Ex-Centricity: A Conversation with César Paternosto
The Argentine artist discusses the aesthetic and political implications of “emptying the front surface” of a painting.
Madeline Murphy Turner, César Paternosto
Apr 26, 2021
The Hidden Order (1972) is a painting that requires the viewer to reorient their point of view, both physically and psychologically. Leaving its front surface blank, Argentine artist César Paternosto applied strips of color only to the edges of the canvas to encourage what he has called a “lateral or oblique way of looking.”
I recently spoke to Paternosto about the genesis of his conception of painting, his formative experience working in 1970s New York City, and being a witness to the emergence of language-based Conceptual art.
This conversation is part of Thinking Abstraction, a series of interviews with Latin American artists whose work raises questions about the transition between abstraction and the emergence of conceptual art in the 1960s and 1970s.
César Paternosto. The Hidden Order. 1972
Madeline Murphy Turner: César, I’m wondering how you would contextualize the work The Hidden Order (1972) within your larger series of monochromes with painted sides, which you began working on in 1969.
César Paternosto: In the first place I have to say that, in my view, the “monochrome” was a result of emptying the front surface of the painting (which, it seems to me, the whole of Western painting had relied on?), thus inviting the viewer to read it while moving (not unlike a sculpture): looking first at one side, then at the empty front, and finishing with the other side. It was an unconventional approach to painting, to easel painting, actually—that exclusive Western cultural artifact that had engendered the dominant conception of the “fine arts.” Apparently this approach was also insulting, to the point where more than once these works were vandalized. Yet I am aware that today—50 years later and in the midst of a numbing avalanche of “art”—it has lost the impact it had back then.
Anyway, I think that The Hidden Order was, in many ways, the summit of this approach. In 1971, I began a close study of [Piet] Mondrian’s oeuvre at his Centennial exhibition at the Guggenheim. There, I became aware that beyond their apparent emptiness, my white fronts were the cohesive spaces between the pictorial elements on the side edges. They were the liaison that solidified the unit. Just like the white spaces in a Mondrian. You know, when you are in uncharted territory, it takes a while to figure out what you want.
You have described this body of work as implementing a “lateral” or “oblique” vision of painting. In this sense, it plays with the viewer’s peripheral vision. In recent decades, scholars of Latin American art have critiqued the neo-colonialist narrative of Latin America as an art-historical “periphery.” Do you see any links between The Hidden Order and this discussion?
To be truthful, at the time when I painted The Hidden Order, for me these issues of center and periphery were not directly involved in the act of painting. I was more concerned with the “formal” or “aesthetic” repercussions I expected the work might have. And talking about repercussions, let me relate a bit of history, very much to the point: the tale of an artist from the South American periphery at the center of the art world—New York.
Your interest in pre-Columbian art, which led to your book The Stone and the Thread: Andean Roots of Abstract Art and exhibition The Amerindian Paradigm, first developed when you visited the collection of the Museum of Natural Sciences in your native city, La Plata, in 1961. This exploration was later reignited when you traveled to northern Argentina, Bolivia, and Peru in 1977. Were these ideas about pre-Columbian sensibilities on your mind when you made The Hidden Order?
No, definitively not. There was nothing further from my mind than pre-Columbian art at that time. It definitely was the response to, or the result of, the high-voltage climate of experimental art practices in late-’60s and ’70s New York. It was my trip to the Andean region in 1977, that, as you put so nicely, re-ignited my interest in the ancient American arts. Which, in the end, really amounted to an epiphany: it has led me so far as to write about a re-foundation of abstraction, which I now see was first created ages ago in the hands and minds of the women weavers. In other words, the archaic textile grid is the degree zero of an abstract geometric or tectonic art that long preceded the modern Western version.
Installation view of César Paternosto’s one-person show at the Galerie Denise René. New York, January, 1973. This is the first time that The Hidden Order is exhibited.
In a recent video for Cecilia de Torres Gallery, you said that with this body of work, you painted only on the sides of the canvas to create a silence that “runs against the visual noise of consumer society.” Could you please expand on this idea? How does The Hidden Order engage with a political critique of consumerism?
Consumerism is the late stage of industrial (capitalist) society. Its main aims—to convince people to consume things they don't actually need (Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man was an eye opener during my early days in New York)—are the arch-sophisticated forms of visual advertising. Their apex is the omnipresent, intrusive TV commercial—perhaps today’s art form; forget about video art, it doesn’t have by any stretch of imagination the global reach of the commercial. Moreover, I see today’s art as barely differentiated from consumerism. It is what I call the “supermarketization” of art: offerings for just about any conceivable bourgeois taste.
In my view, therefore, a painting reduced to a white front surface and a minimum of pictorial notations implies a pointed critique of the deafening visual noise created by late industrial society. Or, as I wrote back then, “… painting appears as a silent, restricted territory where a qualitative denial of the mainstream discourse can take place.” In fact, it is silent but not mute, as [Maurice] Merleau-Ponty would say.
César Paternosto. Duino. 1966
You have cited a wide range of artistic influences on your work, that include Max Bill, Madí Art, Neo-Concrete art, Frank Stella, and Richard Smith. Were you also looking at Willys de Castro’s Active Objects?
Perhaps a most enduring influence in my work, beginning in the early ’60s, was my study of Paul Klee’s graded color bands from his Bauhaus years. To this day I tend to organize color in banded formats. Of the names you mention, my awareness of Madí’s “irregular frame” and the Stellas and Richard Smith I saw in Buenos Aires at the Di Tella Prize exhibitions in the ’60s prompted the shaped canvases that I developed in Argentina, and I later exhibited in my 1968 New York debut with Abe Sachs (see, for example, Duino, 1966).
Later, Mondrian’s Centennial Exhibition at the Guggenheim was also revealing: I learned that he occasionally prolonged either the black bars or the color areas around the stretchers. Not only that, but with his centrifugal arrangement of the color accents, I realized that he had come to the verge of what I had done: pushing color to the edges of the canvas and leaving the front blank. Up until that point I had felt I was a trailblazer of sorts, but then I discovered that there was a prestigious precedent.
De Castro, whose work I greatly admire, was unknown outside Brazil until the 1990s, thanks to the exhibitions like Geometry of Hope: Latin American Abstract Art from the Patricia Phelps de Cisneros Collection, and others. In fact, the Argentine artist Nicolás Guagnini came up with an idea for a comparative show with de Castro’s work and mine: Literally Lateral was its catchy title, but unfortunately it never came to fruition.
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