Dense with works made, remade and documented from a half-century career, this retrospective of Marta Minujín in her home city of Buenos Aires presented an artist whose appetite for all kinds of sensation—intellectual, esthetic and political—and for public attention made her a central figure during a transformative period in Latin American art.
Born in 1941, Minujín made the earliest works in the show, confident futuristic abstractions, before she was 20, then moved on to paintings covered, Art Informel-style, in mud, cardboard and tarlike substances. Minujín was never timid; her first foray into performance involved releasing rabbits and doves into the streets of Paris in 1963 as she axed and burned earlier works made of found cardboard and mattresses. Over the next 20 years, she sampled nearly every avant-garde movement and befriended just about everyone in the art world. (A handwritten sheet from the ’60s of phone numbers and addresses testifies to contacts she made with New York luminaries, from Warhol to Sontag.)
Minujín’s environments and sculptures of the mid-’60s had a strong Pop sensibility. In La Menesunda (1965), which was seemingly more indebted to the fun house than to art history, visitors walked through neon-lit corridors, ascended scented stairwells and passed beneath confetti-dumping machines. Among the many surprising spaces re-created in the retrospective was a small bedroom from La Menesunda, in which a live couple was installed in bed. (And Minujín’s piece predates John and Yoko’s “Bed-Ins” by four years.) When I visited, they were variously sleeping and discussing exercise regimens.
In the late ’60s to mid-’70s, influenced by Marshall McLuhan and others, Minujín grew more interested in the medium as the message, and in making artworks in real time. Present in the exhibition was a psychedelically decorated pay phone modified with live video of users (Minuphone, 1967). A performance at MoMA in 1973, Kidnappening, involved blindfolding guests and driving them around for a night on the town. Letters by two abductees were included in this show; one raved enthusiastically, the other grumbled about having to kick in cab fare when the kidnappers, their faces painted like Picassos, ran out of cash.
Kidnappening also alluded to the worsening political situation in Argentina, as Minujín’s performances in the ’70s (represented here in documentation) became more confrontational, even sinister. In Academy of Failure (1975), a week-long series of “seminars” with a strong antiauthoritarian bent, participants were urged to “vaccinate” themselves against triumphalism. In Espi-Art (1977), performers in cubicles were watched through spy-holes.
The retrospective rightly dedicated a good deal of attention to Parthenon of Books (1983), a public art piece that had an enormous positive impact. In it, Minujín covered a massive replica of the Greek temple on Buenos Aires’s main thoroughfare with 25,000 books banned by the murderous military regime, which had left power only weeks earlier. On Christmas Eve, the books were given away and the structure toppled. Parthenon of Books became an icon of Argentina’s awakening from a nightmare. At the retrospective, middle-aged women wept as they watched a film documenting the piece. I myself was taken to see it as a 7-year-old visiting my extended family in Buenos Aires. I didn’t understand the political context, but I clearly remember the joy of people in the crowd as they chose their books, a perfect Christmas present.
Photo: Photograph documenting Marta Minujín’s public project Parthenon of Books, 1983, Buenos Aires; at MALBA.