of the exhibit’s knockouts: Matta’s Listen to Living
American and Caribbean Art: Selected Highlights From the Collection
of the Museum of Modern Art
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
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.