CÉSAR PATERNOSTO

b. 1931, La Plata, Argentina

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Essentially, painting implies an act of submission of matter to mind. The givens of color, line and flat surface are turned into weightless matter. The result is another dimension of reality—often referred to as 'illusion'—with its own referential context.

 

—César Paternosto [1]

 

Within the abstract compositions of César Paternosto resides a geometry whose language exceeds the typically non-objective and concrete forms it has taken throughout the history of western modernism. As the critic Lucy Lippard writes of his work, “Buried in these breathtaking beautiful surfaces are memories of other civilizations, other systems and values.”[2] Working within the legacy of artists like Joaquín Torres-García, Paternosto has consistently challenged North American and Eurocentric art historical paradigms by turning toward pre-Hispanic Amerindian approaches to form. As an artist and scholar, Paternosto’s work provides an initiation into a broader understanding of the history of art, one in which the contributions of pre-Hispanic and Latin American artists have much to say to their North American counterparts.  

 

César Paternosto began his artistic training in the late 1950s at the Universidad Nacional de la Plata while simultaneously studying to be a lawyer at the same institution. He studied design and color theory in Héctor Cartier’s Bauhaus-inspired course, which Paternosto described as a life-changing experience that reinforced his commitment to art.[3] In the early 1960s, Paternosto joined Grupo Sí, a collective of artists producing work in the vein of European Informalism, before experimenting with geometric abstraction alongside fellow artist Alejandro Puente. In the catalogue for a 1964 exhibition at Galería Lirolay showcasing the work of both artists, the critic Aldo Pellegrini distinguished their paintings from the lineage of Concrete art. Rather than an art of cold calculation, theirs was based on a “sensitive geometry” that did not deny the artist’s hand.[4]

 

As the decade progressed, Paternosto became ever more adventurous, both in composition and in the physical form of his canvases. His paintings featured crisp, undulating bands of color, but soon the artist would begin to break away from one of the fundamental components of traditional painting—the rectangular picture plane. Paternosto submitted artworks composed of groups of curved and shaped canvases to the III Bienal Americana de Arte in Córdoba, Argentina, earning him first prize. Alfred Barr, a jurist for the competition, purchased the multi-canvas piece Duino (1966) for the Museum of Modern Art. In 1967, Paternosto moved to New York, where he continued to challenge not only the conventions of painting, but the spectator’s relationship to it. “I always say that, in truth, I am a New York artist,” Paternosto later reflected, but one that “like so many others, came from distant shores to battle for a place in the sun, and whose art evolved in response to the issues agitated in those experimental years of the late sixties and seventies.”[5] It was in this context that Paternosto developed an approach to painting that, while aligned with the phenomenological emphasis of current minimalist practices,[6] nevertheless reaffirmed the relevance of the act of painting and the medium itself:

 

Although the brutal reductivism brought on by the minimalist sculptors was just as stimulating, my new approach to painting meant a heartfelt rejection of then prevailing minimalist ideology—namely that “sculpture outpowers painting” . . .  a rebuttal to its “death sentence” proclaimed not only by the minimalists, but also later on by the conceptualists.[7]

 

These ideas crystallized in 1969 when Paternosto first theorized what he described as “oblique vision,” which challenged the traditional frontal position for viewing a painting. By leaving the canvas surface entirely blank and painting only its edges, spectators were required to be mobile, and to look at the artworks from an angle to see the artist’s intervention. Examples of these pieces were presented at the A.M. Sachs Gallery in 1970 and in the following years at the Galerie Denise René’s New York, Düsseldorf, and Paris locations.

 

During the late 1970s, Paternosto’s paintings began to shift their direction and meaning as a result of his travels through Argentina, Bolivia, and Peru. Reflecting on this experience in the catalogue for a two-person exhibition with Cecilia Vicuña at The Drawing Center in 2002, Paternosto writes:

 

For a mainstream abstractionist like myself, the undiluted surprise of this encounter with the sculptural works of the Inca, which I later coupled with extensive readings in art history, anthropology, and mythology, provided just such a revelation. Suddenly, I understood that the abstract, seemingly meaningless shapes found in the ancient non-European arts were in fact deeply symbolic.[8]

 

Paternosto’s paintings from this time are earthen in color, inscribed by a sparse and intentional geometry that brings to mind the “Adobe” paintings and tectonic studies of Josef Albers. Continuing in this vein through the coming decades, Paternosto’s deep and earnest study of pre-Columbian civilization, and his understanding of the symbolic and sacred uses of geometry, shines through. His artwork was informed by his scholarship, which saw Paternosto undertake archaeological work at sites in Mexico, as well as at Cuzco and the famous Nazca lines.[9] He is the author of Piedra abstracta, la escultura inca: una visión contemporánea (Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1989) and The Stone and the Thread: Andean Roots of Abstract Art (University of Texas Press, 1996).

 

Paternosto lives and works today in Segovia, Spain, his recent work revisiting and enriching his groundbreaking application of “oblique vision.” In 2001, he curated the group show Abstracción: El paradigma amerindio, which opened at the Palais des Beaux-Arts, Brussels, before traveling to IVAM Centre Julio González, Valencia. Paternosto was the subject of a mid-career retrospective at the Center for Inter American Relations (now the Americas Society) in 1981, and has since held solo exhibitions at the Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid (2017), and the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, Buenos Aires (2019). His paintings have featured in numerous important group shows, chief among them Latin American Art Since Independence, Yale University Gallery, New Haven; Latin American Artists in New York Since 1970, Archer M. Huntington Gallery, University of Texas, Austin; The Latin American Spirit: Art and Artists in the United States, 1920–1970, The Bronx Museum of the Arts, New York (Traveled to: El Paso Museum of Art; San Diego Museum of Art; Instituto de Cultura Puertorriqueña, San Juan; Center for the Arts, Vero Beach, FL); Latin American Artists of the Twentieth Century, Plaza de Armas, Seville, (Traveled to: Centre Pompidou, Paris; Josef-Haubrich Kunsthalle, Cologne; and the Museum of Modern Art, New York); High  Times, Hard Times: New York Painting 1967–1975, Weatherspoon Art Museum, University of North Carolina, Greensboro (Traveled to: National Academy Museum, New York; Museo Tamayo, Mexico City; Neue Galerie, Gaz, Austria; ZKM, Karlsruhe, Germany); Cold America: Geometric Abstraction in Latin America (1934–1973), Fundación Juan March, Madrid; Géométries Américaines, du Mexique à la Terre de feu, Fondation Cartier, Paris; and Sur moderno: Journeys of Abstraction, Museum of Modern Art, New York.

 

César Paternosto’s painting are represented in the permanent collections of the Albright-Knox Gallery, Buffalo; Blanton Museum of Art, University of Texas, Austin; Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, DC; Kunstmuseum Bern; Menil Collection, Houston; Museo de Arte Contemporáneo Sofia Imber, Caracas; Museo de Arte Moderno, Buenos Aires; Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, Madrid; Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, Buenos Aires; Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid; Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Museum of Modern Art, New York; and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York.

[1] César Paternosto, Paternosto (Madrid: Tf Editores, 2007), 247.

[2] Lucy Lippard, in César Paternosto Paintings 1969–1980, exh. cat. (New York: Center for Interamerican Relations, 1981).

[3] See the artist’s interview with Infobae, “The time of César Paternosto, the Artist who challenged the eye in Art.”

[4] Aldo Pellegrini, “Paternosto y Puente,” in Nueva Geometría: Paternosto—Puente, exh. cat. (Buenos Aires: Galería Lirolay, 1964).

[5] César Paternosto, in conversation with Edward J. Sullivan, Cesar Paternosto. Painting as Object: The Lateral Expansion. New Works, exh. cat. (New York: Cecilia de Torres Gallery, 2012), 40.

[6] Jacqueline Barnitz, Janis Bergman-Carton, Florencia Bazzano Nelson, Latin American Artists in New York since 1970, exh. cat. (Austin: A.M. Huntington Art Gallery, University of Texas, 1987).

[7] In conversation with Edward J. Sullivan, 37–45.

[8] César Paternosto, “The Grid and the Archetypal Geometric Forms,” in Dis Solving Threads of Water and Light, exh. cat. (New York: The Drawing Center, 2002), 2.

[9] See the artist’s biographical note in Cold America: Geometric Abstraction in Latin America (1934–1973), exh. cat. (Madrid: Fundación Juan March, 2011), 372.

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