Sentences 1966 consists of six shiny steel cubes of the same size mounted onto a wall in a grid formation of two rows of three. The front-facing side of each cube bears an inscription in shallow relief, the words of which are rendered in the same lower-case typeface. Each text or ‘sentence’ ends with a full stop and describes an architectural structure or situation that conveys a sense of form and space. For example, one of the cubes reads ‘a ten story building with styrofoam flowing out of the windows.’, while another reads ‘a prismatic beam of blue light, with a section of 10 meters square, that goes from one house-front to the one across the street.’ There is no set order in which the cubes should be displayed, which, coupled with the pithy style and ambiguous content of the texts, ensures that the ‘sentences’ cannot be read as a narrative.
Born in Lübeck in 1932, Luis Camnitzer and his family fled Nazi Germany in 1939, settling in Uruguay. He studied architecture at the University of Uruguay’s School of Fine Arts but graduated as a sculptor. In 1964 the artist moved from Montevideo to New York City, where he made Sentences two years later. The cubes were constructed from a single bar of steel that the artist cut into six identical blocks. To create the text panels Camnitzer photo-etched each ‘sentence’ onto a copper sheet with a clishe maker, and then bonded these panels to each cube, which were chrome-plated after fabrication to give them a silvery appearance. At the time Camnitzer made this work he was engaged in expanding the artistic possibilities of printmaking, having co-founded in 1964 the New York Graphic Workshop with fellow Latin American artists, the Argentine Liliana Porter and Venezuelan Guillermo Castillo. With this in mind, Sentences, which draws upon the artist’s training as an architect and as a sculptor, can be seen as an attempt to materialise printmaking in three dimensions.
The stark, spare presentation of the work focuses attention on and contrasts with the expressive language and evocative content of the texts on the front of the cubes. By eschewing pictorial representation in favour of linguistic descriptions that generate images of architectural scenarios in the mind of the viewer, Camnitzer encourages the propositions to be understood in different ways by different people. The fragmentary nature of the texts, coupled with the absurdity or impossibility of the situations some of them describe (for example, ‘four bridges, 1 kilometre long, forming a square without exit, over populated area.’), reveal not only the indeterminacy of language, but of reality.
Camnitzer’s arrival in New York coincided with the emergence of conceptual art in the United States, which developed systematic and text-based modes of artistic enquiry to challenge the authority afforded to visual signification. The critic Jan Verwoert has noted that Camnitzer’s early works, of which Sentences is an example, provide an ‘idiomatic response to the issues raised by the Conceptual art movement’ (Verwoert 2004, accessed 12 June 2014). Like the art of American conceptual artists such as Joseph Kosuth or Lawrence Weiner, Camnitzer’s works of the mid-1960s are ‘text-based and eschew the allure of representational images in favour of the sobriety of words and graphics’ (Verwoert 2004, accessed 12 June 2014). However, Camnitzer has since attempted to distinguish the conceptual practice of his North American peers from his work and that of other Latin American artists, which the artist has argued is more engaged with ‘social problems’ (Camnitzer 2007, p.4). This political concern can be seen more visibly in Camnitzer’s later works, such as Leftovers 1970 (Tate T11883), which confronts the brutality of the dictatorship in Uruguay, which lasted from 1973 to 1985.
Jan Verwoert, ‘Luis Camnitzer: Kunsthalle Zu Kiel’, frieze, no.82, April 2004, http://www.frieze.com/issue/review/luis_camnitzer/, accessed 16 September 2014.
Luis Camnitzer, Conceptualism in Latin American Art: Didactics of Liberation, Austin 2007.
Luis Camnitzer, On Art, Artists, Latin America and other Utopias, ed. by Rachel Weiss, Austin 2009.
Supported by Christie’s.