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Not only New York but other large port cities of the eastern seaboard of the Americas – Montevideo, São Paulo, Buenos Aires and Caracas – received waves of European émigrés in the 1930s and absorbed avant-garde influences to create innovative art forms. North American abstract expressionism grew out of Parisian surrealism, while South American artists harnessed strategies from Russian constructivism, Bauhaus and De Stijl, whose utopian spirit met the mood of optimism and growth in the progressive economies of Uruguay, Argentina, Brazil and Venezuela.
Patricia Phelps de Cisneros, wife of Venezuelan media billionaire Gustavo Cisneros, has collected work by mid-20th-century artists from these countries since the 1970s, when they had no global presence. Opening with pioneering Uruguay painter Joaquín Torres-García, her outstanding collection unravels how Latin American artists used geometry to liberate colour and form from the picture plane. First, in the 1940s, wittily irregular plywood compositions – by Juan Alberto Molenberg, Tomás Maldonado (“Development of a Triangle”) – reprised Mondrian and Malevich; then the marvellously playful Hélio Oiticica hung bright monochrome reliefs from the ceiling, while Lygia Clark’s hinged aluminium sculptures opened up like folded paper, as in “Monument to All Situations”.
The Royal Academy’s Sackler Wing can be limiting but in this dynamic mise en scène the works look terrific, and the show fizzes with energy and the excitement of young artists whose breakthroughs were, says co-curator Gabriel Pérez-Barreiro, “visual manifestos” of political/philosophical belief systems. Chief among these was the idea that the observer becomes participant, changing works by moving around, through and within them, and here the Venezuelans are kings.
The show’s highlights are versions of kinetic art by Gego, Jesús Soto’s installation “Nylon Cube”, which seems to make an entire gallery sway, and a shimmering five-metre stripe painting “Physichromie No 500” by 90-year-old Carlos Cruz-Diez.
royalacademy.org.uk, 020 7300 8000 to September 28
Photograph: World of Lygia Clark Cultural Association