So so so contemporary
Por Lisette Lagnado

Many thanks to Zdenka for this invitation and her beautiful team for being so cheerful. I hope I can contribute somehow for your pannel with my experience in Brasil. Zdenka came last year in São Paulo for the 60th anniversary of the Museum of Modern Art of São Paulo and we discussed how contemporary visual art has been historicized in a modern museum. Which criteria should the MAM follow in its ongoing task of building a collection: is it supposed to acquire contemporary works (in the temporal sense of the notion of modernity as settled by Baudelaire) or to limit modernity within the established canon from the twenties to the fifties? Is the desire to be modern still alive nowadays? Or would this task better be assigned to a contemporary branding?

Even as a paradigm, Modernity moves from different acceptations when confronted with the role and stages of art institutions. For historical reasons explained by Serge Guilbaut in his now mythical study about how New York stole the idea of modern art (1983), the Cold War put Eastern Europe and South America in a similar struggle. We already knew, by Arthur Danto, how the Museum of Modern Art of New York got suddenly grizzled with the arrival of Andy Warhol's "Brillo Box" (1964). And maybe we should talk about how the idea of modern art was sold.

In South American countries, modernity took place in parallel to the industrial process of modernization. This economical development was supported by repressive political regimes encouraging wild capitalism. Therefore, a theory of the avant-garde based in the critique of the institutions, as settled by Peter Bürger, cannot be applied in a context where institutions did not even exist or were just starting to be settled. Andrea Giunta stresses that their upcoming is connected to an effort toward an emancipation from a postcolonial condition. Moreover, Bürger's thesis were inspired by 'the most radical experience against institutions' achieved by students and workers in 1968 while at this point brazilian society was suffering from lack of freedom.

Regarding the question of our pannel, I would start problematizing the existence of Latin America as a totality. Although it may be a strategy to distinguish a region in a globalized discourse, it still offers a shallow approach. As the unique portuguese speaking country, Brasil remained less concerned to a continent identity until the mid eighties. Many exhibitions were organized in this direction, achieving important goals to carry on an independent gaze from a false idea of universality – for younger generations hegemonic and universal are synonymous! For decades, Alfred H. Barr’s booklet "What is modern painting?", published in 1952-53 with clear purposes, was used to structure educative sectors in new established museums.

Heavily debated among previous dominant modernistic views on art, Clement Greenberg’s attempt to establish limits rejects any springing out of the scope of his so-called “irrefutable planarity” of the canvas. Greenberg's statement in “Modernist Painting” (1960) gives an idea of the arbitrariness of any alleged universal paradigm. Let us compare this platform with anthological text written by Ferreira Gullar on Lygia Clark two years earlier. There, we read that Gullar admits a possibility which actually represents an impasse for Greenberg, namely: a geometrical surface can be affirmed without imitating exterior space, but goes, at the same time, beyond its two-dimensionality.

I invite you to consider the future of two museums in São Paulo, the MAM and the MAC.

In 1948, the MAM was created by business tycoon Francisco (“Ciccillo”) Matarazzo Sobrinho, having the ambitious mission to embrace architecture, cinema, folk culture, music, photography and graphic arts. No one could have foreseen that in 1963 Ciccillo would transfer all the MAM's collection to the University of São Paulo in order to create a Museum of Contemporary Art (MAC-USP). While a new museum was being created, the modern one lost in a sudden its intrinsic values. This transaction resulted in two umbilically connected institutions but they remain ambiguous.

Actually, we are more used to seeing the inverted situation: pieces being donated to a modern institution and not for a contemporary one. To give an idea of what happened, not only a Max Bill sculpture went to the newly created museum but also a Giacomo Balla Landscape. So, imagine Italian divisionism belonging now to a contemporary collection. I found interesting that a young country entered the philosophical debate of historical time and temporality with an example of no awareness regarding heritage. It fuels us to think if the act of emptying an institution of its material and symbolic patrimony can serve as a pattern to understand contemporarity? And we should question what kind of contemporarity emerged from this split?

A transference operation reminds us of the task undergone by tradition which is the act or effect of transmitting. What happened may also illuminate that a private institution could no longer be sustained by its 'owner' and that it was necessary to entrust the mission of education to a public sector. As such, one may argue Ciccillo chose the University for being a laboratory of both knowledge production and research activities. The unexpected paradox to be considered is that, in the field of visual arts, the academic spirit gives priority to historical perspectives and keeps strong reserves in relation to the future, staying away from new practices and experimental languages. But actually, Ciccillo, who was also the founder of the Bienal de São Paulo, found it far more interesting than dealing with museum matters.

I am here trying to deal with the general idea that a museum’s identity is given by its collection. From 1963 to 1969, the only remainder of the MAM was the registered title of “modern”. The museum just owned this one word. Going through the loss of its gorgeous past, the institution reinvented ways to survive from 1969 on. It went from a negative patrimony to housing a collection of more than five thousand works (including those on loan), entering the passionate issue of acquisition criteria. Maybe a continuity between the MAM and the Bienal de São Paulo, a typical “museum in time”, would have combined a modern syntax with an effervescent climate. The Old Masters of Tomorrow is the basis of the Carnegie Museum of Art collection, begun in 1896, which is founded on purchases made during international and temporary exhibitions, Carnegie International, now going to its 56th edition. Part of the former MAM's collection had been constituted by acquiring the prize-winning works from the first São Paulo biennials, inaugurated in 1951. Sooner or later, São Paulo would build its museums but the only “magical turn” that will not be repeated is the constitution of an international collection, be it modern or contemporary.

In the present situation, Brazilian art historians have none of Hélio Oiticica's "Cosmococa" in their public collections to study modern developments, just as an example. With regard to the internationalization of a contemporary collection, the unique reference lies in the Instituto Cultural Inhotim (Brumadinho, Minas Gerais), a private initiative getting in the public realm, whose scope of works ranges from the 1960s to the present day.

A bit different form the globalized biennials, the São Paulo one has been a real possibility to make tighter connections with the world. Unfortunately, the local art scene has mistreated unknown artists compared to mainstream ones, with no following policy in the city’s cultural agenda. I can guarantee that São Paulo remembers that the 27ª Bienal de São Paulo had a fashion parade by the Daspu organization of prostitutes, but the audience is totally unconscious of the meaning of the P.A.R.A.S.I.T.E. Museum and Tadej Pogacar's work. The snowball effect can be measured in the growing of a more conservative audience, when compared to a climate of syncronicity between Calder and Max Bill in contact to Brazilian constructivity. The last ten years have opened a distance that has contributed to the isolation of the Biennial as a “festival” rather than one of the most important art exhibitions where exchanges between artists can happen.

Confusion between modern and contemporary already existed when Ciccillo created the São Paulo Biennial. In the same year, 1951, Lina Bo Bardi and Pietro Maria Bardi, the director of MASP, inaugurated the MASP School of Industrial Design, under the name of ICA - Institute of Contemporary Art, with the purpose of disseminating the ideas of the Bauhaus in Brazil. The school lasted only two years, but the name ICA is used since 1997 to designate a cultural entity founded to show key-artists of the 50's and 60's, as Sergio Camargo, Mira Schendel, Willys de Castro and Amílcar de Castro. Put together, they represent one of the most valuable group of works from the Neoconcrete period. What is odd is that the MAC’s deficiency of annual donation or funds for acquisitions in the museum’s budget and the fact that it will soon get an outdated status have been repeatedly denounced. But it was the University itself who donated a space for a new building to house the ICA's collection, which would certainly increase the comprehension of the MAC. Many cases illustrate overlaps of missions in São Paulo institutions.

To face the situation of a public collection unable to acquire contemporary pieces, Prof. and curator Cristina Freire has invested in new readings of what is contemporary. Her researches have led to a powerful enlightment of a huge part of the collection which was abandonned by many art historians. In this sense, she took documents and gave them the status of 'conceptual' pieces, creating another canon for the canon. Cristina went after the political context in Brasil (military regime) and built a narrative in order to fit the country in South America. After Ciccillo's act, the way the MAC gained great works only happened in this scale in 2005, resulting from a collection coming from a bankruptcy!

Meanwhile, in the last 10 years, the MAM has almost doubled its collection. Research confirms that the museum did not limit itself up to the 1960's. More than 40% of purchases came from works from the 1990's. Forty-two per cent of the works took up to 5 years to leave the studio and enter the museum – thus reinforcing the acceleration toward a contemporary collection. These numbers show that the museum is leaving its original past. But as soon as the MAM found itself bereft of Ciccillo’s collection, and cut off from the prizes of the São Paulo Biennials, its ambitions no longer ran along international lines. We are compelled to reflect on the will (and need) to accompany the internationalization of Brazilian art. For instance, Cildo Meireles' installations are only available to be seen, in Brasil, in that private & public foundation of Inhotim I mentionned before.

A museum does not acquire a signature but a context. Against its simple growth, I quote from art critic Lourival Gomes Machado that a “coherent collection” has to brave “the most varied provenance, the most unequal aesthetic value, the most disparate historical significance”. Does the fact that works done on paper account for around 75% of MAM’s collection (albums, artist books, watercolors, collages, drawings, prints, and photographs) warrant a space of its own to be developed? Should the art director and the board point to the highlights as a way to build an identity? Or should they rather work against the drive for mere accumulation? The lack of a definitive building for the MAM should be seen as a major problem for the city – and it's still not. On the other side, modern values need more than an exhibition room. Given this tempestuous origin, thinking about exchanging works among city museums reveals itself as a thorny question.

1 - Arthur C. Danto, "After the End of Art: Contemporary Art and the Pale of History". Princeton, New Jersey, Princeton University Press, 1997.

2 - See Andrea Giunta, “Cita con la vanguardia. Imaginarios del arte argentino de los sesenta. In: Oyarzún, Pablo; Richard, Nelly; Zaldívar, Claudia (org.). "Arte y Política". Consejo Nacional de la Cultura y las Artes, Chile, 2005. (pp. 116-126). The first translations in the Latin American continent started to be published in the 1980's.

3 - Mercosul (Mercado Comum do Sul) is the trade union still under construction to put forward local interests against the US influence. The starting point can be established after dictatorial periods and the necessity to stop heavy external debts (1985). At this point, its status comprise 4 + 1 States (Argentina, Brasil, Paraguai, Uruguai and Venezuela still depending on approvals from national congresses); 5 Associated States (Bolívia, Chile, Peru, Colômbia and Equador); and the non-official presence of Mexico as State Observer.

4 - Ferreira Gullar, “Lygia Clark: uma experiencia radical,” 1958. In: "Lygia Clark". Rio de Janeiro, Funarte, 1980. pp. 7-12.

5 - Max Bill, "Tripartite Unit" (1948/49).

6 - See Agnaldo Farias, "Bienal 50 anos. 1951-2001", Fundação Bienal de São Paulo, 2001.

7 - Nevertheless, Aracy Amaral recalls that works by Miró, Léger, Chagall, Arp, Kandinsky, Calder, De Chirico and Magnelli already belonged to the Museum of Modern Art in 1949. Organizers of the prizes of biennials linked to a museum board are put under suspiccion. See Aracy Amaral, “O acervo do MAC e as Bienais: limites e expectativas.” In: "As Bienais no acervo do MAC. 1951-1985", São Paulo, Museu de Arte Contemporânea da Cidade Universitária, 1987.

8 - I would assert that from the 1990s onwards, there has been a professionalization of the area, stimulated by artists rather than by critics or historians.

9 - Aracy Amaral, “Apresentação,” in: “Uma seleção do acervo na Cidade Universitária” exhibition catalogue, Museu de Arte Contemporânea, USP, São Paulo, 1983, p. 13. In addition to MAM’s collection, MAC also received the private collections of Ciccillo and his wife, Yolanda Penteado.

10 - The collection of Edemar Cid Ferreira, from Banco Santos.

11 - Calculations done with Joana Tuttoilmondo, with the following methodology considering the difference between the year of entry into the collection and the year of production: to choose a date for works dated 1993/03 or 2003/06 (which happens when they are further editions), always use the older year (for the creation of the work, not the production of the edition).

12 - Several purchases were done regardless to the sucess of the artists in the art scene.

13 - Some international acquisitations happened, but with no standard as reference.

14 - Marepe, Rivane Neuenschwander, Vik Muniz, among others. MAM is the first Brazilian museum to include pieces of performance art in its collection, all by Laura Lima.

15 - Gomes Machado, Lourival. “Um Museu e seu acervo,” in: "Revista Arte e Decoração", nº 10, March/April, 1955.

16 - Works on paper: without entering into the minutiae of museological classifications that will decipher “mixed techniques,” it can be confirmed that they are mostly prints, drawings, and photographs.

17 - MAC’s first director was Walter Zanini, known for the experimental character that marked his time in office. He was a pioneer in many respects, notably in gathering research between art and technology. Several art critics examined the developments in the creation of two museums when neither one nor the other found a means of confronting an inhospitable cultural medium.