MARCELO BONEVARDI

b. 1929, Buenos Aires

d. 1994, Córdoba, Argentina 

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Some objects are charged, others not. When I touch one of these objects something transmits an energy to me. I’ve brought back pieces, some very rare, from my country, maybe 1000 or 1200 years old, and when I have them in my hand, I can feel that they really are something. That energy is what I want to transmit with objects.

 

—Marcelo Bonevardi [1]

Although Marcelo Bonevardi was born in Buenos Aires, his childhood memories were rooted in Córdoba, Argentina, where he lived from the age of six. Córdoba was more provincial than Buenos Aires in the early twentieth century, and Bonevardi was not privy to the work of the Argentinian capital’s nascent vanguard. Consequently, his first artistic cues came from his parents. His mother—a painter trained in Perugia, Italy—was familiar with the Renaissance masters and kept a number of postcard reproductions of their work that Bonevardi regularly copied. These paintings and drawings left him with a strong understanding of traditional perspective and a lifelong interest in religious and mystical subjects[2], which he combined with the experience of accompanying his architect father to his various projects. Bonevardi closely observed his surroundings at these sites and developed a dynamic skillset in the craft, claiming that “at fifteen, I was a very well-trained architect . . . from observing. By sixteen I was reading plans, almost like an architect."[3] These informal lessons led to precociously strong draftsmanship and a strong intuition for architectonic effects. He also familiarized himself with carpentry, which he applied when constructing boxes for magic tricks.[4]

 

Bonevardi followed in his father’s footsteps for his higher education, which guided him to Rome at the age of twenty-one. While abroad he saw firsthand the country's wealth of painted masterpieces; but it would be his encounter with the work of Italian proto-surrealist Giorgio de Chirico—with his marriage of architectonic form and metaphysical concerns—that would prove most significant to the young artist.[5] Although he began an academic position in architecture when he returned to Argentina, Bonevardi started making a name for himself as a painter through numerous exhibitions of his work throughout his home country. In 1958, he moved to New York City under the auspices of a Guggenheim fellowship and devoted himself exclusively to making art.

Upon arriving in New York, Bonevardi immediately began immersing himself in the currents of the newly christened art-world capital. Like so many artists at this time, he visited the legendary Cedar Bar, home to aesthetic debates among the New York School of painters; he visited the tenth street galleries, a reserve for what the critic Clement Greenberg described—in reference to the style of Willem de Kooning’s acolytes—as “the tenth street touch.”[6] The paintings that Bonevardi exhibited during this time perhaps reflect his debt to the New York context, but he does not sacrifice a sense of order and composition. This is reflected in a notice published in ARTnews of the artist’s 1960 one-person show at Roland de Aenlle Gallery: “[Bonevardi’s] abstractions are neat, confident and large. Pleasant color balances nestle in the shelter of orderly wide beams of black, and orb swimming somewhere near them, ever on the brink of tipping the scales.”[7]

 

In spite of regular exhibitions, Bonevardi was discouraged by the lack of spiritual fulfillment in this mode of painting and soon found other models upon which he could build. Attending one of the Whitney Museum’s Annuals in the early 1960s, Bonevardi first saw the shadowboxes of Joseph Cornell that would not only come to inform the “accumulation” found in his mature practice,[8] but its mystery as well. “When Bonevardi spoke about the work of Joseph Cornell,” writes art critic Dore Ashton, “he always mentioned its poetic character . . . A world unseen, but there.”[9] Concurrent to Bonevardi’s fascination with this influential artist, however, were his own bourgeoning friendships with Gonzalo Fonseca and Julio Alpuy who introduced him to the tenets of Joaquín Torres-García’s mode of Constructivism. Most famous for his sparse, gridded paintings that infuse and enrich western abstraction with culturally and temporally disparate symbols, Torres-García aspired to create universal resonances with his artwork. Curator Mari Carmen Ramírez has described the process through which Bonevardi re-envisioned the syntax of Torres-García’s abstraction toward different ends, writing:

 

In Bonevardi’s work . . . the three-dimensional sphere, cube, cylinder, and pyramid take the place of the TTG [Taller Torres-García] symbols, becoming the signifiers of a magic language proceeding from geometry. These, in turn, are complemented by fantastic-shaped, three-dimensional objects interspersed in niches throughout the painting that function as fetishes.[10]

In a letter dated March 11, 1964, the Guggenheim’s curator Lawrence Alloway reflected on a recent visit to Bonevardi's studio: “On looking through his work, I had the pleasure of seeing the logical development of a powerful talent. It seemed to me that he has pursued imaginatively and tirelessly the possibilities of his original and personal style.”[11] What Alloway would have seen was the artist’s recently begun “painting-constructions,” which grew from his study of Cornell's work and that of his friends Fonseca and Alpuy. These were wall-mounted assemblages featuring hand-carved objects embedded into nooks and crevices punctuating the picture plane. Often architectural in composition, the paintings were metaphysical in scope, with the carvings at times alluding to such disparate symbols as scientific instruments or time-worn artifacts. Examples of this body of work would soon be featured in several group and solo exhibitions at the Galería Bonino in New York, as well as in shows at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; the Museum of Modern Art, New York; and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. The painting-constructions found supporters in the form of Dore Ashton and the famous dealer Betty Parsons, while a selection earned him the International Prize at the 1969 Bienal de São Paulo. Such exposure reflects the rapid embrace of the “original and personal style” that Alloway observed in Bonevardi’s studio that day.   

During the 1970s, Bonevardi's work grew darker, likely the product of civil unrest in Argentina that commenced with the “Cordobazo”—an uprising in his hometown. His drawings from this time continue his explorations of architectural space with all of the imagination and psychological charge of Giovanni Battista Piranesi’s “Imaginary Prisons.” Impossible follies are captured with an architect’s precision and an artist’s touch, garnished with foreboding hooks and ropes reminiscent of those that lined the streets near his home in lower Manhattan’s Meatpacking District. Meanwhile, his painting-constructions from this decade turned away from scientific instrumentations of celestial navigation toward abstracted “traps” for celestial beings. Curator Estrellita Brodsky frames these works as “images of sadistic tools used by interrogators rather than those of a benevolent magician.”[12] The violence began to peak in Argentina in 1976 during the “The Dirty War,” in which the military government violently suppressed, kidnapped, and killed often innocent civilians. The junta also imposed themselves on culture, and an exhibition of Bonevardi’s work was banned in 1978 after being deemed “medio-Marxist.”[13] Although Bonevardi only spoke vaguely about the chaos’s effect on his psyche, such impositions on both himself and the people of Argentina almost certainly left an imprint of violence that would stay present in his art.[14] 

 

Bonevardi received many accolades over the course of his lifetime, including the International Prize at the 1969 São Paulo Biennial, induction into the Guggenheim jury of Latin American art from 1979–89, and representation at the 1983 Venice Biennial. He received retrospective exhibitions at the Musée de Art Contemporain de Montréal in 1974; the Center for Inter-American Relations, New York, in 1980; and in 2019 at the Lowe Art Museum, Miami. He is represented in the collections of several major museums, including the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, and the Museum of Modern Art, New York. 

 

Leon Tovar Gallery represents the Estate of Marcelo Bonevardi worldwide.   

[1] See Ronald Christ’s untitled catalogue essay in Marcelo Bonevardi: Constructions and Drawings, exh. cat. (New York, NY: Mary-Anne Martin/Fine Art), np. 

[2] Ronald Christ, “Constructing Magic,” in Bonevardi: Chasing Shadows—Constructing Art (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2006), 321.

[3] Marcelo Bonevardi, quoted by Ronald Christ, “Constructing Magic,” 321.
[4] Christ, “Constructing Magic,” 322.
[5] Dore Ashton, “The Shadow Chaser,” in Bonevardi: Chasing Shadows—Constructing Art (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2006), 16.

[6] Ibid., 17; For Greenberg’s weariness of the “10th street touch," see James Meyer, Minimalism: Art and Polemics in the Sixties, 84.

[7] Edith Burckhardt, Exhibition Review, Roland Aenlle Gallery, ARTnews, February 1960, 49.

[8] Christ, Marcelo Bonevardi: Constructions and Drawings, np.

[9] Ashton, “The Shadow Chaser,” 23.

[10] Mari Carmen Ramírez, “Re-positioning the South: The Legacy of El Taller Torres-García in Contemporary Latin American Art,” in El Taller Torres-García: The School of the South and Its Legacy, exh. cat. (Austin: The Archer M. Huntington Gallery, 1992), 269.

[11] Letter from Lawrence Alloway, Curator, The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, to Juan J. Mathe, 1st Secretary Cultural Director, Argentine Embassy, March 11, 1964, Archives of the Estate of Marcelo Bonevardi, New York.
[12] Estrellita B. Brodsky, “Marcelo Bonevardi: A Metaphysical Absence,” in Marcelo Bonevardi: Magic Made Manifest, exh. cat (Miami: Lowe Art Museum, 2019), 13.
[13] Marisa Lerer, “30,000 Reasons to Remember: Artistic Strategies for Memorializing Argentina’s Disappeared,” PhD diss., (City University of New York, 2012)
[14] Ronald Christ, “Constructing Magic,” 364.

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