Emilio Rodríguez-Larraín’s Andean Modernism

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Emilio Rodríguez-Larraín, “L’Homme est subjet” (1964) (all images Ela Bittencourt/Hyperallergic)

When reading up on Emilio Rodríguez-Larraín (1928–2015), a pioneer of Peruvian geometric abstraction, I came across aerial views of his land art work “La máquina de arcilla” (1987), constructed on the beach in Huanchaco. The bird’s-eye views confirmed my hunch about the artist’s paintings displayed in Ancestral Landscapes, a solo show at Hutchinson Modern & Contemporary — his first at the gallery — in which I sensed not only a confluence of modernism and pre-Columbian art, but also a topographic presence. Indeed, it seems that topography or, more broadly, the vital connection between nature, humankind’s habitats, and our survival, has always been on the artist’s mind.

Trained in architecture, Rodríguez-Larraín embarked on a career as a painter in the 1950s, when Latin American artists were digesting Constructivism — an influence visible in his early work (not in the show). He then traveled to Europe, befriending artists such as Man Ray and Marcel Duchamp, and exhibiting in Paris, Florence, Copenhagen, and Milan, where he settled in 1959. He also showed in New York, at the Museum of Modern Art, and then in Lima’s seminal I Salon de Arte Abstracto (I Salon of Abstract Art) in 1958, and in the Venice Biennale, in 1960 and 1964, as a proponent of ancestralism, a movement that adopted the motifs figuring in pre-Columbian art, and again in 1972. He received the Guggenheim Foundation grant in 1977, while already producing environmental art. He died in Lima in 2015.

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Emilio Rodríguez-Larraín, “La Jeune Fille et la Mort” I & II (diptych) (1962)

Spread over three small rooms, the current exhibition features 11 paintings produced in Europe between 1959 and 1965. The works convey the syncretic power of geometry — for instance, as it is suggested by the volumetric depth in “La Tempesta” (The Tempest, 1964), covered by a scrim of pulsating white lines, and as if rain is falling against an ancient ruin. In the works on view, stark geometry meets organicity. “Senza titolo” (Untitled, c. 1960), an orange-red circle enclosed by a dark gray aureole against a black background, possibly alludes to the halo produced on the retina as one stares at the sun. Seen up close, the gray ring is marked by tiny incisions, as if chiseled out with a paring knife. 

While the use of scraping, abrasion, and humble support materials such as cardboard indicates Rodríguez-Larraín’s affinity with Arte Povera, and the earthy colors with Tachisme, thematically the works hint at Indigenous pueblo dwellings, for example, in the mixed-media “L’Homme est sujet” (Man Is the Subject, 1964), and at local geography, as in the volcanic oil painting “La Non Conservazione della Partiá (1964) or “Untitled” (1965), with its blue-tinted triangular rock-like forms. Others evoke Andean textiles, such as the gorgeous, somber diptych, “La Jeune Fille et la Mort” I & II (1962), whose tilting, imperfect squares and thick, bending lines strongly recall the patterns of handcrafted fabrics. Seen together, the works are like maps through which the artist conjures familiar habitats, while tracing the roots of modernism to the graphic expressiveness of Andean art — a middle point between realism and abstraction, of which his land art and monumental earthworks seem like logical extensions.

Emilio Rodríguez-Larraín: Ancestral Landscapes continues at Hutchinson Modern & Contemporary (47 East 64th Street, Lenox Hill, Manhattan) through February 2. The exhibition was organized by the gallery.

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