Roberto Costantino
Guy Debord
Olu Oguibe
Cecilia Chilosi
Lauri Firstenberg
Lucio Fontana
Hou Hanru
Luca Beatrice
Eva Grinstein
Marco Senaldi
Lou-Laurin Lam
Massimo Trogu
Hans-Ulrich Obrist
Nelson Herrera Ysla
Tiziana Casapietra

The overseas artistic Mecca
On his arrival in the French capital in 1923, following a ten-year journey around various European cities which resulted in profitable friendships with Balla, Marinetti and the whole of the futurist vanguard, Argentine painter Emilio Pettoruti was spellbound in a way that would stay with him forever: "My impression of Paris was that of a great center, a city unlike any other in the world. Why? To bring everything into focus, Paris is a place for encounters and the irradiation of universal thought, a city made up of a hundred different environments, one for everybody". For Pettoruti, as for many of his Latin American contemporaries, "Being in Paris was like finding yourself at the very heart of the globe". There was even a Paris Group made up of Argentine artists representing various different disciplines. On his return to Buenos Aires the following year, he would mount a controversial exhibition of his paintings, today considered to be the first exhibition of modern art in an Argentine gallery. Centered around the mythical magazine Martín Fierro, the young intellectuals of the time lent their full and unconditional support to the show as part of their efforts to introduce new thoughts and ideas into a prevalently conservative and academic climate. However, while they were attempting to preach these revolutionary views imported from Europe, they were also aware of their limitations and sought also to promote values from Argentine history that might prove sufficiently attractive to take center stage.

The neo-Creole vanguard that sprung up in 1920s Buenos Aires, with Jorge Luis Borges and his great friend, plastic artist Xul Solar at the helm, came about as a reaction towards the spreading model of European modernity. Of course, had this not been as magnetic and influential as it was, there would have been no need to put up such cultural resistance shored up by ideals, traditions and myths considered "indigenous". When, in 1924, Xul Solar also returned to Buenos Aires following a ten year stint in Europe, during which time he had engaged in interminable conversation, even cohabitation with Pettoruti, he would set down the parameters of what was the new quest, stating: "We loved our maestros, but we no longer want our only Meccas to be overseas".

A Bridge Towards Modernity
The extremely brief history of Argentine art history, which was practically founded at the beginning of the 20th century, coincides with that slew of artists intent on inaugurating a bridge with Europe and all its attendant schools of thought and vanguard movements. Emilio Pettoruti and Xul Solar as the true pioneers, Antonio Berni and his particular version of social realism following forays into cubism and surrealism, and later Bauhaus-trained photographer Grete Sterne, Lucio Fontana and Tomás Maldonado were fundamental figures in a process which not even the world wars could halt: modernity was arriving from Europe and art provided the door through which it would enter. Much debate has focused on the true extent and impact of this transplanted modernity, a modernity that was peripheral, prompted by the irruption of extrinsic forces. However, as far as visual arts are concerned, the debate is sterile: not only did the ties with the thoughts and tendencies present in the great European cities prompt the development of the incipient local circuit (a marked increase in the number of private galleries, salons, publications and daring collectors), but it also stimulated a search for Argentina's own homegrown values.

During the 1960s, Argentina's trans-ocean ties with Europe were supplanted by the general internationalization of the North American model. A continental link was forged between North America (which had prospered over the post-war period) and the South (still susceptible to frequent military interventions). Pop, conceptualism and happenings all originated primarily in New York and were received with enthusiasm, but, as an introduction to contemporary discourse it was only possible in the same way as modern art had earlier been introduced and "digested" from Europe. Speed and ease of communications would reinstate Argentina's relation with Europe, although the Mecca glimpsed by Xul Solar is, today, clearly the New York market.

Fontana and the Triumph of Provocation
Around the mid-1930s, Lucio Fontana retraced the steps of his forebears by traveling Italy on an experimental search he could never have undertaken in Buenos Aires or his birthplace, Rosario. Like Pettoruti two decades earlier, the young Fontana set off for Europe where he left himself open to cutting-edge ideas. At one point, he would even embrace figurative sculpture, but prolonged contact with the abstract currents soon struck him as the revolutionary way forward, planting ideas that he would develop during the second half of the century.

In Mazzotti's studio, near Tullio d'Albisola, as well as in Sèvres, Fontana was showing signs of his provocative spirit, creating delicious and insolent polychromatic pieces that eschewed categorization in terms of genre and style. "I am a sculptor, not a ceramist" he would state some years later with reference to the pieces produced during this period, insisting that they were diametrically opposed to decorativism. When, in 1939, he returned to Argentina - where he would remain until after the end of the Second World War - there began an intermediary step in his trajectory, during which his own background and his European experiences would struggle to gain the upper hand in an environment which, while not hostile, was, however, highly receptive to new ideas. Before settling in Europe for good, Fontana would prepare the ground for the most complex and vital avantgarde experience ever seen by Argentine art: the Asociación Arte Concreto Invención, born almost simultaneously with the Manifiesto Blanco drawn up by Fontana and his followers from the Altamira School. Although Fontana would not follow the concretist line in later work - preferring to concentrate his energies on spatialism - he was behind a valuable injection of renewal, exchanging opinions and visions with young artists who were left cold by traditional forms of representation.

Back in Europe, Fontana was concentrating on investigating holes, incisions and spatial environments, "discoveries" that would ensure his place as one of the leading figures in 20th century art. Whenever his artistic legacy is analyzed, what invariably stands out is his imagination and the rich conceptual weave of his work. Space permitting, I would have liked to address Fontana's other role as a nexus between two cultures - one ancestral, the other nascent. As part of a line of descent that includes Pettoruti, Xul Solar and Berni, Fontana transcended the dimension of his own work to become a reference point on the bridge with Europe, the much-vaunted and questioned oversees Mecca which, for decades, would subjugate the flowering nation of Argentina, an example of the quest for identity which was, and indeed still is, characteristic of the countries of Latin America.

Buenos Aires, March 2001.

Eva Grinstein

Eva Grinstein was born in Buenos Aires in 1973. She is a member of the Argentine and International Association of Art Critics. Joined the Culture section of the newspaper El Cronista in 1994, leaving as editor and art critic in late 2000. Since 1998, she has been editor of the magazine Barbaria, published in Buenos Aires by the ICI-Cultural Center of Spain.
Currently collaborates with the newspaper La Nación (Argentina) and with international magazines Art Nexus (Colombia), Flash Art (International Edition), ExtraCámara (Venezuela) and Lápiz (Spain). Grinstein also curates the art pages for the magazines Elle (Argentina) and Ego (Argentina). She is frequently called upon as a competition judge, independent curator and author of catalogue texts.
In 1998 she won the First Essay Prize given by the Fundación Federico Klemm for her text Arte argentino actual: tedio y tragedia (Current Argentine Art: Tedium and Tragedy).