I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
Gyula Kosice translated from the Spanish by Montana Ray
Gyula Kosice (b. 1924) is one of the more remarkable visionary artists of the previous century and certainly the most exotic Hungarian transplant to take root in Buenos Aires. A visual artist, poet, and theorist, Kosice was a founder (with Carmelo Arden Quin and Rhod Rothfuss) of the influential Madí group in 1946, which helped to transmit and transform Bauhaus ideas in Latin America, while adding an element of ludic invention and creative freedom. Fascinated by technology and committed to an art of the future, Kosice was among the first artists to use neon in sculpture and early on employed water in unprecedented ways in his work. His iterations of the theoretical Hydrospatial City, begun in the 1970s, place him among a group of visionary thinkers, including the late Paolo Soleri and Buckminster Fuller, who have reimagined the built environment. Recently Kosice participated in an extended interview with Gabriel Pérez-Barreiro, director of the Colección Patricia Phelps de Cisneros, published in book and ebook form as one of the “Conversations” series from the Fundación. Expanding on that dialogue, the following exchange among Kosice, Pérez-Barreiro (as interlocutor and translator), and me took place in November via telephone in Buenos Aires and New York.
— Lyle Rexer
Lyle Rexer As I look over your early career, and that of your fellow artists and members of Madí, it seems that all of them, and you especially, did a great job of naming movements and publicizing your intentions—bringing out manifestos, writing essays, making publications of various sorts, staging activities, arguing with each other—but that the actual output of work was quite slim. Did this come from a belief that works of art involve a lot of theoretical preliminaries, or that writing and discussion are part and parcel of the work? Or was a lot of the early work simply lost? Do you really maintain that all this theorizing was germane to the work produced in Argentina and Uruguay? Another way to put this is: What is the relation between theory and practice?
Gyula Kosice First off, theory is always one step ahead. We had drafted some manifestos and we’d already tried to make leaflets, too, distributing these totally amongst ourselves, around cafés where we would gather. We’d go to a café on Corrientes street: Café La Fragata. Vicente Huidobro visited us from Chile. People traveled from other countries to see us. Our magazines [Arturo (1944) and Arte Madí Universal (1946–54)] sought out international collaborators and created a network of supporters of abstract art. Things were effervescent then; we’d declared that “art is the currency of the absolute,” and from there our ideas started to clash, we’d get into discussions that ended up elucidating many things. I also want to mention Grete Stern—she was the one who brought all the Bauhaus documentation to Argentina. She was a disciple of the master photographer Walter Peterhans. She showed us all the Bauhaus material and was kind enough to translate a series of very valuable Bauhaus books.
LR Your descriptions of those days suggest that the manifestos and rather- sparse exhibitions of Madí and other proponents of abstract art were met with general indifference. Why was that, given that your stance was so public and provocative? Who was the audience for this new art? Were you talking only to yourselves? Did you have to exhibit in France before you could gain attention at home (the Argentine problem)?
GK I had the luck of traveling, no sooner or later than the year 1948, to a place called Réalités Nouvelles [an organization that hosted an annual abstract-art salon in Paris], which held the first international exposition of Madí. All of this is well documented; we were pretty successful there. What we did was destroy the old concept of a painting, which was no longer adequate. For us, it was a carpentry industry. That is to say, the canvas and the frame were a thing of the past. There was no logical reason to continue making art like that, with the frame marking the end of a painting. That was our work’s foundation.
Gabriel Pérez-Barreiro What was the reception like in Argentina?
GK Very negative. Other groups had a very negative opinion of our work. Of course, the surrealists of that moment were attacking us ferociously. Our work had nothing to do with automatism. We didn’t make any representations. One of our mottos, which we published in our magazines, was “Joy. The Negation of all Melancholy.”
GPB So basically there was no interest in the type of activity or art that you were engaged in.
GK Not only that: people were against it.
LR A related question: how did you actually support yourself?
GK Well, I had a contract with the Bonino Gallery, but before that, my two brothers had opened a small leather-goods workshop. We worked there for a living, but that also made it possible for us to buy materials. We were prepared for everything. The contingencies we met, we resolved. If a specific material didn’t exist and we needed to import it, we’d import it. That’s basically how we did it, and luckily, by 1944, I could work on small art pieces.
LR For most artists of the Río de la Plata, even after World War II, interest in North American art seems to have been virtually nil. In terms of abstract art, you continued to look to Europe for inspiration and dialogue. Many of you in the various nonobjective and concrete art movements seemed to be working out or modifying, often radically, ideas and approaches that derived from constructivism, the Bauhaus, and De Stijl. Why did Europe hold so much attraction for you? Did that change at some point? Did North America eventually appear on your radar screen? If so, when and why?
GK No, no. Artists from the United States were important. I remember a note Ilya Bolotovsky sent. There was Burgoyne Diller, and later there was another abstract artist … Well, there were many. One of them was Sandu Darie. Darie immigrated to the US from Romania.
GPB Wasn’t he in Cuba?
GK He was first in the US, and then he went on to Cuba.
LR It’s very interesting to me because, you know, there’s absolutely no contact with what’s going on in the United States. This is true of a lot of the artists of that period. You mentioned Bolotovsky but, I mean, that was clearly not the most exciting kind of postwar abstract art in America. It surprises me that there’s never any mention of Pollock or people like Gorky. I’m not sure exactly why. Maybe this isn’t really a question for Kosice: what was the route by which artists in Latin America came to any conception of what was going on in North America?
GPB Maestro, Lyle finds it interesting that the people you’re mentioning are not the main protagonists of the scene in the United States. It seems that the US was only really interested in Brazil in terms of its Cold War logic, and that it was left to the artists elsewhere to create networks independently of any official efforts. In your magazine Arte Madí Universal, you included a section where international artists could send in images and this created a kind of social network of abstract images through the postal service. It’s interesting today to see which artists wanted to be featured in a Buenos Aires magazine.
GK These people contributed to the international component of the magazine. I also remember Hilla Rebay; she was integral to the magazine. She helped to gain acceptance of the work abroad. She came to visit us in Argentina.
GPB Yes, Hilla Rebay was one of the founders of the Museum of Non-Objective Art, which later became part of the Guggenheim collection, and was an abstract artist herself.
LR Certainly in Argentina the interest was always directed toward Europe, and maybe not till the 1960s, really, did art from the US have much of an impact, pop art most significantly. It’s true for Venezuela as well. There didn’t seem to be much interest in the abstract art that was made up north.
Did you have much contact with artists in Brazil and Venezuela, where nonfigurative art could actually be said to have influenced the social fabric?
GK In Teresópolis, Brazil, we met with Sergio Camargo, who was very well known, and many other artists who were there for a conference. They were more focused on concrete art than Madí. In regard to Venezuela, there was that artist who played the guitar … Jesús Soto. And also another Venezuelan I met in Paris whose name I can’t remember. Who was it? He’s very well known.
GPB Carlos Cruz-Diez.
GK Cruz-Diez, yes. Naturally, each one followed his own path and his own diction, no?
LR Maestro, I well remember the first time I saw one of your pieces in the flesh, so to speak, almost ten years ago in Buenos Aires. (You were on my list of people to call, but I was a bit intimidated to ring you up out of the blue.) The date on the work with neon Estructura lumínica Madí, E-1 was so early—the late 1940s or early ’50s as I recall—that I was taken aback by its prescience. The hydrologic sculptures, which I believe I saw later, in Montevideo, seemed, like Calder’s mobiles, part science, part art, and part entertainment gimmick. I admit I was hooked. The word affection comes to mind, not one we usually associate with ambitious works of art. My question, then, is really directed at our other interlocutor. Gabriel has known your work much longer than I have, and I would like to know what it was about his initial experience that was so compelling.
GPB I first came across Kosice’s work at his retrospective at the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes in 1991. I was still an undergraduate and knew next to nothing about Argentine art history, but that exhibition changed my life. Your use of the term affection is really appropriate, as what I found (and still find) compelling about Kosice’s work is this mix of a rational, formal language and an almost childlike delight in light, water, and reflection. It’s work that is intellectually advanced, but at the same time very accessible. I end the book of conversations talking about the school groups that come to Kosice’s studio every Friday morning. It’s an amazing sight to see so many kids completely enthralled by the work, many of whom have never really thought about art before. When I see the works today, I still feel like one of those kids.
LR I’ll second that. And I would add that as I get older, I am more and more compelled by work that appeals beyond its milieu, that leaps right over the cognoscenti to connect to the great unwashed, that is unafraid to risk judgments like “gauche,” “naive,” and “overstated.” But Maestro, I wanted to pick up a thread that I dropped at the beginning, which involves the importance of writing. Early on, you wrote poems more than you made art (this reminds me a bit of László Moholy-Nagy, another Hungarian transplant, who spread the gospel of the Bauhaus to North America). You were influenced by the poets Vicente Huidobro, a Chilean, and Alberto Hidalgo, a Peruvian. You mentioned that Huidobro visited Buenos Aires. Can you describe their importance to you, given that they could be classified as surrealists, almost—a movement you attacked?
GK Yes, but they weren’t surrealists. Vicente Huidobro sent a poem that was published inArturo.
GPB For the benefit of our audience, we should add that Arturo was the first magazine published by this generation. Kosice was an editor along with Arden Quin, the poet Edgar Bayley, and Rhod Rothfuss. Although it announced itself as a “revista de arte abstracto,” there is relatively little visual art in a predominance of literature. It only lasted for a single issue, but the following year Kosice published a little booklet called Invención 1, in which his poems and manifestos are accompanied by the first articulated sculptures, including a maquette of Röyi, one of his seminal interactive works.
GK As you’ve laid it out, you can see that, yes, I’ve had direct contact with literature, with poetry above all. I’ve written poetry aphoristically, if you will, and in some way tried to reconcile the need to combine the imagination, full sail ahead, that is, liberally without any barrier, with a human being’s ability to poeticize the world through writing. And more than that.
I’ve published 15 books in total. A bit excessive, but that’s how I create art, no? I’ve always tried to reconcile or balance the two elements—the language of the diction and the language of form, volume, and the kinetic—from a need to create works that become a permanence in themselves, without any ties to preconceptions.
GPB So in that sense poets were important for you. It’s an expanded sense of language, the ability to conjure up new worlds through text.
GK Yes, I believe so.
LR In fact, there is not much of a difference between working with words and working with artistic or plastic concepts for you.
GK No, there isn’t. I look for the possibility of an image, not copying an image to create a form, but instead balancing the two. Each has to be its own entity, and not become dispersed. The duration of this balance depends, of course, on the artist. I hope for the longest possible duration.
LR This is not absolutely critical and I don’t mean to harp on it, but I’m interested in your relationships with other writers. Did you know Borges, Bioy Casares, the group around Victoria Ocampo, that is, or the Lamborghini brothers? I know later on you met Cortázar.
GK I met Cortázar in Paris, but I’d met Borges before. In 1984, I interviewed Borges and asked him a question that was a bit provocative. I said to him, “Tell me Borges, do you believe in God?” He got scared, and said, “Sometimes yes, sometimes no.” I didn’t have a tape recorder then; I carried a pen and a little notebook. Before I left he screamed, “Write that I’m agnostic!” (laughter) Just as I was going. That was his final response. The interview, which came out inLa Nación newspaper, was called “A Hydrolyzed Dialogue with Jorge Luis Borges.” He always talked a lot about himself; he reveled in it, but with a great intelligence. So this time I wanted to talk about water, about hydrokinetic art and the need one has to make works with a value of synthesis with respect to their general environment.
GPB So when did you first meet Borges?
GK I met him around 1962, in Bonino.
GPB So many years after Madí. In the ’40s you didn’t have any contact with him. Were you not interested in his work?
GK His work always interested me very much. I’d read many of his works. Same with Cortázar. I’d already read his books in Argentina, but I met him when I went to Paris. Cortázar translated from French to Spanish for UNESCO. He dealt with all of the correspondence.
LR Because so much of what you have done has been in language, I wonder whether there are other influences that we haven’t articulated.
GK I’ve had many important literary influences. I remember when García Márquez’s book came out One Hundred Years of Solitude for example, that had a big influence on me … Then he won the Nobel. And also some other Latin American writers, but even more so the writers who’d emigrated from Europe to Latin America, more than those born here. The Latin American Boom hadn’t happened yet, but you could see it was on the horizon.
GPB Did you read in French or Spanish?
GK Both. I also continue to read in French.
GPB And who from France might have been an influence?
GK Well, Roland Barthes, who was also a first-rate philologist. Very interesting. I read a lot of Roland Barthes. And it’s not that I was influenced by him; besides, I had done something that nobody else had dared to do: the portable Madí dictionary. They were invented words—of course, all of them mean something, corresponding to what can be or what can’t be, but always in the terrain of doubt and possibility.
LR Here’s another question for Gabriel, as a critic and a curator whose job it is to stand outside work and assess its historical position. I wonder, Gabriel, if you would talk a bit about the importance of Kosice’s work in the context of post–World War II Latin America. Beyond that, do you think that his work has something to say to contemporary artists?
GPB I think Kosice is in many ways the “missing link” in our understanding of the avant-garde in Latin America. His simultaneous adoption and rejection of the precepts of geometric abstraction are, to me, his most valuable contribution. What I mean by that is that he makes work that is ideologically within the tradition of abstraction and constructivism, but he refuses to adopt it as a formal dogma. He maintains that the ideas are more important than the results, and while this has made it difficult for his work to circulate widely—because it doesn’t always have a professional “finish”—it points to fundamental questions in postwar art: Is abstraction a style or a language? Does it contain a predetermined set of meanings or can it be reinterpreted? When Kosice creates a geometric sculpture that can be manipulated by any viewer, he is rejecting any idea of a fixed or stable set of relationships and opening the door to kinetic art and, more generally, to a relational aesthetic that will become fundamental to this history in the late 1950s and ’60s.
LR Of course. I think of the obvious examples of Lygia Clark and Hélio Oiticica. One of the things that impresses me is that in so many developments of late 20th-century art, I find that Kosice has already been there. In that regard, Maestro, I’d like to talk in our final segment about your most visionary project, the Hydrospatial City. Perhaps it’s best to call these designs futuristic rather than utopian. They do seem like science fiction. Where did the idea come from? What was the source of the imagery? When you began to develop the maquettes, were you aware of Buckminster Fuller’s writing and designs? What about Paolo Soleri’s Arcosanti project? Did you truly believe when you began that your conceptions could be built, or is this a case of going into the woods to do something other than hunt the bear?
You insist on the scientific or logical character of these designs, but at heart, few of their elements are functional; they are poetic and spiritual. What is a dwelling, a city? If not a “machine for living in,” per Corbusier, is it instead a machine for dreaming, imagining, creating? Is that the most important function of human beings?
GK Well, I’m going to answer these questions slowly. A utopia is, until it stops being. Utopias dissolve with the possibility of being, when they are realizable and necessary. Especially, when they are necessary. For example, we have space, which is infinite, but we haven’t occupied it. Given the current population index, where will we be in 20 years? The population will be enormous. And where are we going to put all of these people? In the spatial city. There’s no other option. Combining a great process of creativity with state-of-the-art technology, it will be possible.
I speak about “porvenirismo” instead of futurism [“el porvenir” means “the future” in Spanish]. What you have is por venir, something that is almost here—it is, literally, “to come.” The “almost here” is what interests me. The futurist movement experienced a total decline when it started to become influenced by the surrealists. Then from there, futurism begins to disintegrate a little into factions. You have a futuristic drinking glass, futuristic dishware, a futuristic spoon, a futuristic knife … futuristic everything! I want to end this term to reach the future.
LR Exactly. For me the most important thing is to be able to imagine a future. The future is the future, whatever it will be, but imagining is more important.
GK Well, I can make a parallel, why not, with the Renaissance, in the sense that Leonardo was able to be well ahead of his time with his inventions: flying machines, submarines, weapons of war, fractions … a whole host of inventions. I took something from that. If Leonardo’s inventions became a reality, and they clearly did, then it is possible to foretell something that is not possible at a given moment.
GPB So you believe in the power of imagination, of invention. In that sense, it’s important to underline the provisional nature of the Hydrospatial City—it’s less a set of maquettes and more a proposal or provocation. The diagrams that you made to accompany the project that indicate areas “to feel like doing something” [“para tener ganas”] or a “rotational anti-tower to capture the imprecise limits of distance” [“anti-torre girable para captar los límites imprecisos de la distancia”], or similarly poetic descriptions, avoid any possibility of them being taken literally, as something to actually build. I love how the whole project avoids the question of architecture completely and makes it a project of invention, imagination, and poetry.
GK Yes, the machinations of imagination and invention. And because of this, I always repeat that “art is the currency of the absolute”—that which is unlike everything else, unlike anyone else. That which has nothing to do with anything outside of the work itself. A work that speaks for itself is what writers should permanently strive to achieve.
LR Thank you, Maestro. It’s been an honor.
GK No, no, the honor is mine. Let’s do this: Why don’t we split the honor in two and keep a little piece of it for each one?
Descriptive diagram of the Hydrospatial City, 1972. The diagram indicates spaces designated for 1) choosing the dream and the emphatic daydreaming of unrealities, 2) autosuggestion to attain serenity and mirages, 3) analyzing the spaces for living, “a vivre,” without epilogues, 4) space for lost steps and absences that are recycled, 5) praising life in traveling light years, 6) preventing antiorbital proliferation, 7) creating obstacles to define impromptu celestial bodies, 8) bridge to make the transition from chance to the administration of chance, 9) space for tenderness and its vicinity, 10) Argentine platform for friendship and gaucho behavior, 11) relegation of meaning and the intelligible response to the omnipresent in everything, 12) climax of emotion and its humorous illustration, and 13) intercode with sympathetic access to confidences and flattering forecasts.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee