A few years ago I saw a show of Gego and the distinguished Argentine artist Leon Ferrari at MoMA. Ferrari’s work repels me—a purely instinctive reaction. Normally I might expect that feeling to reverse at some point, but in his case I doubt that will happen. It’s too obviously derivative of Pollock; however it might be linked to Lettrism or Michaux or automatic writing, Pollock stands in front of it as a problem. The problem is that there is no point in making letters, even abstracted or unreadable ones—midway between calligraphy, writing and drawing—because Pollock’s completely abstract gestures already include all those possibilities. The strategy is banal; if Ferrari hadn’t done it someone else would, and in fact many have. There is also no point in politicizing the gesture because Pollock’s work is already a complete politics. Any social turn in this case can only join a right wing politics because it would be aesthetically conservative.
It is interesting to compare this with Terry Atkinson’s recent work, also about the difficult relationship between modernist art and writing—though in Ferrari’s case not difficult enough. Ferrari confronts the fascist general with unintelligible modernist writing, as if to claim that modernism is a politics in itself, which of course it is, but it doesn’t work as critique of anything because it’s entirely external to art. The evident sensitivity of the hand would seem to guarantee the work’s validity, but it is oppressed by the too conscious nature of the gesture, the conceptuality that precedes it. Atkinson, ironically, is more of a modernist because his work is a self-critique of art. It also comes from experience, both political and academic, and has a certain freshness for that. To me, Ferrari seems all theoretical, despite the tough times he has lived through, and the risks he has faced.
Atkinson’s title, “GIVE ME A BREAK,” might seem a little heavy, but the ironies multiply and compound as he develops the work, until we’re not sure what it means, or that it means one sure thing.
Atkinson is also a master of multiple voices and personae, a skill he seems to have come by easily. The old man in a hat is Charles Darwin.