Off the Grid: A Conversation with Eugenio Espinoza
The Venezuelan artist wrestles with the seeming rigidity of the grid in pursuit of something truly abstract.
Eugenio Espinoza, Madeline Murphy Turner
May 26, 2021
Composed of a partially stretched canvas divided into 25 squares and filled with small sandbags on the inside, Untitled (1971) is one of Venezuelan artist Eugenio Espinoza’s many unique variations on the grid. Playfully humorous and seriously inquisitive, Espinoza seems to accept as a challenge the art-historical proposition that the grid is “impervious to change.” He takes the monochromatic gridded canvas and cuts it into pieces, fills it with organic materials, wraps it around human bodies, or lets it flow freely in the wind.
Over video calls and email, I spoke to Espinoza about his first encounters with the grid, whether artistic, social, or political; the experimental art scene in 1970s Caracas; and the impact of Venezuelan kineticism.
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.
Eugenio Espinoza. Untitled. 1971
Madeline Murphy Turner: Eugenio, could you start by contextualizing your work Untitled (1971) in relation to your artistic practice in the early 1970s?
Eugenio Espinoza: Untitled was conceived as a variation on the theme of the grid. It forms part of a group of grid paintings that were exhibited at my first show, which took place in Caracas in 1972 at the Museo de Bellas Artes. I had the same objective for the entire group of works in this show: to create differences in each piece despite their similarity. Each work was constructed with the same materials: black paint on unprimed canvas and wood stretchers. This particular one, Untitled, is the only piece that was created to hold small bags of sand inside. The canvas is divided in two halves, with the top part affixed to a half-stretcher and the bottom part left hanging in the air. The weight of the sandbags creates a hidden volume, slightly distorting the rigor of the grid.
What were your earliest impressions of the grid?
My first impression of the grid was when I started art school. I came across the Treatise on Measurement by Albrecht Dürer. In it, I saw the grid itself as art, not as an instrument to measure forms and perspective. Then, in art books, I saw the paintings of Piet Mondrian, and later the works of Gego, Jesús Rafael Soto, and Alejandro Otero. I also saw the grid everywhere, even in sociopolitical systems of control.
When I first started to paint, I did not want to work with any form of representation. The inspiration I received from Venezuelan artists such as Gego, but also from those abroad including Lucio Fontana and Piero Manzoni, convinced me to choose the grid. It is open-ended, a perfect representation of space itself, a universal readymade. With the grid, form, volume, and space, I had more than enough of a challenge, one that I have continued to wrestle with throughout the years.
[The grid] is open-ended, a perfect representation of space itself, a universal readymade.
Installation view of Espinoza’s solo exhibition at the Museo de Bellas Artes, Caracas, in 1972. Untitled is pictured alongside two additional works with the same grid and of the same size, but which did not hold bags of sand
Untitled, and other works such as Circunstancial (12 cocos) (Circumstantial [12 Coconuts]) unite the grid with elements of nature. How do you approach this tension between the grid and the organic?
The relation of the grid with opposite elements produces a slight tension that is enough to reveal an intention. This union of the grid and the coconuts is fundamental. The coconut is not a concept, it is life; the grid represents the opposite. This tension is a constant preoccupation in my work.
I have insisted on relating the grid to elements that oppose its rigid nature. I try to harmonize the logical with the illogical. The great Armando Reverón helped me see that canvas without primer is the first natural element; he said that to paint gesso on the canvas is to create a painting.
Untitled contains sand, and the weight distorts the straight lines of the grid. During this period in my work, these small “inventions” had a big impact on me. My idea was always to give a little poetic angle to the geometric rigor of the grid. The volumes and other distortions of the canvas and the stretcher belong to the vocabulary of the organic.
Speaking of natural elements, could you discuss the role of land and the environment in your work?
The gridded canvas placed in the streets, in the fields, through windows, walking, or flying in space as an ephemeral sculpture was the beginning of my experiments. The project with Claudio Perna and Joe Troconis, La Cosa (Médanos) (The Thing [Sandbanks]) (1972), was already a part of my landscape experiments on the outskirts of Caracas. Emotionally, I rejected the rigidity of the grid, so organic elements, volume, and the extension of the painting surface into space are all part of a search to soften it.
Eugenio Espinoza. Photograph taken during the experiments in the Médanos de Coro desert. 1972
I’d love to hear more about La Cosa (Médanos), which was exhibited alongside Untitled in the exhibition Sur moderno: Journeys of Abstraction—The Patricia Phelps de Cisneros Gift. Could you expand on the connection between this intervention—which today lives on as a Super 8mm film transferred to digital video—and your larger body of work?
The gridded canvas in La Cosa (Médanos) becomes alive and obtains full freedom of movement with the strong winds of the Médanos de Coro desert. It was a true optical spectacle. The canvas with the grid that we used to create La Cosa (Médanos) was the same canvas from the installation Impenetrable (Impenetrable), shown in 1972 at the Ateneo de Caracas.
When Claudio, Joe, and I discussed doing a performance in the Médanos de Coro desert, we agreed that it was a unique opportunity. The magnificent landscape and the blustering desert winds created an unexpected and fantastic situation, and the grid dancing in the air was brilliantly captured by Claudio with his camera.
Untitled (left) and La Cosa (Médanos), installation view, Sur moderno: Journeys of Abstraction—The Patricia Phelps de Cisneros Gift, October 21, 2019–September 12, 2020, The Museum of Modern Art, New York
Building on this idea of movement, what was your relationship with kinetic art, the most recognized Venezuelan manifestation of modernism, at the time?
Kinetic art is a very sophisticated means of creation. The kinetic artists—for example, Soto and Carlos Cruz-Diez—had to endure. They had to understand Mondrian and geometric artists, and to try and create something new out of it. Their fundamentals are very connected with an art tradition that goes back from Pablo Picasso to the Russian avant-garde of the 1920s. They had to process all of these predecessors while coming from a country where there isn’t a strong tradition of art history.
I have a lot of admiration for Soto. I had started to study Mondrian, but when I heard Soto talking about Mondrian, I found it really interesting how he figured out how to create movement based on Mondrian’s propositions.
But Soto’s kinetic art became so popular that my interest turned to the opposite of movement and any type of festive participation by the spectator. At that time the art scene in Caracas and other cities was dominated by interactive art that was oriented toward the visual. Without realizing it myself, it spurred me in an unknown direction, the creation of Impenetrable.
Eugenio Espinoza in his studio working on Impenetrable, 1971
I’m so glad you mention your Impenetrable, which makes direct reference to Soto’s well-known Penetrable (Penetrable), which he created in 1966. Would you consider Impenetrable to be a direct critique of Soto’s work?
In the early ’70s, I was only thinking to myself [about Soto’s Penetrable], “How can I make something with that kind of intention?” So I decided, what if I create something that proposes the opposite of the movement characteristic of kineticism? At the same time, the creation of Impenetrable was actually connected with the Italian art of that era: Fontana, Arte Povera, Manzoni, as well as with Minimalist art. There is something in that work that is amazing; it’s not completely rational art.
Installation view of Impenetrable at the Ateneo de Caracas, 1972
Your artistic practice sometimes incorporates the human body. Can you talk about this aspect of your work in the context of the development of performance art in Venezuela?
In the early 1970s, I was really struck and impressed by a Venezuelan artist named Diego Barboza, who was doing performances in the streets of London. He was a great painter, and while living abroad he began doing performances. For one performance in 1970, he took white net material and used it to cover the heads of 30 female students, who then walked through the streets of London.
I think I took the idea from him to do something in the street. I have a lot of admiration for artists who create something new, so I was encouraged by Barboza’s idea.
But back in Venezuela, Barboza didn’t encounter an environment where he could do something similar. He made a few happenings, and the way he did it was very smart. He went to the government office to ask permission. And after that, all the Venezuelan artists who wanted to make performances and happenings did the same, or else they went to jail. I once went to jail for three days for the offense of “breaking with public order.”
What was the international network of artists in Caracas like and what were your encounters with them?
During the late 1970s and early 1980s, I spent a few years abroad. In the mid-1970s, Fundarte decided to award study grants to a small number of artists. In 1977, I received the note that I had been selected to study abroad. I chose New York. That year I arrived in New York, and in 1981 I went to Rio de Janeiro. Two years later I settled in Caracas.
When I returned to Caracas, I found myself in a very dynamic cultural environment, especially due to the appearance of young curators who organized exhibitions focused on the incorporation of new mediums such as installation, performance, and video. Many positive things were happening at that moment, including the arrival of artists from Latin America and Spain. Caracas in those years created its first International Art Fair, which lasted several decades. For the first time, contemporary art museums were created in provinces throughout Venezuela, and like never before, many Venezuelan artists were traveling to study. It was a new era in the country: the government created Avensa, a Venezuelan airline, which made it more possible for many Venezuelans to travel internationally. This privileged situation concluded with the creation of the fellowship program Fundación Gran Mariscal de Ayacucho, which allowed many Venezuelans to study in the United States and Europe.
During the period when you made Untitled, your approach to abstraction also incorporated strategies usually connected with Conceptual art. For you, what are the relationships between the tradition of abstraction and Conceptual practices in your country?
Fortunately, the artists who worked with abstraction in Caracas in the 1970s—such as Gerd Leufert, Marcel Floris, Omar Carreño, Nedo, Mary Brandt, Victor Valera, Carlos Gonzalez Bogen, and Alirio Oramas—gave me the initial tools to visualize painting as a constructive system. Many of them returned from Paris and developed their artistic practice while teaching. Soto’s work, in particular, made me understand the relationship between art and the spectator. Gego’s work made me aware of how space transforms into an overwhelming force.
As I already mentioned, intuitively, while viewing works like those by Soto and other artists, I rejected the festive atmosphere of color, texture, brush stroke, and even movement. To me, it all seemed reminiscent of traditional expression, and I wanted to make something really abstract. Because of that, I used the black-and-white grid, which is universal, neutral, abstract and a readymade all at the same time.
Through the little information I had about Arte Povera and the Minimalist and Conceptual artists, I was able to glimpse new dimensions of work. Without a doubt, gradually I had to begin to unlearn, to forget what I had learned, and to try to learn from myself. This is how I realized the installation Impenetrable and the works in my first show at the Museo de Bellas Artes de Caracas in 1972.
 In her seminal 1979 essay “Grids,” art historian Rosalind Krauss writes of the titular structure, “Yet it is safe to say that no form within the whole of modern aesthetic production has sustained itself so relentlessly while at the same time being so impervious to change.” Rosalind Krauss, “Grids,” October 9 (Summer 1979): p. 50.
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
On the Violence of the World: A Conversation with Regina José Galindo
The Guatemalan artist discusses art making as a form of witnessing injustice.
Regina José Galindo, Madeline Murphy Turner
Jan 12, 2021