Para León (For León)

“I draw silent handwritten words, which tell things, with lines that recall voices. And I write drawings that recite the memories that words cannot say.”

León Ferrari, Letter to Christina Harrison, October 6, 1996

On July 25, 2013, seminal artist León Ferrari passed away in his native Buenos Aires. A few hours later, Argentinean Pope Francis, born as Jorge Mario Bergoglio, former cardinal who instigated the closing down of Ferrari’s retrospective at the Recoleta Cultural Centre for alleged blasphemy in 2004, delivered a speech in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, the country which had offered exile to Ferrari and his family during the military dictatorship in Argentina from 1976-1991.

I do not recall how I first discovered his work, and it is not for want of trying to conjure up a memory or founding myth. All I remember is that his written drawings - pages of intricate, ever evolving and expanding systems of letters, lines and nets - felt like an answer to a quest into the mystery of words I had pursued and which had haunted me during my years at the Sorbonne in Paris. Peculiar cosmonaut in the Barthesian sense, I would spend nights digging out hidden books from the shelves of Sainte Geneviève library which had once been graced with the presence of conceptual book clerk Marcel Duchamp, parting sealed pages, parsing line after line, chasing the holy grail, the secret of the inception of texts from the nebula of thoughts, to no avail. 

And then, suddenly, there it was, in Ferrari’s works - the word as an infinite trace of human presence, messenger of a vital force, a rhythm, a breath, partaking in a universal flow. A few years later I was fortunate enough to visit Ferrari’s studio in the barrio San Cristobal in Buenos Aires. I remember his luminous presence and mischievous smile as he pointed out that he had chosen glitter paint for his latest work. He invited me to take a tour while he continued drawing, in meditative fashion - he was not there to show, but to make us see. Towards the end of the visit, as I discarded the thought of having my picture taken with the artist, he traced these lines, just for me: Para Claudia, abrazos, León.

The written drawings, which were the focus of Ferrari’s shared MoMA retrospective with Mira Schendel in 2009, projected me into a dense universe of not only lines but paths, bridging artistic mediums as diverse as ceramics, sculptures in wood and wire, musical instruments and performances, poems and political manifestos, dissolving boundaries between ethics and aesthetics, art and life, his life and the lives of others. 

Indeed, whatever Ferrari bestowed his presence upon would become sublime as he continuously pointed to the grandeur of each human being and the ability to reach the universal by following our individual calling. His political commitment to the protection of civil rights in his home country and beyond has been extensively written about. He was deeply devoted to his beautiful family. And a true patron of the arts, supporting young artists by exchanging his works for theirs, giving expression to the faith he had in their paths. 

His unrestricted dedication and sincere generosity are tokens of his keen awareness of the fleetingness of the present moment and the infinite communion among all humans which is at the heart of the Tibetan Book of Living and Dying: “...when we finally know we are dying, and all other sentient beings are dying with us, we start to have a burning, almost heartbreaking sense of the fragility and preciousness of each moment and each being, and from this can grow a deep, clear, limitless compassion for all beings.” — Sogyal Rinpoche, The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying

This radical immediacy constitutes the essence of his life and oeuvre alike. Ferrari’s writings and inscriptions in the three dimensional space, rather than being a prosthesis of the brain in the Freudian terminology, reconnect with the archetypal movements which generated the first inscriptions and traces of human presence and enter the original creative dimension, the continuous flow which remains unaffected by the passing of the physical shape of all signs.

Images: 

1. Installation shot of Ferrari’s retrospective at Saint Anne Church during the Rencontres d’Arles in 2010 with his most controversial work: Western Christian-Civilization, 1965

2. Installation shot of Ferrari’s 2011 gallery exhibition in New York City with a written drawing on canvas and a wire sculpture - a drawing in space

3. Dedication

4. Installation shot of Ferrari’s 2011 gallery exhibition in New York City. The more than 10 feet high penetrable sculpture is inspired by a musical instrument used in capoeira, a Brazilian martial art

5. Installation shot of Ferrari’s 2011 gallery exhibition in New York City with a wire sculpture that has just arrived