Working with Victor
It was in the context of Guy Brett’s seminal exhibition ‘Transcontinental’ in 1990 that I first met Victor Grippo. My Spanish was rudimentary, his English likewise so we conversed in basic Italian, the language of his immigrant father. In the bustle of a major group show, our conversations were necessarily limited until late one night on the way back to Birmingham from the opening of the second half of the show in Manchester when our minibus broke down and we were stranded in a motorway café at one in the morning. Exhausted and depressed by this environment, we waited patiently for rescue. And it came, not physically but mentally as Victor transformed the atmosphere, drawing a picture of our circumstances with a wit and accuracy that had us weeping with laughter. This situation became for me an unforgettable metaphor for the ability of this remarkable man to coax meaning and conjure magic out of the most unprepossessing materials.
Two years later I went to his house in Buenos Aires to start work on the retrospective that he was to present in 1995. It was to be a long process of discovery as we set out to recreate some of his earlier installations. His house was a veritable laboratory, a treasure trove of sources and materials and a place where art and life could never be separated. Grippo lived his art, to the full.
The exhibition required a long period of preparation in Birmingham, a major task that went beyond the usual requirements of an installation. Victor became a much loved frequenter of our local Italian restaurant. His poetic use of language came through to everyone, along with his acute sense of observation laced with a humour that was never ironic, and his fundamental belief in the power of art to act on human consciousness for the good of humanity. This notion of the awakening of consciousness reveals the ethical underpinning of his attitude to art and its relationship to life.
Many of the key factors which have helped to shape his practice were evident in his conversations about his earliest days. His immigrant background; his upbringing in a small rural town in Argentina where foodstuffs were basic and meals prosaic yet central to the rhythm of daily life; his fascination for the work of the blacksmith next door; his introduction to sculpture and then to chemistry, all contributed to an art that uses the tools of art and science mingled with poetry to unleash hitherto unremarked potential within the material world.
Transformation is one of the major underlying principles of Grippo’s work: transformation of matter into energy, science into art, rural into urban, life into death; personal transformation as well as physical. Two of his most iconic works demonstrate this most powerfully. In the Analogía ⁄ Analogy series, he taps into the latent potential and symbolic power of the potato, the basic food of Latin America, through scientific knowledge, making an analogy between the potato giving power and human consciousness which likewise can make a leap of understanding. Vida, Muerte, Resurrección ⁄ Life, Death, Resurrection refines this further as the soaking of half of the objects in water causes the beans to grow and burst out of their inert lead containers.
As he recreated some of his scientific experiments in Birmingham, building containers, mixing chemicals, creating gases, he seemed to be transformed himself, into the eccentric professor obsessed by alchemy – the magical power or process of transmuting an ordinary substance into something of great value. In the Middle Ages, alchemy more specifically meant the quest for turning base metals into gold. In the hands of Grippo, it became a quest for energy, analogous to a life-giving form that can change the world, or at least our attitude to it.
Grippo’s relationship to craft and to traditional workers is another defining factor of his practice. In 1972 he collaborated with Jorge Gamarra (artist) and A. Rossi to build an oven on the streets of Buenos Aires. A. Rossi was a rural worker who had such an oven in his house. Bread was baked in the oven and distributed to people in the streets. So subversive was this act in the context of the military dictatorship that the police destroyed the oven two days later. Political art does not need to be sloganeering or banner waving to be effective.
Likewise the work Algunos oficios ⁄ Some Trades presented the simplest of tools from five traditional crafts as an art installation, complete with a bed of earth (which had to be watered daily) and wheelbarrow propped against the wall to emphasise the physical nature of the work. When recreating this work in the Ikon, Victor insisted in working alongside the crew, taking his turn to bring in the barrow loads of earth.
This is no simple romantic homage to the worker. For Grippo, the physical is always linked to the mental, the hand to the brain. His elevation of tradition had its roots in his profound respect for people who contributed so much to the workings of society and his belief in the power of traditional work had a quasi spiritual dimension.
There was also the long search and process of selection undergone in the procurement of tools with just the right resonance, a sure sign that aesthetics are never forgotten in what may appear to be a random selection of materials. Even the potatoes had to have specific qualities.
His interest in spirituality was stimulated by his friendship with the priest and professor of aesthetics Riccardo Martin Crosa, with whom he spent many hours discussing all manner of philosophical propositions. Martin Crosa wrote eloquently on another key work, in which the artist also unveils layers of meaning in simple objects, this time a series of tables, or school desks in the original installation at the Bienale of Havana. In Mesas de trabajo y reflexión ⁄ Tables of Work and Reflection Grippo uses text to pull to the surface different ways of ‘reading’ the work. He refers to the history of the tables – not just these tables but any tables, in a poetic reminder of the role that everyday objects play in our lives. The spiritual dimension is enhanced by the presentation in a dimly lit space with a few spotlights on the written words. In the basement space of the Ikon, the work induced a reverential hush, another transformation from the implicit noise of the scientific experiments in the next gallery.
No-one who worked on that exhibition with Victor could fail to be moved. It was one of the most memorable experiences I have ever had, working with a truly visionary artist. We all felt an acute sense of loss long after he had returned to Argentina. In the words of the artist Sergio de Camargo:
“Artist, humanist and friend, we thank him for his rigorous, audacious, wise and lucid adventure.”
Grippo, A Retrospective 1971–2001 Malba, Beunos Aires, 2004 ISBN 9872144516
Elizabeth A. Macgregor, Catherine de Zegher (eds.) Victor Grippo Ikon Gallery, 1995 ISBN 0907594484
Ines Katzenstein, Listen, Here, Now! Argentine Art in the 1960s MoMA, New York (2004) ISBN 0870703668
Edward Sullivan (ed.), Latin American Art in the Twentieth Century, Phaidon Press, 1996 ISBN 0714839809
David Elliott (ed.) Art from Argentina 1920 –1994 Museum of Modern Art, Oxford, 1994 ISBN 0905836871
Guy Brett, Transcontinental, An Investigation of Reality: Nine Latin American Artists Verso Books, 1990 ISBN 0860915115
Jorge Glusborg, Art in Argentina Giancarlo Politi Editore, Milan, 1986
‘ When mankind constructed his first tool, he simultaneously created the first useful object and the first work of art.’ Victor Grippo
Victor Grippo was born in Junín, a province of Buenos Aires, in 1936.
Originally trained as a chemist, he began to paint and make engravings in the 1950s and conducted his first experiments in three- dimensions the following decade. Grippo’s sculptures and installations from that period onwards are characterised by a fascination with the alchemical power of everyday materials and the transformation and regeneration of matter inherent in nature.
His numerous solo exhibitions include Galería Artemúltiple, Buenos Aires (1976, 1980); Gabinete de Arte Raquel Arnaud, São Paulo (1984); Ikon Gallery, Birmingham and Palais des Beaux-Arts, Brussels (1995) and MALBA, Buenos Aires (2004). His work was included in many group exhibitions and Biennales during his lifetime including: ‘Latin American Artists of the Twentieth Century’, The Museum of Modern Art, New York (1993); ‘Art from Argentina 1920–1994’, The Museum of Modern Art, Oxford (1994); ‘A Quality of Light’, Tate Gallery / Porthmeor Studios, St Ives International (1997); ‘XXIV Bienal Internacional de São Paulo’ (1998) and ‘Global Conceptualism: Points of Origin 1950s–1980s’, Queens Museum of Art, New York (1999). Victor Grippo died in Buenos Aires in 2002.
His Estate is represented by Alexander and Bonin, New York.
Elizabeth Ann MacGregor is director of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, Australia.
With special thanks to Guy Brett, Nidia Grippo and Carolyn Alexander. The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts