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Luis Camnitzer: The Hand Holding the Horizon

Luis Camnitzer: The Hand Holding the Horizon

La verdad es que el lenguaje es otra cosa
Jorge Luis Borges

Since his youth age in South America Luis Camnitzer started to amass a precious work that he has generously spread by himself, and sometimes with the help of others, across the eastern coast of North America, several Latin American metropolises, Tuscany and countless villages, cities, regions of a broad, irregular map still on expansion. By now he is recognized –as Jorge Luis Borges (2005: 285) would say in reference to the Duke of Osuna, praised by Quevedo– “by the geography of his campaigns” crossed “by famous rivers”: from the Trave river to the Rio de la Plata, from the Hudson to the Serchio, to the Almendares.

His international scope as an artist, historian and art critic, professor, polemicist, exhibition organizer, editor, member of juries and panels, has made him an ubiquitous, familiar and influential figure –all of it, sometimes I believe, against his will. We are talking about a creative individual backed by a nearly six-decade career, author of a vast work in which humor and lightness go hand in hand with philosophical reflection, skepticism and the caustic. Together with that work, in constant reciprocity and interaction with it, a body of ideas about art teaching and learning exists in the author himself, plus a wealth of comments and reflections about art, in particular about oscillations, tensions, idle pursuits of Latin American and Third-World artists who settled in imperial metropolises.

To be able to explore Camnitzer’s work it will be certainly useful to bring up his views as a critic. I’ll start by recalling his thought that Latin American artists “rarely speculate about forms out of a context” (2009: 80). Very close to that notion, he introduces another one equally important: in Latin American art –and he highlights some trends of the history of that art, including the conceptualism of the 1960s and 1970s, of which he is undoubtedly one of its major exponents– “there has always been a need to find explanations somewhere” (Idem). From all of this, I understand that works of art are completed and conditioned by context; it penetrates the work to define it; and, that either in a close or a far place, probably out of the work, you will find information and arguments that will help you understand it better. It wasn’t by chance that since the mid sixties, Camnitzer and some of his Latin American colleagues had already started to show some interest in taking advantage of “the dynamism of the context” and decided that one way to do it would be by “promoting the idea of ‘contextual art’, as oppose to ‘conceptual art’”(Giunta, 2008: 49).

Those ideas and statements –certainly formulated out of wit– aren’t simply a word game; they are upheld as a caring challenge: by the hand of Camnitzer, the work of Latin American artists impels the viewer to define and clarify the “contexts” around it that make it permeable. It also calls to determine which are those “places” –out of the text, object, artifact in any of its avatars– where the inevitable explanation crystallizes, and this is so important that in its absence, the work is at the risk of being taken as an empty shell” (2009: 80-81)1
Camnitzer urges us to understand Latin American works of art as “contaminated” events of the reality that are in constant exchange with the exterior. I think I can see a convergence of thinkers like Benedetto Croce and Antonio Gramsci, since such an approach implies that we identify, while examining specific works, what Croce (1922: 27) defined as “the fertilizing element, […] one that is real, passionate, practical, moral” and which, according to Gramsci, is always required to generate art, literature and poetry.2 The connections, ramifications and exchanges established between the works and the “fertilizing element” –and society, history, culture, politics, ideology on its social milieu– should at best nourish art, give it shape and save it from the sterile emptiness typical of that “shell” mentioned by Luis Camnitzer.

And now that we are talking about forms, I want to bring the attention on the importance of printmaking in the work of this artist. It is widely through prints –etching, serigraphy, photoengraving, photocopies and other ways to print and multiply images– that his work is visually and physically defined. The universe of printmaking, with its (apparent) technical inflexibility, specialization touch and fondness for complex traditional processes, it’s one of the first contexts to take into account when appreciating Luis Camnitzer’ polymorph work. In Latin America, the artistic production by graphic means has a solid tradition that is inseparable from the vocation of creating a politically active art that can be multiplied and made accessible to many. That democratizing eagerness is explicitly revealed in a document –signed by the New York Graphic Workshop– in 1966 that states the objective of “offering everyone the opportunity to develop their own creativity, thus contributing to eliminating the gap between artists and consumers.”3 It’s an ambitious goal in tune with radical ideas of the time that were very important to visible segments of the Latin American intellectuality.4

The populist tradition of printmaking, assumed in a dialectical way by Camnitzer, is spread out and transformed by his own work and the researches and experiments he carries out jointly with other Latin American artists, especially after co-founding in Manhattan the New York Graphic Workshop (NYGW, 1964-1970) together with Liliana Porter and Jose Guillermo Castillo. Rather than a conventional printmaking workshop, the NYGW served as a laboratory, a meeting site, a school, an attitude and traveling proposal (finished artworks and, in some cases, accompanied by the artists who made them, arrived in Buenos Aires, Santiago de Chile, Montevideo, Caracas, San Juan, Cali, London and, of course, New York). Along with Porter and Castillo, his fellow adventurers, Camnitzer took printmaking to the installation and three-dimensional space, although he smooth it out and fold it up before putting it in the envelopes and launch it out to the world as mail art. In that laboratory, there were prints made even on sponge fingers; artwork exhibitions that couldn’t be seen because the pieces were kept in a safety box on 5th Avenue5, were organized and announced there. In the workshop, Camnitzer tried ideas that became the foundations of his subsequent work.

It is during the NYGW when Camnitzer started making purely text-based works; the first one of them was This is a mirror. You are a written sentence (1966-1968). In the title itself, through the word mirror, he warns about the structural debt with printmaking: every artwork and every print is a faithful, inverted copy of its original; it is similar to the relation between a body and its image reflected on a mirror. In this case, Camnitzer made a verse like the best: suggestive, somehow imperative. Regarding the text, the sentence was divided into two contradictory clauses, although that contradiction vanishes away when viewers/readers finish reading the phrase and realize that stopping to take a look at the work has cost them a metamorphosis (or has driven them to make an involuntary performance): in the action of looking at themselves in the mirror you can hear an interfering voice (one that says: “You are …”) whose powerful presence transforms the person in front of the mirror into a simple affirmative sentence.

This work was followed by a set of nine stickers (1966-1967). In 1967, the stickers were circulated as mail art, as a way to reach the democratizing objective of having many people involved in the process of completing and spreading the work of art. The stickers can be read as a combination of descriptions (some of then amazing), instructions and clues to solve problems related to urbanism, architecture and geometry: “Four bridges, of one kilometer length, forming a dead end square, on an inhabited area;” “A room with the central point of the ceiling touching the floor”; “250 meters of thick chain accumulated in a glass cube, arranged in a way that half of the space has been filled.” Languages are economic and adapt to different times from the gerund to the participle, describe events, possible actions that are still happening before the eyes of the one who sees and reads; in some cases, the actions are taken as if they were finished.

Texts continued to play an increasingly important role in his work and they were transferred from a piece of paper to the space of a gallery filling walls and floors. In the 1969 installations, among them Living room, Masacre de Puerto Montt and Fosa comun, the three-dimensional or sculptural space responds to the communicative power and his language manager. Works like Masacre… and Fosa… fully penetrate the universe of the Latin American politics of the time. The possible explanation, the hint situated “beyond,” points to the violence of injustices and wars (some of them dirtiest than others), of armed conflicts seen everywhere: Vietnam and southeastern Asia; the Middle East; guerrillas and counterinsurgency in Latin America and the Third World.

In the following works, Camnitzer referred either directly or indirectly to social and political events living Latin America in the decades from the 1960 to the 1980. Allusions to urban guerrillas, torture and the disappeared can been noticed in his work. Photo engravings of the series From the Uruguayan torture (1983) show fragments of bodies, from a mankind closely watched, maybe through the lens of forensic doctor’s camera or by witness who provides evidence, without getting emotionally involved, of the interaction between torturers and the tortured. The texts, in this series, get to describe the horror hardly without naming it.

The etching Che (1968) has also a political meaning; the piece has a communicative power that is as strong as that of a good poster, although laconic and ambiguous in a way conflicting with propaganda. The etching shows just a single word, the nickname CHE –in capital letters–, an accessible typography, like that of a stencil; black letters against white background. I guess CHE by Camnitzer designates something different from the iconic image of the famous guerrilla leader: che is a common speech filler used to call the attention of anybody in Argentina and Uruguay. Rather than to the renowned revolutionary, the etching refers to a che that has not been identified yet, a common man. The guerrilla fighter is likely embodied in the work, but there is no doubt that it also embraces millions of anonymous citizens who have called each other “che”, before and after Guevara became famous and died. That wide angle gives the print its deep political dimension, as a portrait of a group: it is the image of an acclaimed martyr posing next to countless souls whose dramatic lives have not been recorded by history.

From the same period is also the etching Horizon (1968), a second-to-none piece because of its effectiveness to merge text and image, with the right to be included in the finest anthology of concrete poetry. In this case, Borges’ statement (2005:279) is highly fulfilled: “every word is a poetic work.” The first signs of this etching had probably appeared, in the making, in one of the labels of 1967 reading: “A perfect circular horizon.” There is also a subsequent incarnation in The shadow of the horizon (1976/1983). In the latter, the horizon line and the subject become momentarily inseparable. The existence of the limit of the earth that we see in the etching, thanks to its shadow, takes shape, adheres like a temporary tattoo to the hand holding it and which is suppose to be able to draw the geometry of the universe. Horizon, meanwhile, suggests space, perspective, and a point of view that, at the same time, sets the text in motion and strengthens its condition of monumental object.

Other important works from this period are several self-portraits, dated in consecutive years, made by Camnitzer between the late 1960s and early in the 1970s. Presented in an equally sober style, with a black text printed breadthways in the familiar typography of the stencil, these “self-portraits” have the intention of representing the appearance of the person who signed them at the bottom. Or, maybe we shouldn’t be so sure. Given the absence of images, we could guess they are apocryphal documents. We could also think of excessive idealizations, of manipulations aimed at hiding the marks left by time on the face of the person on the self-portrait. I find the latter argument feasible, since his artworks reveal certain narcissism of the writing: as years have gone by, typography has remained the same, without changing or growing old; the character of Luis Camnitzer, on his textual version, is stuck in time, frozen in the easily identifiable, always legible characters of the stencil.

The self-portraits, with greater or lesser fidelity to a real or imaginary individual, make me think of other important works that are fully related to individuality, human (and artistic) singularity of the creator: I’m referring to a series, extended throughout several decades, that is built around the signature of the artist. “The signature –Camnitzer wrote (2009: 83)–, is, in fact, the concentration of the autobiography to its full density.” An initial glance at these works makes it possible to appreciate them as confirmations, in a satirical tone, of the closeness, the correspondences and similarities that have historically ascribed to drawing and writing.6 Camnitzer assumes such possible closeness in a straight way: drawing, in a work like Copy (1972) was reduced to a form of writing; it’s just a signature, and it wraps up with that personal mark. The fact that in these and other works in the series Camnitzer’s signature remains carefully even, stable, is very important since it makes his proposal different from an essential historical precedent, the drawing Picabia (1920) by Francis Picabia. In the drawing Picabia decided to differentiate, without mistakes, his two signatures: one of them is playful, it shows an opulence conventionally associated to drawing; the other one, sober and placed next to the first one, seems to assume the unmistakable role of a signature (Baker, 2001: 78-82).

With the group of works dedicated to explore his own autograph, Camnitzer has created a continuum that makes a dissection of key aspects of the art market, on its contemporary versions. Specifically, he questions several of the mainstays –authenticity, the relation between originals and copies, the authority exercised by the author by including his signature on the work, the influence of sizes and materials on prices– holding together the fragile building of commercial transactions in current art. He uses the signature to comment and criticize other aspects of the art market, such as the disproportionate influence of the work’s dimensions on its price. This perspective is mirrored in Firma para vender por tajadas al peso (Signature by the slice for sale by weight) (1971-1973), Fragmento de firma para vender por centímetros (Fragments of signature for sale by centimeter) (1972), and Signature by the slice (1971/2007). These works refer to artistic productions dominated by quantity and excessive repetition, features that are usually rooted on the servile conformity with the realities of the market. Certainly aware of ideas by thinkers like Hegel and Marx, Camnitzer touches on, in this type of work, the never-ending philosophical debate over the contradictions and interactions between quantity and quality. And of course, those works –since they can be weighted and measured like any other object– brings to light the situation of art as “object of exchange” in the capitalist economy, reviving Marx’s statement as saying that a book written by poet “Propercio and eight ounces of tobacco could have the same value of exchange, in spite of the difference in the use value between tobacco and elegy” (Marx-Engels, 1972: 55). In order to make a breakdown of that commercial, economic and financial structure, Camnitzer certainly uses Dadaist experiences, that at that time –early in the 20th century– opened a breach in this field and operated with so much irreverence, just like Marcel Duchamp or Francis Picabia did on their time.

Another true fact highlighted by Camnitzer was the fact that money is also, always, a copy, since every bill or coin forms part of a signed and numbered edition that came out of a press or a coin die. Camnitzer warns us over the fact that money is a copy: for a greater delight, money is a print, probably one of the few prints that visibly show, in clearly legible letters and numbers, its value of exchange. The implicit and explicit questioning in this type of work points to something broader than art trade: its sarcasm targets the monetary system on which the shaky financial structure of current capitalism relies. When walking down this road, Camnitzer comes across important works made during the sixties and seventies by Andy Warhol, Robert Watts, Cildo Meireles, J.S.G. Boggs and Joseph Beuys, among others.

Two identical objects (1981) urges us to think about the weak points of the economic and financial system based on the infinite confidence on paper money-emphasis is made on the fact that it is basically a piece of paper, a print edited and signed by the all-mighty state and backed by the grace of God. To achieve his goal, he crumpled the paper. Thus, he brings to a focus the fragility of the material, and, at the same time, presents it as something that can be easily disposed of, like a minor item that has been put aside. The final solution confirms the equivalence between the objects, since the crumpling resource applies exactly in the same way to the two pieces of paper, the newspaper and the bill. Camnitzer extracts all the value of exchange from the bill, brings it into the open and manages to reduce it to its simple use value: paper is paper; the rest is (expensive) illusions. The installation takes shape in the dawn of Ronald Reagan’s term; it is born under the influence of the crisis that shook the United States during great part of the 1970s and the first years of the following decade. In those years, the country suffered an explosive cocktail of recession, high unemployment rate and out-of-control inflation. While skeptically examining the financial system of post-modern capitalism and the universe of the bank and money, Camnitzer pays close attention to factors that would have an extraordinary impact during the same epoch in Latin America. Those factors converged in the so-called “foreign debt crisis,” a phenomenon dragged from the seventies and that hit Latin American governments hard when it broke out at the beginning of the following decade.

Based in New York since 1964, Luis Camnitzer has dedicated a significant part of his time and efforts to try to understand the limitations and options of the colonized. It is a difficult exercise by which he tries to fully understand, first of all his own life and then his place in cultural institutions and corridors of contemporary culture (schools and academies, galleries, museums, the media and the so-called “international art”). About his own experience, he said:

I arrived in New York. Seen from the outside, the US [sic] was a big lump placed over Uruguay. It was a solid and flexible mass that spread over my country leaving almost no room for wholes, infecting the country with its ideas, habits and ideals. I guess that’s the efficient functioning of any empire with regards to its colonies […]. Once in New York, the lump didn’t seem to be solid any more. It was rather like a sponge, with nook and crannies where one could continue to stay in Uruguay […]. Being far away, helps to see Uruguay from a different angle […]. Specially, the artistic situation looks very clear from there. The schemes defining Uruguayan art were not from Uruguay, they were “international.” International meant imperial. (Camnitzer, 1983)

His entire career was a tenacious attempt, with touches of disagreements, to break or at least go around those dependence relations. Thanks to his closeness with the empire and his South American origin, he has been able to see and study such relations with clarity, from the inside and outside. He has seen and recorded the way in which those relations are transformed, evolve and adapt –like the lump that turned into a sponge, for instance (further down, in the essay where I found this quote, the sponge turns back into a lump.)

Something has happened in this chain of observations and transformations, in relation to his identity: it is hard for those cultures to figure out if Camnitzer is, at this precise moment, among the living and acting people, or if he is the most Uruguayan-like of international artists or the most international of Uruguayan artists; of course, they are not mutually exclusive. Although that would be neither determining nor important, I allow myself to assure that Luis Camnitzer is above all, a real Uruguayan and a football player. After falling in the field he took the ball early in the game, improvised a few feints, took a few steps towards the edge and –as it is said in football slang– he lost his marker. Ever since then he has played and stopped playing, always following his own rules, in a cheerful and fraternal game that make news here and there: a hard-cover book and paper, with words, an index and images, and another soft-cover book that looks like if it had been made out of water; a piece of printed paper glued to the floor; a glove, used by many people and framed; a crumpled bill; a knife cutting through the wall; a hand grabbing a cloud and a cloud with his name tattooed on fire. Thanks to those pieces of news, publications of fragments of a life that develops panting on the field, we know that Camnitzer, the Uruguayan football player who was born in Lübeck, Germany and raised in Montevideo, is still or today more than ever, on the game.


1 As many of his essays, this text has a deeply autobiographic nature and a tone that goes back and forth between clarity and uncertainty. Camnitzer, in this case, analyzes the training of many Latin American artists and the environment in which they live, at the beginning of their careers and even later on. He tries to differentiate and compare the educational and artist processes that occur at the same time in North America and Latin America. He also speaks about formalism and “the ways formalists read or see art.” He offers shades of meaning about his idea of the “empty shells”, explaining that the concept should not be understood as a pure description of “formalist” art. That’s why he cautiously write that there are “non-formalist readings that result in empty shells, as what happens with works politically and purely centered on a narrative message.” He points out also the links in Latin America between conceptualist attitude and educational and social mobilization strategies based on art: “When in the periphery we reach the politically-rooted conceptualist strategies of the sixties (that frequently preceded the hegemonic conceptual art [...] it served as a tool to raise public awareness.”
2 In the article (“Educational Art”, 1961), Gramsci takes as valid the Croce’s concept asume and he adds: “Literarture do not generate literature, […] ideologies do not create ideologies, superstructures do not give rise to superstructures, [they] emerge as a result of the intervention of the ‘fertilizing element’”.
3 The concept stated in the Manifesto of the NYGW, a document sent out as part of a mail art exhibition, in December, 1966. See:: Beverly Adams, “The School of the North: The New York Graphic Workshop in New York, 1964-1970”, The New York Graphic Workshop, 1964-1970, p. 21. (My remarks and impressions about the NYGW are grounded on this excellent catalogue, and on my visits to the exhibition at the Blanton Museum of Art, during the 2008 Fall.)
4 Cuban filmmaker Julio Garcia Espinosa (2003: 459-461) expressed himself in similar terms in 1969, in an article about “imperfect cinema”: “Art of the masses will be actually such when it is actually made by the masses […] By admitting the possibility of the participation of all, is the possibility of individual creation that we all have not been accepted?”.
5 Manifesto Cookie (1966) was mailed out by members of the group to art institutions and acquaintances. Meanwhile, the Safe Deposit Box # 3001 (1969) exhibition was located at Manufacturers Hanover Trust, in the intersection of 5th Avenue and 57, in New York.: Beverly Adams, ob. cit., pp. 21 y 25-26.
6 Mari Carmen Ramirez, for instance, has made reference to this type of closeness in the context of dawing in Latin America: “The similarities between drawing and writing are the heart of the matter of copies, an element revealing drawing as something at a graphological and ritual time. Drawings groups under that label explore the environment from the viewpoints of ‘written images’ or individual calligraphic researches where marks and symbols generate systems of extremely personal and individual signs.” See: “Un-Drawing Boundaries: A Curatorial Proposal,” 1997, p. 20.


ADAMS, BEVERLY: The School of the North: The New York Graphic Workshop in New York, 1964-1970, in The New York Graphic Workshop, 1964-1970, Eds. Gabriel Perez-Barreiro, Ursula Davila-Villa, Gina McDaniel Tarver, The Blanton Museum of Art, Austin, 2008.
BAKER, GEORGE: The Artwork Caught by the Tail, October, no. 97, New York, pp. 78-82, 2001.
BORGES, JORGE LUIS: La poesía (Poetry), in Obras completas (Complete Works), Ed. Sara Luis del Carril, Emece Editors, Buenos Aires, 2005.
CAMNITZER, LUIS (cat.): Luis Camnitzer, Casa de las Américas, Havana, 1983.
__________________:The Artist’s Role and Image in Latin America (2004), in On Art, Artists, Latin America and Other Utopias, Ed. Rachel Weiss, University of Texas Press, Austin, 2009.
CROCE, BENEDETTO: Cultura e vita morale, 1922 pp. 241-242. Cited by Antonio Gramsci in El arte educativo: Literatura y vida nacional. Obras escogidas, t. III, Editorial Lautaro, Buenos Aires, 1961.
ESPINOSA, JULIO GARCÍA: For an Imperfect Cinema, in The Cuba Reader. History, Culture, Politics, Duke University Press, Durham, London, 2003.
GIUNTA, ANDREA: A Conversation with Liliana Porter and Luis Camnitzer, in The New York Graphic Workshop, 1964-1970, ed. cit., 2008.
MARX, CARLOS AND FEDERICO ENGELS: Sobre la literatura y el arte (About literature and art), Ed. Jean Freville, Cuban Book Institute, Havana, 1972.
RAMÍREZ, MARI CARMEN (ED.): Un-Drawing Boundaries: A Curatorial Proposal, in Re-Alining Vision. Alternative Currents in South American Drawing, Archer M. Huntington Art Gallery, University of Texas at Austin, 1997.