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Bonevardi, a Seeker of Mystical Geographies

Dore Ashton

Marcelo Bonevardi, Tarot, 1968. Acrylic on textured substrate on wood construction, painted wood carving. 17 x 15 inches. Private Collection.

After the destruction of the library at Alexandria—or so one of many legends has it— a group of learned scholars assembled in Fez to debate the implications of the calamity. Their ultimate response to the disaster was to devise an infinitely condensed system of symbols that would embody all the universal learning vanished in the ruins of the library: they invented tarot cards.

At least one of Marcelo Bonevardi’s images is titled “Tarot” and many others might have been. Bonevardi, like other artists of his temperament, is powerfully attracted to arcane mysteries of knowledge, and to the symbolic systems invented to probe the unyielding nature of mystery itself. He could well understand the sages of Fez, who seem to have been born of some action by Jorge Luis Borges, when they initiated (or repeated?) the mystical creative act: the act of condensation into a symbol.

Borges says each artist invents his precursors. Bonevardi may have invented Borges? Or vice-versa? There are affinities. But they are not merely the affinities of having been born Argentine. As Borges said, “We should believe that our patrimony is the universe, we should try all subjects, we should not limit ourselves to what is typically Argentine— because either to be an Argentine is our destiny and in that case we will be Argentines despite ourselves or to be Argentine will be a mere affectation, a mask.” (The Argentine Writer and Tradition, 1941). What Bonevardi shares with Borges is a kind of metaphysical quest that leads always to esthetics.

“The metaphysicians of Tlön” wrote Borges, “do not seek for truth or even for verisimilitude, but rather for the astounding.” True of Bonevardi whose addiction to mysteries is the content of his work. He is not, however, a mystic. There is a difference between mystery and mysticism. Mysticism finally closes off into a system while the mystery is always open; the mystery is lived, experienced whereas mysticism, finally, is thought. The love of mystery borders on the esthetic and leads to that great corpus of analogies, which is very much the stuff of art; but such analogies themselves bestir, never denote. As a lover of mystery, Bonevardi does not share the schematic thinking of the mystics. When he makes his conjunctions of suggestive but unidentifiable objects, with their oblique perspectives, he evokes rather than states a mystery that astounds and cannot be systematized.

Bonevardi lives the life of the spirit prescribed by Borges. His natural habitat is the forked path, the maze. There can be no approaching his painting-constructions without sensing that these are quasi-talismanic objects. I say “quasi” because the notion of completion is implied in one sense of the word talisman, while Bonevardi’s concourse with mysteries is ongoing and does not seek completion. All the same, there are repeated motifs in his oeuvre that can be interpreted as signs of an intensely considered inner life. His use of numbers and geometric symbols has nothing in common with the playful or formal inventions of the modern tradition. His numbers and letters lead back to Pythagorean mysteries and even evoke the consternation of those Pythagoreans when they stumbled upon an incommensurable number. The irrational number lurks in all magical inquiries.It is always potential in Bonevardi’s composition. (His Pythagoreanism is confirmed by the fact that he still plays with the Golden Section.)

Then, there are all those doorways, gates and arches—the conventional symbols for those seeking to pass through the portals to revelation. Bonevardi’s attraction to astronomy and the astronomer’s elegant instruments is surely an attraction based on the desire for revelation rather than knowledge. He is more like Kepler than like the keepers of modern observatories. Kepler not only made scientific observations, but he also had a vision. His “Somnium”, or dream, was published only after his death since it was regarded from the beginning as fanciful rather than scientific, but the “dream” was fulfilled. It was a dream about flying to the moon. “Provide ships or sails to the heavenly breezes,” he wrote to Galileo, “and there will be some who will not fear even that void.”

In 1965 Bonevardi wrote that he wished to ascend the rainbow to encounter “El Gran Silencio” and the “laberintos de una geogra a mistica”. It befits a seeker of mystical geographies to be absorbed with the nature of ritual. In its perpetual renewal of the original moment, ritual obliterates time. A given set of acts will each time restore the beginning and put the enactor into a psychological state of submission to being out-of-time. Artists have often remarked that while concentrating on their work they have transcended time at a certain moment. This desirable condition is the lure for those who wish to retain magical associations. Bonevardi’s need for the magic of ritual is apparent. He is homo faber who must go through the motions himself to reach that state of transcendence. That is the meaning of his painstaking manufacture of all the “constructed” elements in his works. The small figurines, the geometric shapes, and even the metal hinges and machine-like parts are fashioned or forged entirely by his hand. Something of the experience of the initiate is transmitted in the work.

Marcelo Bonevardi, Annunciation, 1980. Acrylic and charcoal on newspaper and cardboard, painted wood assemblage. 16 . x 9 . inches. Private Collection.

A temperament such as Bonevardi’s is probably confirmed from the day of its birth. The life that follows is a matter of traversing a labyrinth of superfluous experiences to the timeless center. Bonevardi’s memories of his childhood reflect such a temperament. What he remembers is that as a child of six he was taken from the city of Buenos Aires, where he was born in 1929, and installed in the clear light of Cordoba. He never forgets that light. Trees, owers, and even stones subsist in his memory, as do the blue of the sky, the earthen tones of the mountains and the luminosity of late afternoons. Cordoba was the paradisiacal backdrop of his dreams. In his dreams altered the postcard collection of his mother. She had studied painting in Perugia. Her mementos were postcards. Bonevardi has never forgotten them, never forgotten the images of Fra Angelico, Piero della Francesca, Uccello and Giotto. Their memory emerges in his constructions—the still geometries of Piero, the brilliant colors of Fra Angelico’s angel’s wings, the deep volumes of Giotto, and the heraldry of Uccello.

Even after he had gotten a Guggenheim fellowship and had come to New York in 1958 to experience the cresting excitement generated by abstract expressionism, the memories remained. He found his way to the Cedar Bar where the already famous abstract expressionists foregathered. He saw exhibitions by Pollock, Rothko, deKooning, Kline and Motherwell. He lived downtown in the artists’ quarter and tried to imagine himself a part of it all. But, as he says, the work he saw “just wasn’t related to my spiritual need.” lt was not until 1961, when he saw the boxes of Joseph Cornell in a Whitney Annual that his spiritual need, fed by his memories, was requited. Cornell’s silent poetry and unorthodox means released Bonevardi from the commitment to gestural and painterly modes. More important, Cornell used objects in a tectonic way that spoke to Bonevardi’s intuitive sense of form. Although Cornell used found objects and although Bonevardi recognized that “the work was completely different from what was in my mind,” the magical properties implicit in Cornell’s rituals bestirred all Bonevardi’s ambitions.

This encounter with Cornell showed Bonevardi that he could combine painting, sculpture and architecture in a single mode. He saw that to express the kind of mystery that haunted him he could not, like Cornell, depend on ready-made objects. He had to make his own objects just as the fetish-makers of the old tribes had. A temperamental difference separated the two artists. When Cornell pierced a façade in his box with small holes, they were meant to summon a dovecote; when Bonevardi pierces a plane with holes they stir atavistic memories: of eyes in a mask, as Picasso had used them; of ritual sticks plunged in the earth, of arrows impaling a sacrificial creature.

In turning away from the traditional canvas picture-plane Bonevardi moved toward the vanguard artists of the period. Others had begun experiments with forms midway between the painted image and the sculptured relief. Many had sought the primitivistic power of other cultures. Probably the closest in spirit, as John Stringer has pointed out, was the young sculptor Lee Bontecou, who built large metal armatures on which she stretched bits of rude canvas sewed together, cleaving deep holes or machine-like orifices on the taut surfaces. Bonevardi had begun, as he says, from point zero in 1961 and by 1963 had formulated a new technique and a new vocabulary with which he set out to express the magic of his reveries. The works he built between 1963 and 1965, with their sunken areas, their niched objects, and their pyramidal planes, left no doubt about his intentions. Although these sculptured surfaces hung on a wall, they were to be translated as excavations. The viewer’s eye would look deep into some ancient ruins as former idols and symbols of some vanished ritual. In these “sacred enclosures”, as one of them is titled, deep reds and dusky blues suggest earth and sky. Sometimes, as in Divination Object IV the inserted carved object deliberately suggests an origin in an African imagination. In others, the relief structure of the planes, as in Column suggest the aged sites of pre-Columbian pyramids. At times, as in Shelter Bonevardi reinforces the impression of an enshrined ritual object by adjusting the symmetries of the adjacent planes. He used abrupt shifts in perspective to hint that he was creating a large landscape with its memories glimpsed through a small door.

Toward the mid-1960s new imagery appeared in the more insistent references to the mask, the talisman. Forms that previously seemed submerged in the sites of ancient ruins begin to assume frieze-like perspectives. A strong impulse to architecture its outlet in the way Bonevardi begins to work with wood armatures, cutting deep diagonal planes and creating ingenious foreshortenings. An effect a little like Chirico’s abrupt, sweeping planes hurtling back to multiple vanishing points becomes noticeable. It required considerable imagination to take the long tradition of the frieze into a modern context. By allowing the pro les of his compositions uneven contours and depths, Bonevardi compensated for the logical ground previously supplied by the tablature frame. Into the tectonically constructed vista Bonevardi thrust his ambiguous symbols and objects—wrench and pincer shapes, orbs, eyes. He frequently simplified forms, allowing linear vectors to diversify his spaces. There are hints in these works that the disguised masks introduced by Picasso around 1913 in his collages had communicated their power to Bonevardi. There are kite-like, monstrous suggestions. Certainly the use of two pierced eyes asymmetrically located in a mask-like, linear shape does suggest Picasso’s device for inducing totemistic associations. Cooler palettes with grays, putty colors and earth green also suggest the contribution of synthetic cubism to Bonevardi’s work of the late 1960s.

From around 1960 to the mid-1970s Bonevardi explored mirror-like images. Here his immersion in Borges became active. The book within the book and the mirror within the mirror—motifs dear to Borges—are almost literally interpreted. One thinks of the Library of Babel with its hexagonal galleries, its ventilation shafts, its spiral staircase and, in the entryway, a mirror. “People are in the habit of inferring from this mirror that the Library is not in nite (if it really were, why this illusory duplication?)” Borges wrote. “I prefer to dream that the polished surfaces feign and promise in nity….” Bonevardi calls up the dream in works such as Box with Shadows where trapezoids repeat. Some are painted illusions, others are literal in their relief, moving off into in nity. The doubling, prized by the symbolist mentality, occurs in the carved, stone-like shape—a wedge that could be a ceremonial canoe as well as a slice of melon or a lunar symbol—painstakingly doubled in a painted illusion. The incongruity of the illusionary and the near-real recalls Giacometti’s paradoxes of the 1930s, his “objets mobiles et muets.” The canoe shape balls and drilled holes did, in fact, appear in the dream compositions of Giacometti’s surrealists period.

An association with surrealism is not gratuitous. In some ways Bonevardi is a natural surrealist whose preoccupations can be called oneiric—that favorite word of the surrealist confraternity. The works of the past decade in which ideas of flying and sailing are given pictorial form are markedly oneiric. In Buntlines, for example, Bonevardi’s title establishes associations with sailing that are then read throughout the composition. Heavy burlap over board is scored with geometric lines that stand for the buntlines of a sailing vessel. But Bonevardi takes us further into the oneiric by heightening the silvery tones beneath the picture plane and drawing his lines out to infinity. The presence of a Brancusi-like object within one niche and a shape resembling a primordial ceremonial axe in another takes us still further from our farthest associations. The sensations of free sailing in space are further stressed by the cut-out corners, the hollows and holes in the extremities of the composition. Such transformations within a single work are surreal in essence. (Or, perhaps are pre-surreal. After all, Calderon was saying “Toda la vida es sueño/ y los sueños sue nos son.”)

Bonevardi’s willingness to move into the oneiric realm is even more apparent in the works referring to angels. Sometimes they bear little more than the hint of rainbowed wings remembered from Fra Angelico. But sometimes these angels are as complicated as Swedenborg dreamed them and as fraught with dangers as Rimbaud imagined. Bonevardi’s angelism is descended from the romantics. There is a wild desire to go “anywhere out of this world.”

Not all dream references are ethereal in Bonevardi. There is a composition titled Trap for a Nightmare in which a conjuration of a mask is reinforced by the uneasy shape of a hat-form, and by a strange white light cast over the whole. The marvelous and the terrible combine here in a way that would warm Andre Breton’s heart. Disquieting masks are already implicit in earlier works. In Angel I of 1975, the sculptured shape of the construction suggests both the mask and, through the sloping corner at upper left, a part of the human figure. Bonevardi’s recurrent references to the mask are in keeping with his wish to stay in the realm of magic and learn its language—to be “other.” He who speaks through the mask becomes other. Perhaps his most potent image in this group occurs in Trapped Angel of 1979. There he brings together several of his characteristic forms to conjure a world of animism, a world shot through with fear. The angel is not a gentle winged human, as in Fra Angelico, but a symbol of all emotions and fears that wrack the human; most especially, fears of imprisonment and the Fall. The dark message is underlined. Bonevardi has impeccably carved an element that reads, “The Irreversible Plunge.”

In the most recent constructions, there are memories of his work in the mid-1970s when he used such titles as Gnomon and The Supreme Astrolabe— cryptic allusions to his abiding preoccupation with time. The gnomon not only refers to the element of a sundial but also to the nature of the parallelogram. The stick and the sun are there, and also the moon, interpreted both as a primitive, who lives in circular timelessness might, and as modern man with his sophisticated instruments. But Bonevardi’s instruments are not functional. They are fantastic and made more so by the daring perspectives Bonevardi introduces into the reliefs. Piranesi’s labyrinths. Time occurs in these later works embodied in carved balls, sometimes set on tilting ledges. Perhaps there is a memory of Cornell here, especially as the balls are often ghostly white as were Cornell’s. Immobile as they are, these apparitional spheres are more than verbs in the future conditional tense. They are invocations of Pascal’s sphere which so intrigued Borges: “Nature is an in nite sphere whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.”

Copyright Dore Ashton, 1980, and printed courtesy the Dore Ashton Estate.

This “fearful” sphere, as Borges called it, hangs heavy in many of Bonevardi’s drawings where it sometimes swings like a pendulum, sometimes lies like a dead weight in a niche, and sometimes hangs from a menacing hook. Hooks and screws prevail in Bonevardi’s imaginary monuments. With his training as an architect, Bonevardi knows how to render objects with admirable explicitness. They are enlarged and placed in incongruous contexts. They know the fearful wilderness of space that all adepts of mystery adore. They loom menacingly as machines for awe and terror but they are machines for no visible purpose. As Ronald Christ says:

In Bonevardi’s work we encounter many devices, mechanisms and machines that are entirely useless. Things like a trap for the moon and a scale for premonitions. Of course, such mechanisms are strictly useless in this world, even if their graphic syntax fulfills the verbal one of their titles. The work they are intended to accomplish is desirable, perhaps inevitable, yet the corresponding technology that they imply poses a world unavailable to us.

Christ says that the works of Bonevardi are like found objects from another world. The “other” world is the world Bonevardi strives to possess. More than most artists he is intent on creating a world in which he can dwell constantly. But his world must also multiply itself into infinity. The multiple allusions to time and space, rendered in so many combinations, and opening out always, are there to confirm to Bonevardi himself that there is a world within where the imagination can honorably and forever dwell.

Copyright Dore Ashton, 1980, and printed courtesy the Dore Ashton Estate.