On ViewSperone Westwater
November 3–December 17, 2022
The Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes once quipped, “We Mexicans, you know, descend from the Aztecs. The Argentines, well, they descend from boats.” A facetious thought with serious consequences for the eight “graphite paintings” from the “Tablada Suite” and “Poema Pedagógico,” series by Guillermo Kuitca, currently on view at Sperone Westwater. Mexicans can feel autochthonous, linked to their land by blood, but Argentines, a nation of immigrants like the United States, rarely have the same experience. Where Americans generally feel bonded by their Constitution, a document that holds their nation together, that commonality, if it exists in Argentina, is attenuated by political and economic catastrophe. The descendants of immigrants who arrived in Argentina in droves during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries seem to feel the same loyalty to their country as they do to their national soccer team: when the team wins, things are great; when they lose, rage ensues. Compounding the anxiety of Argentine identity is the nation’s economic uncertainty: the 2001 debt default sent eight hundred thousand Argentines back to their grandparents’ Europe, so stability itself is a tenuous proposition.
Argentina is haunted, first by the phantoms of some lost golden age of prosperity and wealth, the illusory promise that originally brought immigrants there, and second by the ghosts of a European past who beckon the desperate to join them back in the “old country” where they’ve never lived—a new promised land. No artist better depicts the deracinated nature of Argentine culture than Guillermo Kuitca, and he does it not through figuration but through disarrayed geometric abstraction suffused with a spectral presence through his use of graphite.
The earliest works in this historic show (all eight pieces are in public and private collections and rarely seen together) derive from his 1992 “Tablada Suite” series. The Tablada, a city within the greater Buenos Aires metropolitan area, is home to the largest Jewish cemetery in Latin America. A cemetery is an archive where the dead are stored, presumably until the Last Judgement. Using this cemetery’s map as a point of departure for his work, Kuitca’s fascination with the burial ground goes above and beyond sentimental or historical considerations. Descendants may locate and visit their ancestors’ graves if they have such a map. But what are the living actually visiting? Not the person but a numbered plot of land.
In The Tablada Suite VII, The Tablada Suite II, and The Tablada Suite VI—to list them in the order they are hung—Kuitca uses the grave and the number assigned to the grave in a geometric construct that constitutes a futile struggle against the disintegration of death. VII is a 78 by 63-inch canvas with a slightly irregular structure at its center, composed of small squares. When we approach the work closely (an absolute imperative in the case of Kuitca) we find the squares themselves contain tiny slots—gravesites. The white space is the void, the configuration imposed on it an ineffectual will-to-power, a dead end. II is more perplexing because viewed from a distance the centered structure almost looks like a gigantic bottle. Here, Kuitca emphasizes numbers, what the dead literally become. VI is more recognizably a labyrinth, the maze at whose center death awaits. But in this case, the entire cemetery, or Kuitca’s fragmentary representation of it, is a vast labyrinth. The work serves as a warning—the ghosts are telling us to get out while we can.
Two works from 1996 are both called Poema Pedagógico. The “pedagogic poem” in question may well be Anton Makarenko’s 1933 treatise on educating child offenders in the Soviet Union by gathering them in communities and teaching them to be productive members of society. Here Kuitca creates fragmentary unities that, unlike the Tablada works, practically occupy the entire canvas. The geometry is still there, and still obsessive, but, echoing the utopian nature of the pedagogic communities, or at least their classrooms, it is also a desperate attempt to find order where the only source is the artist himself. Again, as an ironic reflection on Argentine reality, Kuitca’s work creates lost utopias.
The most outstanding work in this all-too-parsimonious show is Untitled (1996). Here Kuitca swirls his geometric fragments around a void. He creates a vortex, as if to express the ineffectuality of dreamed realities of, perhaps, Argentina itself haunted by delusions of grandeur. The rhythmic nature of the piece recalls Kuitca’s interest in performance, and especially in the work of dancer and choreographer Pina Bausch. The drawing, as usual with Kuitca, is vaguely cartographic, but we realize the defensive perimeter only surrounds emptiness. Seeing these eight works only makes us realize we want to see more of Kuitca, much more.