The Fragment, Guido Llinás, and 20th Century Latin American Art

Christoph Singler*


In a small booklet published by Guido Llinás in 2003 in Paris, Cuban poet Lorenzo García Vega calls him a "postmodernist avant la lettre" (while defining himself as "the last avant-gardist").He begins by remembering the first time in the early 1950s in Havana he came across the painter. It was a rather improbable encounter:between the youngest member of the Origenes group headed by poet José Lezama Lima – catholic, conservative, nationalist -andthe black anarchist, internationalist and leader of the avant-garde group Los Once. No wonder if García Vega turned his back when he saw Llinás around the corner. Llinás' paintings, in García Vega's words, are related to "devastation" (the subject matter of the novel he was writing in 2003), evoking "a huge magma" and the "shadows of invisible and silent people". Ultimately, he sees in Llinás' work the embodiment of "dispersal, digression, anti-hierarchical thought, bad education and an effort to undermine language as such".[1]    

The painter found the text "slightly exaggerated" (it goes without saying that he was very pleased).[2] Yet it is the most poignant text ever written about Llinás' work as far as I can tell, at least the one that comes closest to the array of feelings elicited by his paintings. Connecting his "fear of the anarchist" with the fear of the explosive qualities of Llinás' work, it identifies the problematic relationship between the painter and his audience since his years with Los Once, the group of abstract art Llinás co-founded in 1953 in Havana. This problematic relationship continued during his Paris period, between 1963 and his death in 2005, as Llinás never overcame his status as an artist in exile. These qualities are at the opposite of the modernist, highly lyrical images to which the Havana school painters had accustomed their public since the 1920s. They might also explain, I would argue, Llinás' rather uncomfortable position in Latin American art history, which does not include many so to speak "iconoclastic" painters.

As a poet who grew up in the shadow of Lezama Lima, García Vega was familiar with a language dominated by visual images and references to paintings, mainly the imagery of the Havana school. When he left Cuba in 1969, he made a radical shift to Beuys, Duchamp and photography as an antidote to lyricism (a key reference was Susan Sontag's essay On Photography). In his autobiographical book, El oficio de perder (2004)[3], he refers to Joseph Cornell's shadow boxes but also a rotten mattress seen somewhere in the streets of Miami, the "Playa Albina" ("albino shore" in García Vega's peculiar terminology alluding to the mainly white population in the city). No Cuban artist ever entered these spheres, except Llinás.

What brought together both artists is their relationship to fragmentation. One of the main inventions of the European avant-garde period has been collage, a technique characterized by the heterogeneity of materials it uses; it plays with tactile qualities, writing, found objects, and fragments of objects and images in abstract, multi-perspectival compositions. Photomontage was adopted rather early by Latin American photographers connected to avant-garde movements, in Mexico as well as in Argentina and Brazil–collage was not that fortunate. The question, then, is why was it absent from painting until at least the 1950s, when all other techniques launched in Europe had been adopted much earlier ? The hypothesis could be that aversion, if not resistance, was at work here. Ironically, collage and fragmentation are probably best suited for critical, aesthetical intervention against representational modalities and their ideological background, which avant-garde was combating. Perhaps this refusal is due to the alternative the artists saw in different forms of "magical realism", i.e. the experimentation with local or non-western traditions. The latter offered a territory to be explored in order to prevent fragmentation, seen principally as a destructive force jeopardizing the project of a unified Latin America (or the National State respectively). The fact that photomontage did not meet such a denial does not contradict this point. Probably there was more freedom in photography, which was not yet recognized as an art form. Secondly, as the pictures or bits of pictures it combined were all part of the same modernist universe, they were bound to meet even if perceived as heterogeneous materials.[4]From a constructivist and futurist point of view the magic of such encounters lies precisely in such a multiplicity and the fluidity of movements and criss-crossings. Indigenous people or cultures were not subject to montage principles. On the contrary, "art" was devoted to synthesis, to integration. If there is often striking juxtaposition or dramatic contrast in Latin American avant-garde painting, both sides are part of the same pictorial space, seen from the same perspective, sharing the same textural qualities and with equal proportionalities – all factors put into question by collage aesthetics. The collage could be defined as a stage preceding such a fusion. It recognizes the parts as fragments and stresses the breaks and ruptures, and the impossibility of homogenization. Often, it is fairly uncertain whether there are several images – or fragments – or only one. The totality is therefore problematic, irritating the vision that is constantly moving between the different parts and the phantasmatic whole. What is at stake here is not individual denial. Rather, it is about looking at the context in which individual aesthetics developed, bringing to the forth the issues the dominant cultural discourse politics avoided or was concealing.

I am tempted to explain the ever-increasing imagery of fragmentation in contemporary art in Latin America – see Los Carpinteros, Daniel Ortega, Doris Salcedo's Shibboleth or AtisRezistans, the sculptors of Grand' Rue in Port-au-Prince, among others – as a long overdue recognition of a practice conspicuous for its absence in 20th Century Latin American art discourse, at least in abstract art where the "constructive spirit"[5] was predominant until neoconcretismo (the Brazilian neo-concrete movement) and kinetic art in the 1960s. But here is not the space to discuss these issues in detail and study how fragmentation has been conceived and dealt with in 20th Century Latin American art. Looking at Llinás' body of work during his Parisian period, I would like to show that this negative view of fragmentation misses the possibilities it might yield not only for the interpretation of some individual artists but also of an important strain in modernist and contemporary Latin American art.

Los Once eventually organized an exhibition called Collages and sculptures in 1956,[6] the invitation to which I found in Llinás' archives. It is an individually crafted paper collage in a cubist style that has tactile effects. The Cuban press did not comment on this exhibition – at least the Llinás archive holds no picture or trace of it, neither does Hugo Consuegra, another participant, go further in his memories.[7] No doubt that Martínez and Llinás, the only members of the group who had travelled to the United States at that time, had seen collages by Franz Kline or Robert Motherwell, and Llinás came into contact with the Parisian affichistes poster artists during his first stay in Paris between 1957 and 1959. In his estate are many examples close to the torn billboards by Raymond Hains, Mimmo Rotella and Jacques Villeglé, as well as smaller works closely linked to Kline and Rauschenberg, but which were never exhibited.[8] Nevertheless, collage and fragmentation began to permeate his whole body of work when the artist entered his Black Painting period, around 1968.[9] A main step on this way was certainly his collaboration with Julio Cortázar, in a book titled Ondéplore la, featuring Llinás' wood engravings.[10] The text, written in French, is a playful collection of truncated sentences, actually a series of standard formulas cut at the moment when a sense of meaning is expected to appear, which never arrives. The graphic forms – fragments split from an imagined totality – clearly echo this syntax. Cortázar's book shows that Llinás was engaged in a totally new approach to wood engraving, using fragments of forms he placed on a more or less elaborated wooden plate. These elements are the compositional equivalent of abakuá signs in oil painting, which underwent a process of melting into their background in the all-over style he had adopted from abstract expressionism.

By 1968 Llinás had found the term for these new works. Many of them would still be titled Signs, but they belong to the body of work called Black Paintings. Stirred by the collection of Abakuá signs he had made in Havana for the Institute of Ethnology and Folklore to be founded in 1962, his interest for African arts had grown stronger in Paris. He was able to visit Europe's ethnological museums, was confronted with the African immigration in the former colonial capital and was acquainted with the Negritude movement still in vigor in Paris. These experiences contrasted with the restrictions the Cuban revolutionary government had imposed on all forms of Afro-Cuban expressions in Cuba since 1959. Nevertheless, Llinás maintained distance from Pan-African positions, convinced that as a Caribbean artist his relation to African aesthetic heritage was extremely complex. There was no continuity in plastic art due to its interruption by the Middle Passage – the second leg of the triangular slave trade route when slaves were transported from Africa to the Americas and the Caribbean. Moreover, what Llinás saw in African modernist painting in the 1966 Black Arts Festival of Dakar seemed to be a timid attempt to combine tradition and modernism and, as such, was doomed to failure.[11] Llinás tackles the problem directly: Abakuá sign language is no longer the warrant of African legacy, it will be decomposed, even erased (but as such still present, in a Derridian sense) and dispersed in random ways. It will be part of multilayered works, shifting constantly between "sign" and "form", attacking the very meaning of sign, returning it to its visual presence as a precarious trace. Llinás puts into motion an interplay between memory and the imaginary, between heritage and its transformation, against any "archaeological" principle still in vigor in African-American Studies of the 1960s, particularly in works by Melville J. Herskovits and Jean Price-Mars, in the US and Haiti respectively, and Lydia Cabrera and Fernando Ortiz in Cuba.

In order to escape categorization Llinás explores features of African traditions, such as facial painting, patterns in textile arts and mixed media, which were then overlooked by the Western eye centered exclusively on mask and sculpture. As should be evident at this point color, if not to be neglected, is far from being the only issue. Another important one is rhythm, considered as a close companion to Black Arts but much more difficult to be put in evidence. For Llinás it was not just a metaphor - too easily to be associated with some ubiquitous "drumming in the bushes of the Dark Continent". He had some musical training, even though he complained of his lack of "rhythmic feeling". But his interest in the musical aspect of his work came back through reading Paul Klee's On Modern Art and Anton Ehrenzweig's The Hidden Order of Art. Writing against Gotthold Ephraim Lessing's famous essay, Klee defines the picture as movement fixed at a certain moment, allowing readings in several directions. From Ehrenzweig, Llinás retains the scanning, developed against the background-foreground distinction in the theory of the gestalt, and in particular the idea of the productive fragment. In his analysis of the four introductory notes of Beethoven's 5th Symphony, Ehrenzweig sustains that it is not a melody, conceived as a unity, but a fragment that allows development. His interpretation is quite astonishing: he might call a fragment something that could be read as a motive. The idea reverses the traditional concept of the fragment, understood as a piece randomly and more or less violently removed from a unity. A trace of destruction, it is a reminder of a holistic past which is lost. If we apply this point of view to Llinás' starting point, the abakuá signs, it would mean that the culture they represent cannot be reconstructed. The small unities resulting from this process, which he called "Sign-Forms" (named SF in his sketches), might then be fragments of those signs. However, if fragmentation is "productive" or fruitful, the form results from a liberation process insofar as it is open for new meanings. African polyrhythm, based on patterns which allow a multilayering of independent parallel lines and generally blur the difference between melodic and percussive instruments, might indicate in Llinás' work this opening of the “Sign” through its disarticulation.  This is the reason why his paintings never give the complete melody: the forms seem to be expanding because the edges of the surface interrupt their transformation into neatly closed figures. This openness is what García Vega calls "devastation", his "undermining of language as such" - and what justifies Llinás' uncertainty regarding his text.


Certainly, in the last few years there is a growing interest in Latin American abstraction, already well known through the concretismo movement in Brazil, and through the kinetic artists promoted in the 1960s, especially by the Denise René Gallery in Paris. An exhibition in the Cisneros Foundation in Miami 2014-15 opens new ways to read this story by putting Latin American abstraction in a global context.[12] Llinás' work was included in a section titled 'Uncommon Senses', where abstraction was linked to "modes of counter-visuality", through the "introduction of many different materials and media as well as the integration and crossovers with other art forms such as theater, music, dance and literature". This seems very close to Llinás' aesthetics. However, we should ask what is meant by the term "counter-visibility" – visibility against what? In his case, the introduction of new materials and media is present in his collage works inspired by the torn billboards  of the French poster designers, as seen in the Black Painting Llinás gave to the Revue Noire in 1996 (see n. 8). This work differs from several "pure" collages in that it shows huge black abakuá-derived signs painted over a billboard background. One might be tempted to interpret the gesture as directed against Western codes. The material Llinás preferred are mainly words or letters, torn in such a way that they are deprived of meaning. Yet there exist several ways of tearing. Sometimes, the fragments are clearly organized with rhythmic intentions. Even more significant is the fact that he applied this practice to his wood engravings, placing a great many wooden fragments in the matrix or by transforming it through variation so that it often got lost in the process. The fragment is the starting point wherever it may originate: in Western, African or (Afro)Cuban culture.

If there is any "counter-visibility" in Llinás' work, it springs from a Proustian conception of involuntary memory held against the certainties mirrored by any kind of memory politics. There is no "urge", no political claim: memory is inevitably present. His paintings and engravings open space for its unpredictable apparition, its traps and illusions, so that memory escapes any control. There is a verse by Lezama Lima Llinás used as a title for an engraving: "Memory prepares its surprise for me" (Mi memoria me prepara su sorpresa). He refuses ownership of memory, defining his artistic function as a "medium" that helps it to emerge. In this non-formalist sense, we might see his aesthetics in close relationship to Lygia Clark defining her work as "proposal", or compare them to Oscar Muñoz's explorations of the precariousness of the image. And certainly not to forget here: María Magdalena Campos Pons' fragmented narratives of the Afrocuban experience. I mention her name in order to show that this is not forgetting the African or Afro-Cuban origin of his interrogation. On the contrary, asking such questions might help to break the isolation in which they remain within the wider field of 20th-century Cuban and Latin American art.




[1]Cómo hacer un cuento con Guido, seguido de Un cuento con Guido Llinás. Montreuil, Ediciones del Peral, 2003. The work García Vega refers to is Black Painting, 1983, oil on canvas, 92 x 72 cms, reproduced in this publication.

[2]See in particular Los años de Orígenes. Caracas, Monte Ávila, 1979, and Los collages del Notario. Coral Gables, La Torre de Papel, 1993.

[3]El oficio de perder, Puebla, Benemérita Universidad Autónoma.

[4]An excellent counter-example might be the collages by Hanna Hoech, where African masks enter in collision with contemporary "modernist" imagery, to be seen in an exhibition in the Museum Rietberg, Zürich, in 2016.

[5]I take the term from Mary Kate O'Hare and Karen Bearer in Constructive Spirit: Abstract Art in South and North America. Newark, San Francisco, Pomegranate, 2010.

[6]Actually, only 5 painters of the group participated: Llinás, Ignacio Bermúdez, Hugo Consuegra, Raúl Martínez and Manolo Vidal. Tomás Oliva was the only sculptor of the group after Cárdenas had left for Paris in 1954.

[7]Elapso Tempore. Miami, Universal, 2001.

[8]One exception: in 1992, Llinás gave Pintura Negra 1991, técnica mixta, 130 x 97 cms to be reproduced in a special issue on Caribbean Art of the Revue Noire n°6, sept-nov. 1992, p. 24.

[9]See Chr. Singler: Génesis de la Pintura Negra. La obra parisina de Guido Llinás. Valencia, Aduana Vieja, 1913.

[10]Cortázar/ Llinás: On deplore. Vaduz. Brunidor, 1966.

[11]He had been selected for the Dakar Festival by UNESCO, together with Wifredo Lam and Agustín Cárdenas, but the Cuban Government blocked their participation. Llinás saw the visual arts part later in Paris. His comments appear in a letter to his brother Sergio written in autumn 1966.

[12] Jesús E. Fuenmayor: Impulse, Reason, Sense, Conflict. Abstract Art fromthe Ella Cisneros-Fontanals Collection. Miami, 2014-15.


* Professor of Latin American Arts and Literatures, Université de Franche-Comté, Besançon, France


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