Anyone who knows a teenager will recognize a spark of that unmistakable rebellious spirit in Marta Minujín’s early work. When she was about 16, the Argentine artist began painting in an informal style, applying layer after layer of muddy acrylic tones to rough surfaces made of carpenter’s glue, sand, hardboard, chalk, and other substances unsuitable for fine art . Minujín demeaned not only her medium but also her approach—she avoided the easel, she worked on the floor—distilling the essence of the post-war disillusionment and immediate political reality of Minujín, holding up the mirror to a truly ugly world.
Unlike so many adolescents, however, Minujín’s foray into informalismo was not just a phase – although temporary, it was fundamental and paved the way for the pop interventions, settings and events for which she is best known today. That is the central thesis Born of informalismo: Marta Minujín and the emerging body of performance, a compact exhibition at the New York Institute for Studies on Latin American Art (ISLAA). Through a trio of paintings, documentation of sculpture and performance, and archival materials, curator Michaëla de Lacaze Mohrmann lays claim to Minujín’s work from the late 1950s and early 1960s, a period of her career that has been alternately rejected and scorned by critics. In doing so, the curator also advocates a closer look at the informal movement, a wave of irreverent artistic currents that emerged in the mid-20th century and lasted into the 1970s. Exciting practices as varied as tachism in Europe and radical anti-government gestures in Venezuela, they coincided in an iconoclastic impulse to disrupt the logic of previous genres of abstraction like concretismo and replace clean geometry with an uncomfortable chaos.
No matter how honorable it may be to justify a forgotten art-historical moment, the task of viewing Minujín’s informal artworks is not for the faint of heart. One of the paintings on display, ‘Gran mancha’ (Big Spot) (ca. 1959), evokes the architecture of poverty, the surface of which, like a damp-eaten wall, is warped into grotesque dolomite-like drops. When Minujín’s friend and precursor of Informalismo, Alberto Greco, walked past a crumbling Buenos Aires facade and wrote his name on it, calling it a work of art, Minujín instead seemed to capture the decay of interiors, the slow decline of what cannot be seen. Another work, “Mancha” (Stain) (1960), alternates darker passages and cream-colored stripes reminiscent of marbled meat. The artist probably channeled her own experience of physical humiliation—the sick men and women she sketched visiting her home, where her father ran a medical practice; the loss of her brother to leukemia.
Subsequent photos of Minujín cartons (Cardboards) (1961-62), sculptures made from cardboard boxes procured by homeless people who used them as shelter, offer little respite. By this time the artist was living in Paris in less than substandard housing, could not afford oils, and instead used toxic industrial and automotive pigments in her artworks, living in confined spaces. The photos show the boxes collapsing, twisting and bending at unsightly angles like plaintive faces. In some of these sculptures, Minujín began to incorporate soiled mattresses discarded by hospitals, explicit invocations of the body and the human right to rest and sanctuary.
Before leaving Paris in 1963, Minujín disposed of all the works in this series in a performance entitled “La destrucción” (The Destruction), collecting them in a cul-de-sac in Montparnasse and allowing other artists to manipulate them before setting them on fire. Remembered as her first major happening and represented at ISLAA by six black and white photos reading like documents of a cult victim, “La destrucción” was the coda of the artist’s informal period.
On a back wall in the gallery hangs one final work, a color image—the only one in the exhibition—showing a seated Minujín looking at the camera. A group of her Colchone’s Falsos (False Mattresses) Sculptures hang on a wall behind her, their kaleidoscopic candy-striped patterns attesting to a burgeoning pop sensibility; Her title is an acknowledgment that these sensual, engaging works were preceded by other, more visceral mattresses that are no longer there but are forever haunting.
In an essay reprinted in a small booklet published for the exhibition, which visitors can take away free of charge, de Lacaze Mohrmann weaves a compelling narrative in which she evokes the political tensions that accompanied and sometimes permeated Minujín’s informal production . The years of 1962 and 1963 in Argentina were marked by deadly conflicts between two military factions, the hard-line, anti-Peronist Colorados and the opposing Azules, vying for control of the nation. In a memorable 1962 exhibition at the Galería Lirolay in Buenos Aires, Minujín showed a selection cartons littered with boots, gun holsters, and other gear; To open the exhibition, she orchestrated a disturbing performance in which 80 conscripts marched through the gallery. As de Lacaze Mohrmann observes, such explicitly political actions were atypical of Argentine informalismo and anchored Minujín’s unique role in the movement as someone who did not blindly embrace the irrational and indecent as a fashionable countercurrent, but instead probed and examined its most perverse manifestations, including dogmatism and brute force.
The question is whether these works can still fascinate us today. Good luck to the curious visitor who comes to this show without much knowledge about minujín or informalismo or why ugly art matters. That Manchas are worrying that cartons will fill you with dread, and even the archival texts neatly arranged in the center of the room – mostly articles critical of Informalism or not – are frankly preposterous. The images in this exhibition thwart any hope of meaning, order or reason. They are exactly what we need to pay attention to.
Born of informalismo: Marta Minujín and the emerging body of performance continues through June 5 at ISLAA (50 East 78th Street, Upper East Side, Manhattan). The exhibition was curated by Michaëla de Lacaze Mohrmann.