January 28, 2008
Carmen Herrera, "New Perspectives in Latin American Art, 1930-2006: Selections from a Decade of Acquisitions" - MoMA, New York
By FABIOLA SANTIAGO - Art lovers appreciative of the conceptual explosions of Brazil and Cuba in the 20th century are exhaling joyful sighs as they leave the Museum of Modern Art's exhibit New Perspectives in Latin American Art, 1930-2006: Selections from a Decade of Acquisitions.
Finally, New York gets it.There is contemporary art in Latin America beyond the mythological Mexican trilogy of icons Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera and Rufino Tamayo, and the surrealist splendor of AfroCuban Wifredo Lam.
But most germane to Miami, the MoMA exhibition of some 200 works from Latin America and the Caribbean, added to the museum's collection over the past 10 years, offers lessons in acquisition. Given the Miami Art Museum's charge to build a respectable art collection that is meaningful to South Florida, the MoMA show is particularly relevant: It shows how an impressive collection can be built in a short time, relying both on donations and diverse funding strategies.
MoMA's chief curator of Latin American art, Luis Pérez-Oramas, says his museum has a tradition of procuring major Latin American works dating back to 1935-36 ''when no other museum in the world was acquiring works in a systematic way.'' The entire collection consists of more than 3,000 works, yet post-war, MoMA turned its attention to Europe, then to the New York school of abstract and pop art.
''There were artists in Latin America working in the '50s, '60s and '70s who were really pioneers of conceptualism and their works are not known by American institutions,'' Pérez-Oramas says, adding that the social and political strife in Latin America and the Caribbean also played a role in keeping attention away from artists.
MoMA is playing catch-up with speed and distinction. Seventy percent of the works in New Perspectives were acquired in the past four or five years.
Somewhat awkwardly exhibited between second- and third-floor galleries, New Perspectives reveals a mixed bag of gifts made by foundations, museum board members, collectors, artists and purchases made through three museum funds - Fund for the 21st Century, the Committee on Drawing Funds, and the Latin American and Caribbean Funds.
''They are not acquisitions committees, but funding committees,'' Pérez-Oramas notes.
The range of the art is impressive, as is the range of countries represented. There's installation, sculpture, drawings, painting, mixed media, photography. The exhibition is organized by Pérez-Oramas, The Estrellita Brodsky curator of Latin American Art at MoMA, a position created last year with an endowment from the arts patron.
The show starts and ends with worthy samples of conceptual art by Cubans - most notably in the first half of the 20th century by artist Carmen Herrera, and from 2003, a watercolor and pencil on paper, Wooden Floor, by the talented collective Los Carpinteros.
Herrera's geometric synthetic polymer on canvas from 1952, Untitled, shows a mastery of abstract technique that puts her in the category of contemporaries like the Latvian-born Mark Rothko and the American Barnett Newman. One of the treats of the MoMA show is discovering a work like Herrera's, then walking up a couple of flights to see Rothko and Newman, particularly the latter's epic Vir Heroicus Sublimis. Herrera's piece is a gift to MoMA from Agnes Gund and Tony Bechara, made in 2005.
''Carmen Herrera is a major figure who not until recently has been given her rightful, deserved, and long-overdue role in abstraction in the Americas,'' Pérez-Oramas says. "She was overlooked by American institutions for years.''
Other Cuban artists featured in New Perspectives include Ana Mendieta, Felix González Torres and photographers Abelardo Morell and Carlos Garaicoa, who both deal with architecture but from strikingly different generational and geographical perspectives.
''You can't tell the story of Cuban Modernism without the works we have in MoMA,'' Pérez-Oramas adds. (MoMA owns the Guernica of Cuban art -- Lam's The Jungle).
Morell, who identifies himself as ''American, born in Cuba'' often tackles displacement in his worldly photographs. This show includes three pieces, one London-based and titled Book and Mirror on Round Table, Three Dictionaries, and Pencil; all are gifts the photographer made in 2000.
Garaicoa, born in post-revolutionary Cuba in 1967, deals with collapsed and disappeared buildings in Havana and elsewhere. The Untitled in this show is marked ''L.A.,'' where the Museum of Contemporary Art organized a survey of his works in 2005 and showed the piece.
Garaicoa, who also works with architectural models, drawings and videos, pairs a black-and-white photograph of the Los Angeles building with a rendering made from thread and pins that shows the absence of the structure. His piece was acquired by the Fund for the 21st Century.
New Perspectives has stellar abstract and conceptual pieces when it comes to representations from Brazil, Venezuela, Argentina and Mexico.
Also notable are the abstract collages from 1950 by Alejandro Otero, who helped launch the abstract movement in Venezuela; the bright forms in gouache on cardboard of Brazilian Lygia Pape's Book of Creation from 1959-60; and the series of gouache on board titled Metaesquema, by the Brazilian Helio Oiticica. These artists were part of the revolutionary movement Tropicália, which influenced the art, music, politics and fashion of 1960s Brazil.
The museum has taken the show a step further, tying it to other cultural programming at MoMA, such as the screening of films from Latin America in the museum's two auditoriums, and a reading of contemporary poetry from Latin America, Feb. 13 at the Celeste Bastos Theater.
Looking forward to 2009, Pérez-Oramas is organizing two retrospectives of ''neighboring'' Latin American artists: one of the conceptual Argentine artist León Ferrari, and the other of the Brazilian Mira Shendel, a geometrical abstract painter who died in 1988. Both are extensively represented in the current show.
He's also organizing a traveling exhibit of ''historical highlights of the collection,'' which will start at the New York State Museum in Albany, and he hopes, travel around the country and beyond borders.
''One of my dreams,'' he says, "is to travel MoMA's collection in Latin America.''