“Open Work in Latin America, New York & Beyond: Conceptualism Revisited, 1967-1978,” at Hunter’s Leubsdorf Gallery, brought together 36 South and North American Conceptualists whose widespread creative activities converged intermittently in Manhattan. Curator Harper Montgomery has linked their various projects to Umberto Eco’s vision of the artwork as something both complete and “‘open’ to a continuous generation of internal relations which the addressee must uncover and select in his act of perceiving” (“The Poetics of the Open Work,” 1962). With Eco as interpretive lens, the ideas these works embody emerged crisply, palpably, and the 91 exhibited photos, drawings, sculptures, installations, visual poems, artists’ books, performance documents and sound recordings allowed for an exceptional intimacy.
Rejecting the dry obscurantism of which Conceptual art is so often guilty, the show maintained a life-affirming romance throughout, exemplified to an extreme in the work of Ana Mendieta. Her “Silueta” performance series (1973-77), which staged various ritual actions in wild landscapes with the artist’s body covered in mud, blood, bark or wax, was represented here in two color photos hung at the gallery entrance. Her supernaturalistic drama was echoed and refined in Claudio Perna’s ghostly Xerox images of carnations (1970) and in Clemente Padin’s “objectless poems” (1968-72)—patterns of black script bearing the shades and contours of language without ever resolving into words or letters. Furthermore, the show’s overwhelmingly practical vision—its investigations into how to use language, how to use space, how to coexist with other bodies—kept Mendieta’s lyricism from tumbling into histrionics.
Though Mendieta’s contribution to the show introduced photo-documentation in a manner both sensuous and immediately readable, other attempts to incorporate performance art were less eloquent. Diego Barboza’s Thirty Girls with Nets and David Lamelas’s Time, two performances first enacted in 1970 and recalled here in black-and-white photographs, offered little to grab hold of seen as such, the images and wall text doing hardly more than attesting to the fact that these events happened.
Otherwise, “Open Work” did succeed in proving that cognition of an object in its conceptual totality can happen as an instantaneous sensual experience, raising Eco’s “act of perceiving” to a pact of friendship between work and viewer. When we are asked thus to embrace the things around us, the acknowledgment of repressive modernity, with all its competition and crowding, becomes a buoyant, collective mobilization toward freedom. Horacio Zabala’s 1972 photo depicts a hand holding a pen over a sheet of paper bearing the piece’s titular statement: ESTE PAPEL ES UNA CARCEL / THIS PAPER IS A JAIL. This succinct rendering of the linguistic standard as a sentence imposed on the body exceeds the demand for interpretation, because it calls to the physical presence of the viewing subject: to notice the formal likeness between the white space of the page and that of the gallery requires no stretch of the mind.
The viewer is similarly framed in Antonio Dias’s Do It Yourself: Freedom Territory (1968), which asks that one literally walk through the work’s sign system. Dias’s installation covered a section of the gallery floor, indicating with vinyl tape the intersecting lines of a would-be grid which was left incomplete so that you, the viewer, might “do it yourself.” It stages the choice between figuratively completing the grid and inhabiting it as a corralled being, or moving over it as a body willfully detached from the grip of imposed cultural mapping. Historically, the implementation of urban gridding has served to render a terrain readily marketable, parceling it out into manageable tracts: it is this kind of definition that the language of “Open Work” so ardently unsettled, leaving a loose, indefinite world of meaning free and unaccounted for.
PHOTO: On floor, Antonio Dias’s Do It Yourself: Freedom Territory, 1968, and, on wall, Liliana Porter’s Untitled (Shadows), 1969/2013; in “Open Work” at Hunter College.