Thursday, March 4th, 2004

MoMA at el Museo

“MoMA at el Museo”: Latin American and Carribean Art from the Collection of the Museum of Modern Art
El Museo del Barrio, 1230 Fifth Avenue, New York, 212 831 7272

A shortened version of this article first appeared in the New York Sun, March 4, 2004.

Doris Salcedo Untitled 1995 wood, cement, steel, cloth and leather, 93 x 41 x 17 inches Museum of Modern Art, New York, The Norman and Rosita Winston Foundation, Inc. Fund and purchase
Doris Salcedo, Untitled 1995 wood, cement, steel, cloth and leather, 93 x 41 x 17 inches Museum of Modern Art, New York, The Norman and Rosita Winston Foundation, Inc. Fund and purchase

This might be a classic “gringo” blunder, but isn’t the distinctiveness of Latin American and Carribean art amazing? The Columbian Doris Salcedo’s sculpture “Untitled,” (1995) consisting of a found chest of drawers ominously filled with concrete and the Uruguayan Joaquin Torres-Garcia’s painting, “Composition,” (1932), a grid of pictorgrams that seems carved in black upon a rough, earthy painterly ground, are bonded to each other and a common sensibility that leaps across boundaries of time and nation state.

Other examples could be drawn from “Latin American & Caribbean Art: MoMA at El Museo,” the landmark exhibition that opened this week, ranging even further across a continent and a half and the several different languages.

This observation of unity is not for a moment meant as a charge of homogeneity. The range and quality of work on display, including seminal examples by major modern artists, puts paid to it straight away. And yet, the visual language of the Latino half century is far more unified in terms of texture, attitude, and sensibility than a comparable period in, say, German art, to take a unified country with a common language.

And if this common currency is a feel not a look, it can still be quantified. It comes down to a robust synthesis of the earthy and the poetic where gutsy handling meets whimsicality, where the primitive meets the vulnerable. No doubt Hispanic eyeballs will roll at the mere mention of the clichèd phrase, but there really is something to it after all: Magic realism.

The Museo del Barrio, located on the northern reach of Upper Fifth Avenue’s “Museum Mile,” celebrates 35 as a significant cultural institution with this exhibition. It also takes happy and mutual advantage of MoMA’s rebuilding program, with the closure of its midtown Manhattan premises and its temporary tight squeeze in Queens.

The Modern has been collecting Latin American art in depth almost from its outset, always, at least until recently, concentrating its efforts on contemporary work. This is a remarkable fact. The museum formed around a conviction that modernism was a European, and for the most part a French phenomenon. As its unrivalled holdings demonstrate, along with the theorizing of its founder, Alfred H. Barr, Cézanne and the School of Paris that followed in his wake, formed its initial, central focus.

The Americans it collected were of a very different stripe, for the founders had a curious bifocal view of modernity. Abstraction, cubism, surrealism- all the funny stuff- was something that Frenchmen were good at, but Americans, it was thought, excelled at something different: pictorially naïve, socially conscious realism. It was a source of chagrin for the New York avantgarde for years that MoMA wouldn’t take serious contemporary American art of a truly modernist bent.

And this is where South and Central America came into the picture. The Modern, founded in 1929, began collecting art from the rest of the Americas in 1935. It didn’t turn its attention to other continents til much later, its allegiance being to its own notions of modernism, rather than to world culture on the world’s terms.

To the founder patrons of the Modern, sympathetic to American primitivism, the art of the Mexican muralists ranked very high in their esteem. And rightly so, as Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros and José Clemente Orozco galvanized American art at the time. Politically conservative critics took to them, despite their revolutionary sympathies.

Frida Kahlo Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair 1940 oil on canvas, 15-3/4 x 11 inches Museum of Modern Art, New York, Gift of Edgar Kaufmann, Jr.
Frida Kahlo, Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair 1940 oil on canvas, 15-3/4 x 11 inches Museum of Modern Art, New York, Gift of Edgar Kaufmann, Jr.

Everyone knows, thanks to the movies “Cradle will Rock” (1999) and “Frida” (2002) that Nelson Rockafeller had Diego Rivera’s mural for the Rockafeller Center destroyed when the Mexican painted in Lenin. The point, however, is that the tycoon, who was a leading light at the Modern, wanted so avowedly realist a painter in the first place.

The muralists fill the first room of El Barrio’s exhibition. Frida Kahlo is represented by “Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair” (1940). Rivera himself (her husband) comes across somewhat tame, with a set of watercolor studies of a May Day parade in Moscow and a large encaustic of a Mexican flower festival, whereas Siqueiros packs a punch with two phenemenal paintings. One of them, “Collective Suicide,” (1936) brings to mind the wacky Victorian apocalype painter, John Martin: Warring armies, minute Breughel or Ucello-like figures meet at the base of a seething cauldron of abstracted painterliness. Siqueiros is using the device of abstraction to figurative ends. Just a few years later, his experimental workshop in New York would prove a critical influence upon Jackson Pollock.

It is a short step from such fantasy realism to the Surrealism of the Cuban Wilfredo Lam and the Chilean Matta (Roberto Sebastián Antonoio Matta Echaurren). Lam’s majorly influential “The Jungle,” (1943) deserves to be seen more often. Although heavily Picassoid in its primitive masks and sexualized anatomical distortions it is a striking painting. Its touchingl execution proves a counterpoint to the dense structure of its composition.

Wilfredo Lam The Jungle 1943 gouache on paper mounted on canvas sheet, 94-1/4 x 90-1/2 inches Museum of Modern Art, Inter-American Fund
Wilfredo Lam, The Jungle 1943 gouache on paper mounted on canvas sheet, 94-1/4 x 90-1/2 inches Museum of Modern Art, Inter-American Fund

The problem, in a way, with Latin American Surrealism is that all Latin American art has a touch of the Surreal about it, anyway, marvelling in unlikely cultural collisions which are, to some extent, the cultural norm. Moving on to the 1950s, it emerges that even when it embraced abstraction, Latin American art retained the key characteristics of gutsiness and viscerality. The Brazilian Hélio Oiticica and the Venezuelan Jesús Rafael Soto always maintain a degree of edginess and animation in their cool abstraction, recalling the robust modernism of the expatriate Brazilian architect, Oscar Niemayer. It was as if they were temperamentally incapable of purism, as such.

Similar things happen when Latinos go conceptual. The Mexican Gabriel Orozco erases all the type on a random page of the phone book, save for a column of “Maria”s, all belonging to a sequence of “Munoz”s- an antic worthy of conceptualism anywhere, yet by creating this surreal litany he gives his work an edge of Borgesian Surrealism.

As MoMA’s collecting moved into the 1960s, artists influenced by Pop Art (and in the case of Venezuelan Marisol [Marisol Escobar], who worked in New York from the 1950s, exerting an influence on that movement themselves) retained a distinctive Latino sensibility, recalling local traditions in their personal brands of primitivism. Ms. Marisol is represented by her canonical face mask downing a coke bottle, and her sculptural portrait of LBJ which couples nicely with Mr. Botero’s “The Presidential Family,” (1967), a painting whose freshness and purpose belies the ubiquity this absurdly prolific artist has since achieved.

The premise of the exhibition might seem to faulter when artists who worked for their entire careers in America are incluced thanks to their passport, but could Haitian Jean Michel Basquiat possibly have been excluded? In fact, a work in color by this dynamo artist would have cheered up the later rooms, although it is fascinating to see a drawing by so collage-minded an artist which is literally a collage.

A room ominously entitled “Between the Sixties and Recent Acquisitions” begs the question about yawning gaps in MoMA’s Latin American collecting chronology: did the museum lose interest, or did the art? Still, things definitely pick up in the contemporary rooms, with Ms. Salcedo’s previously mentioned, de Chirico-like furniture keeping company with a sinisterly metamorphozing suite of theatre seating plans from the Argenitine Guillermo Kuitca (again, something bigger and in color would have been welcome from this major artist) and “Succulent Eggplants,” (1996) from the young Brazilian, Beatriz Milhazes. This decorative-erotic had me wishing there was something here from the Mexican-American Roberto Juarez, if Americans are to be admitted after all, but that and the exclusion of Raquel Forner (Argentina’s Frida) are my only gripes about this fun, fine exhibition.