Recently, while visiting Chris Burden’s exhibition at the New Museum, I spent more time with his 1998 Mexican Bridge than with any other work. The work in question is a giant scale model built from Meccano and Erector Set parts that is based on an 1860s drawing of what would have been, had it been built, the longest cast-iron bridge in the Western hemisphere (over the Metlac Gorge near Orizaba). “Small boys small toys, big boys big toys” was what immediately sprang to mind, but the first impression faded as I compared Burden’s sculpture to José María Velasco’s painting Puente de Metlac (1881). Velasco’s pre-camera painting of Mexico’s masculine landscape intersected with the masculine feel of Burden’s work, but more importantly, it made me reflect on why and when I first began looking at art through a Mexican, and then a Latin American, lens. Is Velasco’s contribution now seen as specifically Latin American rather than just Mexican? The answer might be found in name branding, which goes hand-in-hand with a kind of value-rated art history, itself coupled with the new arts-industry model of hi-tech marketing.
Back in 1997, armed with a Rockefeller Fellowship in the Humanities at the University of Texas, Austin, I researched and wrote If Money Talks, Who Does the Exhibition Talking?: 1980s Latin American and Latino Art. In the ’80s, the art world was, while soon to become art-as-business only, still a place to cultivate ideas not driven by the market, and in If Money Talks, I was able to break with traditional academic art history. By contrast, in the United States today, academic Latin American art curricula approach the buying, selling, and collecting of art as a requirement. Beyond academia, curatorial projects must have major “protagonists,” and big-time moguls flip their trophy works, increasing prices and their earnings from art investments at a stroke. Who is writing art history today? Does the entire sphere reside solely in the hands of private and corporate collectors? Do curator-driven projects play further into this purely monetary system of value? Is there a distinction between private and institutional collecting? Are there still alternatives?
One conglomerate collecting enterprise is represented by the Guggenheim Museum’s exhibition Under the Same Sun: Art from Latin America Today, a group of works selected by curator Pablo León de la Barra with funding from UBS. Among many questions the project and its title raise is whether exhibiting and collecting practices continue to be in need of geographically-based art, a topological locus wherein the mixing of cultural backdrops can blend difference and commonality into “the making of global art.”
Not that long ago, starting in the 1960s, I was part of the debate around the “Latin American” label that has since turned into a household word, part of a continually shifting paradigm wherein the precept is viewed alternately from various binary perspectives including national versus international, periphery versus center, and geography versus utopia, with the notion of local versus global producing a space for glocal art.
How might we image the full scope of this quagmire? How does one assemble and purchase on short notice a coherent and hopefully characteristic collection of current Latin American art for the Guggenheim that will set new parameters? It is an intimidating, challenging, thought-provoking, and even rather daunting affair that in the hands of Pablo León de la Barra, an architect, artist and curator who has worked on some of the most remarkable Latin American curatorial projects of recent years, should render a new and surprising map begging us to consider some underrepresented territories.
Given the current market’s accelerated pace, and the legitimacy of Latin American art in that context, it would seem that the collections of the Guggenheim and other museums would do best by refraining from an essentialist model and instead flexing their range of meanings, perhaps even erasing the confining and contradictory aspects of the category and engaging in the “unmaking” of neoliberal global art as already witnessed in various art-critical quarters, especially in view of new patterns of homogenization.
In my case, the positing of a Latin American art, and its subsequent integration into both academia and the marketplace, resulted from an organic process that began in New York in the late 1960s and early ’70s, when I was part of a group of artists and art professionals from around the hemisphere living and working in the city with little or no access to the larger art world. This shared condition made it pointless for us to profile ourselves as Argentines, Bolivians, Costa Ricans, Hondurans, Mexicans, or Uruguayans. Yet we were also not Dominican, Cuban, Mexican American, or Puerto Rican.
Sometime around 1969, a substantial grouping of Latin Americans in New York got together in an effort to invent our space and, after several meetings, decided to call itself El Museo Latinoamericano (1969–71). By 1970, a splinter group separated from El Museo to form MICLA (Movimiento de Independencia Cultural Latinoamericano, or Movement of Latin American Cultural Independence). Before the separation, the Museo organized many anonymous group activist events, mainly targeting the Center for Inter-American Relations (CIAR) (today the Americas Society [AS]), some directors of which were involved in the objectionable U.S. interventionist policies in Central and South America that led to some of the continent’s most vicious dictatorships and civil wars, some of which lasted as many as forty years.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, contrary to what mainstream art historians would have us believe, activism in New York was not just an alternative downtown “scene,” but proposed a metaphorical alternative to “radical” art activism as a whole. MICLA was one such socially engaged alternative space, distinguishing itself for having organized, produced, and distributed the Contra Bienal publication in 1971. This was planned as a platform from which to boycott Brazil’s dictatorship, and both Latin American and other artists and arts professionals were invited to submit a page of text, an image, or both. The Contra Bienal organization also called on others to spread the word, and asked artists and groups to vocalize their refusal. This was achieved, of course, without today’s social media or Internet. To get its ambitious project off the ground, MICLA organized a benefit auction, using the proceeds to buy a mimeograph press, paper, and ink to print the book in a SoHo loft. I was a member of MICLA along with Luis Camnitzer, Teodoro Maus, Liliana Porter, Luis and Anita Wells, and, for a brief period, Vita Giorgi and Leonel Góngora. Our splinter group coincided with other downtown activists also attracted by the cheap rents of buildings that were destined for demolition or development. Eventually, with help from community boards and fellow loft dwellers, the New York City Loft Board was instituted to legitimize and regulate artists’ occupancy in abandoned downtown commercial spaces.
While this battle was being fought, Kynaston McShine’s MoMA exhibition Information (1970) became one of MICLA’s favorite in-house objects of speculation. Specifically, we wondered about the curatorial criteria for the inclusion or exclusion of several significant Latin American artists. Most of all, however, we were interested in seeing how this exhibition might open other doors for Latin American art. The catalogue also influenced the appearance of our book, which, produced with scarce resources, turned into a homespun Arte Povera project that followed the MoMA publication’s anti-style, underground, and typewriter-ish design.
While collaborating on the Contra Bienal, I also wrote and published Latin American oriented interviews and reviews in the Mexican daily newspaper Excelsior and its Sunday cultural magazine Diorama de la Cultura. One of these was a long conversation with Glauber Rocha, an extraordinary Brazilian Cinema Novo filmmaker first mentioned to me by Alejandro Jodorovsky in Mexico. He showed me Terra em Transe, his 1966 film made in response to the violence of Brazil’s dictatorship, and introduced me to Caetano Veloso’s Tropicalia Rock (1968), itself inspired by Helio Oiticica’s permeable installation Tropicalia (1967). At one point, a native Amazonian came and played several musical instruments I had never seen before. We also met with Glauber’s underground friends, among them Helio Oiticica, who had rented a place nearby where he was building and living in his Babylonests.
In 1968, Paula Cooper opened the first gallery in SoHo, following the avant-garde artists who had already moved to the area. In 1971, Gordon Matta-Clark, Carol Goodden, and Tina Girouard cofounded Food on Prince Street. The artists who ran it turned dining into a performance-type event, with an open kitchen and lots of pre-fusion fusion cooking. Food became a central meeting place, helping to define the downtown scene. MICLA invited Matta-Clark, who not only accepted the invitation to participate in our Contra Bienal efforts, but also offered to invite other Food clientele to submit their protests. Among the others I met at Food was Willoughby Sharp, who with Liza Bear founded and edited the seminal magazine Avalanche (1970–76). Later, Avalanche was to become a powerful influence on the editorial vision of Artes Visuales (1973–82), the bilingual quarterly journal I founded and edited at the Museo de Arte Moderno in Mexico City. The magazine’s primary focus was on Latin America in the context of the international arts community.
After a few years, SoHo had become New York’s preeminent cutting-edge arts district. Aside from the relocated galleries, alternative spaces sprouted everywhere, offering a plethora of politically motivated avant-garde forums. New York Latinos were on the forefront of this effort, responding to the reluctance of the larger art world (museums and galleries in particular) to open up to experimental and socially engaged art. Like MICLA, the downtown alternative scene was artist-centered rather than object- or market-driven. With more and more artists shut out of New York’s small and elite established systems, the need for alternate venues was palpable. Among the many Latino-oriented spaces were the Alternative Museum, Cayman Galleries (later the Museum of Contemporary Hispanic Art [MOCHA]), Cuando el Sol, En Foco, Heresies, La Mama Theater, and the Nuyorican Poetry Café, as well as film-and-video and public access platforms such as the Artists Television Network, Jaime Davidovich’s Cable SoHo, the Live Show, and Millenium.
In 1972, after the Contra Bienal book appeared, Mexican curator and museum builder Fernando Gamboa, with whom I had worked since 1965, was appointed director of the Museo de Arte Moderno (MAM) and technical director of the Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes (INBA). Gamboa invited me return to Mexico and propose a project, the first Latin American art collection museum in Latin America. This was a logical extension of the MICLA experience, and was not only sorely needed but also timely, innovative, and exciting. Still, after several meetings it became clear that this was not feasible, mainly due to institutional budgetary constraints. Instead, I decided to initiate a magazine that would fill the gap by gathering together and profiling Latin American art and artists. The planning phase took almost all of 1972 and finally, in 1973, the premiere issue of the first bilingual contemporary and avant-garde visual arts quarterly, Artes Visuales, appeared, continuing its run until 1982. The magazine was a direct consequence of the endemic hemispheric isolationism of the 1960s, which had created an urgent need for a forum for critical exchange among artists and arts professionals from around Latin America. At the outset, MAM and INBA subsidized the magazine, but by the eighth issue we began to sell advertising in an attempt to secure independence from governmental and cultural politics. Nevertheless, in 1981, with a change in government and an editorial shift from international to national cultural politics, the magazine was censored and its offices abruptly shut down.
Many of the art world people I met while working on Fernando Gamboa’s traveling exhibitions were invited to contribute to Artes Visuales and, together with the Contra Bienal group, they made it a truly international Latin American forum. One of the magazine’s remarkable features was that our research consisted of formulating questionnaires to send around the world. These tackled issues such as whether “Latin American art” really existed and, if so, what its characteristics might be. In one issue, we examined whether there was any Latin American art theory, whether the criticism produced by Latin Americans should be considered Latin American, and whether it was truly needed. Implicit was the issue of the status of collectors and collections of Latin American art. These questionnaires galvanized a network of voices that brought valuable information to the foreground. Again, this effort was made without the help of today’s electronic communication tools. Instead, we made friends with couriers, used the postal service, sent telegrams, and called people on a “dial-up” phone! Nevertheless, a heterogeneous group of curators, artists, arts professionals, and museum professionals was gathered together, first in Latin America, then in the U.S. and Europe.
As previously mentioned, several major aspects influenced Artes Visuales. First was the New York experience that produced the Contra Bienal book; next were the various models of alternative space, followed by MoMA’s Information catalogue and Willoughby Sharp and Liza Bear’s Avalanche. In 1973, the year in which that magazine’s first issue appeared, Liliana Porter became the first female Conceptual artist from Latin America to land a solo exhibition in MoMA’s project space. All of us were then naïve enough to think that the doors were finally opening up, but Latin American art was an idea that only a few engaged with, and it would not become prime-time until decades more work had been undertaken. Among the milestones along the way were Mary-Anne Martin’s first-ever Mexican Art sale at Sotheby’s. Then, in the late 1980s and ’90s, there were the New Museum and Art in General, whose respective directors, Marcia Tucker and Holly Block, included Latin American artists and exhibitions in their programs. In 1987, the Bronx Museum hosted The Latin American Spirit: Art & Artists in the United States 1920–1970, of which I was co-curator. In 2001, Mari Carmen Ramírez began her tenure at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, where she staged several groundbreaking exhibitions that fostered Latin American art collecting; she also created Documents of 20th Century Latin American and Latino Art, a free online archive intended as a catalyst in a field notoriously lacking in accessible resources. And at MoMA in 2007, after Paolo Herkenhoff and Inés Katzenstein had acted as adjunct curators in the Department of Painting and Sculpture, Luis Pérez-Oramás was appointed the first Latin American Curator, a position endowed by independent curator, philanthropist, and collector, Estrellita Brodsky.
Aside from Latin American art’s periodic rediscovery every decade or so, the slow mapping of Latin American art by New York museums and nonprofits has finally allowed it to enter through the front door. In 1966, Thomas Messer, after extensive travels throughout Mexico and Latin America, presented The Emergent Decade: Latin American Painters and Painting in the 1960’s at the Guggenheim. From Mexico he selected Pedro Coronel, Rafael Coronel, José Luis Cuevas, Alberto Gironella, Ricardo Martínez, and Rufino Tamayo.
In 1965, a year before the Guggenheim exhibition, I worked as an assistant curator for Fernando Gamboa at the Mexican presentation at Expo67, Montreal. Before taking the show on the road, we premiered it at the Palace of Fine Arts in Mexico City, in an exhibition titled Expo67. Here, the work of a younger generation of abstract artists was shown next to neofigurative or “neohumanist” work by Nueva Presencia. In spite of the diversity of Mr. Messer’s perspective in general he was, his inclusion of Nueva Presencia artist José Luis Cuevas aside, seemingly unaware of Mexico’s new generation, which as of 1952 had broken with the nationalist Mexican School, and with Social Realism. Identity politics as we came to know it in the 1980s and ’90s was not yet the paradigm; neither did the periphery vs. center paradigm of the 1970s and ’80s hold sway, least of all today’s “global conceptualism.” In the late ’60s critical thought regarding inclusion and exclusion was more direct and less nuanced by such ideas; the issue was how to overcome the inability to communicate beyond self-constructed or imagined borders.
Whereas while working with Gamboa I saw art in terms of Mexican art history, in the 1970s at Artes Visuales I could advocate for internationalism through a Latin American lens. The label served to establish relationships among many visual art forms, artists, and arts professionals throughout the hemisphere, all of whom were faced by an exclusive emphasis on Europe and North America that affected the social, political, ideological, and economic systems under which we lived. In Artes Visuales, readers were invited to identify and follow a constellation of links around those issues, a cluster of creative spaces and discussions that sprang from a heterogeneous group of voices that included those of Jorge Romero Brest, Ferreira Gullar, Jorge Alberto Manrique, Carlos Monsiváis, Octavio Paz, Mario Pedrosa, Emilio Garcia Riera, and Marta Traba. In addition, we invited artists from all over the world to submit original images for publication as a half or full page. Vito Acconci, Luis Camnitzer, Douglas Davis, Guillermo Deisler, Juan Downey, Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Dan Graham, Les Levine, Nam June Paik, Martha Rosler, Wolf Vostell, and Horacio Zabala were among the contributors.
The magazine maintained a critical stance; from day one, it not only covered external projects but also conveyed an internal editorial criteria. The journal was thought of as plural, inclusive, and open to differing positions. It was in favor of a multiplicity of opinions, and constructed sources of analysis and deconstruction. Often, we published challenging conversations such as one between Peruvian critic and theorist Juan Acha in Mexico and Guy Brett in London. By the ninth issue, the journal had become an important space for dialogue, and for the convergence of the national and international contemporary art scenes.
In 1978, Messer once again focused his lens on Mexico and invited me to co-organize a major retrospective of Rufino Tamayo, scheduled to open at the Guggenheim in 1979. By now I had found a loft on the Lower East Side and traveled frequently around New York and to Europe, as well as to Latin America. While the practice of combining public and private funding for the arts was not yet established in Mexico, I was fortunate enough to secure the Mexican funding needed by Messer in addition to the full collaboration of both Rufino and Olga Tamayo. Gamboa took charge of the curatorial text, which followed his proven formula of mixing Mexican art with relevant pre-Columbian and folk art, creating an atmosphere described by its title, Myth and Magic: The Work of Rufino Tamayo. I had invited some New York avant-garde artists to the opening and their consensus was that beyond the famous Tamayo pink, his white watermelons (sandías) did not hold up to Robert Ryman. The lines were drawn: We are here and they are there.
Many years later, Under the Same Sun: Art from Latin America Today, while an impressive and laudable initiative, seems to warn us that if this effort is not followed by a consistent, long-term curatorial and collecting commitment, it runs the risk of making Latin American art once again an appendix to the museum’s overall holdings. Worse, it may once again prove to draw the line, this time spelling out “we are there and they are here.”