On MoMA’s Menu: ‘Tangled Alphabets’ Soup

In the middle of the last century, while philosophers and theorists like Noam Chomsky and Jacques Derrida were deconstructing language, rethinking the idea of communication, two visual artists (several thousand miles away from those other centers of intellectual ferment) were scrambling alphabets, both real and invented, to demonstrate in a different way that language was plastic and corruptible.

“Tangled Alphabets,” on display now at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, is a dual retrospective of Argentine Leon Ferrari and Brazilian Mira Schendel, and the first major exhibition of their work in the United States. (They’ve displayed jointly only once, in 1980 in Sao Paulo.) The exhibition includes some 200 pieces and is anchored by numerous ink drawings on paper from the 1960s, when both artists were compelled by a global obsession with language to incorporate the written word in their work.

'Planeta' (Planet); copyright Fundacion Augusto y Leon Ferrari[View a slide show of some of the work on display in ‘Tangled Alphabets: Leon Ferrari and Mira Schendel.’]

While both artists were aware of an upheaval in the philosophy of language, there’s a tension between what curator Luis Perez-Oramas describes as the “convoluted” calligraphy of Ferrari, and the “latent and pensive” methods evident in Schendel’s palimpsests. Ferrari, unlike Schendel, was animated less by obscure philosophies than by political grievances.

Andrea Giunta, a professor at the University of Texas who contributed to the exhibition catalogue, suggests in his book about 1960s Argentine art, “Avant-Garde, Internationalism and Politics,” that Ferrari was “figuring out how to combine his abstract lines with content related to the immediate political situation.” He was a highly political activist who exploited ceramics, metallurgy and even pigeon droppings 1994 to lambaste the military junta at home, as well as American forays into Southeastern Asia. His denunciation of the Vietnam War found a visual analogue in La civilizacion Occidental y Cristiana (1965), in which a sculpted figure of Christ is crucified on a replica of a jet fighter. You can see a cut-and-pasted printed image of the piece at the “Tangled Alphabets” show, as well as “Huesos” (2006), a sculpture made from human bones a reference to the Catholic vision of hell.

Like Ferrari, Schendel had good reason to infuse her work with political content. As curator Perez-Oramas told Art Beat, both artists had “a very harsh experience of history.” In 1939, Schendel was ousted from a university in Milan after Benito Mussolini passed laws targeting Jews and could have suffered further persecution had she not married a Catholic Croatian in 1942. But her work is not polemical in the least; she’s more interested in examining the metaphysical nature of being and nothingness than politics.

So why put these two visual artists together at all? “This is [a] question that I am asked all the time,” Perez-Oramas said. At a time between the 1960s and 1970s when linguists, philosophers and Conceptual artists sought to exploit language as a model for the world, Ferrari and Schendel “stressed the corporeality of language.” Their languages were anything but neutral. While Ferrari’s fiery disposition inflected his alphabets, resulting in flamboyant curlicues and, in the case of “Planeta” (1979), a thicket of stainless steel, Schendel was much more judicious in her appropriation of linguistic elements. In her “Objetos graficos,” letters have been unmoored and take on the properties of physical matter, swirling like a galaxy.

In the end, the letters of their alphabets are not just free-floating but are so degraded that they cannot be said to have any referential value at all. In some ways, Ferrari and Schendel’s alphabets were never meant to be read so much as untangled.

“Tangled Alphabets: Leon Ferrari and Mira Schendel” runs through June 15 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.