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Rhod Rothfuss, Yellow Quadrangle

Rhod Rothfuss, Yellow Quadrangle, 1955, alkyd and gouache on board, 37 x 33 cm (MoMA). A conversation with Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank and Dr. Beth Harris. Created by Smarthistory.

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Video transcript

(mellow music) - [Speaker 1] We're in the Museum of Modern Art and we're looking at a painting by Rhod Rothfuss called Yellow Quadrangle. I see squares, rectangles. - [Speaker 2] And we're seeing them in different colors. We've got greens and reds and yellows and dark navy blue and they are all projecting off of a white background that is largely rectangular but has a prominent projection off the left side. - [Speaker 1] That extension of the frame seems to be caused by the yellow rectangle right next to it. - [Speaker 2] Because Rothfuss has made each of these shapes project off of the background, we're seeing shadows. He placed pieces of wood on the backside of this work so that it would project further off the wall to cast another shadow on the sides and the base of the entire work of art. - [Speaker 1] In the history of art, cast shadows are generally something that the artist paints to convince us of the illusion of volumes of the forms that are depicted within the painting. But here the forms are themselves three-dimensional and project, and all of the forms are painted flatly. - [Speaker 2] Each of these squares or rectangles have black outlines done using some type of straight edge technique to give us these crisp, even black lines. - [Speaker 1] They feel machine made because we don't see the hand of the artist. On the other hand, we sense the presence of the artist because these forms are so beautifully balanced. - [Speaker 2] If we look at the squares and the rectangles that project forward, they are more smoothly painted and that is in contrast to the background that is white. But we can see parts of the wooden background showing through. - [Speaker 1] The background has an irregularity and depth to the color that those geometric shapes that are laid on top of it don't have. - [Speaker 2] Likewise, the paint that was used to create these saturated colors has a sheen to it that the background does not. So as we move around this painting there is a light reflection that we don't see on the background that adds a further sense of dynamism to this geometric composition. - [Speaker 1] This decision to extend the frame, it was important to the artist. - [Speaker 2] To understand what informs this particular painting we have to go back in time to the '40s when Rothfuss was the editor of and an author in the journal "Arturo", which was published in 1944. And it was a really important collection of essays, of poems and other writings. What it discussed overall and what Rothfuss discussed himself is the importance of abstraction and this ongoing rejection of recognizable forms. In his essay, Rothfuss talks about how to break the frame of art. He's the first person to talk about these irregularly shaped frames, what are called the marco recortado. And he says that, "A painting with a regular frame suggests a continuity of theme which disappears only when the frame is rigorously structured according to the painting's composition. That means the edge of the canvas plays an active role in the work of art, a role it must always have. A painting should begin and end with itself, without continuity." - [Speaker 1] So for Rothfuss, the frame should respond to the forms inside the painting rather than limit the forms inside the painting. - [Speaker 2] Rothfuss is rejecting this idea of painting as a window into a world that we see represented on a canvas. Say if we're looking at a Renaissance painting using linear perspective, we have sight lines that allow us to both go into the painting, but these lines also project outwards. - [Speaker 1] By rejecting this Renaissance idea of the painting as an illusion Rothfuss is reminding us of the painting's own reality. - [Speaker 2] And that idea that we typically associate with the Renaissance is one that continues through the Spanish colonial period here in South America and in the period of academic painting in the 19th and early 20th century. And so it's not only a rejection of those artistic traditions but it's one that's also tied to the political situation in Argentina in the '40s. There's been a military coup in the government where the Peron administration is advocating for representational academic art. And so this rejection in the actual works that are being created as well as the many writings and manifestos and exhibitions that these artists like Rothfuss are doing are situated in this moment. And even grappling with the fallout from World War II. How do you pick up the pieces in a world that's been shattered with so much devastation? And these artists are trying to figure out what that looks like in new ways. - [Speaker 1] And so, although this is entirely abstract, which does not at all borrow from the visible forms of the world, it does seem that the artist wanted to connect art to the world in a new way by breaking the frame, by lifting the background off the wall. In this way, the forms move into our space. - [Speaker 2] Rothfuss and the other artists that he was associated with in the Grupo Madi, by this point in the '50s, were not the first to engage with geometric abstraction in Latin America. For that, we have to go back in time to the artist Joaquin Torres-Garcia. He is using rectangles and squares defined by bold lines. Artists like Rothfuss are looking to Torres-Garcia not only for inspiration but are trying to move beyond their artistic father. - [Speaker 1] Geometric abstraction was important in Uruguay, in Argentina, in Brazil, in so much of South America well into the 20th century. (mellow music)