Spiral Essay: This untitled work from the series Objetos gráficos (Graphic Objects) arranges letters, but not according to their meaning as parts of words.

The (Messy) Writing on the Wall

Two current shows at New York City’s Museum of Modern Art are a study in contrasts. The retrospective Tangled Alphabets: León Ferrari and Mira Schendel shares the sixth floor, but little else, with Martin Kippenberger: The Problem Perspective. Whereas the late German artist’s work (and life) was an ode to excess — he died in 1997, of liver cancer — the work of Ferrari and Schendel is decidedly more humble. Kippenberger was the P.T. Barnum of the art world, a Whitman-esque figure given to celebrating his own grand multitudes; like Damien Hirst, Kippenberger was known and dismissed for his massive ego and his brawny, uneven output. But where the hard-drinking German artist intended by all means to dazzle and delight, Ferrari and Schendel provoke quiet scrutiny.

Although MoMA has combined the chronological retrospectives of Ferrari, an Argentine artist, and Schendel, a Zurich-born, Italian-bred Brazilian artist who died of lung cancer in 1988, the two were not lovers, friends or even collaborators. They simply were both South American artists, born a year apart, producing work at the same time, in the second half of the 20th century. (Ferrari continues to do so, at age 89.) They were acquaintances at best. Yet both oeuvres evince a fundamental basis in language — specifically, in letters as bold expressions of shapes and forms, rather than as “the written word,” or mere symbols for communication. Despite their distinctly different sensibilities, Ferrari and Schendel share an interest in the materiality of language, in letters as visual objects and as codes to be deciphered.

It’s admirable that MoMA is the first major American museum to survey these two artists’ work. With any luck, Tangled Alphabets will direct the art world’s insular attention beyond the conventional sites of Europe and North America. Of course, China, too, has become a relatively recent fixation, but Latin America has yet to draw that kind of hype. (Charles Saatchi, are you paying attention?)

Of the two artists in the show, Schendel displays a more subtle and interior aesthetic, occasionally calling to mind Agnes Martin. That austerity can make for work that’s less obviously compelling, though it can prove surprisingly quirky, too. Schendel’s biography helps explain her interest in codes and signs. Her Jewish family fled the Nazis in World War II, and in 1949, at the age of 30, she emigrated from Sarajevo to São Paulo. Her experience as a refugee does not figure explicitly in her work — nor does her Judaism — but it surely informs it. (Interestingly, it is in one of Ferraris’s collages that Hitler makes an appearance.) Perhaps in her free-floating letters, which seem always to be roaming rather than grounded or fixed to the page, we can see the effects of her exile.

Among the most haunting works in the show is a series of delicate oil transfer drawings from the 1960s, for which Schendel invented her own technique: Covering glass laminate with oil paint, she sprinkled it with a delicate layer of talcum powder, then placed a sheet of thin Japanese paper on top. She pressed her fingernails onto the surface, carefully making imprints onto the paper of charcoal-like lines and word fragments, and abstract shapes from the residue. Only a small sampling of the series is represented in the exhibition; Schendel produced more than 2,000 of these stunning, porous drawings.

Also on display are some of her paintings and dramatic sculptural pieces, but the works on paper are the most appealing. In the clever series “Toquinhos” (meaning “little things”), Schendel encloses letters, numbers and punctuation marks inside dialogue bubbles, and employs squares and numbers as comic strip-like characters. “Falou!” says one square to another, who responds, “Xiii!” Elsewhere, a number five exclaims “Rrrrr! Buum!” to a number seven that says “Brrrr!” Yet it’s the typography (the sans serif font, the letters and shapes playfully arranged on the page) that makes these as delightful as they are strange. Schendel is in no way interested in imposing meaning, but in her aversion, she is constructing a new way of “reading.” These constellations refuse to be tied to such quotidian things as verbs, nouns and adjectives, and so they open the viewer’s imagination to the immense (and often tumultuous) possibilities of letters themselves — not just to the potential of language.

In some of Schendel’s works from the 1970s, jumbled letters of varying sizes spill and tumble across large double-sided pages of Japanese paper — mounted between clear Plexiglas sheets, suspended from the ceiling — as if right out of “Alice in Wonderland,” or from the journal entries of a brilliant scientist obsessively computing some very private linguistic calculus. The acrylic casing of these pieces allows for a “transparent” viewing, so both sides can be seen at once, yet meaning itself is never quite so clear. Regardless, it all adds up to a beautiful, lyrical cacophony.

Ferrari’s work proves more exuberant and colorful than Schendel’s, but no less grounded in language. (His lovely stainless steel sculptures are also on display, hanging from the ceiling. But again, the works on paper prove more captivating.) In his hands, letters become intricately misshapen and stretched out, suggesting a manic heart-rate monitor reading, or bizarre musical notes, or loopy arabesques reminiscent of Jackson Pollock. Like Schendel, Ferrari is interested in the texture and appearance of paper itself — whether embossing a surface with Braille lettering or applying oil stick and pastel on hardboard for a richer effect. One image might appear as a gorgeous sea of rhythmic patterns, and the next a mass of white space with letters crammed and huddled, as if at gunpoint, at the very top of the page — as in “Quisiera hacer una estatua” (“I would like to make a statue”). Ferrari is as adept as Schendel when it comes to being hermetic, but more often he seems to want the viewer to enter his mysterious world.

He also can be quite mischievous and outrageously polemical, which is partly why his work seems slightly more vibrant alongside Schendel’s. To create 1994’s “Juicio Final” (“Last Judgment”), Ferrari left a poster reproduction of Michelangelo’s “Last Judgment” on the bottom of a birdcage, until eventually the surface was covered in bird excrement. The finished product hangs in the show, a subversive statement on biblical concepts of hell and the afterlife. And in “Western Christian Civilization,” Ferrari displays the figure of Jesus mounted, in the manner of a crucifix, onto a bomber plane.

In Tangled Alphabets, Ferrari often plays the role of the troublemaking rascal, while Schendel is his more subdued counterpart. In observing the evolution of both artists, from the late 1950s to the ’80s (for Schendel) and up to 2007 (for Ferrari), it’s fascinating to see how they inventively and relentlessly explored form, line and texture in their work, stretching the limits of both ambiguity and precision. Letters of the alphabet assume a life of their very own: posing as mocking and mocked, wounded and meditative, decaying and ecstatic, chaotic and ordered, grotesque and graceful. Taken together, these disorienting fields of text — in which meaning is never imposed, only implied — demand serious contemplation. Yet they reward the viewer by acting as wondrous maps to vast and unknown worlds.

Tangled Alphabets: León Ferrari and Mira Schendel runs through June 15 at The Museum of Modern Art, 11 West 53rd Street (www.moma.org).

Carmela Ciuraru has written for a number of publications, including the Los Angeles Times, Newsday and ARTNews. She is working on a nonfiction book for HarperCollins.

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The (Messy) Writing on the Wall

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