EDGAR NEGRET

b. 1920, Popayán, Colombia

d. 2012, Bogotá

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One day I saw a street light in New York that with a simple change of lights could stop, guide, control, and lead the aggressive crowds of New York. That a red light made them stop and a green light made them move seemed to me an amazing thing that reminded me of Greek gods…That’s how I see the machine… 

 

—Edgar Negret

 

 

The sculptures of Edgar Negret are defined by a careful craftsmanship that transforms aluminum into elegant forms filled with movement. Strips of reflective metal become red and black ribbons twisting and turning, the matte coating giving the formerly reflective material an opacity and finish the texture of velvet. With an industrial sleekness accented by visible nuts, bolts, and screws, Negret realized within the materials of the urban environment connections to spiritual practices as well as to deep-seated history. An expansive thinker, the titles of Negret’s sculptures over the course of his career include specific references to manmade marvels, nascent space exploration, nature, pre-Columbian civilization, and Native American cultural traditions. Within the graceful arcs and sweeps of his sensuous sculptures, Negret gathered together in synthesis the sacred and the profane; the past and the present; nature and modernity. 

 

Negret’s earliest forays into abstract sculpture began in the mid-1940s, having completed a more academic and traditional sculpture program at the Escuela de Bellas Artes in Cali, Colombia. In his hometown of Popayán, Negret met the Basque sculptor Jorge Oteiza, who prepared the ground for Negret’s interest in accessing the spiritual through art and introduced him to the modernist approaches of sculptors like Henry Moore. In 1949, Negret traveled to New York City for the first time before departing for Paris in 1951. His initial stay was formative if brief. Negret frequented the Clay Club (later Sculpture Center), where he turned away from traditional sculptural materials to embrace the technique of welding iron and steel. While Negret marveled at the works of Alexander Calder, his use of metal also reflected the taste of the wider artistic scene evident in the linear sculptures of David Smith. 

 

Upon moving to Paris, Negret immersed himself in the city’s artistic community alongside his friend and compatriot Eduardo Ramírez Villamizar, holding a 1951 solo show at the Galerie Arnaud and making contact with a younger generation of artists including Ellsworth Kelly, Jack Youngerman, Jesús Rafael Soto, and Alejandro Otero. While In Europe, Negret continued looking for ways to access the spiritual within a modernist visual language. He visited the studio of Constantin Brancusi in Paris—whose modernist sculptures exude a broadly defined spirituality—and glimpsed the sublime in the repeated modular units of Antoni Gaudí’s architecture in Barcelona. After living in Madrid with Oteiza for a brief period, Negret was working in Mallorca by 1953, where he began applying color in the manner of Calder to his imaginative welded compositions. One piece from this time, Sign for an Aquarium (Model) (1954), entered the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York, the year of its creation. 

 

When Negret returned to New York in 1955, he formed part of the loose cohort of artists who lived and worked in the Coenties Slip neighborhood, among them Kelly and Youngerman, as well as Robert Indiana and Agnes Martin. The sculptor Louise Nevelson—who Negret met during his first trip to New York—remained an important mentor. During this second period of residence in the city, Negret embraced the “cool” aesthetic coming to the fore in the wake of Abstract Expressionism with his first major series, the “Magic Machines.” Crafted from wood and aluminum, these sculptures betray a machinic precision, finished with an impersonal coating of red, white, black, and blue matte paint. From the painted hulls of the gracefully curving cargo ships in the city’s harbor—“the sailors always, always fighting against the oxidization of metal”—to the traffic signals and neon marquis, Negret’s Magic Machines are steeped in the artist’s fascination with the infrastructure of the urban environment and its capacity to filter chaos into a flowing order. Though the Magic Machines reflect not only the new artistic language developing in New York, but the aesthetics of the city itself, their scope spans the United States. Like Nevelson, as well as several of the previous generation of Abstract Expressionists, Negret shared an interest in the indigenous cultures of the American Southwest. During the second half of the 1950s, Negret was awarded a UNESCO-funded scholarship that allowed him to travel and study in the region, which proved to be inspirational for his own artistic practice. Titles like Kachina, Mask, and Southern Cliff Dwelling show how his studies affected his work; but on a deeper formal level, the Magic Machines’ distinctive palette of red, black, blue, and white find a parallel in Navajo sandpainting rituals. Reflecting on his experience at one such ceremony the artist stated: “The shaman makes a very precise drawing with sands of beautiful colors. The reds! The blues! When the shaman finishes the drawing, God is there.”  

 

With their smooth, rounded forms and crisp shapes, examples of this series were exhibited in group shows at New York’s David Herbert Gallery alongside the likes of Nevelson and Kelly, as well as Leon Polk Smith, Alexander Calder, Myron Stout, and Josef Albers. David Herbert Gallery hosted a solo exhibition of Negret’s Magic Machines in 1959, which were also exhibited in a 1957 two-person exhibition held with Youngerman at the Gres Gallery in Washington, DC. Negret would later pay homage to these personal and professional relationships in an exhibition titled 25 años después, which was held at the Museo de Arte Moderno, Bogotá, and included Kelly, Youngerman, Indiana, Nevelson, Martin, and Negret himself. Tellingly, one of Negret’s sculptures was loaned to the exhibition by the important fiber artist Lenore Tawney. 

 

In 1963, Negret returned to Colombia where he abandoned the polychromatic accents of the Magic Machines, and focused his efforts on producing new series of monochromatic sculptures. If the materials remained industrial in nature, however, their forms blossomed into baroque swirls as he looked to the surrounding environment—cultural, natural, and socio-political—of his native country. His return brought with it a heated confrontation on the state of contemporary art in Colombia, as both he and Villamizar positioned abstract art—in particular the “classical” aesthetic they cultivated in New York—against the figuration of the painter Fernando Botero. Although challenged at home, Negret’s work remained extensively exhibited throughout the world during this time, with solo exhibitions at the Graham Gallery, New York (1966); Richard Demarco Gallery, Edinburgh (1967); Axion Gallery, London (1967); Galería Bonino, New York (1969, 1972, 1974); the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam (1970); Museo de Arte Moderno, Bogotá (1971, 1975); Arts Club of Chicago (1972), and the Museo de Bellas Artes, Caracas (1973). Collecting awards at the Bienal de São Paulo (1965) and Venice Biennale (1968), Negret also presented his sculptures at Documenta (1968) in Kassel. He was the subject of a mid-career retrospective in New York at the Center for Inter-American Relations (now Americas Society) in 1976. 

 

Throughout his life, Negret continued to push the limits of his craft and his chosen medium of aluminum. After visiting the archaeological sites of Cuzco and Machu Picchu in 1980, Negret began to incorporate references to Incan civilization and material culture, while moving away from the monochromatic application of paint that he consistently employed for nearly two decades. New colors enter his palette for the first time, rendering each new artwork a panoply of color previously unseen in his practice. As his career progressed, Negret’s artwork retained an international visibility, with solo shows at the Contemporary Sculpture Center, Tokyo (1982); Museo Español de Arte Contemporáneo, Madrid (1983); and the Museo Rufino Tamayo, Mexico City (1991), among many other international institutions. He was likewise presented in important group shows like Latin American Artists of the Twentieth Century (1992), organized by the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and the Bronx Museum’s important Latin-American Spirit: Art and Artists in the United States. Today, Negret’s sculptures are in the collections of such prestigious institutions as the Art Museum of the Americas, Washington, DC; Blanton Museum of Art, University of Texas, Austin; Museo de Arte Contemporáneo, Caracas; Museo de Arte Moderno, Bogotá; Museo de Bellas Artes, Caracas; Museo Rufino Tamayo, Mexico City; Museum of Modern Art, New York; and Rhode Island School of Design Museum, Providence.

[1] Quote reproduced in Ana M. Franco, “The Magic of a Traffic Light: Edgar Negret’s Sculpture,” in Edgar Negret: The Bridge, exh. cat. (New York: Leon Tovar Gallery, 2015), 11. 

[2] Ana M. Franco, “Edgar Negret and Eduardo Ramírez Villamizar: Transnational Encounters and the Rise of Modernism in Colombian Art, 1944–1964,” (PhD diss., New York University, 2012), 21–25

[3] Ibid., 31

[4] Ibid., 33–34.

[5] Ibid., 37–38. 

[6] Ibid., 50.

[7]  Ibid., 53–55.

[8] Ibid., 59.

[9]  Ibid., 87. Quote originally transcribed in Fausto Panesso, “Negret,” in Los Intocables (Bogotá, Colombia: Ediciones Alcaravàn, 1975), 69.

[10] Ibid., 71–72.

[11]  Ibid., 109–110. 

[12]  Ana M. Franco, “Geometric Abstraction: The New York–Bogotá Nexus,” American Art 26, no. 2 (Summer 2012), 36.

[13] Franco, “Edgar Negret and Eduardo Ramírez Villamizar,” 99. Transcribed in Samuel Vásquez, “De milagro en milagro,” in El abrazo de la Mirada (Medellín, Colombia: Fondo Editorial Ateneo Porifiro Barba Jacob, 2007), 29–30. 

[14] José Maria Salvador, Edgar Negret, 1957-1991: De la máquina al mito, exh. cat. (Monterrey: Museo de Monterrey; Mexico City: Museo Rufino Tamayo, 1991). 

[15] See Ana Maria Franco, “New Classicism: Between New York and Bogotá in the 1960s,” in New World: Frontiers, Inclusion, Utopias, ed. Claudia Mattos Avolese and Roberto Conduru (São Paulo: Comitê Brasileiro de História de Arte, 2017), 173.

[16] Salvador, Edgar Negret, 1957-1991.

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