Mission Accomplished?

May 18, 2014

For a few months in 2013 it was possible to see in three major museums—MoMA, Tate, Reina Sofia—examples of canonical modernist artworks by Piet Mondrian, Josef Albers or Max Bill in full dialogue with Latin Americans Alejandro Otero, Willys de Castro, Gego, Sergio Camargo and others.  These permanent collection displays culminated a process that over the last decade or so has seen a dramatic change in how global modernity is understood, particularly within the language of geometric abstraction. 

It is worth noting that the Tate display included works by British abstractionists like Mary Martin who are also emerging from decades of obscurity, in part, ironically, because of the intense attention paid to Brazilian, Argentine and Venezuelan artists of this period. It’s an interesting indicator of changing taste and power that today one could pick up a Max Bill or an Albers for a fraction of the cost of a Clark or de Castro.  Not to say that the market is all, but it is certainly a marker of sorts.

We have come a long way since John Yau, in his seminal article for Arts Magazine in 1988, famously attacked MoMA for displaying Wifredo Lam’s The Jungle by the coatroom.  A unique combination of scholarship, changing geopolitics, collectors, curators and the market has placed Latin America right in the central lane of the global mainstream.  We might argue that this was always its rightful place but that people were unable to see it, or we might argue, as some do, that to include Latin America involves a fundamental shift in sensibility and an automatic questioning of the canon.

I tend to the former position, and reject the idea that there is anything ‘non-western’ about Latin American art, at least the version of it that has now entered the mainstream.  How did North America become ‘the West’ and South America ‘the rest’? It’s a Cold War logic in which scholars in the US and western Europe (by and large) went looking for an ‘other’ that would aid in the self-loathing logic of the mainstream.  It’s interesting to note that intellectuals of the south tended to speak of hybridity and fusion while those in the north spoke more of difference and alterity.  A subtle difference perhaps, but one worth noting.

But history is much more complex than a museum display can show.  Mondrian was invisible in Parisian museums until the 1980s, and I imagine that MoMA’s Max Bill was brought up from very deep storage to hang alongside the new Latin American acquisitions, as was Tate’s Mary Martin.  One of the perils of revisionism is that the last paradigm to be challenged is made to look like it was always there, when in fact history and taste are always shifting.  

Of course it’s wonderful that museums are more global (although is Latin America a better candidate for insertion than Africa or Asia?) and that their collections are moving beyond a blinkered set of usual suspects, but I wonder what strategies will be developed in the future to bring something of the tension and friction of history back into museum display?  Are there ways to discuss the visibility/invisibility of art that would help us to move beyond the victor/victim mentality that has served, until now, as both a motor and a handicap in the promotion of Latin American art on a global stage?  Yes, a major milestone has been reached, but what are the new questions on the horizon?