Raphael Montañez Ortiz
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Raphael Montañez Ortiz (born in Brooklyn, New York in 1934) is an American artist, educator, and founder of El Museo del Barrio, in East Harlem, New York City. He is a graduate of Art and Design High School of New York City, and studied at Pratt Institute, where he began as a student of architecture, decided instead to become a visual artist, and received his BFA and MFA at Pratt Institute in 1964. He continued honing both his artistic skills and his formal education, finishing a doctorate in Fine Arts and Fine Arts in Higher Education at Teachers College of Columbia University. Ortiz's works are in the collection of the Pompidou Centre in Paris and the Ludwig Museum in Cologne, Germany, the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Everson Museum in Syracuse, New York, the Chrysler Museum of Art in Virginia and the Menil Collection in Houston, Texas.
Ritual, coincidence, duality, transcendence, humanism, performance, gesture, religion and history are only a few of the subjects that the artist has addressed through his works. From the beginning of his career, perhaps his most important concern was avant-garde practice. He worked on the margins of cultural production, creating art from non-art objects, such as domestic items, which he would unmake in a process of (de)construction. While he was interested in avant-garde movements such as Dada and Fluxus, readings in psychology and anthropology influenced him most and acted as the link between his early Archaeological Finds series and his interest in the perceptions of the unconscious mind.1
Ortiz incorporated indigenous elements to the process of deconstruction, underscoring his awareness of indigenous cultural practice and its possibilities as a model for contemporary aesthetics. In the creation of his earliest film works from the late 1950s, he hacks a film into pieces while chanting. Placing the pieces into a medicine bag, he then arbitrarily removed each piece and spliced them together in a completely random fashion. In his film work from the early 1980s, the artist used an Apple computer hooked up to a laser disc player. He scratched the laser disc, creating a stammering image, and a disconnection between time and space.
The Destruction in Art Symposium
In London, 1966, a group of artists like Yoko Ono, Wolf Vostell, Peter Weibel and Al Hansen came together to participate in the first Destruction in Art Symposium (DIAS) led by Gustav Metzger. According to the event’s press release, the principal objective of DIAS was “to focus attention on the element of destruction in Happenings and other art forms, and to relate this destruction in society.”2 Events were scheduled to occur throughout London. During the course of the symposium, Ortiz performed a series of seven public destruction events, including his piano destruction concerts, which were filmed by both American Broadcasting Company and the BBC. Two years later, New York City hosted the second Destruction in Art Symposium at Judson Church in Greenwich Village. The artists who gathered around this art movement and its development were opposed to the senseless destruction of human life and landscapes engendered by the Vietnam war.
Destruction art bears witness to the tenuous conditionality of survival; it is the visual discourse of the survivor. It is the only attempt in the visual arts to grapple seriously with the technology and psycho-dynamics of actual and virtual extinction, one of the few cultural practices to redress the general absence of discussion about destruction in society.3
This interest in the discussion about destruction in society is crucial to understanding the anger and violence implied by some of the artist's works. Destroying functional objects such as beds, sofas, and chairs or appropriating objects that refer to the human body, such as shoes, was the way in which Ortiz expressed the fragility of human life and his frustration with its senseless destruction. He burned, cut, ripped, gouged, and generally wreaked havoc on domestic objects to bring attention to humanity’s vulnerability. He continued to use destruction in his works and performances until around 1970.
In 1969, Ortiz founded El Museo del Barrio, the first museum in the United States dedicated to the aesthetic production of Latinos. Born to a Puerto Rican mother of Spanish and indigenous Mexican heritage and a father of Spanish and Portuguese heritage, the artist clearly understood the need for such an institution. This was a critical step for Ortiz, who hoped to publicly draw together his avant-garde practice, his dedicated commitment to the study of indigenous culture and the relationship between the aesthetics of indigenous peoples and contemporary art practice.
Performances and Piano Deconstructions
Since his 1966 Burst Your Paper Bags audience participation concert held in London’s Conway Hall, the artist has continued to organize performances in which audiences actively participate both physically and psychologically. In 1979, after nearly four years of study with psychics, yoga masters and naturopathic healers, Ortiz invented an inner performance process he named Physio-Psycho-Alchemy. He described these performances as “inner visioning,” inspired largely by dream imagery, symbols and processes. He noted: “The dream is a transformative process during which distortions, displacement and condensations occur. Its most essential aspect is its sense of reality.”4 These Physio-Psycho-Alchemy events encouraged participants to lie quietly in various positions as the artist gave instructions to begin the inner visioning process. For the artist, the body, as it was used in these performances, was the site of a meaningful connection between the mind, body and spirit. During this period, the artist also continued to create avant-garde video work. In his film work from the early 1980s, the artist used an Apple computer hooked up to a laser disc player. He scratched the laser disc, creating a stammering image and a disconnection between time and space.
While the artist was no longer actively creating destructive art, he was still asked to perform piano destructions throughout Europe and the United States in the 1980s and 1990s and was sometimes even asked to do private commissions. In 1988, Ortiz was honored with a retrospective exhibition at El Museo del Barrio, Rafael Montañez Ortiz: Years of the Warrior, Years of the Psyche, 1960-1988. During the exhibition, he performed a dual piano destruction, Homage: Duet to [Richard] Huelsenbeck, which called for active audience participation in the destruction of the second piano. This homage performance underscored the mutual admiration that both men had for one another’s work. In 1963, Richard Huelsenbeck had written: “Ralph Ortiz…is fascinated by things that are not or are not yet…when Ortiz wants to show us a mattress, he does not show a mattress but an object that is torn up by indefinable forces as they worked in time. What really plays an important role is the artist’s thought of the man behind the mattress who has to fight his way through the jungle of his existence.”5
The artist’s most recent projects continue to focus on participatory artworks, many evoking new ways to combat the inhumanity of the world. His Virtual Presence Video Interactive Installation instructions encourage participants to give a fellow human being a virtual hug via digital technology. Ortiz’s life-long fascination for technology and avant-garde aesthetics led to his most recent body of two-dimensional works, which he refers to as digital paintings. These works were created entirely on a computer and are printed on vinyl. He adapts industrial materials and high technology to his concept of painting, creating images that are based on pre-Hispanic designs, Renaissance imagery, historical documents, and diagrams. Influenced by texts about the radical origins of Christianity, the history of human existence and evolution, the various names for God, secret societies, and the history of the relationship among world religions, the artist has created a number of large-scale vinyl works that combine form, image, text and symbols.
Perhaps his longest running series of performance works, the piano destruction events now total well over 80 performances in museums and galleries around the world, including New York, Los Angeles, Cleveland, San Francisco, Austria, Canada, Germany, and Italy. No longer merely destroyed pianos, his piano sculptures are in the collections of the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art.
Throughout his career, the artist carefully considered the symbolic meaning of his actions as a destruction artist and his engaged political position. He noted:
There are today throughout the world a handful of artists working in a way, which is truly unique in art history. Theirs is an art which separates the makers from the unmakers, the assemblers from the disassemblers, the constructors from the destructors. These artists are destroyers, materialists, and sensualists dealing with process directly. These artists are destructivists and do not pretend to play at God’s happy game of creation; on the contrary, theirs is a response to the pervading will to kill. It is not the trauma of birth which concerns the destructivist. He understands that there is no need for magic in living. It is one’s sense of death which needs the life-giving nourishment of transcendental ritual.6
Ortiz wrote this in his influential Destructivist Manifesto in 1962. It was only the beginning of a series of writings in which the artist would illuminate and develop his ideas about creating an art that was simultaneously avant-garde and politically, historically, and socially engaged. His warning against aggressive destructive urges is particularly relevant for our times, evoking war, genocide, exploitation and other consequences of human actions. Rather than evoking hopelessness and dread, however, the artist directs our attention to the link between the history of art, human development, ritual and inner relationships of the mind, body and spirit. Recalling historic practices of indigenous peoples, the artist offers his modern rituals as events through which to experience connections with the authentic self and others. Ortiz has achieved the highest professorial rank at Rutgers University, where he has been on the faculty since 1972. He has been teaching at Mason Gross School of the Arts since its inception.
1. Kristine Stiles, Ph.D. “Rafael Montañez Ortiz,” Rafael Montañez Ortiz: Years of the Warrior, Years of the Psyche, 1960-1988, New York: El Museo del Barrio, 1988: 30.
2. “Destruction in Art Symposium,” Art & The 60s: This was Tomorrow, Tate Britain, 1/2/07; www.tate.org
3. Kristine Stiles, Ph.D., “Selected Comments on Destruction Art,” Book for Unstable Media (V2_Publishing, Hertogenbosch, Netherlands: V2-Organization, 1992)
4. Ibid; p. 14.
5. Richard Huelsenbeck, unpublished text, signed and dated 1963. Archives of Raphael Montañez Ortiz.
6. “Destructivism: A Manifesto by Rafael Montañez Ortiz,” 1962, unpublished, reprinted in Rafael Montañez Ortiz: Years of the Warrior, Years of the Psyche, 1960-1988, New York: El Museo del Barrio, 1988: 52.
Kristine Stiles, Rafael Montañez Ortiz: Years of the Warrior, Years of the Psyche, 1960-1988. New York: El Museo del Barrio, 1988.
Rocío Aranda-Alvarado, Chon Noriega, and Yasmin Ramirez, Unmaking: The Work of Raphael Montañez Ortiz (Jersey City: Jersey City Museum), 2006. http://centropr.hunter.cuny.edu/sites/default/files/Interview%20with%20Ortiz.pdf
Thomas Dreher, "Raphael Montanez Ortiz: Destruktionskunst in selbstinstituierender Gesellschaft", neue bildende kunst (Februar-März 1998): 56-63 (in German). URL: http://dreher.netzliteratur.net/2_Performance_Ortiz_Text.html .
Scott MacDonald, "Media Destructionism: The Digital/Laser/Videos of Raphael Montañez Oritz" in Chon Noriega and Ana Lopez, eds., The Ethnic Eye: Latino Media Arts (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996): 183-207.
Scott MacDonald, "Raphael Montañez Ortiz," A Critica Cinema 3: Interviews with Independent Filmmakers (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998).
Raphael Montañez Ortiz, Towards and Authenticating Art, Doctoral Thesis, Columbia University, 1982.
Raphael Montañez Ortiz, "Culture and the People," Art in America (May–June 1971): 27.
Rafael Montañez Ortiz, Years of the Warrior, Years of the Psyche, 1960-1988 (New York: El Museo del Barrio, 1988).
Robert C. Morgan, "The Destructivism of Raphael Montañez Ortiz," Review Art (January 15, 1997): 31-32.
Chon Noriega and Matthew Yokobosky, Raphael Montañez Ortiz: Early Destruction, 1957-1967 [exhibition brochure] (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1996).
Chon Noriega, "Sacred Contingencies: The Digital Reconstructions of Raphael Montañez Ortiz, video artist" Art Journal (December 1995); listed on Find Articles website at http://www.findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m0425/is_n4_v54/ai_17838389.
Jacinto Quirarte, Mexican American Artists (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1973: 99-101.