Rubens Gerchman, The Altar

Pre-Codified Symbol, Participation, and the Body 

Christopher Dunn writes that Neoconcretism, “sought to reincorporate elements of emotion and affect that assigned primacy to the sensorial experience of the spectator, who is called upon to participate actively in the production of meaning” (Dunn 233). This emphasis on an active viewer-participant (who both physically engages the artwork and produces its meaning) was seminal to Rubens Gerchman’s 1967 work The Altar. With its open cavity for kneeling, cushioned material on wood, and labeling as “altar,” the work invites participation, converging directly with Brazilian artist Hélio Oiticica’s notion of art at that moment as a “‘proposal’…contingent, speculative, and depend[ent] on direct participation” (Dunn 233).

In 1967, Oiticica published a manifesto for a “new” or “anti”-art of Brazil entitled “General Scheme of the New Objectivity” (Alberro and Stimson xxvii).  The text was featured in the catalogue for the exhibition “Brazilian New Objectivity” held at the Museu de Arte Moderna in Rio de Janeiro the same year. Both Gerchman and Oiticica were featured (Alberro and Stimson xxvii). This idea of artwork as a “proposal,” or “open,” with the artist as mere “instigator,” for Oiticica meant that an artist’s work “in whatever fixed aspects it may have, only takes meaning…through the attitude of each participator” (Alberro and Stimson 8). The body for these artists under New Objectivity thus becomes key in the process of art “transcending the limitations of pictorial space produced by the frame”(Dunn 233). This becomes important not only with regard to physical participation, but via a participation that aids in the production of (new) meanings through an internal experience of the participant (Alberro and Stimson 41). As proposed by Oiticica, and with Gerchman’s 1967 The Altar, “[the] individual to whom the work is addressed is invited to complete the meanings proposed by it” (Alberro and Stimson 8).

Gerchman’s 1967 work is a mixed media piece created out of wood, cloth, cushions, and paint. The top-most portion of the structure extends as a triptych, with the middle and tallest panel occupied by red and green lines of varying width. All of these lines lead to a featureless, androgynous form. The figure’s face is filled with the same red and green stripes that surround the body, yet these facial lines diagonal and more uniform. Darker green panels flag either side of the triptych’s center, and the structure extends downward to meet a portion of the work with room for viewers to rest both their knees on cushions as well as elbows.

There is a refiguring here, marked by “deconstruction and reconstruction,” which can be seen as central to this new avant-garde (Riberio 190). The symbol of the altar within Brazilian society undoubtedly carries with it substantial social, cultural and political weight, as Roman Catholicism in Brazil constitutes the largest denomination in the country (Mutchler 103). Gerchman is asking participants with his work pray to and worship something different than a typically rendered religious icon, to use their body in space and the coded act of praying to “complete the meaning he has proposed,” thus leaving the work radically “open” (Alberro and Stimson 8).

Caetano Veloso, refering to the “Tropicalista Rebellion” in Brazi at the time, cites a creative process in which “you take anything and everything, coming from anywhere and everywhere, and you do what you like to it, you digest it as you wish…then you produce something new” (Dunn 123). The pop-figure central to the Gerchman’s triptych allows spectators to create and experience something original in the traditionally coded space of “worship”—a generation of social meaning dependent on the physical and mental act of praying. In the construction of his Altar, Ehrenberg has effectively collapsed the space between the arguably colonial and political history of Catholicism in Brazil and specific Western art “isms” or Pop.  The creation of potential new meanings through participation with Gerchman’s art-object ultimately serves to reiterate the importance of the body for these artists, as a prerequisite for the production of new participations, new interactions, new meanings, and new propositions—all in the context of a Brazilian historical moment full of tensions.                                                                                           

Works Cited

Dunn, Christopher. '"Experimentar O Experimental": Avant-Garde, Cultura Marginal, And           Counterculture In Brazil, 1968-72'. Luso-Brazilian Review 50.1 (2013): 229-252. Web.

Alberro, Alexander, and Blake Stimson. Conceptual Art. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1999.      pp. xxvii; 8-12, 40-45. Print.

Mutchler, David E. 'Roman Catholicism In Brazil'. Studies in Comparative International   Development 1.8 (1965): 103-117. Web. Ribeiro, Marilia Andrés. 'Thoughts Upon Brazilian Art In The Years 1960 And 1970'. Porto Arte 19.3 (2015): 187-194. Print.