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From the Print Journal

Corroding Geometries: Elsa Gramcko, Automobility, and the Paradoxes of Venezuelan Modernity, 1955–1965

© 2023 Johns Hopkins University Press

In 1961, the Venezuelan artist Elsa Gramcko (1925–94) completed Sin título (Untitled; fig. 1). In the work, cratered sheets of corroded metal are caught in a permanent stasis of decomposition. Ochre and burnt sienna spread from the tarnished and oxidized surfaces of the irregularly shaped pieces of metal, creating a chromatic palette both earthen and industrial. Facture engenders form, as each metal piece assumes its character from the haptic quality produced from its own process of corrosion. According to an apocryphal story, the fragments of metal Gramcko affixed to the surface of this work were harvested from the side panels of a jeep she discovered abandoned at the coast.[1] To control the found metal’s degradation, Gramcko further exposed these sheets to the elements as well as acidic solutions and other chemical baths.[2] The roughly textured surface of Sin título—as well as those of her other works produced throughout the 1960s—marked a dramatic shift away from the smooth painted surfaces of Gramcko’s abstract compositions of the previous decade.

Rusted metal
Fig. 1. Elsa Gramcko, Sin título (Untitled), 1961. Scrap metal and mixed media on hardboard, 18 1/2 x 12 1/2 in. (46 x 34.5 cm). Colección Mercantil, Caracas, © Estate of Elsa Gramcko.

In spite of Gramcko’s early success both in Venezuela and abroad, her career faded from the anglophone canon of Latin American modernism.[3] Only recently has her work come to receive renewed critical attention, most notably through the exhibition, Contesting Modernity, held in 2019 at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Contesting Modernity presented the largest number of works by Gramcko assembled in the United States in over half a century, providing a rare survey of her career.[4] In her catalog essay on Gramcko for the exhibition, Mari Carmen Ramírez mused on the marginal position Gramcko’s oeuvre has held until recently. She pointed, in part, to the artist’s reserved nature and her desire to publicly eschew any affiliation with contemporaneous artistic movements, particularly informalism in the 1960s. This was compounded, Ramírez suggested, by a “hermetic discourse,” partially rooted in Carl Jung’s ideas on the collective unconscious, which “she and a handful of her critics carefully knit around both her introspective personality and her unconventional oeuvre.”[5] Within the limited historiography on Gramcko’s career many writers have adopted this discursive framework when engaging her material experimentations. These authors frequently employed such terms as “alchemy” to describe her creative process, while focusing almost exclusively on the apolitical and material aspects of her works.[6] Yet, Gramcko was not disconnected from the milieu which she inhabited. Rather, her oeuvre was far more porous to the dynamic events of postwar Venezuela than previously acknowledged in the existing literature.

At this moment of renewed attention, it matters that we move beyond a framework rooted in psychoanalytic theory and metaphors of alchemy, examining how her oeuvre intersected with the broader cultural, political, and economic conditions under which the Caracas-based artist lived and worked.[7] This essay charts the development of Gramcko’s work as it responded to Venezuela’s transition from dictatorship to democracy at the outset of the 1960s, beginning with her initial abstract geometric canvases begun around 1955 under the dictatorial rule of Marcos Pérez Jiménez (1952–58) through her assemblage constructions completed in the early 1960s during the presidency of Rómulo Betancourt (1959–64). Within this roughly decade-long period, the aesthetic of geometric abstraction that was strongly associated with the dictatorial rule and state-sponsored modernization projects of the 1950s came undone.

Gramcko’s frequent allusions to the automobile are critical to understanding her paintings and assemblage constructions. The car, as Lindsey Green-Simms notes, “has perhaps been one of the most globally experienced technologies of the twentieth- and twenty-first centuries,” and has played an essential role in the construction and performance of modernity in the postwar era.[8] Venezuela was no exception, as automobility impacted the form and structure of the country’s politics, economics, and culture as it sought to present itself as a modern nation in the decades that followed World War II. Gramcko’s entanglements with such a multivalent phenomenon as Venezuelan modernity can be seen through automobility, a “self-organizing autopoietic, non-linear system” described by sociologist John Urry.[9] Automobility, conceptualized by Urry, includes not just cars and their drivers, but the infrastructure, natural resources, laws, technologies, and cultural signs that feed into a system that enables automobile usage (“The ‘System’ of Automobility,” 27). By situating Gramcko’s work within this technological, ideological, and aesthetic system, I will argue the artist’s incorporation of the automobile and its component parts into her work—as in Sin título—produced an aesthetic that responded to Venezuela’s processes of modernization, as well as to the political and economic instability these processes engendered.

Modern Geometries

Gramcko was born into a middle-class family in Puerto Cabello—a rural port city seventy-five miles west of Caracas. Her father, a dentist by profession, was also an accomplished pianist and fostered both Elsa and her sister Ida’s artistic interests at an early age.[10] In the late 1930s, the family moved to Caracas, an act that mirrored a larger pattern of internal migration to urban centers then underway in Venezuela.[11] In Caracas, Gramcko met the pioneering photographer Carlos Eduardo Puche (1923–99). The two married in 1947 and moved into an art deco home in the middle-class Los Rosales neighborhood, where the couple hosted a wide range of progressive artists, writers, and intellectuals.[12]

Among these artist friends were the artists Mercedes Pardo (1921–2005) and her husband, Alejandro Otero (1921–90). Otero, in particular, played an important role in Gramcko’s initial forays into painting. Otero returned to Venezuela in 1952 from a two-year stay in France, during which time he had taken a leading role in the formation of Los Disidentes (The Dissidents), a group of vanguard Venezuelan artists and intellectuals living in Paris. In the polemics published in their short-lived eponymously titled journal, Los Disidentes raised objections to what they perceived to be Venezuelan culture’s anachronistic position on an increasingly modernizing postwar global stage.[13] As Megan Sullivan summarizes, “These young artists declared in strident tones their wish to enter their work, and therefore their country, into the ‘continuous movement and progress’ of ‘universal time,’ thereby rethinking Venezuela’s relationship with ‘the West.’”[14] This line of teleological thinking was concurrent with a powerful postwar developmentalist narrative of modernity in which “the modern (and—implicitly or explicitly—Western) ideal” needed to be caught up to by nations perceived to be more “traditional.”[15] In the realm of aesthetics, Los Disidentes, and Otero specifically, placed abstraction as the end of this telos in modern art.[16]

In 1955, Gramcko began auditing a course taught by Otero at the Escuela de Artes Plásticas y Aplicadas de Caracas (School of Plastic and Applied Arts, Caracas).[17] Otero, who had just begun his expansive Serie Coloritmos (Colorhythm Series, 1955–1960), would have shared his progressive ideas on abstraction. Otero believed his abstract art should utilize geometric forms and bright colors arranged in rhythmic compositions to produce a “final dynamism” and “expressive force.”[18] Coloritmo 1 (1955), for example, activates a visual dynamism by the optical projection and recession of the chromatic forms set behind a plane of vertical black lines. The composition’s illusionistic projection beyond the surface plane into the space of the viewer was critical in Otero’s spatial understanding of a modern art.[19] The environmental dynamism established through the Coloritmos was foundational in expressing a universal aesthetic emblematic of a global technological age emergent after the Second World War; one that would appropriately celebrate “modern man.”[20]

Largely self-taught, Gramcko’s experience under Otero’s tutelage made an immediate impact on her paintings. Her earliest compositions (begun in 1954) cycled through a variety of geometric forms that recalled different prewar European figures such as Piet Mondrian (1872–1944) and Wassily Kandinsky (1866–1944).[21] The canvases Gramcko created following her studies, Sin título (1957) for example, reveal a different set of visual operations in her formal vocabulary (fig. 2). Unlike Otero’s chromatically vibrant, spatially expansive, and entirely nonrepresentational coloritmos, with Sin título Gramcko created a compressed pictorial space through a simple binary of two black vertical forms upon a red background. The three-dimensionality of these forms is subtly implied by thin, curvilinear, white highlights that appear in the elliptical openings of each black form, implying a sense of latent figuration. Contrary to Otero, Gramcko did not view her paintings as entirely nonreferential, noting, “I do not consider [these paintings] abstract, [they] are very emotive and contain a number of internal meanings” (López Quintero, Elsa Gramcko, 18).[22] Several authors have argued that the forms in this abstract work, as well as others from this period, suggest organic materials, such as bones, shells, and other calcareous objects bleached by the sun—tropes suggesting Caracas’s location on the Caribbean coast and the country’s equatorial climate (18). Yet, if these forms were to be read as figuring objects, they evoke a more modern referent: automobile parts.

Black on red abstract painting
Fig. 2. Elsa Gramcko, Sin título (Untitled), 1957. Oil on canvas, 29 x 14 1/4 in. (74 x 36 cm). Colección Mercantil, Caracas, © Estate of Elsa Gramcko.

Automobility, Dictatorship, Modernity

At the time Gramcko was beginning her career as an artist, Caracas was in the midst of a drastic physical and economic metamorphosis. This transformation, which had begun before the 1950s, dramatically accelerated under the military dictatorship of General Marcos Pérez Jiménez. The Pérez Jiménez regime, in the wake of its engineered coup in 1948, aimed to solidify its political and ideological authority under the Nuevo Ideal Nacional (New National Ideal)—a developmentalist doctrine that consolidated the government’s policies under a commitment to modernization in order for the country to take its place among other industrialized nations of the postwar global order.[23] The Nuevo Ideal Nacional, as Lisa Blackmore describes, “justified the neutralization of political mobilization and debate” in Venezuela by arguing the nonpartisanship of military rule—supposedly operating purely in the interest of the country above any party affiliation—offered the only effective means of erecting a modern nation.[24] As such, visualizing a rapid (and thus efficient) process of modernization was an essential task for the regime. Public works, perceived by Pérez Jiménez as the most democratic language to convey such progress, received the government’s foremost attention and investment.[25] These projects, as the anthropologist Fernando Coronil noted, became perceived by those in the government as “the source of modern [Venezuela’s] progress rather than as [its] outcome. In their accounts, the effort to catch up with advanced nations entailed using rationally [Venezuela’s] powers, which they identified with the riches of its subsoil” (Magical State, 167). The accelerated fabrication of a modern nation became intrinsically tied to the extraction of Venezuela’s substantial oil reserves—an economic dynamic Coronil labeled the “magical state.” Oil production nearly doubled under the Pérez Jiménez regime, and with this oil-sustained wealth the government sought to project visually and materially a progressive image of the nation in order to mask its own regressive and violent policies—a phenomenon described by Blackmore as “spectacular modernity.”[26]

Investing in a system of automobility was particularly valuable to the spectacular modernity the Pérez Jiménez government endeavored to achieve. The regime prioritized roadways, intensifying efforts to establish a modern national system of highways. In 1948, none other than Robert Moses (1888–1981), the impresario of American automobility, was commissioned to provide an arterial plan for Caracas. The Pérez Jiménez government followed the spirit of Moses’s proposal, implementing hierarchical roadways within the city and constructing the Caracas-La Guaria Highway.[27] Between 1947 and 1955, the number of paved roadways in Venezuela increased by 300 percent, connecting the majority of the country’s cities for the first time (Negrón, “Transformations,” 55).

The widespread expansion of thoroughfares and highways nurtured a nascent car culture. Car registration in the country grew from nearly 46,000 in 1946 to 206,000 in 1955.[28] For those who could afford it, the automobile by its very name, as Lindsey Green-Simms notes, presented itself as a register of what was modern by promising “two mutually dependent ideals” essential to modernity: mobility and autonomy (Postcolonial Automobility, 12). Mobility was inherent in modernity’s foundational promise of technological advancement, capitalist exchange, and the acceleration of human migration.[29] The notion of autonomy was intrinsically tied to modernity’s claim to the enlightenment values of self-determination, agency, and freedom.[30]

Pérez Jiménez actively sought to model these ideals, intermingling the spectacle of his own personal automobility with that of the state over which he held hegemonic control. A 1955 article in Time magazine captured this dynamic. It painted a vivid picture of the “hot-rodding President” whipping through the countryside at 100 miles per hour in a Mercedes-Benz on the government’s newly built roads.[31] This access to automobile travel spread downwards from Pérez Jiménez. The Time article mentions the acquisition of automobiles by middle-class (and notably female) clerks and other administrators, made possible by increased “modern salaries.” Through touring day trips and errands to the supermarket, automobility became a means by which the Venezuelan middle class could participate in the nation’s modernization. Photographs from the 1950s taken by Gramcko’s uncle, Alfredo Cortina (1903–88), document such excursions, from a visit to the beach to a roadside pit stop on the way to Carayaca. Roadways are ubiquitous in Cortina’s photographs, either cutting directly through or, less conspicuously, skirting across the corners of his images. Even when not present, the roads that brought Cortina to the locations he captured are knowingly not far out of frame.[32] Yet, the promises of mobility and autonomy the car offered, and that were captured by Cortina’s photographs, remained illusory.[33] Bequeathed to the car owning population through the infrastructure constructed by the regime, both of these ideals could only be performed by the driving public, rather than achieved politically under dictatorial rule.

Consumerism and automobility were intimately intertwined within this postwar dynamic. No structure might better exemplify this than El Helicoide (begun in 1956), a spiraling, ziggurat-shaped multifunctional building meant to house a shopping mall, car dealership, cinema, hotel, and exhibition space.[34] A speculative private venture—although supported by the regime—the building was designed with automobility as the principal means to reach and experience the structure’s various shops and attractions.[35] The project fed off a boom in consumer demand during the 1950s. Barred by the regime from political agency, as Blackmore notes, the mere purchase of a car (or other modern commodities) enabled sections of the Venezuelan population to participate in the country’s modernity in a marginal way through the passive act of consumption (Spectacular Modernity, 179–206).[36] The products feeding this consumption of modernity, however, came from without. During the 1950s, the Venezuelan economy became increasingly dominated by service sectors that catered to a rapidly growing yet concentrated presence of wealth in cities like Caracas. Meanwhile, the country’s manufacturing sector was left stagnant, remaining proportionally the smallest in Latin America (Coronil, The Magic State, 184–85). As a result, in the two decades that followed World War II, Venezuela relied heavily on imports of foreign manufactured commodities, such as televisions and automobiles, with most of these products (particularly automobiles) coming from the United States.[37] A photograph of Gramcko posing alongside her childhood friend, the poet Elizabeth Schön (1921–2007), illustrates how these imported commodities flooded into the everyday life of middle-class Venezuelans (fig. 3). The car they are standing in front of was a Desoto “Diplomat,” an export model produced by a subsidiary of the Chrysler Corporation.[38] Ironically, even the oil the country produced was returned as a foreign product. As Coronil observes, “Historically, most oil [had] been shipped out of the country, some of it after local refinement, without the involvement of most of the population or tangibly affecting their lives. Buying gasoline from Shell or Creole (Exxon) gas stations made evident the fact that the nation’s basic resource became available to Venezuelans only through the mediation of foreign companies” (The Magical State, 108). For middle- and upper-class Venezuelans, foreign goods abounded as ubiquitous signifiers of an affordable modernity, but one that was characterized by alterity and imbued with an implicit trace of the country’s incapacity to produce its own modernization.

Two women lean against car
Fig. 3. Alfredo Cortina, Elizabeth Schön and Elsa Gramcko Leaning against a Car, 1962. Gelatin silver print, 3 7/10 × 4 7/10 in (9.5 × 12 cm). Archivo Fotografia Urbana.

The socioeconomic tensions inherent in Venezuela’s imported modernity appear manifest in the geometric forms of Gramcko’s paintings from this period. In Numero 20 (1958), for example, the perforated ovoid silhouettes of white and dark grey interlock in rotary fashion, churning in a dynamic diagonal across the black void of the background. These forms are noticeably artificial and suggestively mechanical, echoing those of interlocked gears or brake discs. If the allusions to machinery are implicit in Numero 20, they are decidedly explicit in Sin título (Untitled, 1957: fig. 4) from the Serie Máquinas (Machine Series). The forms within this schematic composition share a similar morphology with the internal parts of an engine, such as crankshafts, pistons, and spark plugs. A photographic self-portrait, taken by the artist in her studio in 1966, appears to support such a reading. Gramcko captures herself working through an assortment of circular gears and brake discs spread out on a table in the foreground of the image. In the middle-right of the photograph, silhouetted by the open window, stands a vertical arrangement of mechanical parts that has a striking homology with the geometric forms within many of her paintings of the late 1950s mounted on the studio wall behind her.

Abstract of browns and blacks
Fig. 4. Elsa Gramcko, Sin título (Untitled), 1957. Oil on canvas, 39 1/2 x 29 in. (100 x 73.5 cm). Colección Mercantil, Caracas, © Estate of Elsa Gramcko.

However, although Gramcko’s paintings of this period make clear reference to mechanical sources, they do so as neither a paean to mechanical production nor to “modern man,” as was the case in the work of Otero. Instead, the sharp and jagged edges of the geometric forms set upon deep fields of black or gray, in works such as Sin título (1957), convey a more threatening or alienating tone. As the artist stated later in her career, “a fully mechanized contemporary society, where man is a cog in the machinery . . . has to be the greatest enemy to our identity.”[39] Absent from Gramcko’s paintings of the 1950s is the unbridled sense of optimism and confidence central to the projection of Venezuela’s modernity and economic prosperity pushed for by the Pérez Jiménez regime. Gramcko’s compositions, rather, are imbued with an ambivalence towards (if not an inherent skepticism of) this modernization and are engaged in an act of subtle critique of this imported cultural program.

The Informalism of Democracy

Like Gramcko, many Venezuelans felt a growing disillusionment with the country’s political and economic systems. The Venezuelan economy, which reached the peak of its boom in 1955, began a rapid downturn by 1957.[40] The result of drastic mismanagement on the part of the government, the fiscal contraction hampered sectors key to the economy and the regime’s power, most importantly the construction industry.[41] Projects such as El Helicoide, which had ridden the bullish wave of speculative investment and economic optimism, ground to a halt. Its highly visible, unfinished structure became, Blackmore writes, “a phantom haunted by dictatorial hubris and economic crisis.”[42] This stagnation in construction and other industries reverberated throughout the urban centers of the country, leading to a dramatic rise in unemployment. The situation reached a climax on January 23, 1958, when a jointly orchestrated civilian and military coup toppled the Pérez Jiménez regime.

After the largely peaceful ousting of Pérez Jiménez, artists began to distance themselves from the aesthetic of geometric abstraction that was closely linked to the hegemonic modernization projects of the ousted regime. A diverse group of artists in Venezuela sought to replace what they believed to be geometric abstraction’s anachronistic utopian vision of progress with a new aesthetic.[43] This new visual language would be better suited to the material realities of foreign commodity goods and the formlessness of guerrilla insurgency that would come to plague a young Venezuelan democracy (Gaztambide, El Techo de la Ballena, 53–76). At the center of this burgeoning movement was the poet, artist, and art critic Juan Calzadilla (b. 1931). In 1960, Calzadilla organized three significant exhibitions that sought to canonize the movement locally within the Venezuelan avant-garde while also situating it in conjunction with a larger global aesthetic. The first, Espacios Vivientes, which opened in Maracaibo in February 1960, grouped contemporary Venezuelan artists under the banner of informalism. In his introductory essay for the show, Calzadilla placed those artists exhibited within an international movement by linking their work to counterparts in Europe and the United States who also pursued abstract gestural styles, such as Wols (1913–51), Jean Dubuffet (1901–85), Jackson Pollock (1912–56), and Mark Tobey (1890–1976).[44] Calzadilla organized two more exhibitions that brought further visibility to this movement, Venezuela Pintura Hoy and Salón Experimental. Both events consisted largely of the same core group of artists and were held in Caracas that fall, with the former exhibition traveling from its original installation in Havana, Cuba.[45]

Working amid this growing informalist current, Gramcko investigated new means to visually express her standing skepticism of the Venezuelan state under a young democratic government. Cognizant of the waning credibility held by geometric abstraction after the fall of Pérez Jiménez and the election of the moderate Rómulo Betancourt, Gramcko entered a productive period of material experimentation in 1960. During this year, she turned away from the geometric forms that had previously characterized her work and moved toward an exploration of surface and facture. Gramcko seemed to declare this shift in her practice with R-33, Todo comienza aquí (It All Begins Here, 1960). In the early canvas from this transitional moment, a single red elliptical shape hovers over a rounded, rectangular field of black framed at its edge by a band of dark gray. In its stark formal simplicity, R-33 turns away from the interconnected networks of smoothly painted mechanical forms of the previous half-decade. With this reduction of compositional complexity, Gramcko began to privilege an investigation of surface over that of form by introducing sand into her pigment. R-33 represents one of the earliest instances of such a practice in her oeuvre. She incorporated sand into the paint, imbuing the floating elliptical form with a visible impasto. The variations in texture serve to further differentiate the red form from the surrounding field of smoother black.

Black circles on black background
Fig. 5. Elsa Gramcko, R-39, 1960. Acrylic with sand and mixed media on canvas, 25 1/2 x 32 1/2 in. (65 x 81 cm). Private collection, © Estate of Elsa Gramcko.

In a later painting, R-39 (1960), three smooth, circular depressions in a monochromatic field of black paint mixed with sand are created through the displacement rather than the application of pigment (fig. 5). In doing so, Gramcko was part of a vibrant milieu of contemporary Venezuelan artists who employed similar darkened color palettes and rough surfaces beginning around 1960.[46] The tactility of the richly textured surface of R-39 stands both optically and haptically in stark contrast to the polished geometric abstraction of the 1950s. The work’s surface is antithetical to the glossiness of Otero’s Coloritmos, which achieved their sheen from his use of Duco—an autobody paint the artist discovered at an automobile repair shop in Caracas.[47] It is appropriate then, that in R-39, the lingering vestiges of Gramcko’s previous geometric aesthetic are defined by absence rather than presence. This strategic use of negative space in the negation of geometric form occurred most profoundly in two other black paintings created the same year: R-37 and R-40. At the center of R-40, a narrow rectangular strip of white is formed in relief, created through the buildup of material around an area of exposed primed canvas. The shape tenuously holds its form amid the encompassing dense black field, as shadows cast upon it by the elevated mounds of pigment imply an uneasy sense of encroachment. The narrow strip is, however, an illusion—a shape formed out of absence. This rectangular form created from a material void provocatively subverts the geometric vocabulary of the previous decade.

Gramcko’s geometry dissolved entirely in R-49 (1960), a surface of varied textures and earthen tones manifesting in an allover composition. The darkened edges of the work (possibly caused by the application of an open flame) transition into the lighter central field of abraded and flaking surfaces, revealing layers of gray, brown, and burnt sienna. Scattered throughout the work, embedded in its surface, are metal filings. Shimmering throughout the composition, these shavings add a further dimension of complexity to the materiality of the surface. Their inclusion represents a critical shift in Gramcko’s creative process, as it marks one of the artist’s earliest introductions of industrial remnants into her work. By 1961, these initial material investigations evolved into more ambitious experiments. In works such as Sin título (see fig. 1), discussed above, the sharp and sterile mechanical lines of Gramcko’s 1950s paintings have been entirely replaced by the corroded side paneling of jeeps and other automobile parts. With the introduction of these eroded fragments of urban and mechanical detritus, Gramcko participated in a broader engagement with such urban debris by vanguard artists in Latin America, including Feliza Bursztyn (1933–82) in Colombia and Antonio Berni (1905–81) and Kenneth Kemble (1923–98) in Argentina.[48] Even Jesús Rafael Soto (1923–2005), who returned to Venezuela from France in 1961, turned to urban waste collected from the streets of Caracas as material for his art.[49] The found detritus that was incorporated into (or entirely comprised) the work of these artists signaled a generational shift in their conception of and relationship to modernity. As Gina Tarver notes, the inclusion of these repurposed materials signified a dissonance inherent to modernity throughout Latin America (The New Iconoclasts, 12). The sculptures of Bursztyn or assemblages of Berni pointed, on the one hand, to the economic development and consumer culture spurred by modernization, while simultaneously gesturing to the scarcity that remains extant within such a process (12). This contradiction was felt acutely in Venezuela, and it pushed a dialectical shift in Gramcko’s creative practice as she moved away from the opticality of geometric form to the facture of materiality.

The Politics of Things

Gramcko’s early experimentations with metal scraps and other found materials occurred as Betancourt’s presidency—initially celebrated as a victory over dictatorship—became mired in political and social unrest. The discontent was fueled by the government’s exclusion of left-wing and communist party members from the electoral process (a foreign policy gesture aimed at placating the United States), as well as political agitation sparked by the Cuban Revolution in 1959.[50] By the end of 1960, the Betancourt administration had foiled numerous dissident plots, including an assassination attempt sponsored by the right-wing dictatorship of Rafael Leónidas Trujillo in the Dominican Republic (Alexander, The Venezuelan Democratic Revolution, 111–12). The following year, Betancourt inflamed his left-wing opposition—made up of university students, Cuban sympathizers, and intellectuals—by proposing and successfully achieving the expulsion of Cuba from the Organization of American States.[51] As protests and rioting became more common among leftist supporters, opposition members of the Partido Communista de Venezuela began organizing bands of guerrilla fighters under the Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación Nacional (Gaztambide, El Techo de la Ballena, 50). By 1961, Betancourt’s expansion of government regulations and ongoing reliance on oil profits proved to differ little from the policy or ideology of the Pérez Jiménez regime, casting doubt as to the possibility of any real economic or political progress.

In response to the political corruption and economic inequality that continued under Betancourt, a number of politically charged avant-garde groups formed in Caracas, the most prominent of which was El Techo de la Ballena (1961–69). Initially founded by members of the dissolved group Sardio (1958–61), El Techo called for radical political and social accountability within the country. Their 1961 manifesto stated: “El Techo de la Ballena . . . has begun to expose the longstanding mediocrity of our cultural milieu; it is, rather as a gesture of frank protest against the country’s ongoing cultural farce, and the continued political and economic mistakes of Venezuelan democracy.”[52] Unlike the path taken over a decade earlier by Los Disidentes, who sought cultural reformation through a rational, universal, and particularly cosmopolitan visual aesthetic, El Techo desired to unmask the corruption associated with urban centers like Caracas through the mobilization of Dadaist strategies and informalist aesthetics (Rama, “Of Terrorism in the Arts,” 258–64). Both rhetorically and visually, El Techo remained highly critical of the Betancourt administration and was openly sympathetic to left-wing groups within the country. As a result, by 1962, as the Betancourt administration looked to secure its control over the nation amid deteriorating political conditions, some members of the group were subjected to exile and imprisonment for their political affiliations.[53]

Amid this moment of radical engagement, pinpointing Gramcko’s exact politics is a challenge. She spoke little about her work publicly at the time, and what few interviews she gave later in her life avoided discussion of politics or the overt polemics of the Betancourt years. In an interview with Calzadilla from 1976, for example, she dodged many of his probing questions on the unrest of the period, responding, “My painting has been an art without hypothesis, without ‘isms.’”[54] Her reticence to speak publicly, though, should not be confused with a withdrawal from the politics of the day or those engaged in them. After the fall of Pérez Jiménez, Gramcko orbited the intellectual and artistic circles that coalesced around the antidictatorial journal, Sardio. While she became personally acquainted with the more radical members of Sardio who would eventually break off to form El Techo, Gramcko’s ideas aligned more closely with the moderate wing of the group.[55] Though openly political, this faction retained a broader humanist focus in their writing and polemics.[56] As Álvaro Contreras notes, these members were “intellectual leftists committed, not to an ideology of party, but the ‘existential dimension’ of man.”[57] Gramcko’s few writings from the 1960s are replete with such existentialist terminology. While her language was opaque, she made frequent allusions to the current state of the world. In a letter to Otero written in November 1960, Gramcko discusses the burnt automobiles and buses in the streets following antigovernment protests and the anguish she felt in the face of the nation’s political instability (fig. 6).[58] In a typed manuscript from 1965, she described the need to express the “immediate reality” of the contemporary moment. Gramcko explained that she found an ability to access this immediate reality through the “unexpected expressive dimensions” of the detritus of daily life, or what she referred to generally as “things.”[59]

White line on black background
Fig. 6. Elsa Gramcko, R-40, 1960. Acrylic with sand and mixed media on canvas, 34 x 43 1/2 in. (86 x 110.5 cm). Private collection, © Estate of Elsa Gramcko.

No Distance as Great

The political unrest spreading throughout Venezuela in the opening years of the 1960s was an immediate reality for Gramcko. On June 2, 1962, a group of rebel fighters, led by a number of naval officers, attempted to take over the city of Puerto Cabello—an event referred to as El Porteñazo. Military forces loyal to the Betancourt administration quickly suppressed the uprising; still, the fighting was some of the most violent witnessed during this period of unrest, leaving roughly 400 dead and 700 wounded. Images of the violence in Puerto Cabello captured by the photojournalist Héctor Rondón Lovera (1933–84) were disseminated globally through print and televised media.[60]

Following these events, Gramcko began two distinct, but interconnected, series of works that can be read as responding to the violence that engulfed her city of birth. Beginning in 1964, Gramcko created a group of works inspired by doorways and windows that line the streets of Puerto Cabello, collectively known as the Serie Puertas y Ventanas (Doors and Windows Series).[61] In one such work from the series, Estar fuera es como estar dentro (As It is Outside, It is Inside, 1964), four vertical bands are created with a dense mixture of earthen pigments and sand (fig. 7). At the center of the panel, Gramcko embedded an oxidized door handle and lock, completing her tromp l’oeil representation of the colonial era doors found among the historic architecture of the city.

Photo of a broken down car
Fig. 7. Carlos E. Puche, Sin título (Untitled),1958. Gelatin silver print, 8 x 10 in. (20 x 25.5 cm). Private collection, © Estate of Carlos E. Puche.

 The weathered and deteriorated surface of Estar fuera es como estar dentro, however, connotes more than a reflection on the place of her birth. The temporality inherent in Gramcko’s exploration of historic doors and their spatial reference to rural Venezuela are indicative of a widespread reappraisal of Venezuelan modernity during the post-Pérez Jiménez years. In the 1960s, the teleological narratives driving Venezuelan modernization programs—whether in the form of the geometric abstraction advocated by Los Disidentes or the urban infrastructure projects offered by the regime—weakened as the inequities of Venezuelan modernity became critically examined. With a loss of a telos, modernity, James Ferguson writes, comes to be viewed as a status, “a standard of living to which some have the rights by birth and from which others are simply, but unequivocally, excluded” (Global Shadows, 189). The degradation and material poverty suggested by the discoloration and rusted features of Estar fuera es como estar dentro point to the socioeconomic inequalities that divided urban and rural Venezuela—evident to anyone in Caracas able to take a drive through the countryside.

A decade after Gramcko completed Estar fuera es como estar dentro, the art critic Marta Traba (1930–83) highlighted this issue of modernity as status. She noted in spatialized terms that there are few examples of “a distance as great as that between Caracas and the rest of the country.”[62] Traba detailed the divergence between the concentrated wealth of Caracas and the rural, underdeveloped remainder of the country as follows:

The invention of Caracas was mutually agreed upon by the ruling classes and economic powers, because nothing else represented the image of progress and technology so completely. . . . I call it illusory because most of Venezuela is foreign to that fiction; because nobody who has ever traveled within Venezuela can think of technological progress; instead they think of a deserted country, of immense unpopulated lands where the only towns appearing every so often in the west, for instance . . . are submerged in villagelike under development, amid the slow deterioration of last century’s religious and family values. (“Finale,” 281)

By referencing the material reality of the country’s rural existence in her Serie Puertas y Ventanas, Gramcko put forward a similar negation of the fiction of a totalizing Venezuelan modernity addressed by Traba.

The disregard for and underinvestment in the rural populations of Venezuela by both the Pérez Jiménez and Betancourt governments established the conditions that allowed revolutionary guerrilla operations to flourish, and it was this economic and political inequity that fueled the violent uprising in Puerto Cabello. On the surface of Estar fuera es como estar dentro, Gramcko captured the marks of the violence that took place in the port city. The irregular spaces separating each band create a repetition of vertical, uneven lines that read as violent gashes as much as they do structural gaps in the door. Vertical marks scored into the surface of the bands, most notably above and below the oxidized lock, further emphasize the door’s marred appearance. As the work’s title suggests, the implication of this exterior violence—a possible allusion to the many street battles that occurred during the revolt—is its inescapability. Conflict is presented as existing both within and without the door’s threshold.

Corroding Geometries

Two years before the Serie Puertas y Ventanas, Gramcko began the Serie Celdillas (Cells Series). The Serie Celdillas also engaged architectural motifs, while further alluding to the conflict in Puerto Cabello. She did so by returning to the automobile as a direct source for these works. In El fortín (The Fort, 1963), three rows of rectangular metal plates form a simple grid. Gramcko harvested these plates from the salvaged remnants of exhausted car battery cells. The cells are corroded, each at a different point in the process of deterioration. The metal plates are welded with a blowtorch at various points along their edges. Violence is implicit in the fused, contiguous fragments of car battery cells. The scorched and cratered composition alludes to the irregular stone walls of the eighteenth-century colonial fortification that the rebels occupied during El Porteñazo. The uneven, decomposing grid of El fortín functions as a synecdoche for the conflict that was ubiquitous throughout the country in the early 1960s.

Violence is further suggested by the density and decay of El Castillo de Elsinor (Elsinore’s Castle, 1963). Gramcko’s title—a reference to the Danish setting of Hamlet—makes explicit associations between the Shakespearean tragedy and that of the contentious contemporaneous political state of Venezuela. This conflict became the subject of silent devotion in Retablo (Altarpiece, 1965), a folding triptych made of corroded battery plates, concrete, and rust. In the central panel, an oxidized iron latch seals the two vertical columns of plates shut (fig. 8). The hardened and jagged surface of Retablo is impenetrable, suggesting a ritual object not of transcendence or spirituality, but rather, of the material and real.

Rusted metal loop on wood
Fig. 8. Elsa Gramcko, Estar Fuera es como estar Dentro (Being Outside is like being Inside), 1964. Door knocker, lock, and mixed media on wood, 33 1/2 x 23 3/4 in. (85 x 60 cm). Fundación Museos Nacionales, Museo de Bellas Artes de Caracas, Venezuela, © Estate of Elsa Gramcko.

The stark surfaces and materiality of the works in the Serie Puertas y Ventanas and the Serie Celdillas speak not to the abstracted and idealized concept of modernity of 1950s Venezuela, its effects visually seen though not physically felt by much of the population. Rather, the works in these two series seek to enunciate material truths about the nation’s inequitable process of modernization that caused such political and economic instability. In this context, Retablo is not meant as a work for disinterested contemplation, but rather asks the viewer to move from the realm of aesthetics to that of the real. This praxis that Gramcko imbued in her work of the early 1960s was not only engendered by the heightened bodily experience produced by the oxidized facture of her compositions. Her marshaling of corrosive chemical baths, methods of abrasion, and open flames was done to transform the automobile components in many of these works dialectically, as they retain a trace of their automotive origin, while their material identity is simultaneously altered and defamiliarized.[63]

In doing so, Gramcko undercut the “purely magical” status of the automobile described by Roland Barthes.[64] Her use of cratered and corroded pieces of car parts subvert the smooth, fetishized perfection of the automobile that was essential to disguising the origin and process of its production.[65] As such, Gramcko’s incorporation of car batteries and other automobile components was not merely a practice of assemblage—the collecting and combining of familiar urban detritus. Instead, Gramcko’s creative process makes strange these excised elements of automobiles in order to activate the viewer’s perception and heighten their critical awareness of the structural inequities in Venezuelan society as exemplified by the automobile.

Gramcko’s turn to the automobile and its parts around 1960 as a source of both material and metaphorical content paralleled a larger global examination of the car’s cultural ubiquity and mythology in the postwar era. In the years following World War II, the automobile emerged as a quintessential symbolic object, one that, as Barthes observed, evolved from its prewar signification of speed and power to one of commodity comfort and “petite-bourgeois advancement” (Barthes, Mythologies, 90). This symbolic order of the automobile became entrenched through the rapid global expansion of advertising media which affirmed it as an icon of sex and social mobility.[66] By the outset of the 1960s, however, the mythic status of the car began to erode as the motorization of countries revealed the social, environmental, and economic consequences tied to the global expansion of American manufacturing and car culture. In Caracas, the year after Gramcko began her Serie Celdillas, El Techo members Daniel González and Adriano González León (1931–2008) placed the automobile at the heart of their critique of modernization in the Venezuelan capitol. In their multimedia project of photography and essays, Asfalto-Infierno (Asphalt-inferno, 1963), González León wrote about Caracas as “a city of celestial circulation, branded by neon, prefabricated concrete’s fast construction. . . . Above . . . the ass of automobile drivers over his head, my head severed by bumpers, indigestion of muffler fumes . . . as the cars smear us [in mud], disgusting grease, smoke, paper, shit, the rites and devotion to the tetraethyl lead that seizes us daily.”[67]

This critique of postwar automobility was not unique to Venezuela. In France, for example, as in Venezuela, car ownership expanded suddenly and rapidly. This dramatic change led cultural theorists and artists to evaluate the car in more critical terms (Considine, “Disaster in Paris,” 541). The automobile was the center of polemics by the likes of Guy Debord and Henri Lefebvre.[68] While in 1960, the French artist César (1921–98) presented his first Compressions: large rectangular sculptures comprised of car parts collected from car depots in Gennevilliers and compressed using an industrial car compactor. Additionally, in the same year that Gramcko finished El fortín, another French artist, Arman (1928–2005), exhibited White Orchid, a wall sculpture created with the damaged remains of a white sports car the artist dynamited during a performance (Considine, “Disaster in Paris,” 554). As Liam Considine observed, in France “the automobile’s crystallization of violence and spectacle” endemic to the burgeoning system of global modernization was “literalized” and made visible in the work of Arman and César (“Disaster in Paris,” 553).[69] These artists, like their contemporaries in Venezuela, appropriated material components or images of automobiles in order to transgress the entrenched myths associated with automobility, and its deep connection to the performance of postwar modernity and promise of socioeconomic advancement.


For Gramcko, the car and its mechanical components functioned as sites through which the unstable postwar political and economic state of Venezuela could be expressed. By the late 1950s, the automobile had become a charged symbol of paradox, functioning simultaneously as a sign of growth and independence for an expanding middle class and as a reified neocolonial material good: a proxy for the country’s reliance on oil revenue and dependency on foreign commodities (Coronil, The Magical State, 7). The imagery of the automobile maintained its precarious significance following Venezuela’s return to democracy, as it came to represent the failed attempts at economic emancipation by the Betancourt administration, which sought to foster domestic automobile manufacturing through its ineffective 1962 automobile policy (237–46).

Rusted Metal Panels
Fig. 9. Elsa Gramcko, Retablo (Altarpiece), 1965. Diverse materials and mixed media on wood, 20 x 28 1/2 in. (51 x 72.5 cm). Fundación Museos Nacionales, Galería de Arte Nacional, Venezuela, © Estate of Elsa Gramcko.

 It is not surprising then to find a photograph of Gramcko searching through a spare car parts depot for material to include in her assemblage works (fig. 9). Within the piles of automobile parts are forms echoing those in her paintings from the 1950s, while other objects in the photograph would physically make their way into her work of the early 1960s. This image stands in great contrast to the photograph of Otero’s Mastil reflejante (Reflecting Mast, 1954), taken the previous decade (fig. 10). Absent is the optimism and open embrace of foreign commodities, such as the modernist Shell gasoline station or the new Ford parked out front. Instead, this photograph of Gramcko, like her work, appears to affirm her skepticism about the promises of economic progression associated with imported modernization and technological development. The Ford, now set on cinder blocks, and with an old Betancourt poster rested against it, is salvaged for its parts under a democracy entrapped in a disadvantageous economic system and plagued by an all too familiar state of violence and political uncertainty.

Woman sitting among auto parts
Fig. 10. Carlos E. Puche, Elsa Gramcko, c. 1964. Gelatin silver print. Private collection, © Estate of Carlos E. Puche.
Car outside of Shell gas station
Fig. 11. Alejandro Otero, Mastil Reflejante (Reflecting Mast), 1954. Gelatin silver print. Private collection.

The realities of this cyclical pattern of violence and corruption collapsed the temporal space fundamental to the developmentalist imaginary of modernization in Venezuela during the 1950s and the aesthetic of geometric abstraction that it engendered. Unwilling to turn to the past and no longer able to envision a clear future, Gramcko and her contemporaries could only rely on the material conditions of the present. The trajectory of Gramcko’s work from 1955 to 1965 provides a critical lens through which to view the effects of such political, cultural, and economic changes on art in Venezuela. Gramcko’s abstract paintings of the late 1950s look askance at the hegemonic modernization projects undertaken during the Pérez Jiménez regime from within the geometric aesthetic closely affiliated with this spectacular modernity. Gramcko maintained her critical stance toward the structural inadequacies of Venezuelan society following the toppling of the regime. With the eruption of violence that plagued the young Betancourt presidency, Gramcko marshaled materials at the root of that violence—the automobile and the neocolonial structures it represented—to create nuanced works of opposition and critique.


This essay has benefited greatly from the comments made by Dr. Abigail McEwen, as well as insights gleaned from discussions following the presentation of an early version of this paper at the symposium, “Realisms: Politics, Art, and Visual Culture in the Americas,” held jointly in 2016 by the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University and the Institute for Studies on Latin American Art. I am additionally grateful for the support of Luis Felipe Farias on this project, whose depth of knowledge and dedication to Gramcko’s life and work proved invaluable to my research.

[1] The story was conveyed by Clara Diament de Sujo, a gallerist and friend of the artist. Clara Diament de Sujo, “Living in Painting: Venezuelan Art Today,” in The Emergent Decade, ed. Thomas Messer (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1965), 124–26, 124.

[2] Clara Diament de Sujo, Art in Latin America Today: Venezuela, trans. Ralph E. Dimmick and William McLeod Rivera (Washington, DC: Pan American Union, 1962), 18. 

[3] Gramcko was a prominent figure among the Venezuelan avant-garde in the decades following the Second World War. She exhibited frequently within the country, including several solo exhibitions at the Museo de Bellas Artes de Caracas. In addition, her work was selected to represent Venezuela at a number of international fairs, including Expo 58 in Brussels (1958), the São Paulo Biennial (1959), and the Venice Biennale (1964). Gramcko also found success in the United States, participating in group exhibitions at The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (1956) and the Dallas Museum of Art (1959), while also receiving a solo exhibition in 1959 at the Pan American Union, the cultural arm of the Organization of American States. Her career’s decline in prominence has been due in part to the lack of a consolidated archive saved by Gramcko or her family—possibly the result of the artist’s own withdrawal from the art world in the 1970s—leaving very little primary material written by her available for scholars.

[4] The exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston provided a significant reappraisal of the importance of informalism in Venezuela during the 1960s. In addition, Gramcko’s painting, Untitled (1957) entered the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York in 2016 and was displayed in the exhibition, Sur Moderno: Journeys of Abstraction—The Patricia Phelps de Cisneros Gift (2019).

[5] Mari Carmen Ramírez, “Of Things and Machines: Elsa Gramcko’s Journey from the Void to the ‘Real,’” in Contesting Modernity: Informalism in Venezuela: 1955–1975, ed. Mari Carmen Ramírez and Tahía Rivero (Houston, TX: The Museum of Fine Arts, 2019), 122–36, 124, Exhibition Catalog.

[6] For example, see Alberto Anzola, “Elsa Gramcko y sus cuadros mágicos,” El Nacional, August 18, 1968, International Center for the Arts of the Americas (ICAA) Digital Archive, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, TX,  1153668; Diament de Sujo, “Living in Painting,” 124; and Juan Carlos López Quintero, ed., Elsa Gramcko: una alquimista de nuestro tiempo: muestra antológica, 1957–1978 (Caracas: Fundación Galería de Arte Nacional, 1997), 17–25. The critical reading made by López Quintero was largely subsumed into the interpretation of Gramcko’s work in the later monograph edited by Oswaldo Trejo. See Oswaldo Trejo, Elsa Gramcko: geometría e informalismo (Caracas: Fundación Mercantil, 2004).

[7] Ramírez, for example, has investigated the significance of Gramcko’s incorporation of found objects, or real “things,” into her work (“Of Things and Machines,” 125–28).

[8] Lindsey B. Green-Simms, Postcolonial Automobility: Car Culture in West Africa (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017), 3.

[9] John Urry, “The ‘System’ of Automobility,” in Automobilities, ed. Mike Featherstone, Nigel Thrift, and John Urry (London: SAGE Publications, 2005), 25–40, 27.

[10] Luis Felipe Farias, “Elsa Gramcko: buscando la imagen primordial,” in Trejo, Elsa Gramcko: geometría e informalismo (Caracas: Fundación Mercantil, 2004), 11–14, 11. Ida Gramcko, a poet and writer, was a prominent figure within the literary circles of Venezuela. For a review of her career and bibliography see Nereida Segura-Rico, “Ida Gramcko (11 October 1924–2 May 1994),” in Modern Spanish American Poets, ed. Maria Antonia Salgado (Detroit, MI: Gale Research Inc, 2004), 147–52.

[11] In the late 1930s, urbanization became endemic in Venezuela following the global depression and the resulting collapse of the agricultural industry. See, for instance, Marco Negrón, “Transformations in Venezuelan Territorial Development and Construction from the 1920s to the 1950s,” in Alfredo Boulton and His Contemporaries: Critical Dialogues in Venezuelan Art, 1912–1974, ed. Ariel Jiménez (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2008), 46–60, 54–55.

[12] For example, Jorge Romero Brest, J. R. Guillent Pérez, Clara Diament Sujo, Ángel Rosenblat, Elizabeth Schön, Rafael Vegas, Mercedes Prado, and Alejandro Otero, to name a few.

[13] The philosopher J. R. Guillent Pérez wrote directly to this point in a two-part essay, “Lo latinoamericano y lo occidental,” Los Disidentes, 1950, 15–17. See J. R. Guillent Pérez, “On Latin America and the West,” in Jiménez, Alfredo Boulton, 175–77.

[14] Megan Sullivan, “Alejandro Otero’s Polychrome: Color between Nature and Abstraction,” October 152 (Spring 2015): 60–81, 71. The quotations used by Sullivan are taken from Pascual Navarro, “Los disidentes y sus críticos,” Los Disidentes: Circulando por América-Latina, no. 5 (September 1950): 11.

[15] James Ferguson, Global Shadows: Africa in the Neoliberal World Order (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006), 178. As he describes, “Modernity figured as a universal telos, even for the most ‘traditional’ of societies. The extent to which societies differed from the modern (and—implicitly or explicitly—Western) ideal neatly indexed their ‘level of development’ toward that ideal” (Global Shadows, 178). Ferguson elaborated that within this developmentalist logic that emerged in the 1950s, “a ‘modern’ form of life encompassing a whole package of elements—including such things as industrial economy, scientific technology, liberal democratic politics, nuclear families, and secular world views—would become universalized. In the process, poor countries would overcome their poverty, share in the prosperity of the ‘developed’ world, and take their place as equals in a worldwide family of nations” (177).

[16] Otero decried what he perceived as the antiquated aesthetic pedagogy at major art institutions in Venezuela. See Alejandro Otero, “Las ‘placas al mérito’ y la juventud,” Los Disidentes: Circulando por América-Latina, April 1950, 9–11.

[17] Francine Birbagher-Rozencwaig, Embracing Modernity: Venezuelan Geometric Abstraction (Miami: Frost Art Museum, 2010), 38, Exhibition Catalog.

[18] Alejandro Otero, “Horizontal-Vertical Collages and Colorhythms, 1951–1960,” in Resonant Space: The Colorhythms of Alejandro Otero, ed. Rina Carvajal (São Paulo, Brazil: Instituto de Arte Contemporânea, 2014), 176–82, 182.

[19] Alejandro Otero, “Statements on Colorhythms and Sculpture,” in Manifestos and Polemics in Latin American Modern Art, ed. Patrick Frank (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2017), 145–47, 145–46.

[20] Alejandro Otero, “Untitled Text,” in Carvajal, Resonant Space, 169.

[21] Gramcko was likely informed of these movements by Otero. While in Paris, Otero had initially engaged abstraction through a postcubist visual language influenced by Pablo Picasso. However, shortly thereafter Otero was introduced to the work of Piet Mondrian through Belgian critic Michel Seuphor’s 1948 publication l'Art abstrait and the corresponding exhibition at Galerie Maeght, which led the artist to incorporate the linear structuring of Mondrian’s Neo-Plastic syntax into his work. Otero, “Horizontal-Vertical Collages and Colorhythms,” 176.

[22] “Yo no la considero una pintura abstracta, es demasiado emotiva y con demasiados contenidos interiores.”

[23] The ideas underpinning the Nuevo Ideal National were stated as follows: “Mejoramiento moral, intelectual y material de los habitantes del territorio patrio y transformacíon racional del medio físco, para lograr que Venezuela ocupe el rango que le corresponde por su situacíon geogáfica, su extrodinaria riqueza y sus gloriosas tradiciones.” (The moral, intellectual, and material improvement of the inhabitants of the homeland and the rational transformation of the physical environment, to ensure that Venezuela occupies the rank that corresponds to its geographic location, its extraordinary wealth, and its glorious tradition.) Servicio Informativo Venezolano, Venezuela Bajo el Nuevo Ideal Nacional: Realizaciones durante el Gobierno del Coronel Marcos Pérez Jiménez, 2 de diciembe de 1952–19 de abril de 1954 (Caracas: Imprenta Nacional, 1954), n.p.

[24] Lisa Blackmore, Spectacular Modernity: Dictatorship, Space, and Visuality in Venezuela, 1948–1958 (Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2017), 36.

[25] Fernando Coronil, The Magical State: Nature, Money, and Modernity in Venezuela (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1997), 204.

[26] Lisa Blackmore, inspired by the Venezuelan playwright José Ignacio Cabrujas, built on the work of Coronil and Guy Debord’s concept of “spectacle” in order to develop the concept at the center of her important book. See Blackmore, Spectacular Modernity, 3–29.

[27] Robert Moses was brought to Venezuela by the International Basic Economy Corporation, backed by Nelson Rockefeller. He was tasked with updating the French urban planner Maurice Rotival’s 1939 Plan Monumental. As Lorenzo Gonzáles notes, “Moses’ agenda was similar to that in New York: to promote the automobile by creating more room in the city and better financial conditions—which included support from the beneficiaries of that agenda: the oil and car companies—to build the expensive infrastructure that was required.” Lorenzo Gonzáles, “Modernity for Import and Export: The United States’ Influence on the Architecture and Urbanism of Caracas,” Colloqui 11 (Spring 1996): 64–77, 71.

[28] Judith Ewell, Venezuela: A Century of Change (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1984), 117.

[29] For an overview of the importance of mobility in the concept of Western modernity, see Timothy Cresswell, On the Move: Mobility in the Modern Western World (New York: Routledge, 2006), 15–21.

[30] Cotton Seiler has examined how the automobile and automobility more broadly was an essential device in defining and disseminating notions of an American subjectivity. See Cotton Seiler, Republic of Drivers: A Cultural History of Automobility in America (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2008).

[31] “Almost anywhere else, a hot-rodding President, with or without office cares, would be an unusual spectacle. But in Venezuela, that famed, throbbing boom land of South America, the spectacular is commonplace.” “Skipper of the Dreamboat,” Time Magazine 65, no. 9 (February 28, 1955), n.p.

[32] See Ariel Jiménez, Alfredo Cortina: un mirada informada (Caracas: Archivo Fotografía Urbana, 2016).

[33] In Henri Lefebvre’s specific discussion on the objects of everyday life, he notes the car holds an exemplary place within the “systems of substitutes.” Henri Lefebvre, Everyday Life in the Modern World, trans. Sacha Rabinovitch (New York: Harper and Row, 1971), 101.

[34] For a comprehensive review of the structure, see Celeste Olalquiaga and Lisa Blackmore, eds., Downward Spiral: El Helicoide’s Descent from Mall to Prison (New York: Terreform, 2018).

[35] Its proximity to Avenida Fuerzas Armadas easily directed traffic to the project, while a double helix of car ramps allowed visitors to access the vast without leaving their cars. María Gaztambide notes how the El Helicoide “merged into a single structure two of the pillars upon which Venezuelan modernity was erected: personal displacement through automobile travel and capitalistic consumption.” María Gaztambide, El Techo de la Ballena: Retro-Modernity in Venezuela (Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 2019), 35.

[36] Blackmore locates the commodity as a key source of the consumption of modernity.

[37] Gaztambide described this dynamic as a “lopsided modernity” (El Techo de la Ballena, 14–15).

[38] The Desoto brand was named after the Spanish conquistador Hernando de Soto. For a case study of Chrysler’s export market, see Gavin Farmer, Great Ideas in Motion: Chrysler’s Australian History, 1946–1981 (Bridgewater: Ilinga Books, 2010).

[39] “Una sociedad contemporanea completamente mecanizada, donde el hombre es un engranaje de la maquinaria . . . tiene que ser el mayor enemigo de nuestra identidad.” Juan Calzadilla, “Entrevista con Elsa Gramcko: realizada el 30 de agosto de 1976,” in López Quintero, Elsa Gramcko, 53–56, 56.

[40] Coronil wrote, “Ever since the height of the boom in 1955 the government had made it a practice to postpone paying its debts to the construction companies with which it had contracted for projects. . . . By 1957 this practice had escalated until government debt was estimated at over $1.4 billion, of which the domestic debt was only $150 million. . . . According to [Pérez Jiménez], the private contractors had obtained financing on the basis of government contracts, including contracts with schedules that tied payments to the completion of distinct phases of the work. When they did not finish their work as planned, the contractors received delayed payments from the government, even though they had to pay their creditors on time.” Coronil, The Magical State, 201–2.

[41] H. Micheal Tarver and Julia C. Frederick, The History of Venezuela (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2006), 110–11.

[42] Lisa Blackmore, “El Helicoide and La Torre de David as Phantom Pavilions: Rethinking Spectacles of Progress in Venezuela,” Bulletin of Latin American Research 38, no. 1 (2019): 206–22, 211. The site was located atop of the Roca Tarpeya, an outcrop near downtown Caracas. 

[43] Ángel Rama reflected on this in 1974, writing, “in a way, Informalism could be considered less a definite aesthetic affiliation than a wholesale revolt against the prevailing order: the medium of painting. . . . The transition from geometric and kinetic art to Informal art, driven by the passage from a combinatorial frame of mind to one focused on the turbulence of life, was accompanied in Venezuela by an aggressiveness unheard of in the rest of Latin America.” Ángel Rama, “Of Terrorism in the Arts,” in Jiménez, Alfredo Boulton, 258–64, 262–63.

[44] See Juan Calzadilla, “Presentación: Espacios Vivientes,” in Espacios Vivientes (Maracaibo: Palacio Municipal, 1960), n.p. ICAA Digital Archive, 1279384. The exhibition featured thirty-three artists exhibiting sixty-seven works.

[45] Venezuela Pintura Hoy opened in July 196 at the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Havana, before traveling to the Mueseu de Bellos Artes de Caracas. Salon Experimental was held at the Fundacion Eugenio Mendoza in Caracas. Juan Calzadilla and Daniel González, Venezuela Pintura Hoy (Caracas and Havana: Casa de las Américas, 1960), n.p. ICAA Digital Archive, 1279659; and Juan Calzadilla, Salón Experimental (Caracas: Sala de Exposiciones Fundación Eugenio Mendoza, 1960), n.p, ICAA Digital Archive, 1279579.

[46] These artists occupied a diverse range of ideological positions, from Maruja Rolando (1923–70) to Fernando Irazábal (b. 1936). In his El Occiso (The Deceased) series, Irazábal, marshalled his own idiosyncratic blurring of informalist aesthetics with a politics of shock in order to, as Gaztambide writes, “elicit an emotional response from spectators,” rather than “quiet contemplation.” Gaztambide, El Techo de la Ballena, 68.

[47] Megan Sullivan suggests Otero’s use of the industrial, oil-based lacquer “was at least a tacit embrace of oil’s conversion into the most advanced, imported consumer commodities.” Sullivan, “Alejandro Otero’s Polychrome,” 80.

[48] On Bursztyn see Gina Tarver, The New Iconoclasts: From Art of a New Reality to Conceptual Art in Colombia, 1961–1975 (Bogotá: Universidad de los Andes, 2016). On Berni, see Marcelo Pacheco, et al., Antonio Berni: Juanito and Ramona (Houston, TX: Museum of Fine Arts Houston, 2013). On Kemble, see Kenneth Kemble: Prólogos, Artículos, Entrevistas, 1961–1998, ed. Justo Pastor Mellado (Buenos Aires: JK Ediciones, 2012). For a broad overview of informalism in Argentina, see Andrea Giunta and Inés Katzenstein, Listen, Here, Now! Argentine Art of the 1960s: Writings of the Avant-Garde (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2004).

[49] Estrella Brodsky, ed., Soto: Paris and Beyond, 1950–1970 (New York: Grey Art Gallery, New York University, 2012).

[50] Robert J. Alexander, The Venezuelan Democratic Revolution: A Profile of the Regime of Rómulo Betancourt (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1964), 56–57; 103–11.

[51] Tad Szulcs, “Leftist Students Defying Caracas; Fortify College,” New York Times, December 1, 1960, 1. Violent student protests had been underway since the previous year.

[52] El Techo de la Ballena, “Pre-manifesto,” in Jiménez, Alfredo Boulton, 256–58, 256.

[53] Adriano González León, a member of El Techo de la Ballena, was imprisoned in 1964 for his militant leftist affiliations and his publication of inflammatory polemics, such as “Investigación de las basuras.” Ángel Luque was deported to Spain for his participation in the kidnapping Lt. Col. Michael Smolen, deputy chief of the U.S. mission to the Venezuelan air force in 1964. Caupolicán Ovalles was also exiled for his enrollment in the Movimiento de Izquierda Revolucionaria and the publication of such his 1962 anti-Betancourt essay, “¿Duerme usted, señor Presidente?” (Gaztambide, El Techo de la Ballena, 50).

[54] “Mi pintura ha sido un arte sin hipótesis y sin ‘ismos.’” Calzadilla, “Entrevista con Elsa Gramcko,” 54.

[55] These more politically active friends include Calzadilla, Daniel González (b. 1934), and Rodolfo Izaguirre (b. 1931).

[56] This humanist discourse is evident in the group’s manifesto published in the first issue of Sardio in 1958. It stated its commitment to ongoing political activism postdictatorship: “All aspects of human life are under the positive or negative influence of politics, which determines their destiny, no matter what. Being political is tantamount to being a man. All indolence favors slavery and the humiliation of the soul. . . . Dictatorships are more than just the blind imposition of instinct or greed. They are generated by the fundamental denial of the human essence and intelligence.” See Sardio, “Testimonial: Manifesto Sardio,” in Jiménez, Alfredo Boulton, 254–56, 256.  

[57] “Un intelectual de izquierda comprometido, no con la ideología de un partido, sino con la ‘dimensión existencial’ del hombre” (Álvaro Contreras, “Política y Ficción en Sardio,” Voy y Escritura, no. 25 [2017]: 55–73, 66). Carmen Virginia Carrillo adds that this leftist humanism was strongly influenced by the writings of French philosopher Jean Paul Sartre (Carmen Virginia Carrillo, “Grupos Artístico-Literarios en la Venezuela de Los Años Sesenta,” Latino América 44 [2007]: 59–81, 60).

[58] In this letter, Gramcko wrote, “Toda la ciudad está llena de carros y autobuses incendiados, los estudiantes en huelga, y por todas las calles hay grupos gritando y armados. . . . La situación es tremenda, es imposible no estar deprimido y angustiado. . . . Comprendo que en nuestro momento histórico no existe sino una solución: la lucha. Pero ¿qué se puede construír en un país donde nadie puede estudiar, ni trabajar?” Gramcko to Otero, November 29, 1960. Archivo Documental de la Fundación Alejandro Otero-Mercedes Pardo.

[59] Elsa Gramcko, “Gramcko habla sobre su trayectoria plastica,” (unpublished manuscript, 1965, 1–4). Gramcko also drew upon the writings of her friend, the philosopher and former member of Los Disidentes, Guillent Pérez. Mari Carmen Ramírez has addressed the frequent evocation of “things” in Gramcko’s work. See Ramírez, “Of Things and Machines,” 125–29.

[60] “Revolt Toll Rises to 400 in Venezuela,” The New York Times, June 6, 1962, 5.

[61] Elizabeth Schön reads the Serie Puertas y Ventanas as a direct reference to the architecture of Puerto Cabello. Elizabeth Schön, “Elsa Gramcko,” in López Quintero, Elsa Gramcko (Caracas, Venezuela: Fundación Galería de Arte Nacional, 1997), 7–15, 9.

[62] Marta Traba, “Finale: Allegro con fuoco: Cinéticos y experimentadores,” in Jiménez, Alfredo Boulton, 278–84, 280. Traba’s essay was first published in 1974.

[63] Victor Erlich, Russian Formalism: History, Doctrine, 2nd rev. ed. (The Hague: Mouton, 1965), 176–77.

[64] Roland Barthes, Mythologies, trans. Annette Laver (New York: Noonday Press, 1972), 88.

[65] David Ingles, “Auto Couture: Thinking the Car in Post-war France,” in Automobilities, ed. Mike Featherstone, Nigel Thrift, and John Urry (London: SAGE Publications, 2005), 197–220, 202.

[66] For a detailed discussion of postwar advertising and the image of the automobile, see Liam Considine, “Disaster in Paris: Andy Warhol and the French Automotive Imaginary, c. 1964,” Art History 39 (2016): 540–67.

[67] Adriano González León and Daniel González, “Bestia aflada,” in Asfalto-infierno y otros relatos demoniacos, quoted in Gaztimbide, El Techo de la Ballena, 130.

[68] For a review of the various positions taken by these figures in relation to the automobile, see Ingles, “Auto Couture,” 197–219.

[69] Also, that year, Andy Warhol (1923–87) debuted his Death and Disaster series in Paris at the Galerie Illeana Sonnabend. The iconic series included a number of his silk-screened works containing overlapping, repeated images of car crashes. See Considine, “Disaster in Paris,” 553.