Controversial Argentinean conceptual artist and political activist León Ferrari died at the age of 92 on July 25.
Born in 1920 in Buenos Aires, Ferrari studied engineering before turning to a career in art. His polarizing work, known for its explicit and provocative content, has incited riots, protests and legal action, and even led to a 14-year exile spent in Brazil in 1977. Working in mediums ranging from collage to sculpture in wood and plaster, Ferrari often utilized newspaper clippings and poetry as well as explicit religious iconography.
Ferrari used his art to speak out in defense of human rights and against targets such as the Vietnam War and Argentina’s so-called “Dirty War” (approximately 1976-83). Perhaps his most notorious work, the sculpture La civilización occidental y cristiana (Western Civilization and Christianity, 1974), depicts Christ crucified on an American bomber plane.
This piece was included in a highly publicized retrospective organized by the Centro Cultural Recoleta in Buenos Aires in 2004. Also on view were pieces depicting the Virgin Mary in a blender and saints in baby bottles, symbolizing what Ferrari believed was the force feeding of religion to the masses. The exhibition was censured by the archbishop of Buenos Aires, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio (now Pope Francis), who not only publicly denounced the show but also accused Ferrari of blasphemy in an open letter and urged Catholics to pursue legal action. The debate over the show eventually culminated in four men destroying a major work and vandalizing several others. Nevertheless, Ferrari continued to explore themes of religion, war, power and politics in works that sometimes directly critiqued the Catholic Church for what he saw as the abuse of papal power.
Despite difficulty getting his work shown at home, Ferrari has been the subject of major international exhibitions including a joint retrospective at New York’s Museum of Modern Art with Brazil’s Mira Schendel (2009) and a solo show at the Museo de Arte Carrillo Gil, Mexico City (2008). He was also awarded the Golden Lion Award for Lifetime Achievement at the 53rd Venice Biennale (2007) and the Diamond Award from Argentina’s Konex Foundation (2012). His work has been collected in major institutions such as the Museum of Modern Art; the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; and the Latin American Art Museum of Buenos Aires (MALBA). At the time of his death, Ferrari was also working on a Guggenheim Fellowship focused on themes of sex and violence in Christian art.