One of the most relevant figures in 20th-century art, and a paradigm of the communion of art and politics, León Ferrari sadly passed away last July, at age 92. Paying homage to his achievements and extraordinary legacy, a selection of his work, drawn from MoMA’s collection, was recently on view outside the Museum’s second-floor Marron Atrium.In 2009, Ferrari was the subject of Tangled Alphabets, a comparative exhibition at MoMA organized by Luis Pérez-Oramas, that placed his work alongside Mira Schendel’s. Ferrari’s work is widely represented in the Museum’s collection, and his works on paper constitute a large part of these holdings.
Untitled (Sermon of the Blood) from 1962, arguably Ferrari’s first masterwork drawing, marked the artist’s first experience with literary images. Stemming from his collaboration with the Spanish poet Rafael Alberti, who was living in exile in Buenos Aires, the drawing is a visual interpretation of Alberti’s original poem. The two collaborated frequently, and in 1964 they published a limited edition of Escrito en el Aire, a compilation of nine drawings and poems— a copy of which was gifted by Ferrari to MoMA’s Library.
In a further exploration of language-based strategies, Ferrari executed a series of written drawings. I would like to make a statue describes a nonexistent icon he would have created, depicting President Lyndon Johnson as God, signing off on commandments of law and war. In this work on paper, writing replaces the image; yet the aesthetic enhancement of the calligraphy retains the image, in a form of written visual art.
This form of language-based art roots Ferrari’s work in the origins of Latin American Conceptualism. However, in opposition to the “dematerialized” characteristics of canonical conceptualist practices, where language operates in its transparency, Ferrari deploys language as concrete material. Curator Luis Pérez-Oramas describes this as a “language-body”: one that confronts us with its own density rather than leading us to forget its physical presence. Ferrari said of his written drawings, “I draw silent handwritten words, which tell things, with lines that recall voices. And I write drawings that recite memories that words cannot say.” In this turmoil of enunciation, Ferrari’s work is, above all, idiosyncratic.
The idea expressed in I would like to make a statue crystallized a year later, in 1965, when Ferrari was invited to participate in the Instituto Di Tella Award. The result was the emblematic anti-war statement Western Christian Civilization, in which a store-bought Jesus was placed atop an American fighter jet in a radical play on the crucifixion. This work was rejected from the show, and would not be exhibited until 1988.
In his critique of God—and the consequent act of censorship it engendered—Ferrari was generating the conditions necessary to speak about freedom. This, to him, was more important than the possibility of actually exhibiting the work; art had become not only a strategy for political dissidence, but also a way to expose the ineffable.
When the Argentine armed forces overthrew the government of Isabelita Perón in 1976, Ferarri and his family were forced into exile, settling in Brazil for the next 15 years. His son Ariel stayed behind, and was “disappeared” at the hands of the military junta. Throughout the seven-year-long dictatorship, disappearances were perpetrated systematically, as the absence of a body denied the existence of a crime. In his work We Didn’t Know (1977), Ferrari presented contemporary newspaper clippings that spoke of torture and crime. The title of the work refers to the claim of ignorance that was common among civilians. Ferrari had operated similarly, manipulating existing information to reveal and condemn, in works such as Words of Others (1967) and the seminal Tucumán Arde (1968).
Even after the advent of democracy in 1983 put an end to state terrorism, war criminals were absolved by infamous impunity laws sanctioned by democratic governments. In another example of the permanence of censorship, Ferrari’s 2004 retrospective exhibition at the Centro Cultural Recoleta was closed down at the request of the local archbishop, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, who is now Pope Francis I. The work of León Ferrari, in its ferocious entangling of ethics and aesthetics, proclaims loudly for the abolition of intolerance, reminding us that democracy is not a guarantee of freedom, and that art is an appropriate arena in which to battle for it.