“A sensitive, highly informed study of an immensely important but little understood artistic group in mid-twentieth-century Venezuela.”—Edward J. Sullivan, author of Making the Americas Modern: Hemispheric Art, 1910–1960
“Insightful, critical, and well written. A much-needed account of an artistic movement embodying rebellion and protest that functioned as a true avant-garde, challenging the status of art and countering the dominant mode of modernism—geometric abstraction—that has defined postwar Venezuelan art.”—Tatiana Flores, author of Mexico’s Revolutionary Avant-Gardes: From Estridentismo to ¡30–30!
The work of the 1960s Caracas-based art collective El Techo de la Ballena (The Roof of the Whale) was called “subversive” and “art terrorism” and seen as a threat to Venezuela’s national image as an emerging industrial power. This volume details the historical and social contexts that shaped the collective, exploring how its anti-art aesthetic highlighted the shortcomings of the country’s newfound oil wealth and transition to democracy.
Every element used by these radicalized artists in their avant-garde exhibitions—from Informalist canvases to torn book pages and kitsch objects to cattle carcasses and scatological content—issued a critique of Venezuela’s petroleum-driven capitalism and the profound inequality left in its wake. Embracing chaos, the artists contradicted the country’s politically sanctioned view of modernity, which championed constant progress in the visual arts and favored geometric abstraction and kinetic art. El Techo’s was a backward—a retrograde—modernity, argues María Gaztambide, discussing how its artists turned against the norm by incorporating anachronistic postures, primeval symbols, colonial Latin American print culture, and “guerilla” art tactics.
Artists in this group tested limits to provoke what they saw as a numbed local public through shocking displays of criticism and frustration. Today, as Venezuela undergoes another dramatic series of sociopolitical changes, El Techo de la Ballena serves as a reminder of the power of art in resisting the status quo and effecting change in society.
María C. Gaztambide is associate director of the International Center for the Arts of the Americas at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.