A Tour through Magdalena Fernández's Echos
The work of Magdalena Fernández (Caracas, 1964) clearly embodies the continued relevance of the postulates that defined one of the canons of twentieth-century art—namely, abstraction—even in cases when the abstract emerges from a sector that is foreign to an opportune salvaging from the standpoint of art history. There has been much speculation and evaluation regarding the incorporation of her work to Venezuela's abstract-geometrical tradition, but it is also quite significant that abstraction arises in Fernández's work out of her relationships to nature and to the soundscape of the city where she was born. Nevertheless, such concepts as point and line, space and geometry are key to understanding this Venezuelan artist's work, even as they are but the point of departure for projects loaded with a variety of poetic meanings that are neatly encapsulated by the title of this exhibition: Echoes.
Magdalena Fernández began her intense art career in the early 1990s, in her home country of Venezuela, after several years of study in Italy, which definitively marked her relationship to materials and to geometrical abstraction. Her works from that period are defined by a desire to trace a number of very subtle geometries using the transparent media of Plexiglass and nylon, a material commonly used by artists linked with kinetic and op art (Fig. 1). Furthermore, the influence of great Italian designers and artists like ag fronzoni and Bruno Munari was also quite significant, especially because of their minimalist approach and their conception of design as art (and vice versa).
These two concepts, the reductive aspect of minimal elements and transparency, allow us to understand her artistic approach in the 1990s: large installations that generated virtual planes using strings and small black balls (Fig. 2), like points and lines in real space, or parallelepipeds suspended in the air, defined only by their vertices, and which, upon being touched by the spectators, moved chaotically, deforming their original constitution (Fig. 3).
Fernández's exhibitions during the 1990s generated very positive critiques. In her home country, her work brought spectators back to the recent past in the history of the arts in Venezuela, as defined by one of the canons of modern Venezuelan art, i.e., abstraction. With her virtual geometries, Magdalena Fernández tended to recall the work of kinetic artists like Jesús Soto and Gertrude "Gego" Goldschmidt, even as these analogies were rather imprecise and only seemed to be motivated by the confused mists of memory, for the artist's language in those years was quite personal. At the time, her works enjoyed neither the organic quality and handcrafted poetics of Gego's work, nor the kinetic approach of the Venezuelan master, even at a time when art criticism was beginning to include his works within a genealogy of abstraction as a form of membership in a local narrative of the arts. As the Venezuelan art historian Ariel Jiménez has pointed out, "For Magdalena Fernández […] resorting to geometrical forms is a form of historical linkage, a way of inserting herself at the heart of one of the twentieth century's strongest and most significant pictorial traditions."1 Indeed, it was commendable that a young woman artist was taking on one of the more "masculine" styles in the history of modern art: "masculine" because of its materials, because of the emphatic, angular geometry of its forms and, especially, because its leading proponents were, until relatively recently, exclusively men.
Although Fernández's sculptures or installations might recall Jesús Soto's Penetrables or Gego's Reticuláreas (Fig. 4), there was not yet any convincing documentation that the artist was drawing a direct connection with specific works by these artists. On their own, formal coincidences do not indicate a direct reference. In fact, her work from that period would seem to be closer to nature than to the rationalist and formally pure exercise of abstraction.
Her work would not reach a turning point until the mid-2000s, when nature in the tropics began to coexist more comfortably with the cold rationality of geometricism, something that is quite evident in her video installations from the late 1990s and the early 2000s. Ants, lights swaying over water, and the urban landscape are the themes of those first video installations, totally foreign to Venezuela's tradition of cold and formal modern geometricism. Her wire sculptures and installations are likewise more reminiscent of the vegetal threads on a loom than of virtual spaces defined by the fabric schemas that Gego produced using the same material, for example.
One could argue that a relationship between nature and the history of abstraction starts to become a clear strategy in works like 1pm006 Ara ararauna (Fig. 5). This 2006 video picks up the cawing of a macaw (a bird that is quite common in the skies over Caracas), which in turn moves three planes of pure colors, divided by black bars. The piece belongs to a series called Pinturas móviles [Mobile Paintings]. In this case, a relationship to abstract modern art and to Piet Mondrian in particular is more than obvious.
Similarly, another work from 2004 quite eloquently incorporates the acoustics of the urban landscape of Caracas. The piece 1.2dm004 Eleutherodactylus coqui (from the series Dibujos móviles [Mobile Drawings]) (Fig. 6) consists of an immaculate grid of bright white lines that gets modified with every croak of a small frog—a very common sound on rainy nights in Venezuela's capital. As I have written previously, for "Magdalena Fernández, the city is a purely 'auditory' reference full of emotional evocations, in an 'acoustic' representation of place. Upon seeing this project, one must take into account that landscape is not only an intellectual construction, but also a genre of art defined by a strong—that is, sensitized—memory of a place, which is in turn an artistic motif. Fernández ties together a geometrical (i.e. intellectual) tradition that has had powerful repercussions on Venezuelan art with the resonant (i.e. emotive) recollection of her hometown."2
For the first time in years, perhaps, and with diaphanous clarity, Fernández takes on the ideas of the "echo" that stands as the title of this exhibition—her first solo show in Mexico—and homage as a dual form of celebration and appropriation.
Since then, much of Fernández's artistic production has been characterized by its relationship to some of the historical figures of modern art, especially certain important names in the abstract-geometrical genealogy. The works selected for this show entail a compendium of gestures that reproduce previous ones. Just as, when we yell something out into a mountainous valley it changes when it bounces back, taking on a life of its own, these works are echoes of other artists' works, details or ideas. Nevertheless, as is the case with acoustic echoes, when the message returns it has another musicality about it. To see or participate in the works of Magdalena Fernández involves having an experience from the standpoint of a different sensibility. Whereas the abstract-geometrical artists worked on the plane of pure visuality, Fernández's audiovisual installations transpire in a place marked by space, time and sound. In a way, her work proposes to crystallize what for much of the geometrical abstraction of the previous century was a utopia: to transfer what had previously only happened on spectators' retinas and on the flat surface of the picture to their bodies and their real, physical surroundings.
In this critical scenario, the installations she has produced expressly for Ecos—in both versions, at the Museo de Arte Carrillo Gil in Mexico City and the Museo Amparo in Puebla—are significant and powerfully symbolic. In the first case, Fernández proposed an homage to her predecessor, Jesús Soto, that comes out of a reading that "deconstructs" works by the Venezuelan kinetic master that he called Penetrables. She also took a three-dimensional, installation-based view of the modern artist's celebrated two-dimensional patterns of parallel lines, which can be found in almost all of his production, allowing him to develop a sense of virtual movement and a dematerialization of forms: the keys to his artistic language. Unlike the Penetrables, which were defined by a virtual volume in the form of a parallelepiped, Fernández's piece for the Mexico City museum, titled 1iS019. Homenaje a Jesús Soto [1iS019. Homage to Jesús Soto] (2019) (Fig. 7), consists in myriad suspended anodized aluminum rods that are organized in groups defined by their form: two large planes and another set of the same bars, but at an angle, placed in a totally formless way, surrounding the minimalist planes in a very particular game of contrasts.
In contrast to the public's participation in Jesús Soto's Penetrables, whereby a spectator located outside the works witnesses the dematerialization of those who entered—penetrated—the piece, using an optical vibration, in Magdalena Fernández's work the public moves among the rods without this necessarily immersing them in the piece. In a way, its activation is more auditory than visual.
In truth, 1iS019. Homenaje a Jesús Soto not only expands the pictorial patterns of Soto's parallel lines into three dimensions, but also offers an additional wink: the set of tilted rods invites the spectator to pass among them as if entering a dark, noisy forest. The tilted rods effectively break the severity of the planes and subtly reprise the relationship between nature and abstraction in her artistic language.
At the Museo de Arte Carrillo Gil, 1iS019. Homenaje a Jesús Soto no doubt functions in the exhibition space as a preamble to another "echo" of Soto's kinetic work, namely, the diptych made up of 1pmS011 (2011) and 1pmS015 (2015), which I discuss below. Both videos refer distantly to two of Soto's early works, in which the sonorousness of nature at dawn and dusk in Caracas plays an indisputably leading role.
To be sure, the group of works selected for this exhibition evoke images and concepts of the paradigmatic modern masters, as is the case of Jesús Soto. There are echoes of Lygia Clark, Joaquín Torres-García, Hélio Oiticica, Kazimir Malevich, Piet Mondrian and ag fronzoni, among others. These works begin to arise precisely in 2006, after which they have defined one of the main thrusts of Magdalena Fernández's work up to the present.
The piece 4dm004 (2004) is from exactly fifteen years ago (Fig. 8), and as other pieces, it has a direct link to the work of a master from the history of art, Sol LeWitt. It is also part of a set of videos associated with the work of a modern artist. In fact, the first time this piece was shown, it accompanied 3pm006 (2006) from the series Pinturas móviles, which represents, in the same watery way, white-on-white square and, on another screen, the black-on-white square of the Russian suprematist Kasimir Malevich (Fig. 9).
At least in the context of this exhibition, then, the sequence of echoes turns out to be a sort of chronology of her own works and, why not, of the artists to whom she pays homage. It is, as it were, an intimate history of art as seen from the eyes and intellectual interests of Magdalena Fernández. Let us consider for a moment whether this hypothesis is valid. The historiography of twentieth-century art has established Malevich's set of black and white monochromes as the century's first abstract works. In the context of this exhibition, it is likewise in Magdalena Fernández's first work that she deals directly with historical works from the abstract-geometrical current. This relationship between the earlier art of the twentieth century and nature was not, however, suspended when her work incorporated a head count of the rationalist artists associated with twentieth-century concrete art. In 2011 she held an exhibition in three spaces simultaneously, the title of which is a reminder of nature as an organic, mutable place. It was called Objetos movientes: Atmósferas—estructuras—tierras (Moving Objects: Atmospheres—Structures—Lands), and in one of the venues she brought together pieces belonging to a series called Video apuntes (Video Notes). In several of them, drawing on organic matter like branches and small pieces of wood, Fernández built a space that was quite evocative of structures by the master of constructive universalism, the Uruguayan Joaquín Torres-García (Fig. 10).
This linkage between the organic matter present in these videos by Fernández and the master of the Escuela del Sur is no accident. Starting in the 1920s, Torres-García made many assemblages and sculptures in wood, in keeping with his principles of a structure that contains many elements, both figurative and abstract.
While Magdalena Fernández makes Malevich's monochromatic planes more dynamic by way of their watery reflection, she links Piet Mondrian to another gesture originating in nature, namely, an intense, gradual tropical rain in her multichannel projection 2iPM009 from 2009. Closely related to Torres-García (as it will also be to the Venezuelan kinetic master Jesús Soto), the chosen work by Mondrian is the celebrated Composition no. 10 (1915), also known as Pier and Ocean (Fig. 11). It is well known that with this painting Mondrian proposed to go beyond cubism toward a purely abstract art, based on a Hegelian dialectic between horizontals and verticals, which resulted from his readings of the German philosopher. This exemplary painting, now at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, was likewise conceived out of the first wave of abstraction's natural vocation to mobilize reality, in this case a maritime landscape, in a synthesis of lines that was in turn transformed into a spiritual and not exclusively visual experience, a painting for a kind of contemplation that was more inward than outward. The mists drawn by Fernández's echo of Mondrian in the projection space similarly follow a gesture of moving from the real to the figural. It is a representation of nature that comes out of a very abstract musical exercise of bodily percussion. The whole work is actually a very dynamic tour de force between the tangible and the abstract, between nature, its dematerialization and its recreation through lines and sounds.
In this sense, another large piece that acts to make a historical painting more dynamic came nine years later, when Magdalena Fernández decided to carry out what may be the second video installation in which she openly appropriates a specific work in homage to its author. She acknowledges as much with the very title of the work—it is significant that her works are always identified with numbers and letters associated with the date of their completion rather than a word or phrase. 1iHO008. Homenaje a Hélio Oiticica [1iHO008. Homage to Hélio Oiticica] (2008) consists of a multi-channel video installation that "animates" the projection space with one of the famous Metaesquemas by one of the most important creators in the history of Latin American art, the Brazilian Hélio Oiticica. The blue planes that make up the original work, a gouache on cardboard from 1958 (Fig. 12), start to slide across the walls of the exhibition space, lining up and colliding with each other, moving subtly, as if in a dance of rectangular forms.
What was the artist's intention in generating a video animating forms that were originally motionless? Without any doubt whatsoever, the Homenaje a Oiticica pays homage not only at the formal level, but also seeks to complete a cycle that the Metaesquemas were unable to do in their day, for which reason Oiticica moved from concrete art to equally abstract forms and gestures that were less optical and more haptic (to paraphrase the Brazilian art historian Paulo Herkenhoff). When we enter the video installation, our own bodies and the flat bodies in Klein blue by the Brazilian artist begin to move and to enter into tension with each other and with us, also causing the Metaesquemas to rise up independently in space, out of their virtual cinematic projection.
The third work in this show, which involves the echo of an earlier one, is 1pmS011. Completed eight years ago, the project was inspired by a very early iconic piece by the master Jesús Soto, titled Desplazamiento de un elemento luminoso (Displacement of a Luminous Element), an assemblage in acrylic from 1954. Together with 1pmS015 (2015), this piece constitutes a kind of diptych inspired by the famous vibrations of the Venezuelan kineticist master. The strategy in these homages is similar to the piece based on Mondrian's painting, except that, in this case, the noises are a multiform symphony of frogs croaking, a baby crying, the characteristic squawking of rufous-vented chachalacas (Ortalis ruficauda), the rumble of a highway, crickets chirping, a dog barking, and finally, very briefly, we hear the chords of the Venezuelan national anthem.
What is the reason behind this apparent confusion of such disparate noises? Fundamentally, this soundscape is Caracas, but what does it have to do with the master of kineticism? The key to this relationship surely lies at the end of the soundtrack of the second of the aforementioned works, in those barely audible chords from the national anthem. These homages to Soto involve an exercise of revealing and verifying how the work of this creator, just like that of his colleagues Carlos Cruz-Diez and Alejandro Otero, has been taken to represent the nation, providing the visual image of Venezuela just as the national anthem, as is typically the case, acts as its acoustic image.
It is unnecessary to insist that Magdalena Fernández's sensibility derives from nature and that therefore, in the manner of landscape painters, her works are intellectual constructions related to this genre of art.
Let us pause on this textual tour through Ecos to comment first on the monumental installation titled 3i019 (2019) produced for the foyer of the Museo Amparo, and secondly on the delicate and at the same time powerful site-specific installation that she conceived especially for the museum's terrace.
Over the course of her career, Magdalena Fernández has created a variety of pieces that establish an intimate dialogue with architecture. The dimensions of these interventions vary quite drastically from one to the next. Some are very subtle and delicate, like the installation she designed with hundreds of steel rods holding up dappled pebbles. First installed at Friendship Park in Netanya, Israel, and later at the Museo Alejandro Otero in Caracas and the Memorial de América Latina in Sao Paulo in 2001 (Fig. 13). Other interventions are much more forceful, challenging the nature of the places where they are installed. I am thinking, for instance, of the piece 1i997 (1997) (Fig. 14), which consists of a tubular white structure whose proportions seemed to contravene those of the space where it was originally installed: the interior hallway of the national art gallery in Venezuela, a space with a very classical aesthetic, designed by the modern Venezuelan architect Carlos Raúl Villanueva at the beginning of his career. In one corner of the Caracas museum, the white cylinders fell like a cascade, challenging the solidity and equilibrium of the place with their formlessness and instability.
By contrast, 3i019, (Fig. 15) the monumental installation for Puebla's premiere art museum, establishes a very horizontal dialogue with the space that was designed by the Mexican architect Enrique Norten when the Amparo was being renovated, taking advantage of the subtle grid traced out by windows in the building's wide entrance. For her part, Fernández designed an equally subtle white grid, in which thicker white tubes stretch upward toward the terrace. Of note here is the relationship that can be drawn between the sculptural intervention at the Venezuelan museum and the one in Puebla, since both engage with whiteness and tubular forms in order to comment on the respective architectural spaces from opposing positions: in response to the classicism of Greco-Latin reminiscences, the artist proposes an overflowing, formless, unstable structure, whereas in response to the subtle, evanescent and postmodern architecture of the Museo Amparo, Fernández naturally incorporates a very rationalist gridded net that seems to derive from the Puebla museum itself.
One delicate gesture that strikes me as particularly noteworthy among Fernández's architectural interventions at the Museo Amparo is the apparently deliberate nature of the continuity between the two projects I have described. Upon entering the museum, the spectator's gaze is drawn upward, toward the lobby's transparent ceiling, leaping among the white horizontal accents in the web. Upon reaching the roof, which is both a terrace and a scenic overlook, one finds the artist's other installation, titled 2i019 (2019) (Fig. 16). If the first installation points toward the sky, the second site-specific work descends from the sky down to the museum.
The latter piece consists of an intervention in the timberwork of the flooring of the building's terrace and scenic overlook. Replacing some of the teak strips of the flooring with mirrors, the work reflects the Puebla sky on the roof of the museum, and, as a result, integrates celestial fragments into the ground upon which we tread as we admire not only the bright blue sky over Puebla de los Ángeles, but also its beautiful baroque cupolas. In other words, we find ourselves walking across the sky while gazing upon it at the same time: a poetic and no doubt very illuminating image of another manifestation of the echo.
But there is much more to say about this singular intervention. Unlike the site-specific work for the Museo de Arte Carrillo Gil, it avoids linking itself with any artwork or proper name from the history geometrical art. This architectural intervention with mirrors nevertheless recalls others in which this material plays a leading role in reflecting the landscape. Further elaborating on the comparison between echoing and mirroring, we might think—albeit only formally, perhaps—of the series of nine movements of mirrors across the Yucatan Peninsula that Robert Smithson carried out in 1969. The American artist's pieces involve an evolutionary journal about time and the possibility of constituting history as a visual, fragmented, timeless storyline, while Magdalena Fernández's work is concerned with generating a concrete intervention in the architecture of the museum, blurring the vigorous, rectilinear crisscross of woods by introducing the element of greatest possible instability, namely the changing states of the weather and natural light.
This piece clearly incorporates concepts that define Magdalena Fernández's work, namely, instability and movement, as well as the beautiful idea of an immaterial, visual reflection as a repetition or an echo of time.
Ultimately, Magdalena Fernández does more than simply restate the final words of phrases that others have spoken—as the nymph Echo was compelled to do by Hera's punishment. Rather, her works resonate with the words of others, acting in turn as a reflective surface—like the Narcissus with whom Echo fell in love—and presenting us with the image of a country, a continent, and the intertwined history of its visualities.
1 Ariel Jiménez, "Tradición y ruptura," in La invención de la continuidad (Caracas: Galería de Arte Nacional, 1997), 39.
2 Carlos E. Palacios, "Acciones disolventes," in Acciones disolventes: Videoarte latinoamericano (Caracas: Centro Cultural Chacao/Fundación Cisneros), 2009.
Carlos E. Palacios
Cuernavaca, marzo-mayo de 2019.