Thursday, November 8, 2012

ART REVIEW / César Paternosto: The Burning Edges of Light - By Claudio Iván Remeseira

César Paternosto, born in 1931 in the city of La Plata, Argentina, is one of most relevant artists produced by that country in the past century.  A prominent name among the practitioners of Latin American geometric abstraction–in turn, one of the most idiosyncratic contributions made by that part of the world to contemporary art—over the past five decades, he has developed a highly personal and enthralling synthesis of European abstract and constructivist traditions with pre-Hispanic Amerindian forms. The latest stage of that development can be appreciated at “Painting as Object: The Lateral Expansion,” the exhibition on view at Cecilia de Torres until Nov. 3.

Paternosto became internationally well-known in the 1960s with a series of paintings in which he left the front of the canvas empty and placed color on its side edges. “With this gesture, Paternosto restates the meaning of the pictorial work; in a sense, he stops painting,” wrote Argentine critic Ricardo Martín-Crosa in a companion essay to the 1981 artist’s retrospective at Americas Society. “Undoing the idea that a painting is a surface covered with color,” added Martín-Crosa, “Paternosto makes it an enigmatic object whose secrets can only be penetrated by establishing a different relationship with it. And these secrets depend no longer on a series of figures organized within the space of the painting, but on the very structure of the painting, on its function as a sign.”

By emphasizing the three-dimensional character of the painting, Paternosto forces the viewer to inspect it as if it were a sculpture, in a mode once defined by the artist as “oblique vision.” This “close reading” of the work of art and the dislodgement of the viewer from her conventional placement in front of it constitute a visual and intellectual ascesis, a kind of meditation in movement. After a while, the exacting observation of the luminous surfaces hanging on the gallery’s walls gives way to an inner experience of almost religious calm, the feeling of inhabiting a space of stark, quiet radiance. “Paternosto’s paintings,” concludes Martín-Crosa, “are instruments of concentration, charts for the encounter of meaning.”

I Wonder Why, 1971, Acrylic emulsion on canvas, 48 x 48 in. 122 x 122 cm.

In the pivotal year of 1968, Paternosto moved to New York City, where he would remain for almost four decades (in 2003 he moved again, this time to Segovia, Spain, where he currently lives). In the late 1970s and early ’80s, he embarked on a journey of creative self-discovery through the Andean region of northern Argentina, Bolivia, and Peru, researching the monuments and art objects of the Inca and pre-Inca civilizations. Following the lead of JoaquínTorres García, who in the 1930s started advocating the blending of European and Amerindian geometric forms (a mixture cemented by the spiritualistic outlook of Helena Blavatsky’s Theosophy, among other mystic and theoretical sources), over the next two decades Paternosto would incorporate pre-Hispanic stone and textile structures and patterns into his work. A prolific author, he also wrote extensively on this subject.

With the present show, Paternosto’s artistic quest comes full circle. In the 15 works exhibited here (oil, mixed media, and acrylic emulsion on canvases, most of them produced in the past couple of years), he returns to the three-dimensional, “lateral” approach of his front-blank paintings, in an even more concentrated way. The contrast is highlighted by the inclusion of four early works: “Tlön” (1969), “I Wonder Why” (1971), “El Intimo Epíteto” (1971), and “Sagitario” (1972).

Trio: Tema Marginal, 2010, Oil on canvas, Each: 63 x 9⅞ in. 160 x 25 cm.

In his most recent paintings, color is applied on the sides more sparsely than in the former ones—strong, austere statements of red, blue, yellow, or black against a marbled grey background that covers the whole length of the edges. The fronts of the canvases are now modulated in fields of white, and at times punctuated by stripes or small squares of rich primaries and blacks.

“While I work, I always listen to music,” Paternosto told me during our conversation at the exhibition’s opening night. There is definitively something musical in the composition of his paintings, as well as in their titles: “Acorde Mínimo” (Minimal Chord), “Tema Marginal 8” (Marginal Theme 8), “Conjuntos, Progresiones 3” (Sets, Progressions 3), etc.

Interestingly, the titles of his earlier works are literary allusions. But it would be far-fetched, Paternosto said, to read into this any sophisticated relation between painting, music, and poetry. “Back in those days, I was afraid that giving abstract titles to my paintings could be too arid for the public’s taste,” he told me. “Half a century later, that precaution is outdated.”

Double Crescendo, 2012 Oil, mixed media on canvas
Installed: 71 x 198¼ in. 180 x 504 cm.

The musical analogy plays out most forcefully in “Double Crescendo,” a series of ten vertical canvases painted especially for this show. The canvases, of different widths, hang at predetermined intervals on a lateral wall of the gallery. The kinetic experience of walking from one extreme of this set to the other provides a visual parallel to an atonal or dodecaphonic piece.

The exhibition also includes a video of “The Arrival,” the intervention/installation created by Paternosto for Madrid’s Atocha train station. “The physicality that the artist has inserted time after time in greater measure into his art came here to its most monumental fruition,” writes Edward J. Sullivan, NYU’s Helen Gould Sheppard Professor in the History of Art, in his introductory essay to the exhibition’s beautiful catalogue.

In these works, Paternosto appears to have reached some sort of artistic Samādhi, the ultimate blending of European and Amerindian geometric sources. This nonfigurative mestizaje also bridges the Eurocentric hierarchical chasm between “art” and “ornament,” as Paternosto tells Sullivan in the extensive interview included in the catalogue.

César Paternosto is an artist who believes in the enduring power of painting. This exhibition is the confirmation of his lifelong creative stature.

César Paternosto: “Painting as Object: The Lateral Expansion. New Works.” At Cecilia de Torres, 134-140 Greene Street, New York. Phone: 212.431.5969. For gallery hours and more information, click here 


  1. Thanks Claudio. Very interesting to see Paternosto in NYC. As I recall he was here in the late 60s,early 70s but did not find it congenial and certainly was not very sympathetic to minimalism, which anyone who was looking seemed inclined to label his work. In my reading, there isn't any Latin American minimalism.

  2. Thank you for your comment Lyle! I totally agree with you about the minimalism issue; I avoided using the word in my review, precisely for what you say: it's a easy but inaccurate labeling of his work.



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