Wednesday, February 16, 2011

In the Beginning Was the Word

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In the Beginning Was the Word

By HOLLAND COTTER Some stars take longer than others to come into telescopic range. Such is the case with Luis Camnitzer, who, in his early 70s and with a half-century career behind him, is just now having his first New York museum survey. In 1966 Luis Camnitzer made what he considers his first Conceptual piece. The latest on the arts, coverage of live events, critical reviews, multimedia extravaganzas and much more. Join the discussion. The show, at El Museo del Barrio, is terse, almost to the vanishing point in places, as might be expected from one of the pioneers of 1960s Conceptualism. Much of what's here is based on printed language: cryptic propositions, random lists of words and descriptive phrases — unmoored from, or very loosely tethered to, other spare-to-barely-there visual matter. As elusive as the work looks, there's a truth-in-advertising directness to it. From an early point, Mr. Camnitzer made clear that for him art was not about claiming mastery of a medium or refining an identifiable style. He wanted to use very basic, unglamorous visual and linguistic tools to clear a zone for thinking, without interference from the market or pressure to be predictable. He has remained steadfast in that quixotic resolve, supporting himself primarily as a teacher and critic. Only fairly recently has the mainstream art world begun to show some serious interest in meeting him on his own terms. Mr. Camnitzer was born in Germany in 1937. Two years later his family emigrated to Uruguay, and he grew up in Montevideo. He went to art school there, then briefly studied sculpture in Munich, before coming to New York City in the early 1960s, at which point he was making prints and topical cartoons, Expressionist in style. With its potential for cheap production and wide distribution, printmaking has had a long history in Latin America, particularly as a political vehicle. And its utopian dimension made it a popular medium in the United States in the context of the civil rights and antiwar movements of the 1960s. But Mr. Camnitzer began to find his skill with Expressionism to be a problem. It gained him attention, but it was too easy, demanded minimal thought. He felt he had to throw a wrench into the works. With two émigré South American artists — Liliana Porter, whom he married, and José Guillermo Castillo — he founded the New York Graphics Workshop in a borrowed studio apartment in Manhattan, and began to push his printmaking in experimental directions, using unorthodox formats (printing on the side of a ream of paper, on cookies), and taking words as his primary visual elements. In 1966 he made what he considers his first Conceptual piece, which was closer to a relief sculpture than to a print. It consisted of two unpunctuated phrases run together — "This is a Mirror You Are a Written Sentence" — spelled out in raised black plastic lettering against the light ground of what looked like an ordinary pegboard. What did the words mean? That our reaction, positive or negative, to art is entirely scripted by habit and context? Or is there some other meaning relating to psychoanalytic theories of perception of a kind that fascinated many Latin American artists at that time? One thing was certain: the piece was intended to provoke thought and questions. Other such works followed immediately, all making unorthodox uses of workaday media. From 1966 came a series of adhesive labels rubber-stamped and offset-printed with absurdist architectural proposals: "Ten story building with Styrofoam flowing out of the windows," "A room with the center point of the ceiling touching the floor." In the spirit of democratic distribution, the labels were suitable for mailing. In the 1968 installation called "Living Room," which has been recreated at El Museo, Mr. Camnitzer cooked up a full-scale architectural interior from words. All of the room's elements — windows, desk, bookcase, carpet — were defined entirely by printed labels stuck to a gallery's walls and floor. Labels printed with the word "window" outlined a window; labels printed "bookcase" outlined a bookcase. The piece was meant to be satirical: how boring bourgeois homes were, including his own, with everything generically tagged. At the same time, he was gladdened to see that the words could affect physical behavior. He observed that although visitors felt free to walk straight across the area of the floor marked "carpet," they tended to walk around the area marked "desk."...

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