Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Megan Sullivan reviews Theories of the Nonobject

Mónica Amor. Theories of the Nonobject: Argentina, Brazil, Venezuela, 1944–1969. Oakland, Calif: University of California Press, 2016. 344 pp.

Review by Megan Sullivan

In his seminal 1959 essay “Theory of the Non-Object,” the Brazilian poet and critic Ferreira Gullar declared that the long modernist march toward the purification, and subsequent end, of painting was finally arriving at its destination. This process, he argued, initiated by the impressionists and hastened to its conclusion by Kazimir Malevich and Piet Mondrian, had culminated in a nonobject that defied the traditional categories of painting and sculpture and their prescriptive norms. Freed from the delimiting structures of frame and pedestal and the categories imposed by language, the nonobject would thus be liberated from “any signification outside the event of its own apparition.”

Mónica Amor’s Theories of the Nonobject takes this key contribution of the Brazilian avant-garde as the starting point for a broader investigation of the abstract and constructivist art produced in mid-twentieth-century Argentina, Brazil, and Venezuela. These disparate projects, she argues, were united by the common perception of a “crisis of mediums and representation” that triggered both formal innovations and new conceptual understandings of the art object, its viewer, and their relation (p. 1). In taking this “crisis” of form as the central through line of her study, Amor departs from previous approaches that have tended to subsume Latin American abstraction within the immediate context of post-WWII state-led industrial development and its triumphant rhetoric. While the political and social contexts are certainly addressed, she deftly resists any direct, mechanical interpretation of the relationship between Latin America as a cultural or geopolitical region and the particular forms of abstraction that flourished there.

True to its title, the book emphasizes the theories underpinning these new categories of art object as much as it does the objects themselves. Indeed, it’s at its best in the meticulous reconstructions of the philosophical discourses and artistic genealogies that spurred and supported the formal evolution of the art object in the cases examined. Structured around a central core composed by the three chapters that chart the rise and dissolution of Brazilian neoconcretism from the late 1940s through the mid-1960s, the book opens with a chapter on the early regional reception of concrete art in 1940s Argentina and ends with a coda on German-Venezuelan artist Gego’s 1969 installation Reticulárea. While Amor stresses the shared break with painting’s traditional task of representation in all of these cases, she likewise explores the distinct ideas that drove each one: the particular understanding of humanist Marxism and dialectical materialism that incited the Argentine artists’ rejection of representation and its passive viewer (chapter 1), and the impact of the philosophies of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Ernst Cassirer, and Suzanne Langer on the theory of the non-object’s immanent meaning (chapter 3), to give just two examples.

This crisis of mediums is the primary focus, but Amor indicates that it might well be symptomatic of another crisis, one that lies in the “uneven spaces and rhythms of modernity in the region” (p. 2). These ruptures with the universalist paradigm of modernist painting and the resulting emphasis on material specificity and the contingency of site suggest, she argues, the artists’ “implicit awareness of the subaltern position of their local contexts” with respect to the canonical narratives of modernism (p. 8). This second red thread, while promising, receives comparatively less attention than the first. Perhaps a synthetic conclusion that grappled with the cases collectively might have allowed Amor to return to the question of the significance of these theories and practices vis-à-vis both Euro-American modernism (touched on in the introduction) and Latin America’s particular experiences of modernity.

But that aside, Theories of the Nonobject presents us with a serious and engaging account of the how the legacy of modernism was taken up and challenged in Argentina, Brazil, and Venezuela. The argument is not pitched just to those with an established interest in the region; it rather suggests that these nonobjects and their theories have a contribution to make to our understanding of modernism in general.