BY Cristina Ruiz in Frieze | 05 APR 17

New Light on Latin American Art

Multigenerational galleries, pioneering patrons and institutional leaders mean attention is turning more than ever to art from Latin America

BY Cristina Ruiz in Frieze | 05 APR 17

Who got there first? For art historians fond of that particular game, the late Brazilian artist Lygia Pape offers ample opportunity to play. Among her experiments in minimalism and abstraction, for example, is a 1957 work, for which Pape incised a square block with grooves and printed from it. The resulting woodcut is black with thin, equidistant white lines running through the angular composition. Frank Stella’s celebrated black and white paintings of two years later appear near identical. So who influenced whom? Or did both artists arrive independently at the same point?

An exhibition on view at New York’s Met Breuer, the first monographic exhibition of Pape in the United States, is a chance to consider questions such as these. It’s one of many shows devoted to Latin American artists taking place in museums across the country which, collectively, are helping to rewrite the history of postwar art and expand its traditional focus on Europe and the United States. In New York, they include the Bronx Museum’s ‘Wild Noise / Ruido Salvaje’, a collaboration with El Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes of Havana. There’s the first museum solo show in the USA for Peruvian Teresa Burga, at SculptureCenter; and the aforementioned Pape exhibition. The 2017 Whitney Biennial features several artists of Latino heritage, including Mexico-born Raúl de Nieves and Aliza Nisenbaum, and the museum will present a full-scale retrospective devoted to the late Brazilian artist Hélio Oiticica this summer. In Houston, the Museum of Fine Arts is showing ‘Adiós Utopia’, the largest survey of Cuban art ever staged by an institution, which travels to the Walker Art Center in the Fall; and in September some 60 institutions across Southern California will jointly host the latest edition of Pacific Standard Time, funded with $14 million from the Getty Foundation, which will focus on Latin American and Latino art and the relationship between North and South America under the title ‘LA/LA’. In collaboration with the Getty and the Institute of Fine Arts, NYU, Frieze’s first ever symposium in New York will raise discussion on topics related to Latin American and Latino Art featured in Pacific Standard Time.

Lygia Clark, Planes in Modulated Surface 4, 1957, Formica and industrial paint on wood, 1 × 1 m. Gift of Patricia Phelps de Cisneros through the Latin American and Caribbean Fund in honor of Kathy Fuld

“Los Angeles is deeply connected to Latin America, both in our historical origins – we were founded as part of New Spain in 1781 – and our current demographics,” says Getty Foundation Director Deborah Marrow, adding that although planning for ‘LA/LA’ began five years ago “there couldn’t be a better moment to show the quality and diversity of Latin American and Latino art.” The multi-venue project will include exhibitions of artists including Jose Davila, David Lamelas and Anna Maria Maiolino and, at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, a major mid-career survey of the Brazilian artist Valeska Soares, including Push Pull (2013), an edible sculpture consisting of taffy dangling from a metal hook which visitors can handle and eat. Soares’s multi-sensory works sit firmly in the rich tradition of participatory art pioneered in Brazil by the likes of Oiticica, Lygia Clark and other members of the Neo-Concrete movement, which is increasingly getting its due in North American museums. “Curators are finally offering a wider view of art history to the public,” says Marcia Fortes of the Brazilian gallery Fortes D’Aloia & Gabriel, which represents Soares. “We’re beginning to see that what happened in Latin America is not a parallel history of art but a history of art intertwined with developments in Europe and the United States.” Glenn Lowry, director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, agrees with Fr. “It’s time to step away from the idea of a ‘western’ canon,” he says. “Instead we should think about the robust conversations which took place between artists from Europe, Latin America and North America. To get into absurd arguments about who influenced who misses the point. Look at Gego [born Gertrud Goldschmidt], who emigrated from Germany to Venezuela. She brought a European sensibility but her time in Venezuela transformed her vision.”

“To get into absurd arguments about who influenced who missed the point. Look at Gego.” — Glenn Lowry

MoMA is at the heart of these efforts to recalibrate our understanding of modern art. Last October, the Venezuelan collector Patricia Phelps de Cisneros and her husband the media billionaire Gustavo Cisneros donated to the museum over 100 works dating from the 1940s to the 1990s by 37 artists from Brazil, Venezuela, Argentina and Uruguay. They also provided funding for the establishment there of a research center devoted to Latin American art. “MoMA has been at the forefront of acquiring and presenting art from Latin America, and I believe that research is the best way to ensure the continuation of that effort,” says Patricia Cisneros. A long-time museum trustee, she founded and chairs MoMA’s Latin American acquisitions fund, and has previously donated 40 works to the institution. Seven pieces gifted by her, including works by Pape, Clark and Gego, are now on display there in ‘Making Space: Women Artists and Post War Abstraction’, and the entire Cisneros collection will be shown in 2019 when the museum completes the expansion of its Mid-town home. More importantly, the Cisneros gift will allow MoMA to integrate Latin American art into its permanent displays charting the story of modernism’s evolution, to examine “all the different ways in which modernisms flourished,” says Lowry.

Patricia Phelps de Cisneros. Courtesy: MoMA, New York.

Another philanthropist helping to drive the institutional shift towards Latin America is the New York-based collector and curator Estrellita Brodsky (her mother was Uruguayan and her father an Eastern European émigré to Venezuela). Brodsky believes that the most effective way to help the institutional sector to re-focus its gaze on Latin America is to establish in-house advocates, and has endowed curatorships at the Metropolitan Museum and MoMA in New York as well as a curatorial post for Latin American art at Tate in London. “The work has to be done within institutions, and in the best case scenario this will help broaden the vision of curators in other departments as well,” she explains. But her foundation also operates Another Space in New York for small exhibitions, talks and performances. In May 2016 a reconstruction of Marta Minujín’s Arte agrícola en acción – Toronjas (‘Agricultural Art in Action – Grapefruits’), first performed in Mexico City in 1977, was staged there.

At the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, research in the field comes courtesy of the Swiss financial services company UBS, as part of its UBS Map Global Art Initiative, a multi-year project which is also studying the Middle East and North Africa and South and Southeast Asia. The exhibition ‘Under the Same Sun: Art from Latin America Today’ travelled from the Guggenheim to Museo Jumex, in Mexico City and then the UK’s South London Gallery. In the past, the Guggenheim’s interest in Latin American art has been “episodic”, admits Director Richard Armstrong. “We’re a little behind, so we’ve been trying to be judicious. The most important commitment we’ve made is to transfer capital to artists; to date we’ve been focusing on younger artists.” The Guggenheim has done this by setting up a Latin American acquisitions fund last year, a move which has had a considerable impact on the galleries it works with in South America. “The committee is interested in building serious relationships with our artists, so it is really important for us,” says Omayra Alvarado of Instituto de Visión in Bogotá, Colombia, a gallery which shows the work of little-known historic figures alongside contemporary artists. This year, they will be one of more than a dozen galleries with spaces in South and Central America exhibiting at Frieze New York, with a presentation that “reflects on the adoption of Modernist architecture and aesthetic in Latin America,” says Alvarado, including pieces by the late Colombian photographer Fernell Franco, and his fellow countryman Nicolás Consuegra.

Marta Minujín, Arte agrícola en acción – Toronjas (‘Agricultural Art in Action – Grapefruits’, 1977), performance documentation at Another Space, 2016. Courtesy: the artist and Another Space, New York

Fairs such as Frieze New York provide an important counterbalance to the research on Latin America being done in institutions, say gallerists. “Foreign museums curators immediately connect to notions of Modernism when they come to Brazil,” says Matthew Wood of the São Paulo gallery Mendes Wood DM which is presenting a stand at Frieze New York curated by the Brazilian artist Adriano Costa and featuring a performance by Cibelle Cavalli Bastos. “Many of our celebrated Modernists were European émigrés, and they produced art for a tiny élite. But Brazil is a massive cultural melting pot and that diversity is sometimes overlooked by curators,” he adds. Mendes Wood DM represents Afro-Brazilian artists such as Sonia Gomes who explores personal histories by crafting elaborate sculptures out of wire, thread and found objects, and Paulo Nazareth, the first black Brazilian artist to be included in the Venice Biennale, who in 2013 began an epic, ongoing project to travel to all 54 African countries in search of cultural links in language, food and mythology.

“We all hope that eventually the label ‘Latin’ will fall away” — Marcia Fortes

Other factors that can get lost in translation when Latin American art is shown in the United States are the local conditions in which it was produced. Conceptual and abstract art made in several Latin American countries from the late ’50s onwards dealt with issues such as colonialism, repressive governments, civil con ict and social inequality. In Brazil, where a military dictatorship seized power in 1964 and ruled for over 20 years, abstraction and performance art were not just an aesthetic choice but a form of resistance to censorship and a brutal regime. “Brazilian artists are born ready to resist,” says Wood, explaining that “Neo-Concretism and abstraction in Brazil partly arose because of the bans on free expression implemented by the military.” It’s a point acknowledged by Graham Steele of Hauser & Wirth which represents the estates of Mira Schendel (an émigré to Brazil, born in Switzerland) and Pape. “We always tend to start with the movements we recognise,” he says. “There is still an immense amount of scholarship and work that needs to be done to appreciate the complexity of local contexts.” The younger galleries at Frieze New York, he says, are the ones where you are most likely to find this important inter-generational research. 

Aliza Nisenbaum, Erin with Daisy in the Lobby, 2015. Courtesy: the artist & Mary Mary, Glasgow

As we increase our knowledge of and appreciation for art made in Latin America, we will need to learn an entirely new vocabulary to refer to its breadth and diversity. “We all hope that eventually the label ‘Latin’ will fall away’ says Marcia Fortes. “Nobody describes art as ‘European’ so it’s really odd to group so many different countries and cultures under one heading.” The time has surely come to make that change.

Tickets for Frieze New York 2017 are available here.

Cristina Ruiz is Editor-at-Large, The Art Newspaper, based in London, UK