“Impious Forms”: Unfinished Maps in the Work of Juan Acha

This text was part of the theme “Conceiving a Theory for Latin America: Juan Acha’s Criticism.” developed in 2016 by Zanna Gilbert. The original content items are listed here.

In this text, artist Maris Bustamante reminisces about the importance Juan Acha’s ideas had for her and a generation of young artists. She argues that Acha’s refreshing approach to his role as a critic redefined the way that artists defended and conceptualized their work. Read the Spanish version here.

Juan Acha addressing the audience at the First Latin American Conference on Non-Objectualist Art, Museo de Arte Moderno de Medellín, 1981. Photo: Lourdes Grobet

Juan Acha was our main ally in Mexico during the seventies. At that time, art critics were the only interlocutors with the authority to mediate between artists and the market, and it was up to them to affirm the paths by which artists’ work was ultimately expropriated by capitalism. Counter to this tendency, Juan always behaved like a theorist, with an interest in the social and political changes that were taking place, in us as artists, and in offering a different view of Latin America.

The period spanning from 1976 to 1983 was key in the consolidation of “non- objectualism” in Mexico and Latin America. During this first stage, in 1979, Juan started to release his now-seminal texts on the production, dissemination, and consumption of the work of art, which were published in the Sección de Obras de Sociología series by Fondo de Cultura Económica. Arte y Sociedad: Latinoaméricana. El producto artístico y su estructura (Art and Society: Latin America. The Artistic Product and its Structure; 1981) was particularly important and historically timely in that it introduced us to the non-objectualist offshoots that extol concepts (Conceptual art, Process art, Computer art, and the ready-made), spaces and materials (atmospheres, Arte Povera, Land art, Systems art), bodily actions (Happenings, performances, body art), and light and electronic images (multiple projections, visual-art film and video).1Juan Acha, introduction to Arte y Sociedad. Latinoamérica. El producto artístico y su estructura (México: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1981), 20. Juan described these as “tendencies that channel the postmodern spirit rejecting the traditional object that is the repository of the illusionisms, formalisms, narratives, and pastimes that characterized the high arts of the past, and now epitomize mass media and design.”2Ibid, 20.

Cover of Juan Acha’s Arte y Sociedad: Latinoamérica. El producto artístico y su estructura, Mexico City: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1981.

By writing about these trends that turn their backs on the traditional object, and describing those who “materialize” them as “counter-Renaissance” or “counter- Humanist,” Juan championed an aspect of art that crystallized new concepts, actions, and meanings in regard to space and time.3Ibid, 20. These new non-objectualisms, he argued, brought into play a theory-practice relationship that could challenge and renew the fundamental concepts of art. Indeed, I think that Juan hit the nail on the head—or perhaps provided the actual nail—so that these new artists could take on tasks that had hitherto been performed by others, whose specialized disciplinary studies gave them the permission and authority to reflect upon and account for artistic production.

Nowadays people forget—perhaps because it seems like a thing of the past—the day-to-day aspects of the relationship between artists and critics. I remember, during my years as a student at La Esmeralda, that artists were generally shy when asked to talk about their work.4The National School of Painting, Sculpture and Printmaking (Escuela Nacional de Pintura, Escultura y Grabado), known as “La Esmeralda,” is a noted art school in Mexico City, founded in 1927. In the 1930s, the school moved to the Callejón de la Esmeralda in Colonia Guerrero, which led to its nickname. Notable teachers include Diego Rivera, Francisco Zúñiga, Frida Kahlo, and Carlos Orozco Romero. It was assumed that anything they said would remain in the private sphere of personal opinion, because the authority to make a true diagnosis lay with the critics and poets. Writers always prevailed when it came to giving opinions about artists’ work, which is to say that the latter’s voices were thought to lack validity.

It was in the sixties, and particularly in the seventies, that artists began to openly rebel against the figure of the art critic as the ultimate and sole interlocutor granted the permission and authority to talk about art. In stepping away from the all- powerful role of the arrogant critic and reaching out to us as equals, Juan Acha was a model. We took his gesture a step further and started to write about and defend our own projects, dispensing with the interlocutors.

Juan Acha addressing the audience at the First Latin American Conference on Non-Objectualist Art, Museo de Arte Moderno de Medellín, 1981. Photo: Lourdes Grobet

Through Juan’s earlier texts, we were familiar with his analyses grounded in Marxist concepts of production, dissemination, and consumption. In them we read about the relations and factors that allowed the arts to reproduce, fight new battles, and repeat traditional systems. We talked a lot about the periodization of art, not as the basic generalization from cave painting to the present, but rather as recognizing the values of producing subjects, beyond the personality created by superficial fame. We wanted to break free from inherited ideas about what artist-subjects were supposed to be. We also argued about how to face and accept the work of artistic production based on the three variables of aesthetic culture: arts, crafts, and design. Just as pre-capitalism had subsumed crafts, giving rise to the arts, the arts had given rise to design as an alternative for mass society.

Through Juan, we saw that there was an urgent need to distinguish between the aesthetic and artistic realms in order to understand and develop non-objectualisms in a way that differed from the traditional arts, in which the two concepts are equivalent. We also became aware of the sociological, economic, and political reasons why artists received tacit injunctions to behave or produce in a certain manner. We understood that all of these circumstances had come together in our time because we were at a kind of threshold of a change in direction. And, in choosing to accept the challenge, we could transform not only our own conditions as subjects, but also those of our new potential “objects.” This was the challenge for our generation.

No Grupo Poster, offset, 1982. Fondo No Grupo, Centro de Documentación Arkheia, Museo Universitario Arte Contemporáneo, UNAM.

Around 1987 Rubén Valencia and I had been teaching at the UAM Azcapotzalco (Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana), affiliated with the Research Department in the Division of Design Arts and Sciences, for just under ten years.5Rubén Valencia (Mexican, 1950–1989) was a visual artist and non-objectual geometer with a degree from San Carlos, and a co-founder of the collective No-Grupo, which was active in Mexico City from 1977 to 1983.  The body of theory and the conceptual foundations of the design degree at the division had been put together through the efforts of many people, all of them co-founders of the UAM, particularly Daniel Prieto Castillo, Enrique Dussel and Rafael López Rangel, all of whom were known for their links to the enlightened left. Being familiar with Juan’s ideas about the arts, crafts, and design of Latin American aesthetic cultures, we organized a seminar that year for teachers, which imparted by Juan himself, dealt with the education of designers and the future of the design degree. The most substantial consequence of this seminar was a new book by Juan, Introducción a la teoría de los diseños (1988), published by the UAM in collaboration with Editorial Trillas. This book, which was reissued several times and circulated in Latin America, became a key text for teachers as well as for artists and designers.

I should mention that every time I return to Juan’s texts, I find that they are written with great clarity and well organized, with a great deal of information and very thorough explanations. As I said earlier, his books were timely and offered original approaches. During the seventies, whenever Juan delivered lectures or participated in public events at galleries or museums, he triggered a strong response in his audiences, which were usually made up of artists, teachers, critics, scholars, and art enthusiasts. We ourselves had to make an effort to understand what he was telling us. These exchanges with the audience sometimes ended in accusations, which Juan always answered with great patience and politeness. I never heard the maestro utter coarse language; he was always a gentleman in the face of insults.

There is a widely known anecdote about one of his presentations at the Foro de Arte Contemporáneo, which was a famous gallery and cultural center at the time. On that occasion there were two art critics in the room: Shifra Goldman (an American art critic based in Los Angeles who was known for supporting Chicano and Latino artists) and Raquel Tibol (a champion of artists from the Mexican School of Painting). When Juan started to talk about non-objectualism, both of them literally jumped out of their seats, wreaking hilarious havoc. That’s how controversial things got back then when Juan talked about the overflowing of traditional supports.

View of speakers and audience at the First Latin American Conference on Non-Objectualist Art, Museo de Arte Moderno de Medellín, 1981. Photo: Lourdes Grobet

In retrospect, it is easy to understand these types of rifts in times of upheaval. The art world and the so-called intellectual left in Mexico are both very bold when it comes to talking about social change at the political level, and yet very conservative when defending the interests of those they represent, revealing their own particular myths and prejudices. As Juan said, “This radical turn is disconcerting, and Conceptual art becomes the movement that is least popular among art lovers.”6Acha, Arte y Sociedad, 149.

To Juan, non-objectual conceptualisms are the radical offshoots of high (or useless) arts—those that are produced, understood, or consumed by very small groups of art lovers or connoisseurs. He argued that high arts had started to show clear signs of extinction with the appearance of the third variable of aesthetic culture, namely design. The Conceptualist offshoots then began to work with radically different “objects,” rejecting the traditional object on one hand, while defending images that had traditionally contravened the “functions that had previously been identified with religious tradition until bourgeois individualism merged them with the intentions of the artist and transformed them into imperatives,”7Ibid, 12. personal and inseparable from the personality of the “artist.” Non-objectual conceptualisms thus managed to produce meaningful images outside of the religious sphere, which were thus constantly at risk of censorship or, worse still, self-censorship, both individual and institutional. Just as science was the last of the religions, traditional high arts were forced to abandon the profound sense of religiosity, the “artistic catechism” that was nonproductive from the point of view of radical or nontraditional art.

It was not just the boundaries between the traditional and nontraditional spheres that were blurred in the seventies, but also those between the disciplinary specializations that divided different fields of knowledge. As a result, we artists began to engage in many other activities outside the specific disciplines we had studied. For instance, visual artists began to make films (Super 8) even though we had never studied photography or cinematography. I remember that the art school where I studied (Escuela de San Carlos) frowned upon exhibiting projects from different disciplines at the same time. The seventies broke down these generational dogmas and prohibitions that were mainly due to disciplinarity. The idea of multidisciplinarity didn’t exist back then, let alone interdisciplinarity. It was the demystifying non-objectualist spirit of the writings of Juan Acha and Rudolf Arnheim—whose studies of perception were the first scientific texts we had access to—that allowed us to become clearly conscious of the artificial separation between thinking and feeling, between science and art.

Rubén Valencia and I worked intensely and steadily with new textual materials and practical proposals, which we started to implement not just in museums but also in street actions in markets and in our classes at the UAM and other art and design schools where we worked. In 1986 we participated in a departmental seminar with a presentation that explored the differences between non-objectual arts and manifestations, outlining the basic characteristics of and differences in the new type of art. This was almost certainly the first time that non-objectualism was discussed at a Mexican university.

Differences between Non-Objectual Arts and Manifestations

Non-objectual manifestations are not the same as non-objectual arts. The first have always existed and been practiced by all kinds of artists, while the latter emerged in the late fifties, influenced by the Futurism, Surrealism, and Dada of the twenties. An example of a non-objectual manifestation can be seen in the following anecdote in which Drawing (with a capital D) is referred to as the “first” visual art in history: Pliny the Elder wrote that drawing had been discovered by a maiden who was deeply in love with a young man and, when he was going abroad, drew in outline on the wall the shadow of his face thrown by an oil lamp. In this account, the objectual action is the act of making the drawing, which would be the artistic product. The non-objectual action is the actual anecdote, in the sense of a poetic act that has nothing in common with theater, whose meanings are expressed through concrete images that are made visible even through the text presented here in this text, at this precise point in your reading.

Leaving aside the countless non-objectual manifestations found throughout history, we can, with perhaps excessive boldness, identify non-objectual arts in the fully postmodern sense as per the following variables:

  • John Cage, Allan Kaprow.
  • Body Art: Vito Acconci.
  • Land-Earth-Art: Robert Smithson.
  • Process Art: Les Levine.
  • Environmental Sculpture: Mathias Goeritz.
  • Performance-Art.
  • Gesture Art: Yves Klein, Piero Manzoni.
  • Viennese Actionism: Rudolf Schwarzkogler.
  • Fluxus-type Demonstrations: Joseph Beuys.
  • Actions.
  • “Montage of Plastic Moments”: No-Grupo.

Some Characteristics of Non-Objectual Arts

To summarize some of the characteristic features of non-objectual arts, we can say that they

  • abandon traditional aesthetics.
  • abandon traditional media.
  • offer new approaches,
  • not necessarily solutions.
  • reject the fetishization of the object.
  • use the ephemeral as the essence of human life.
  • place more value on activities and actions than objects.
  • use the body as a sign (as a device with functions: referential, denotative, factual, cognitive).
  • reject the idea of the artwork as a stable commodity and its commercialization.
  • reject entertainment.

Some Characteristics of Performance 

Since the first Happening in 1952—attributed to the musician John Cage during his time at Black Mountain College in North Carolina—the path traveled by non- objectual arts has been a complex and diverse one. What is certain is that these types of actions brought about a decisive and unprecedented change in the relationship between producer, product, and consumer. Claes Oldenburg’s phrase “the stage is the place where I paint” sums up the changes I am referring to here.8Claes Oldenburg, “Store Days,” as excerpted in Adrian Henri, Total Art: Environments, Happenings and performance (New York: Praeger Publishers, 1974), 86.

Works by artists such as Cage, Rauschenberg, Kaprow, Oldenburg, and many more, lay down the first definitions for a new form of protest. As Michael Kirby wrote, this protest is “a purposefully composed form of theatre in which diverse alogical elements, including nonmatrixed performing, are organized in a compartmented structure.”9Michael Kirby, Happenings (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1965), 21.

Performance, a direct offspring of the Happening, is one of the non-objectualist branches that developed in the seventies. In spite of its diversity, we can say that it is a more radical expression.

  • against narrative.
  • against entertainment.
  • against representation.
  • against presentation.
  • against expression.
  • against the art work as a stable commodity.
  • not theater.
  • not acting.
  • not spectacle.
  • an expression of real time, which is boring (unlike television, which seeks to entertain by working with fictional time).
The No-Grupo in the Sculpture Space at the UNAM, black and white photograph, 1982. No Grupo Archive, Centro de Documentación Arkheia, Museo Universitario Arte Contemporáneo, UNAM.

Juan’s texts were useful to us personally and also collectively as members of No- Grupo. We turned to them for an identity, and we found the guiding conceptual bases on which to develop our ideas and design our classes. Given the difficulties artists had faced when they tried to generate theory beyond practice, this change was a giant leap for us.

Non-objectualism was particularly useful to us because of its rejection of entertainment. Refusing to be a spectacle seemed like a provocative stance, because we were unsure whether audiences would put up with a performance given the assault of commercial television since 1956. This point was heavily debated, however. Although our actions, which we called “Montages of Plastic Moments,” were known for their humor, sarcasm, and destructive irony, No-Grupo also developed some “performance-gore” ideas.

During those years, our discussions with Juan revolved around our fear of not having an audience. The early Conceptual artists had already shown that their work excluded mainstream audiences, and we feared ending up alone. One of the big challenges of the society of the spectacle is mass culture, in which designers have turned out to be much more effective than radical Conceptual artists at coming up with answers. This raised several dilemmas for two main reasons: the fact that we were a kind of “suicide” generation, that is, against everything; and the fact that our expectations involved reaching the masses, or coming as close to it as possible, from a point of radical isolation.

In the nineties, this attitude brought us into contact with television, the more mainstream the better, because the broadcasts were on a more massive scale. We used humor to try to retain the audience’s attention. Then came the challenge of creating our own history from Latin America, breaking away from the hegemonic European paradigms that seemingly claimed to have said everything there was to say. This challenge was huge, because the idea of a “colony” creating its own history seemed ridiculous, even to most of our fellow artists. Around that time I published “Árbol genealógico de las Formas Pías” (1998), a text that talks about No Grupo’s non-objectual background. In it, I argued that we identified more closely with the Stridentist movement, founded by radical writers in Puebla, Mexico City, in 1921, whose premises resulted in non-objectual situations and practices, than with the artists of the Mexican School of Painting, whose projects always resulted in objects, and whose roots were in European art.

The expression “formas pías” in the title of my article is a play on words based on the idea of recognizing ourselves in the narrative we want, not in the narrative imposed by the West. I coined the term while I was researching the performance, installation, and environmental (ambientación) projects produced by each artist, and found that the initials of these first three non-objectual fields created the acronym PIA, which is also the Spanish word for “pious.” “Formas pías” thus also evokes the religious sphere and the idea that these (impious) artists conceptualized, produced, and defended a way of making art that predates the consecration of high art.

I remember a conversation in which Juan told us that he had borrowed and re- signified the term “non-objectual” from a group of German aesthetes. I don’t have the exact reference, but I do know that through his research and his great passion for the production of artistic knowledge, Juan Acha offered us this term to describe work that we had already been carrying out in the Los Grupos movement that was extremely active in Mexico from 1965 to 1993. “Non-objectual art” could be considered a mere label, but thanks to the term, notwithstanding the contradictions that arose from its formulation, we were able to have a name and a space that had not been used before. This allowed us to clearly differentiate ourselves from traditional artists.

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