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One of the exhibit’s knockouts: Matta’s Listen to Living (1941).

Broad Brush

By Nadine Wasserman

Latin American and Caribbean Art: Selected Highlights From the Collection of the Museum of Modern Art

New York State Museum, through Oct. 13


I hate to say it, but a theme as broad as “Latin American and Caribbean Art” is just so 1990s. Shouldn’t we expect more from the Museum of Modern Art? After all, they do have one of the most amazing collections in the world and they were crucial in helping to formulate a global understanding of modernism that included significant artists from Latin America. This show, however, like many permanent-collection shows, is a strange mix. There are works representing modernism, muralism, surrealism, constructivism, pop art, and conceptualism. The curators make an attempt to explain their broad presentation by stating that “we organized the exhibition in two chapters.” But it just doesn’t work. If the show is selected highlights, then why even bother to try to categorize them? Just present them as the best work available from the collection that is not currently on display elsewhere.

Do I sound like I’m complaining? Well, I am, but at the same time I’m grateful. How often do we get to see any work by Diego Rivera, Marisol, Wifredo Lam, Matta, Lygia Clark, and Hélio Oiticica in Albany? And alongside the heavy hitters are other artists that were collected by MoMA beginning in the 1930s when they were the only museum in the world that was collecting the art of the Americas in a comprehensive fashion.

At the entrance to the exhibition is Diego Rivera’s Flower Festival: Feast of Santa Anita. This piece is a knockout and probably the most famous and recognizable work in the show. It is worth multiple trips to the museum to just stand in front of this painting and stare in awe. It overwhelms the other pieces nearby, including Rivera’s own Cubist Landscape from 1912. However, Marisol’s Love holds its own nearby as does Matta’s Listen to Living on the opposite wall.

The following room has a mixture of painting and photography. There is a hideously large portrait by Botero. Although I understand that he has popular appeal, I’ve never been a fan, and the placement of the painting in the main sightline of this gallery space is unfortunate. Try to ignore it and focus on the other more interesting work. Inspection of the Streets, by the Haitian artist Philomé Obin, turns an otherwise mundane activity of street cleaning into an allegory about Haitian society. The Queen of the Congo, painted by Hector Hyppolite, another well-known Haitian artist, depicts the Madonna and child flanked by angels. Hyppolite, who was a Vodun priest, exaggerates the facial features of each figure as if they are wearing African masks. The Port by the Uruguayan artist Joaquin Torres-Garcia is a perfect example of his constructive universalist style. Other artists represented in this gallery include Manuel Alvarez Bravo, Rufino Tamayo, and Wifredo Lam.

The next gallery is a tightly packed mix of what the curators have labeled the “second chapter.” They explain in the gallery guide that this “second section features radical examples of the Concrete and abstract art that offered a fertile field for the transformation of Constructivism in Latin America.” That’s a lot of ground to cover, and the mixture and amount of work in such a small space makes it difficult to focus. I recommend concentrating on works by Brazilian artists Lygia Clark, Lygia Pape, Hélio Oiticica, Sérgio Camargo, and Willys de Castro. The group of works in this gallery are supposed to support an understanding of the final gallery, which contains contemporary work. The curators contend that “it would be impossible to understand Latin American contemporary art” without it. Contemporary art of any kind does often present a challenge if you don’t know the history of art, but this is certainly not something exclusive to Latin American art. The contemporary work included in the final gallery can be understood on many levels. Take, for instance, Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s Untitled (Perfect Lovers). Do you really need to understand Latin American abstraction to know that this work is about love and loss? Contemporary artists are so much more a part of a global conversation that it does them a disservice to narrowly define their influences.

Which brings me back to my original point. Is it really appropriate to group disparate works according to broad geographic categories? The answer should be no, but exhibitions like this one are still sometimes necessary to present work that has been historically underrepresented. It’s worth noting that MoMA hired its current curator of Latin American art for his “ability to transcend conventional boundaries in looking at the art of Latin America and the Caribbean.” Let’s hope that this particular exhibition is not the best representation of his abilities.

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