In contrast to the sheer exhaustion of the crisis and war in Europe, economic growth in Latin America signalled a profound transformation in its major cities, which expanded and consumed a European model of progress. The euphoria of developmentalism made room for a rekindled utopia, while geometric abstraction emerged in numerous cities with different movements that reactivated works from historical avant-garde movements in Europe. Artists and intellectuals coalesced through travel and exchanges in a global scene that included them in the discourse of modernity.
This constant toing and froing was influenced by the optimism around and value of Latin Americanness and, therefore, presented an opportunity. The appreciation of this culture meant exchanges were accompanied by an exhaustive search for autochthony, resulting in a distinctive accent shaped by the local and key to the diversification and development of geometric abstraction. At the same time, this thrust acted as a call to rethink the construction of modernity and established the idea that it was possible to portray the universal from the South.
In 1943, Joaquín Torres García inverted the map of South America as he formulated “our north is the south”, and opened a comprehensive arts school from which to disseminate Universal Constructivism in Montevideo. He had started to delineate this doctrine in Paris but developed and profoundly transformed it upon returning to his native Montevideo, where his approach to pre-Columbian artistic manifestations led him to redirect his conception of universalism and to rethink quintessential Latin American identity. Along this path, he broke down many dichotomies — political and formal — operating as borders in the meanings of art: north-south, work-object, artist-workshop, painting-sculpture.
These constructivist-based pursuits reverberated through different points of the continent almost simultaneously. In Buenos Aires, São Paulo and Río de Janeiro movements were created that radicalised these proposals and embraced the geometric, breaking away from figuration at the same time as they opposed the master-disciple dichotomy and also questioned Torres García, the modus operandi of these movements bearing more of a resemblance to European avant-garde art. They came together by creating a critical and experimental milieu, where research and artistic production were presented in exhibitions, and through published magazines and manifestos. Consequently, the city became a territory of transformation, where architecture, art, design and handicrafts converged.
This far-reaching perspective to develop the utopian was replicated on a political-state level, although the most radical example was the Brasilia project: an impossible, modern, concrete city. In step with this in the USA, a series of micro-policies and investments materialised in the arts to promote the interpretation of these discourses of modernity and the presence of this country in the region, thereby looking to cement a position in the cultural arena of the Cold War, where Latin America was still a disputed ally. Such strategies were often dismissed from the different movements and works by urban collectives, and Goeritz in Mexico City and Lygia Pape in São Paulo are clear examples of resistance to these discourses.