About the mural Center of Forms by Manuel Felguerez

This mural marks a watershed in Manuel Felguérez's career and an essential turning point in UNAM's efforts to provide an alternative to traditional forms of public art.

About the mural Center of Forms by Manuel Felguerez
Mural El centro de las formas ("The center of the forms") by Manuel Felguérez. Credit: UNAM

Rita Eder, a retired researcher at the Institute of Aesthetic Research Institute, claimed that during his career, Mexican artist Manuel Felguérez "experimented with all imaginable forms of the plastic arts until he united sculpture, painting, and building."

"He is an artist of great relevance for modern Mexican art, and precisely in the Mario de la Cueva Auditorium where one of his murals, El centro de las formas ("The center of the forms"), is located, he shows how he went from being an abstract artist interested in tachism and informalism to being a geometric abstract artist where he establishes relationships between art and science.

"The subject of abstraction in Mexico is complex and interesting. It can be said that this artist contributed to legitimizing abstraction in the Mexican artistic environment. The antecedent of Felguérez and the so-called Rupture Generation is, of course, Mexican muralism, in which abstraction and the avant-garde had no place. But if one analyzes the work of, for example, David Alfaro Siqueiros or Diego Rivera, one can see that they were immersed in certain aspects of the avant-garde such as cubism and futurism (this would be another topic). Not a declared avant-garde, because their idea was that the style and contents of muralism would have to be close to certain traditions coming from realism.

"There was, on the one hand, the idea of a social art ineluctably linked to realism -an idea that arose in Mexico with the Revolution-, but later it became an instrument of the Cold War and the cultural struggle that took place between the great powers where abstract art appears linked to the privileged classes, the bourgeoisie, and imperialism. In the 1950s of the last century, a new generation arose, among them Manuel Felguérez, who traveled to Paris in the late 1940s and opened himself to the avant-garde currents. From Paris, he returned to Mexico, very identified with different types of abstraction and moved from informal painting to geometric and constructive painting, as we see in El centro de las formas," added the specialist.

Mural El centro de las formas ("The center of the forms") by Manuel Felguérez.
Mural El centro de las formas ("The center of the forms") by Manuel Felguérez.

The Center of Forms by Manuel Felguérez

Located on the 14th floor of the Humanities Tower II, the Mario de la Cueva Auditorium boasts among its walls a mural El centro de la formas, a piece that stands out for the intense reddish tones of its wood and its geometric figures in contrast with its silver background.

The work said Rita Eder, "is closely linked to a new stage in Felguérez's work, who in the early 1970s had an exhibition called El espacio múltiple ("Multiple Space"), in which a radical change can be seen. A few years earlier he had begun to experiment with polychrome reliefs and that experience leads to a group of works grouped under the title: El espacio múltiple and he will continue to work on the idea of how to combine geometric shapes.

"In the mid-1970s he became interested in the relationship between art and science, then together with Mayer Sasson, a mathematician who had an idea of how to establish relationships between technology and art, particularly the computer, they set out to give shape to the project: La máquina estética ("The Aesthetic Machine").

"Felguérez had already had an interest in the computer as a creator of forms. By obtaining a Guggenheim Fellowship and being part of the UNAM -because he was a professor at the National School of Plastic Arts and was part of the Institute of Aesthetic Research- he started this project at Harvard University in 1975, together with Mayer Sasson".

Mural El centro de las formas ("The center of the forms") by Manuel Felguérez.
Mural El centro de las formas ("The center of the forms") by Manuel Felguérez.

Aesthetic Machine

As a result of the work between Felguérez and Sasson, the book La máquina estética was published by the General Directorate of Publications of the UNAM, in which the Zacatecan artist explained his reasoning:

"There has always been a close relationship between science and art since the latter inevitably reflects the technology of the time in which it is made. We try to demonstrate how, through the application of the theory of Systems Identification, it is possible to elaborate a program that allows -from a model- the 'infinite' production of new ideograms, and designs with all the characteristics of style that define the plastic work of an author. As we know, a computer can be equipped with artificial intelligence that allows it to make intelligent decisions. Well, if in this case in the process of feeding the device most of the orders correspond to aesthetic judgments, that is, to decisions of an emotional order, we can affirm that it was possible to endow the computer with an artificial sensibility, thus creating the Aesthetic Machine".

Felguérez also explained in that text the instructions that were developed to "feed" the computer, which in turn were based on a profound analysis of his work up to that moment. "It corresponds not to the subjective decision of a moment, but the sum of many moments over the years." The "rules" were divided as follows:

(a) "Each design will have to be contained in a horizontal format of 6 x 8 units".

b) "Each of the four invisible margins of the rectangle containing the shape shall be touched by at least one of the simple geometric elements that make it up".

c) "For its graphic representation, the shape contained in 6 x 8 units will have a margin around it of one more unit of background so that a drawing will total 8 x 10 units (7 x 9 in its application to painting)".

d) "The eight geometric elements used shall be: The rectangle, whether vertical, horizontal or square; the circle; the isosceles triangle, always upwards; the half circle in four positions, upwards, downwards, right or left; the sum of a rectangle and a half circle in four positions, upwards, downwards, right or left; rectangle with two blunt angles in a quarter circle in four positions: up, down, right or left; rhombus with vertical parallels and diagonals equivalent to half an isosceles triangle; and rhombus with horizontal parallels and diagonals equivalent to half an isosceles triangle."

Rita Eder pointed out that "what we are seeing in the mural is the product of that moment in Felguérez's life when he moved from multiple spaces -a product of his invention and imagination- to feed the computer with these forms. If fed correctly, as the engineer Mayer Sasson did, several options and possibilities were obtained. El centro de las formas is the product of that experiment.

"You can say that Felguérez was a pioneer of digital art. Computers were not what they are now, they were huge devices housed in large spaces that had to be fed with cards. Today, this could perhaps be done with less difficulty, but back then you had to invent a formula to see if the computer could understand how many combinations could be achieved with those eight or nine shapes and an enormous amount of possibilities came out," Eder recalled.

Detail of the mural El centro de las formas ("The center of the forms") by Manuel Felguérez.
Detail of the mural El centro de las formas ("The center of the forms") by Manuel Felguérez.

Legacy of Manuel Felguérez

For the author of Desafío a la estabilidad. Artistic processes in Mexico 1952-1967, the mural El centro de las formas "has a lot to do with everything that was done in artistic matters in the University City, when the Sculpture Space was created. A work created by a group of artists: Manuel Felguérez, Federico Silva, Helen Escobedo, Hersúa, Sebastián, and Mathias Goeritz, who decided on collective authorship.

"We can say that this mural represents an epoch in Felguérez's work and a very important moment in which UNAM -under the patronage of this University and the sympathy of Dr. Soberón- creates an alternative to public art. That is why it is important to talk about this in the context of the celebration of the 100th anniversary of muralism. It is different from the murals of Chávez Morado, Diego Rivera, Siqueiros, and others, most of them created at another time. What I want to say is that this is an important contribution of the University in its desire to encourage another type of public art."

Eder finished off by distinguishing that "we cannot speak of abstract muralism as such at UNAM, because it is not the majority, but if there are several examples, this is one and Mathias Goeritz's -Poema plástico- in a certain way is another. The center of the forms is relevant to the extent of its value per se and for being part of that moment in which the Sculptural Space and the University's agreement to promote a new stage in the history of public art emerged. It is another type of muralism that tends to renew itself with other ideas, other materials, and other meanings. We have to think of this mural as significant of a change in Mexican muralism, works were made that did not necessarily have anything to do with history or political episodes. We must value its importance."