what we now call installations, and his monsters possess traits more related to an objet d’art than a sculpture. 

Let’s continue the journey. In 1946, the concrete artists (Enio Iommi, Tomás Maldonado, Raúl Lozza, and many others) led the avant-garde constructivism of the 1940s. They turned to a “non-representative” art, emphasizing the syntactic problems of shape. The Manifiesto Invencionista (Inventionist Manifesto) from 1946 affirmed the need of a precise technique, invention instead of romantic creation and, essentially, the liberating quality of this new art that comes from leaving behind the idealism of representation. This was a liberation that would act in the revolutionary social praxis, a freeing utopia that today, is closer to international auctions than to class struggle. These are the contradictions of art. In 1952, the idea of what was new was redefined by the creation of the group Artistas Modernos de la Argentina (Modern Artists from Argentina), far from concrete art’s dogmatism and closer to free abstraction: José Antonio Fernández Muro, Sarah Grilo, and Miguel Ocampo, among others. 


Clorindo Testa’s monochrome paintings, as well as Kasuya Sakai and Josefina Rabirosa’s works join these new artists of the recent past. Today, at 81, Miguel Ocampo says: “In my beginnings, and with my generation mates, we built the ‘new painting’, the ‘new trends’, the ‘emerging ways, all euphemisms to emphasize simply what we were: painters who were beginning their public career.” 

In 1959, informalism was the critical way to go against culture and the world, as well as the bourgeois idea of good taste and decorative art: Kenneth Kemble, Mario Pucciarelli, Luis Wells, Barilari, Santantonín, and Alberto Greco, among others. In 1961, Deira, Noé, De la Vega, and Maccio also established rules for “other art”: the Nueva Figuración (New Figuration)ArteBA 2003 and the incredible amount of anthological exhibitions in Buenos Aires present a great opportunity to reflect upon what being contemporary means in Argentina. If we read the Manifiesto Dito dell´Arte Vivo written by Alberto Greco more than four decades ago, we will find the key of what being contemporary in 2003 implies: “Living art is the adventure of reality. The artist will teach how to see with the finger and not with the picture. He will teach to see what happens in the street again. Living art searches for the object, but leaves it in its place. It doesn’t transform, improve, or take it to the gallery. Living art is about contemplation and direct communication. It intends to end premeditation, which is implied in galleries and exhibitions. We must establish direct contact with the living elements from our reality: movement, time, people, conversations, smells, rumors, places, and situations.” Today, Greco’s paintings shine hanging on the walls of arteBA and other art fairs. We are again facing contradictions that can’t be solved, because as Marcel Duchamp would say: “There is no solution because there is no problem”.