Marta Minujín, the Argentinian pop artist, stands in a red jumpsuit and her signature aviators surrounded by what she calls “soft sculptures” or Colchones, a series that began in the 1960s.
I am surprised by the amount of work covering her studio walls, suspended from the ceiling, and staggered in front of each other in a long, thin room in Buenos Aires. After all, Minujín is known for destroying her art.
Creation out of destruction.
Perhaps only an artist creating during a time of intense political violence and censorship could be open to this theme?
Born in 1943 in Buenos Aires, Minujín studied art at some of the finest institutes of Argentina. She spent her early years as an artist painting canvases and made her debut in 1959 at the Teatro Agôn where she was awarded first place. Arturo Frondizi had just been elected into office as the first president since the military coup of 1955.
Minujín continued to make a name for herself when in 1960 she received a fellowship to Paris through the Fondo Nacional de las Artes. There, she was exposed to the neorealist and avant-garde art scene, which inspired her first collection of Colchones—inhabitable structures made from mattresses and blankets. Minujín showcased these new artistic expressions in Paris in 1963.
On the last day of the exhibit, Minujín burned the sculptures to the ground in denouncement of art as collectible objects and titled it La Destrucción. Minujín believes art is about creation, even if that creation comes from the destruction of her own work.
“Art should be about doing; it is not about people buying it. You don’t need to understand art; you only have to live in art. I live in it.”
Such bold acts became a trademark of Minujín’s later work and marked her as a leading figure in the Latin American pop art movement.
Minujín returned to an Argentina where consumerism, globalization, and cultural shifts had increased class tensions. Over the next few years, Minujín became famous for her ‘happenings,’ which used cardboard, fabrics, food, and found items to create paintings, sculptures, and massive installations. Minujín wanted to demystify the art object and surprise exhibit goers. Her collaboration with Rubèn Santantonín on La Menesunda (1965) was one of the largest ‘happenings’ Minujín orchestrated.
Born out of a desire to turn passive viewers into active agents, La Menesunda was shaped like a woman’s head and could be interacted with by guests at will. The structure was sectioned into sixteen environments, such as a walk-in freezer, a couple in bed, falling confetti, and the scent of frying food, to represent Buenos Aires from an artist’s perspective. Over 30,000 visitors toured the sculpture.
La Menesunda, along with ¡Revuelquese y Viva! (1964), hand-painted recycled mattresses for viewers to play on, and Eróticos en technicolor (1964), made by tying paint buckets to the tails of horses, earned her a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship in 1966.
Her relocation to New York was fortuitous timing as the new military regime in Argentina, led by General Juan Carlos Onganía, had begun to censor works like Minujín’s for challenging conventions.
La Menesunda (Mayhem)
“[T]he work of art is the instant in which a person lives, and not the thing. It is the happening in its development rather than forms, which keep being accessorial. By no way can the art of a society that is constantly changing be a static image.”
Never one to stay silent about her beliefs, Minujín continued to create art with bold political and social commentary in the U.S.
During this time, Minujín experimented with psychedelic art, like Minuphone (1967), and installations commenting on the political and social upheaval both countries were experiencing. Minujín was particularly inspired by the U.S. counterculture of the 70s and the violent military repression faced by Argentinians. Much of her work from this era reflects ideas around social norms, sustainability, regulation, and kidnapping.
In 1976, the social and political tension in Argentina reached a pinnacle. Operation Condor, a military coup backed by the U.S. government, overthrew Isabel Perón, widow of populist president Juan Perón. The ensuing military dictatorship launched the “Process of National Reorganization,” almost a decade of silencing detractors and civilians through secrete arrests. An estimated 30,000 Argentinians were taken and became known as los desaparecidos.
Despite the dictatorship in Argentina, Minujín continued creating art in her hometown after returning in 1974. She is well-known for her series Arte Agricola en Acción (1977-1979) that launched in São Paulo, as well as El Obelisco de Pan Dulce (1979) a large-scale replica of the Obelisk in Buenos Aires using sweet bread.
Parthenon of Books
When the military junta finally conceded to democratic elections, Minujín commemorated the event with her 1983 The Parthenon of Books, a sculpture erected along the Ninth of July Avenue in Buenos Aires following the inauguration of President Raúl Alfonsín. It was made of 25,000 previously banned books to celebrate free speech. Afterward, the sculpture was dismantled and the books were distributed to the public.
“[A]rt is above religion and politics because all humans are capable of creating, and we are all artists.”
Yet, Minujín’s art is as serious as it is playful. In a 1985 photography series titled The Debt with fellow pop artist and friend Andy Warhol, Minujín hands Warhol ears of corn meant to represent Argentina’s foreign debts.
An icon of the Latin American conceptual and pop art movement, Minujín was first awarded the Platinum Konex Award in 1982, and again in 2002.
Since then, she has won the Arlequin de Oro Award from the Fundación Emilio Pettoruti, the Tributo al nuevo millenio Award from the Colegio de Martilleros y Corredor Públicos di Mar del Plata, the Cincuentenario Award from the Asociación Argentina de Críticos de Arte, and the Jorge Romero Brest Award. She continues to make ‘happenings’ critiquing political and social events around the world.
As I look through photographs of Minujín’s Parthenon, I’m reminded of Audre Lorde’s words:
“My silence had not protected me. Your silence will not protect you. But for every real word spoken, for every attempt I had ever made to speak those truths for which I am still seeking, I had made contact with other women while we examined the words to fit a world in which we all believed.”