The Utopia of Form

Abstraction and Construction Between Latin America and Eastern Europe

May 16 - June 26, 2017
Free admission, until full capacity is reached
Nouvel Building, Auditorium 200 and Sabatini Building, Auditorium
Organized by
Museo Reina Sofía
Brasília under construction. Photography, 1959
Brasília under construction. Photography, 1959

This seminar, comprised of a series of lectures, addresses the transformations and surveys of modern utopia in post-war abstraction between Latin America and Eastern Europe. The series is connected with the exhibitions Kobro and Strzemiński. Avant-Garde Prototypes and Mário Pedrosa. On the Affective Nature of Form, and seeks to set forth new accounts of artistic modernity generated in contexts viewed to be at once peripheral, like Poland and Brazil after the Second World War, but central in the redefinition and potential of modernity from the 1940s onwards. Both margins would come into direct contact and have aesthetically mutual influences — pivotal to charting a new cultural map which avoids linking art centres to centres of power.  
The prevailing historical narratives argues that the Second World War signaled a failure by the avant-garde art movements and their attempt to intervene in and transform the world; thus, in the post-Cold War period the abstract artist withdrew back into his own tragic, yet equally free subjectivity held sway. Although this thesis would explain the predominant poetics of Abstract Expressionism and Informalism in the USA and Western Europe, this same narrative also ignored the successive artistic readings of reality, produced without relinquishing the modern postulates of abstraction and formal experimentation. In Poland, Katarzyna Kobro approached constructivist sculpture from the physical presence of the body, a theme that would subsequently be taken up by Brazilian artist Lygia Clark from a clinical and therapeutic angle, with both artists shining a light on the successive departures from the art object, focusing on bodily experience and giving shape to a common practice in Concrete and Neo-Concrete movements in Brazil, Venezuela and Argentina. By the same token, the relationship between modernity and popular culture would gain new meaning from the dialogues between art, territory and ways of life. The art critic Mário Pedrosa synthesised this aspiration when, influenced by anti-psychiatry, he considered the art of the mentally ill – marginalised through their difference – as the new subject of modern utopia after the war. What are the characteristics, discourses and myths of this multiple and internationalist modernity? This seminar seeks to debate and analyse these questions across six lectures and case studies.


Tuesday, 16 May
Sabatini Building, Auditorium – 7pm  
Yve-Alain Bois, in conversation with Olga Fernández. Notes on an Unrealised Project
Yve-Alain Bois is an art historian who has carried out one of the most rigorous and original examinations of modernity’s pivotal artists, such as Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Piet Mondrian and Barnett Newman. Yet his analyses bring in elements which contradict this visual canon, for instance the presence of the body and language in abstraction and the modern grid, and, in the same vein, he has written about the onslaughts and transformations of the abstract model by artists such as Mathias Goeritz, Lygia Clark and Katarzyna Kobro. By considering their approaches, this conversation touches on the strengths and contradictions of the modern project.  

Monday, 29 May
Nouvel Building, Auditorium 200 – 7pm  

Jarosław Suchan. Katarzyna Kobro and Lygia Clark. Body Politics in Peripheral Modernities

This lecture juxtaposes the works of Katarzyna Kobro and Lygia Clark, two artists who envisaged art as an instrument related to the body. According to Kobro, art must manufacture prototypes which, based on pictorial and sculptural forms, enable life and society to be organised. The individual’s plenitude and the state of wellbeing were also at the core of Lygia Clark’s artistic practice —in the Brazilian artist’s eyes, art must produce a multisensorial experience that allows the Cartesian predominance in our thinking to be abandoned. These two artistic practices and their alignment towards the fulfilment of the subject and society are analysed with respect to the peripheral forms of modernity and modernisation in which they were developed.  

Tuesday, 6 June
Nouvel Building, Auditorium 200 – 7pm  

Mónica Amor. Non-Objects and Quasi-Objects: Notes on an Agenda of Research on the Edge of Modernity

In 1959, the Brazilian poet Ferreira Gullar coined the term “non-object”, alluding to the work of Neo-Concrete artists. The concept, which rejected the autonomy of the artwork, was formulated on the back of the decisive influence of the critic Mário Pedrosa and the emphasis he placed in his texts on the affective dimension of perceived forms. The “non-object” would put forward a series of proposals and questions centred around the object-subject relationship, thus profoundly transforming contemporary art. The lecture develops that the “non-object” today can offer an alternative to the white cube exhibition model which still predominates in modern art museums.  

Tuesday, 13 June
Nouvel Building, Auditorium 200 – 7pm  

María Íñigo. The Other in Anthropophagy

Founded in Oswald de Andrade’s Manifesto Antropófago (Cannibal Manifesto, 1928), anthropophagy alludes to the absorption and transformation (cannibalisation) of Western influences in Brazilian modernity. The term has had a wide development from its creation in 1928 to mock Eurocentrism until its contemporary role in the recognition of the post-colonial condition in Brazil, via a re-reading in the 1950s, its subsequent reactivation in the 1970s and its use in recent São Paulo Biennials. This lecture looks at the diverse types of Otherness produced at each juncture.

Tuesday, 20 June
Nouvel Building, Auditorium 200 – 7pm  

Luiza Nader. The Affection of Władysław Strzemiński: "To My friends, the Jews" (1945–1947)

This lecture surveys Władysław Strzemiński’s series To My Friends, the Jews, using contemporary theories of affection. From this ten-collage series, including documentary photography, drawings and handwritten texts, Luiza Nader touches on aspects such as guilt, shame, empathy and the link to Jewish victims in order to rethink the notion of solidarity and to interpret Strzemiński’s work as a symptom of a crisis in humanism and modern values.

Monday, 26 June
Sabatini Building, Auditorium – 7pm  

Kaira Cabañas. Towards the Practice of Affective Modernity: Mário Pedrosa and the Gestalt Principles

What does observing psychiatric patients’ art mean to our understanding of modernity in Brazil? This lecture explores the theory of the psychology of form by the Brazilian critic Mário Pedrosa, whose early writings emphasise formal autonomy and his ideas on aesthetic response were integral to an understanding of Geometric Abstraction in the 1950s. Kaira Cabañas asserts that, through the Brazilian critic’s support of the creative work of doctor Nise da Silveira’s psychiatric patients, Pedrosa articulated an understanding of Geometric Abstraction as an affective and intimate language, surpassing the rational or purely visual.  


Mónica Amor. Art historian. A professor at the Maryland Institute College of Art, she is the author of Theories of the Non-object. Argentina, Brazil, Venezuela, 1944-1969 (2016), and a regular contributor to Artforum, Grey Room, October and ARTMargins. She has curated the exhibitions Más allá del documento (Museo Reina Sofía, 2000), Gego: desafiando estructuras (Fundación Serralves, 2006) and Mexico: Expected/Unexpected (Le Maison Rouge, 2008).

Yve-Alain Bois. Art historian. A professor in the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton University, he also lectured at the Johns Hopkins University and Harvard, where he was a lecturer in the Art History and Architecture Department. He is the author of a series of key texts which approach the critique and possibilities of modernity, for instance Painting as Model (1990), Formless: A User’s Guide (1997, with Rosalind Krauss), Matisse and Picasso (1998) and the volume, with Hal Foster, Rosalind Krauss and Benjamin H.D. Buchloh, Art Since 1900: Modernism, Antimodernism, Postmodernism (2006). Moreover, he has curated the exhibitions Piet Mondrian. A Retrospective (1994) and L´informe, mode d´emploi (1996). His latest project is the catalogue raisonné of Ellsworth Kelly.

Kaira Cabañas. Art historian. A professor at the University of Florida, Gainesville, she has also served as director of the M.A. in Modern Art: Critical & Curatorial Studies at the University of Columbia. She is the author of The Myth of Nouveau Réalisme: Art and the Performative in Postwar France (2013) and Off-Screen Cinema: Isidore Isou and the Lettrist Avant-Garde (2015). In 2012, she curated show Specters of Artaud
Language and the Arts in the 1950s at the Museo Reina Sofía, and currently she is finalising the book Learning from Madness: Brazilian Modernism and Global Contemporary Art. She is also a regular contributor to the magazine Artforum.

Olga Fernández. Art historian. A professor at the Autonomous University of Madrid, she is a member of the research project Modernidad(es) descentralizada(s). Arte, política y contracultura en el eje transatlántico durante la Guerra Fría. Her publications include "The Uncertainty of Display. Exhibitions In-Between Ethnography and Modernism” (2014) and "Simetrías y leves anacronismos: especulando sobre el arte moderno en América Latina” (2013).  Furthermore, she has conducted research into the specifics of the exhibition medium and the critical potential of curatorial practice.  

María Íñigo. Art historian. A visiting researcher at Central Saint Martins, University of the Arts London, she has worked as a post-doctoral researcher at the University of São Paulo and a professor at the University of Essex and the Universidad Europea, Madrid, among others. Her work approaches the continuities of the colonial gaze in the study and exhibition of modern and contemporary art in Latin America.

Luiza Nader. Art historian. A professor at the Academy of Fine Arts, Warsaw, and president of the Polish section of AICA (the International Association of Art Critics). She is the author of the book Konceptualizm w PRL (Conceptualism in the People’s Republic of Poland, 2009) and has written about Władysław Strzemiński in several articles. Her book focused on the artist is currently in press.

Jaroslaw Suchan. Art historian, critic and curator. He has held positions as director of the Muzeum Sztuki in Lodz since 2006, deputy director of the Centre for Contemporary Art Ujazdowski Castle (Warsaw, 2002–2006) and director of the Bunkier Sztuki Gallery (Kraków, 1999–2002). He has curated a broad range of collective and solo exhibitions, including Tadeusz Kantor. Interior of Imagination (2005), Katarzyna Kobro/Lygia Clark (2008), Neoplastic Room. Open Composition (2010) and Kobro and Strzemiński. Avant-garde Prototypes (Museo Reina Sofía, 2017). Moreover, he is the author and editor of a number of texts on modern and contemporary art, most notably Władysław Strzemiński. Czytelność obrazów [Władysław Strzemiński: The Readability of Images, 2012].