Harry Abend: Assembled Environments 1958-2017

Organic Industry. The Assemblage of Found Objects in Harry Abend’s Work
by Juan Ledezma

In 1961, remarking on the neo-avant-garde production of artists who he included in the landmark exhibition The Art of Assemblage at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, curator William Steitz declared assemblage an untested “medium.” “It is to be expected,” he added, “that it should be the carrier of developing viewpoints for which orthodox techniques are less appropriate.” The roaring expansion of what Steitz described as a looming “wave of assemblage” confirmed the aptness of this remark. Yet such a confirmation was not only provided by the work of North American artists, who back then created composite artifacts to engage the complexity of their consumerist “collage world.” [1] It also came from other latitudes and in the form of proposals confronting another history and different cultural conditions.

The work of Harry Abend provides a prime example. The Venezuelan sculptor adopted assemblage techniques in 1958, at the start of his creative practice. Like the artists to whom Steitz referred, such as Schwitters, Duchamp, Raushenberg and Tinguely, Abend resorted to these techniques as the formative elements of a new medium, the conduit through which to project questions that conventional craft alone would fail even to raise. Indeed, Abend engaged sculpture and assemblage as two distinct, when not opposite, endeavors, the separate trajectories of which he would reunite in the form of a single, albeit two-sited formal inquiry. He used sculpture proper, on the one hand, to produce organic forms made up of wood and other natural materials, yet most often by means of formats and techniques—stacked progressions and serially repeated carving strokes—that betray an industrial ethos. The assemblage of found industrial objects provided the means for a converse strategy: inflected by supple shapes, arching articulations and dense overlays, Abend’s artifacts consistently incorporate an organic quality. Thus the artist’s broadened practice has pivoted on the tension between nature’s organic constructions and the constructed organizations of industry. Foregrounded, dismantled, and then tackled from shifting vantage points, this tension has equipped him with the tools to illuminate, question and, therefore, bridge the gap between our historically conditioned grasp of nature and our daily encounter with urban, built environments—the second nature of social experience.

“Second nature” is the term that Georg Lukács and Walter Benjamin adopted to address the relation between modern life and the forms built around it by the engineering logic of new technologies. These authors claimed that the constructed settings of urban life had rigidified into a meaningless environment, the prison-house of subjects deprived of the capacity to transform it. According to Benjamin, art provided the means to revert that situation: the newly introduced principles of montage would redeploy the rigid structures of second nature as a sensorial compound of unexpected connections; they would allow modern artists to create a field, both haptic and optical, where the artificial surroundings of modernity would take on some of the capacity to signify which “first nature”—nature in the strict sense—had held in pre-modern time periods.[2]

Assemblage could be approached from Benjamin’s critical model. This is clearly the case in the work of Abend, as it recycles the technical apparatus of second nature in objects that reset its original contents. Yet the artist’s reconstructive method goes a step further by privileging eroded, scoured surfaces—surfaces on which the formative forces of first nature have left an indexical mark, providing them with sensuous immediacy. Abend has thereby tack-welded a redemptive system, a compound of forms that revert the mastery of technology over nature, for it is now nature that shapes and reclaims dregs of technology. It bears repeating that this reversal of forces is itself flipped over in Abend’s sculptural craft. By cutting, incising, and deploying posts of wood according to the structural and serial postulates of technical reason, the artist has there proposed an organic post-minimalism that is informed, like other variants of this art tendency, by an industrial code.

In Abend’s assembled objects, weather-beaten forms bear the rusted marks of a natural history; in the carvings, organic forms take on the condition of cultural historicity. The latter works acknowledge that nature is never just itself; it always already appears as a historical construct. This is even more patent in the Venezuelan context, where first nature’s resources have shaped the concepts through which the nation perceives its own construction. First nature has done this overwhelmingly, foreclosing the need—and perhaps also the possibility—to enlist sound collective relations in the construction of second nature, the social world.[3] So it is that Venezuela has become a country of natural excess and social paucity, a situation that local artists have adverted and confronted in their distinct time periods.

Jesús Soto hoped to redress this imbalance by providing the country with a sound “idea of structure,” whereas Abend, who always dodged the influence that kinetic art had on his generation, proceeded to gauge the relation between the natural world and its counterpart, transmuting industry and the organic into one another along a complex, split sculptural narrative. Against the backdrop of kinetic art, Abend’s work appears like a critical counterstrategy. It is in fact with prescient cogency that El Gancho (Hanger), the piece that inaugurated the series in 1958, includes a structure whose serial unfolding (circle, two ovals, circle) is cut open by a corrosive force. The thud of progress, all-pervasive in the developmentalist context of this work’s assembly, comes to a halt that in its abruptness resonates with the country’s current conditions. Such conditions confirm that we indeed are in dire need of structure, yet one whose contours remain to be forged along a process of reconstruction that could, like Abend’s proposal, accommodate disparate alternatives and contrasting viewpoints. And that will certainly require artistry.


[1] William Steitz, The Art of Assemblage, exh. cat. (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1961).

[2] Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Mechanical Reproducibility,” Grey Room 39 (Spring 2010): 11–37.

[3] For a good, yet not entirely developed interpretation of this process, see Fernando Coronil, The Magical State: Nature, Money, and Modernity in Venezuela (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1997)