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Aesthetics of Disobedience, Part II: Reconstruction of a Chilean Mural in New York

By Florencia San Martín

August 9, 2018

Photograph of a protest against the 1973 Chilean coup where Brigada Ramona Parra mural was recreated
Photograph of a mural made on the Mapocho River in Chile, detail from the reprint of the article Murals for the People of Chile
TOP Photograph of recreation of Brigada Ramona Parra mural in New York, 1973 October 20 / Alfonso Barrios, photographer. BOTTOM Murals for the people of Chile, 1973. Both items from the Lucy R. Lippard papers, 1930s-2010, bulk 1960s-1990. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

Salvador Allende is dead.
The painted city is white again;
The workers’s blackboard has been erased.
So too, the worker.
According to the Junta’s men:
“the mentality of the people must be changed.”

–Epigraph to Eva Cockcroft’s unpublished essay, “Chile Murals”

 

On September 11, 1973, a civic-military coup backed the United States government overthrew the Chilean democracy, inaugurating a seventeen-year dictatorship that left thousands tortured, disappeared, or dead, among them the democratically elected president, Salvador Allende. In support of the Chilean victims, left-leaning artists, activists, journalists, and intellectuals in the United States—many of them former participants in the antiwar movement—protested the regime and the US’s role in that massacre through a variety of forms. In the realm of the visual arts, an important art action was the reproduction in New York of a mural originally made by the Brigada Ramona Parra (BRP) in Santiago, Chile, which had been destroyed by the military in the wake of the coup.

Page 2 of a draft press release for an artist action to recreate a mural in protest of the 1973 Chilean coup
Artists recreate destroyed Chilean as protest against military repression, page 2, not after 1973 October 20. Lucy R. Lippard papers, 1930s-2010, bulk 1960s-1990. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

The very first in a series of art events that took place in New York, this action was organized by a group of cultural workers—including US citizens and expatriates living there at the time—in solidarity with Chile. While this collective action was undertaken anonymously, notes from art critic Lucy Lippard’s archive reveal many of the participants: Lippard herself, Angela Westwater, then an art writer for Artforum, filmmaker Ariel Maria Dougherty, and art historian Jacqueline Barnitz. Among the participating artists were Rudolf Baranik and Leon Golub, both from the United States, as well as the Argentinian Marcelo Bonevardi, the Canadian-born, Mexican citizen Arnold Belkin, the Chileans Claudio Badal, Jaime Barrios, Enrique Castro-Cid, and Juan Downey, the Colombian Leonel Góngora, and the Italian-born, Vita Giorgi.

The action was divided into two parts, the first of which took place on October 20, 1973. Participants gathered in SoHo on West Broadway, between Prince and Houston Streets to reproduce collectively a one hundred-foot long segment of the BRP mural first created on the banks of the Mapocho River. Using laminate panels eight feet high and drawn from photographs of the original mural, on the Saturday of the action, from 10 a.m. on, the mural was painted anonymously by roughly fifty participants, including the cultural workers mentioned above, as well as other artists, activists, and passersby. The second part of the action occurred one week later on October 27. As directed on the poster advertising the action, participants gathered once again at ten o’clock in the morning on West Broadway, and marched uptown carrying the mural panels. Upon their arrival at Fifth Avenue, between Forty-Eighth and Forty-Ninth Streets, they set up the mural again outside the Chilean National Airlines offices, a site chosen because as one of Chile’s largest privately owned companies, they were a potent symbol of multinational power and collaboration between the US government and the newly installed dictatorship.

Lucy Lippard, in her short review of the action that appeared in the Issues & Commentary section of the January 1974 issue of Art in America, wrote, “The art-loving crowds in Soho smiled and passed on, as did the Christmas-shopping crowds of Fifth Avenue a week later when the mural was set up outside the Chilean National Airlines.” And yet, despite the lack of immediate effectiveness she noted—a matter she attributed to “the political apathy of the American art community”—as the mural was repainted, mobilized, turned into protest signs, and then reorganized as a contingent political statement, Lippard saw the action as a symbolic success. Its purpose was not simply to revive one single mural destroyed by the military regime in Chile, but also an aesthetic paradigm based on collectivity, solidarity, a theory of contingency and ongoing action. By engaging in Pan-American solidarity and invigorating the BRP’s values embodying cultural and political freedom, the action in New York underscored the prohibition of that very freedom in Chile.

However, as I write in Part I of this essay, this was not the first artistic practice that successfully replicated the BRP’s aesthetics on the East Coast. The People’s Painters mural of Salvador Allende in Piscataway, New Jersey, which despite his death represented the vitality of his ideology after the coup, is one important example. Noncoincidently, Eva Cockcroft, one of the founders of People’s Painters, appears in Lippard’s notes as one of the organizers of the New York action. Moreover, as Lippard recently recalled in an email to me, Cockcroft was the “key organizer” of the event. Consequently, many aspects of the People’s Painters collective, and more specifically their Allende mural—a post-coup, nonpermanent painting made collectively and in solidarity with the Chilean people—are present in the New York action. In fact, as planning documents in Lippard’s archive confirm, members of People’s Painters participated in October of 1973. By acknowledging Cockcroft’s firsthand knowledge of the BRP, the issue of freedom in the re-creation of the mural is better understood both historically and conceptually.

Firstly, it is important to note that for the creators of both the Piscataway and New York murals, continuity and resistance are at stake. Both were made as a critical response to the coup: the People’s Painters’ mural in New Jersey highlighted the persistence of Allende’s political principles while the New York action illuminated the endurance of the BRP’s aesthetics despite the destruction of their murals. It is well-documented that in the weeks following the coup, the military disappeared not only dissident peoples but also their ideologies. They burned books—including books of Pablo Neruda’s poetry—and painted over the BRP’s murals. Both Neruda’s promise to continue the struggle against oppression in the name of Ramona Parra—made in his 1950 poem “Los llamo” (“I Invoke Them”) from Canto General—and the fulfillment of that promise by the Brigada Ramona Parra in the late 1960s and early 1970s, were symbolically burned by the junta; as they were representative of the outlook of el pueblo (the people), they were made to disappear. As Cockcroft wrote in the epigraph to her unpublished essay on the BRP, “According to the Junta’s men: ‘the mentality of the people must be changed.’”

Seeking to turn the formerly free public into a hegemonic, temporal, and controlled totality, the junta erased the BRP murals permanently, censoring not only their images and texts—and thus the meanings their murals conveyed—but also the freedom of its members, el pueblo, by restricting their ability to repaint on the same walls again.* Accordingly, the reproduction of the BRP mural in New York was not meant to endure, to remain, but to call attention to a twofold cultural phenomenon: One, that the BRP’s murals were being censored and destroyed as were the Chilean people. Two, that the freedom of the Chilean people could be symbolically recuperated within a context of transnational solidarity through artistic actions. As the poster calling for participants for the first part of the action stated, “Come help us show that an art celebrating freedom can be resurrected to protest loss of that freedom.”

Poster for protest against the Chilean coup, by means of recreating a mural
Flyer for re-creation of Brigada Ramona Parra mural, not after 1973 October 20. Lucy R. Lippard papers, 1930s-2010, bulk 1960s-1990. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
Poster for the second part of a protest against the 1973 Chilean coup
Flyer for Chilean mural protest: part II, not after 1973 October 27. Lucy R. Lippard papers, 1930s-2010, bulk 1960s-1990. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

The posters from Lippard’s papers announcing both parts of the action provide key aspects regarding its relation to the BRP’s and People’s Painters’ aesthetics. For instance, the large text of the first poster reads, “Artists, non-artists, everybody…come help recreate Chilean People’s Mural.” Circulating as photocopies among and beyond the artistic community, this text highlights the ties between artist and activist, between art and civic life. Both trained artists and socially concerned people were called to participate in a work of art—an action—demanding aesthetic and political freedom, just as the BRP in Chile and the People’s Painters in New Jersey had. Other linguistic strategies followed. As the text continues (emphasis mine),

Come help protest the censorship, the book and art-burning, the arrest of artists and intellectuals going down in Chile. The original of this mural has been destroyed by the military regime. It was one of many painted in Allende’s Chile by “Brigades” of artists and people. Come help repaint it full scale (100 feet long) starting at 10 am and continuing into the afternoon.

Making clear that the mural to be reproduced was “one of many,” this is an example of a larger aesthetic practice. The title “Chilean People’s Mural” does not in fact refer to the original destroyed in Santiago, which had no official title, but rather to the action embracing the BRP’s cultural project. The same point is addressed in the image accompanying the text. Taken from a September 18, 1973 article from the New York Times, this photograph shows a worker who, following the junta’s orders, is erasing a BRP mural with the slogan “Viva la Libertad” (Long Live Liberty). While the image does not show the specific mural selected for the action, it still serves as an ideological statement: that while liberty was prohibited in Chile, it could be symbolically recuperated through aesthetic actions.

The poster announcing the second part of the action included a photograph documenting reproduction of the Mapocho River mural fragment. A horizontal image credited to the Chilean photographer Alfonso Barrios—brother of the filmmaker Jaime Barrios, one of the organizers of the event—the photograph shows people painting, observing, and walking through the scene. Among those pictured are Juan Downey, James Rosenquist and Max Kozloff. While Lippard’s archive clearly shows Downey’s role in the organization of the action, the same is not the case with Rosenquist and Kozloff. And yet, their presence in the image speaks to an important feature of the first part of the action: the site. By choosing West Broadway, a street in the heart of New York’s art world, as the location to recreate the mural fragment, the group challenged mainstream views that rejected politically engaged practices as works of art—the “political apathy” Lippard saw in the art world. Moreover, the organizers invited artists who were regulars in the gallery scene to participate, or at least to get informed about the struggles being faced by the Chilean people.

Reprint of article by Eva Cockcroft
These illustrations from Eva Cockcroft's article, "Murals for the people of Chile" provide examples of the disparate iconography of the two branches of the Brigada Ramona Parra. Murals for the people of Chile, 1973. Lucy R. Lippard papers, 1930s-2010, bulk 1960s-1990. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

What is not noted by Lippard—or in the only other review of the event that appeared at the December, 1973 issue of Artforum written by Angela Westwater—is a more persuasive analysis of the New York action in relation to the People’s Painters’ and the BRP’s aesthetic practices. Perhaps Lippard was even conscious of this omission. Accompanying her Art in America review was an excerpt of an article about the BRP written by Eva Cockcroft, “Murals for the People of Chile,” and originally published in 1973 in Issue 4 of the San Francisco-based journal, Toward Revolutionary Art (TRA). Lippard’s gesture of putting both texts together is conceptually and geopolitically compelling, as it invites the reader—perhaps one familiar with Lippard’s “collage aesthetics”— to unearth a political message embodying past and present, democracy and dictatorship, freedom and restraint.

And yet, Cockcroft’s article was not as provocative as it could have been. Despite the collective aesthetics of the BRP, as I have written previously, there were two philosophically divergent branches within the group. One more utopian and traditional in nature, favored universal, celebratory iconography, such as flowers and doves, to represent the triumph of Salvador Allende’s left-wing coalition, Unidad Popular (Popular Unity). The other, recognizing that despite Allende’s victory Chile still had deep social and economic problems, took a more politically vigorous approach in their imagery. Writing before the coup, Cockcroft correctly highlights collectivity, the notion of el pueblo, and the unfinished quality of BRP murals in her article in TRA, but she dedicates most of the essay to commentary on the rather nontemporal and victorious iconography of the more traditional branch of the BRP. Using formal analysis based on style, Cockcroft brings established art historical sources to her narrative, such as the Mexican Renaissance and Fernand Léger’s cubism. In so doing, she builds a genealogy that highlights the artistic value of the BRP murals, but what is missed in this article is a more radical posture regarding the matter of contingency and urgency in the work of the noncelebratory branch of the brigade.

Certainly, Cockcroft herself knew about the differences inside the BRP. On November 4, 1973 she wrote to Lippard that while her article published in Toward Revolutionary Art was a “thorough discussion of the development of the brigades, their style and their aims,” a second article, which she also enclosed with the letter, was a rather “agitational piece [on] the Chilean murals and the current repression in Chile.” In this second article, which has never been published, Cockcroft writes about the New York action as a project, a planned activity to be realized, demonstrating not only her central role in the conceptualization of the action, but also her and Lippard’s awareness of the BRP’s more unruly, disruptive aesthetics. It was these aesthetics that were replicated and made visible, not only in the fact that the recreated mural was not made to last—it was meant to interrupt, to disorganize, to produce symbolic awareness—but in the very image selected.

Letter received by Lucy Lippard from Eva Cockcroft, November 4, 1973
Eva Cockcroft letter to Lucy R. Lippard, 1973 November 4. Lucy R. Lippard papers, 1930s-2010, bulk 1960s-1990. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
Eva Cockcroft's unpublished essay Chile Murals written after the 1973 coup.
Chile murals, after 1973 September 11. Lucy R. Lippard papers, 1930s-2010, bulk 1960s-1990. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

Even though the fragment of the BRP mural chosen for the New York action—showing a face behind bars, clenched fists, a star, part of a gun, and the inscription “NO AL FASCISMO” (NO TO FASCISM)—was first made in Santiago when Salvador Allende was alive and his Unidad Popular was in power, it represented the continuity of a social struggle. Certainly, its makers were creating works in solidarity with Latin American countries whose democracies had recently been destroyed by US-backed military regimes, as was the case with the 1964 coups in Brazil and Bolivia. Moreover, the harsh iconography and text of the selected fragment was representative of the current moment in Chile. It is well-documented that in 1972, Allende’s second year in office, the political climate of the country was highly polarized due to its deep economic crisis, an outcome devised by the administration of President Richard Nixon working in concert with US and Chilean multinational corporations, including the International Telephone & Telegraph Corporation (IT&T). While this was known at the time—IT&T’s secret memos were declassified in 1972—following the coup in 1973, left-leaning international organizations and media outlets highlighted the role of private industry in the concept and planning of the Chilean dictatorship. The Medium, the student newspaper of Livingston College at Rutgers University, reported on this in their September 20, 1973 issue:

Prior to Dr. Allende’s election, the United States government had a record of financial influence in regard to Chilean policies. In the past three years, investments of U.S. owned multi-national corporations have dropped sharply from $750 to $70 million dollars. Allende’s government had succeeded in the expropriation of IT&T holdings as well as U.S. owned cooper mines (Some reports record an IT&T offer of 1 million to enlist C.I.A. aid to prevent an Allende victory in 1970).

By reproducing this section and not any other fragment or mural made in Chile by the BRP, the group in New York, and certainly People’s Painters, recognized the difference between the contingent and the celebratory branches of the BRP. In fact, the New York group’s decision to march with the mural panels to the offices of the national airlines on Fifth Avenue demonstrates their knowledge and critique regarding the role of multinational corporations in the destabilization of the Chilean economy that eventually lead to the military coup. For those against Allende—that is, for those looking to become richer within a conservative, neoliberal, and Catholic country—the coup and the civic-military dictatorship were nothing but “inevitable” actions that saved the Chilean people. As the Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano once sarcastically observed, Augusto Pinochet and the junta were “torturing people so prices could be free”

This reconstruction of the BRP mural was not only the first of its kind in New York City, but also a complex aesthetic project that affected a generation of art workers living there. Moreover, the importance of this action exceeded the subject matter of Chile in the early 1970s. The photographic record—the image taken by Barrios—circulated as a referential source among artists who responded to President Ronald Reagan’s policies toward Central America in the 1980s. Specifically, as the artist Jerry Kearns told me in a recent interview, this image was shared among artists who participated Artists Call Against U.S. intervention in Central America. This nationwide political and aesthetic mobilization was organized from New York by art workers and intellectuals from across the Americas, and included gallery exhibitions, public space interventions, poetry readings, and film screenings, all taking place in 1984. Participants in the mobilization aimed “to express [their] deep concern for peace and freedom in Central America [and to] call upon the Reagan administration to halt military and economic support to the governments of El Salvador and Guatemala, to stop the military buildup in Honduras and to cease support of the Contras in Nicaragua,” as the general statement on the main poster declared. Artists Call acknowledged that “Intervention by the U.S. government inevitably reinforces colonialist and oligarchical elements hostile to the people.” Thus, participants were seeking to “speak out against these burning injustices…as long as it is necessary,” as the poster continues.

This concern about aesthetic and civic freedom, US neocolonial policies, and the production of collective, ongoing forms of mobilization, certainly recalls the political and aesthetic strategies behind the reproduction of the BRP mural in New York a decade before. Not surprisingly, alongside Daniel Flores y Ascencio, Director of INALSE, The Institute of the Arts and Letters of El Salvador in Exile, Lucy Lippard was one of Artists Call’s main organizers. Within this same line, it is also not surprising that Cecilia Vicuña, the Chilean-born, New York-based artist and poet was involved as well. Vicuña—who had produced works related to the Chilean regime in the 1970s and who in the 1980s felt deep “concern with the situation in Guatemala,” as she recalled in an email to me—was one of the organizers of, and participants in, the poetry readings for Artists Call, reading at one of these events at St. Marks Poetry Project, a “poem dedicated to the Mayan peoples of Guatemala.” As she told me in the same email, “Despues de eso, no recuerdo otra movilizacion de artistas equivalente acá en Nueva York” (“After [Artists Call], I do not remember a similar art mobilization in New York”).

In fact, Artists Call not only included artists who had been active protestors in the late 1960s and early 1970s, such as Rudolf Baranik, Leon Golub, Irving Petlin, Nancy Spero, and Vicuña, but also a new generation of artists—Doug Ashford, Alfredo Jaar, Juan Sanchez, and Kearns himself, among many others—that aimed to make visible the disastrous consequences of Reagan’s neoconservative and neoliberal policies in international affairs. In turn, Artists Call also sought to shine a light on other histories of repression in Latin America, such as the Chilean dictatorship, denouncing US intervention more broadly in both historic and geographic terms and establishing solidarity among victims of US neocolonial practices during the Cold War.

By contextualizing this never before published material from Lippard’s archive, important historical and aesthetics relations emerge around the Brigada Ramona Parra, People’s Painters, and the New York action in the early 1970s. They all embodied contingency (to paint and repaint on the same wall); memory (to paint and repaint in the name of those luchadoras y luchadores del pueblo [fighters of the people]); and translational solidarity (to paint for those sharing similar histories of neoimperialist domination). In the US, these art events—including Artists Call, also understudied in US, Latin American, and Latino art histories—were realized by art workers from different backgrounds and heritages in a spirit of Pan-American solidarity. Their significance relies not only in their existence but also in the ways in which they were conceptualized aesthetically and distributed in a coherent political dialogue with their counterparts in the Americas.

 

*Words like el pueblo are gendered male in the Spanish language, but also function grammatically as an all-gender plural.

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Florencia San Martín is a Ph.D. candidate in art history at Rutgers University, and the 2017–18 Patricia and Phillip Frost Predoctoral Fellow at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Comments

As I was reading the article memories of growing up under Rafael Trujillo's dictaroship in the Dominican republic kept on coming up. The many interventions of the US government there and the rest of Latin America which made me create many art work about this history.

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