Inventing environmental art: the legacy of Uriburu

by David Galenson

On the fiftieth anniversary of Nicolas Garcia Uriburu’s first coloration, Buenos Aires’ National Museum of Fine Arts pays tribute to the landmark early accomplishment of its native son.

Coloration of Trafalgar Square in London (1974). Image courtesy of Nicolas Garcia Uriburu.

This exhibition’s timeline begins with the arrival of the 30-year old Uriburu in Paris in 1966; a May, 1968 show at the Iris Clert Gallery in Paris; then the June 19, 1968 surprise coloration of the Grand Canal on the eve of the Venice Biennale. In 1970, Uriburu colored the East River in New York, the Seine in Paris, and the Riachuelo River in Buenos Aires; in 1972, the fountains in Paris’ Trocadero Gardens; in 1974, the fountains in London’s Trafalgar Square. During these years, Uriburu had a series of gallery exhibitions in New York, Buenos Aires, Brussels, and London. The late 1960s and early ‘70s were a time of triumph for the talented young Argentine artist, that gave him a prominence in the advanced art world that very few Latin Americans have ever achieved.

Coloration of the Grand Canal in Venice (1968). Image courtesy of Nicolas Garcia Uriburu.

Uriburu went on to a long and productive career, that ended early with his untimely death in 2016. After the early years, he spent most of his time in Buenos Aires, and concentrated his art on the environment of Latin America. This work was done largely outside the view of Paris, London, and New York.

Nicolas Uriburu with Andy Warhol (1969). Image courtesy of Nicolas Garcia Uriburu.

What is striking today in looking at these early works is their great beauty. Uriburu blended photography and painting with a mastery of design and a flair for color. From the standpoint of advanced art, Uriburu’s colorations were part of a conceptual revolution that began in the 1950s and expanded the materials from which art was made: Rauschenberg began making art from junk, Klein from the sky, Smithson from the earth, and Uriburu from the waters. Unlike these others, however, Uriburu’s art had an important additional dimension, for it also had a social goal: Uriburu’s role as an early environmentalist has never been appreciated outside of his native country. It is sad that this neglect was not remedied in his lifetime, but at least it should be done now; a full-scale retrospective of his pioneering work should be presented in the art world’s capitals, to inspire young artists.

David Galenson is a professor at the University of Chicago. Read his other articles on Qrius here
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