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Túlia Saldanha and Rosemarie Castoro: the uncomfortable invisibility

This text is the consequence of two first encounters: one with the work of the artist Túlia Saldanha. Until her retrospective in 2014 at the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, she was practically unknown in the Portuguese artistic and cultural milieu; and the second encounter in a trip to Paris, in 2019, where for the first time I met the work of the American artist Rosemarie Castoro, in the exhibition Wherein Lies the Space, at the gallery Thaddaeus Ropac.

Despite the clear social and geographical differences between Túlia Saldanha and Rosemarie Castoro, the artists (with nine years of difference) shared issues of gender, race, politics, or, in the specific case of the history of art, the failure to meet the parameters imposed by the critique. But both created works of aesthetic and conceptual relevance in their respective artistic contexts.

This text is a meeting point. From several first meetings.

Who?

Túlia Saldanha (1930-1988) was born in Trás-os-Montes, in a precarious context of almost absolute isolation. Later, after a divorce, she moved with her daughters to Coimbra. It was there that she established herself and had her first contact with art when she joined the CAP (Círculo de Artes Plásticas). It was not an academy, but an association belonging to the Coimbra Academic Association. Although it was nonpartisan, it stimulated a social construction politically associated with collaborative practices.

For Saldanha, CAP was not just a place of learning and construction of an artistic identity. Between 1968 and 1988, it was also the place where she taught (later she was part of the institution’s direction) and where she met the group with which, over the years, she made joint artistic actions. This group also had Albuquerque Mendes or Ângelo de Sousa, with whom she organized and participated in the exhibition Alternativa Zero. Through Ângelo, she also met Wolf Vostell, with whom she shared many of her artistic conceptions, and who invited her to exhibitions and other projects in Malpartida (Spain).

Túlia Saldanha argued that an artist does not depend on a specific school, but on the creative sensibility stimulated over time. This vision was the basis of her pedagogical perspective that she always used in her artistic activity: for her, art was above all a vehicle for the social apprehension of life. Many of her installations were experiential, she did not want to make illusory representations of something, but of the “thing itself”. For example, the work Banquet, with various black edible items that the public was invited to experience, tried to make art a truly shared experience. Like the dinners-tertulia that she organized and cooked, and where artistic issues were discussed.

In 1971, the artist first exhibited at the CAP’s “black gallery”, with the installation Ontem hoje amanhã nunca? Umahora vi quandotueraspequenina muitasvezesàtarde naturezamorta queimada. It was a series of premises that she continuously developed in her works. Some in the 1970s, others until the end of her life: the recreation of a typically kitchen from Trás-os-Montes; the presence of objects painted in black and others already charred; or questions about painting, which she addressed directly later through still lifes.

Rosemarie Castoro (1939-2015) was born and lived in New York. In the late 1950s, she joined the Pratt Institute, where she studied dance and choreography. After finishing her studies, she worked on graphic design projects. As often happens, these two worlds came together in her art; on one hand, dance was decisive for the use of the body as a measure and as a medium in sculpture and artistic actions; on the other hand, drawing was the central element of all her work – something possibly exponentiated by her close friendship with Agnes Martin.

At first, she was a painter. She created the “Y-Units” to establish visual tensions from the more or less standardized repetition of “Y” shaped signs, of different colours, perpetuated on the surface of the canvases, as opposed to an opaque background, in a reference to the sequential idea of infinity – explored by the minimalists. Later, she “disassembled” the sign and explored the compositional dynamics generated by the greater or lesser concentration of coloured bars along the surface. In these initial paintings, there were already relationships with dance. This dynamic, created by the repetitive standardization of forms, is similar to the anthropomorphic bodies that move in space. But this relationship was explored incessantly in different sculptures, which she later presented, and in diaristic records that underline this conceptual dimension.

Between 1969 and 1970, Castoro participated in three exhibitions curated by Lucy Lippard – probably the greatest supporter of her work – and in the Street Works event. The latter included several collective actions in the street, organized by John Perreault and Marjorie Strider. It was there that she presented three unpublished performances in New York City’s public space, which engaged people in their daily lives.

From 1970 on, she started the important series of reliefs in plaster, a material she applied with a broom and graphite over the irregular texture created by the gesture. These works were the result of the union of expressions aspired by Castoro. They merged painting, sculpture, and drawing. Also, they oscillated between the wall and the three-dimensional space, some acquiring almost architectural proportions.

After these spatial experiments, the artist developed installations (such as Beaver’s Trap) with sexual innuendos and a theatrical side. Once again out of place, but not far from the logic of other minimalists, such as Robert Morris, for example.

Language and the (female) body – similitudes and divergences

One of the common points between the two artists is their proximity to conceptual art, given the importance of language, both in the creation of works in which the word was the medium, and in the choice of titles.

With Castoro, language is much explored, especially in concrete poems – later compiled in A Day in the Life of a Conscientious Objector (1968) – where she uses phonetic and grammatical similarities to create unusual and visual relationships between words. In this chapter of her work, the artist approached more directly issues related to feminism and sexuality, doing so with humour and playing with the limitations of language.

On the other hand, in Túlia Saldanha’s work, the language went far beyond its plastic use. The idea that art was a way of creating experiences also implied creating dialogue. It was from this idea that the aforementioned dinners were born, which she organized and prepared, aware that the meal is one of the most rooted social rituals in human collective behaviour. For the Portuguese artist, an exhibition was purely a moment of sharing and art was inseparable from life.

The divergence between the two becomes clearer in the different ways they used the body as a performative agent. In Castoro’s case, the body is a vehicle for drawing; it is the medium that manages to prolong thought in space. In her actions, the artist creates questions related to individual identity – the body as a “measure of all things”, – and addresses physicality as the maximum representation of sexual desire. In Beaver’s Trap (1977), besides the provocative pun with the translation of her Italian name, the sculpted wooden branches draw a kind of cage, where the artist moves in an animal-like manner, in an eroticism capable of breaking the formalist strictness of minimalism, subverting it and adding her own vision, as Lucy Lippard later wrote.

The use of the (female) body, and her fascination with the fluid movement of dance, added interpretative dimensions to her work, moving it away from the theoretical biases established by art criticism of that time. Barbara Rose, Michael Fried or Richard Wollheim were some of the critics who contributed most to the definition of the theoretical patterns of minimalism – and to its masculinization, as the names mentioned are almost always Carl Andre, Dan Flavin, Donald Judd, Sol LeWitt, and Robert Morris. Castoro knew that her work would hardly fit those assumptions. She jocularly stated that she did not consider herself a minimalist, but a “maximist” – she was probably right. She opted to ignore the extremely rational theoretical assumptions and went for a more sensory and emotional path.

In Túlia Saldanha’s work, the body can be seen as a mediator between the idea and the public – political – space, capable of functioning with and also within the collective. More than the theatrical and representative dimension, Túlia Saldanha wanted to approach the real. The reality of sharing a meal and creating encounters in everything similar to everyday life. The “environments” she created were places of approach, of debate or fruition. One example is the work Sala de Descontração (1975), where visitors found piles of crushed paper at the entrance, on which they could sit or jump.

Her most iconic work, 240.180.180 dissimetria mater (1980), may be seen as an opposition to the collective premises mentioned above, but also presents the plastic concerns of T. Saldanha, closer to the conceptual universe of R. Castoro. The work consists of a wooden box painted in black, with the artist’s body measurements, 28 black and white photographs, and a sheet explaining the process of enclosure shown in the images. The body acquires an existential side with the carbonization of still lifes, something typical of her exhibitions. The limit between conservation and disappearance, between life and death, are taken further here because it is the artist’s own body.

The work 240.180.180 dissimetria mater (1980) made by a Portuguese artist, from Trás-os-Montes, allows to associate her with feminism and feminine emancipation. But it was not possible to find any information of this kind in her discourse, except her intrinsic association with the historical context of the Portuguese dictatorship. R. Castoro stated that she did not identify herself as a feminist, despite all the provocative connotations in her works, and the fact that she organized in her studio one of the first meetings of the Art Worker’s Coalition.

Túlia Saldanha only became known in her country in 2014 (twenty-six years after her death), in an exhibition organised by Rita Fabiana and Liliana Coutinho, at the Modern Art Centre – Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, and at the Museo Vostell Malpartida, in Cáceres, Spain. So far, no other individual exhibition of her work has been made.

Rosemarie Castoro, despite her late participation in some collective exhibitions in museums, and individual exhibitions in several New York galleries, has never achieved the deserved relevance. Despite belonging to the same circle as the other icons of minimalism (she was even married to Carl Andre), her first major retrospective exhibition took place in 2017 at the MACBA in Barcelona, two years after her death. The following year, the Thaddaeus Ropac gallery bought the rights to the artist’s estate and organized her first solo exhibition in Paris. At the end of 2019, there was a new retrospective at the MAMCO, in Geneva, Switzerland.

The extensive invisibility of the two artists shows that it is urgent to review hegemonic historiography, to find people forgotten and ignored by institutions – which often reject artists from socially marginalized groups, and prefer uniform aesthetics to build immovable patterns, simplifying the exercise of labelling artistic movements and trends.

Francisco Correia (b. 1996) lives and works in Lisbon. He studied Painting at Faculdade de Belas-Artes at Universidade de Lisboa and finished the post-graduation on Art Curatorship at Faculdade de Ciências Sociais e Humanas at Universidade Nova de Lisboa. He has been writing for and about exhibitions, while simultaneously developing his artistic project.

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