Rufino Tamayo is an 88-year-old artist whose work combines some of the best New World and Old World traditions while managing to drain the life out of all of them. And though his paintings and prints have been shown at prestigious institutions over the years, there is no doubt that Tamayo was a follower rather than a leader in the prickly world of modern art.
But the real problem at the spanking new Modern Museum of Art in Santa Ana, which has opened with a mini-retrospective of Tamayo's art, lies in the organization and selection of the show, and in the museum's blithe lack of attention to the purpose and meaning of an art institution:
--A look at the labels reveals that 28 of the 61 works were lent by B. Lewin Galleries, an art dealer based in Beverly Hills and Palm Springs. The remainder come from private collectors, some choosing to remain anonymous. Recognized art museums take care to avoid even the appearance of conflicts of interest by balancing loans from commercial dealers with works lent by other recognized institutions.
Such museums have staffs of art historians who create exhibitions as scholarly efforts that reexamine certain works of art within specific historical and intellectual contexts. This research-and-education-oriented goal has nothing to do with simply gathering easily obtainable works and hanging them in chronological order.
--A glance at the catalog accompanying the Tamayo show tells the reader that the museum "grew out of a concern for human problems and a belief that helping people appreciate art was a worthy first step in improving our world" (from the "Welcome" by museum president Robert Abbott and vice president Ann Resnik).
But recognized art museums have specialized professional goals, not merely a naive hope that modern art will have a social impact on the world.
--The catalog also offers an adoring essay and biographical notes by Charles Whitchurch, whose credentials or affiliation are not supplied. Common practice at serious art institutions when an in-house curator doesn't write the catalog essay is to invite noted scholars or critics to do the honors. And honors they are, because the catalog is the place where the museum can explain its highly specific approach to the art in a form that will outlast the exhibit.
The ballyhoo surrounding the Modern Museum has nothing to do with scholarship, however. The drawing card is the magic world of video, which--the founders have said in interviews--finally should help explain art to people in an easily digestible way. In reality, videotapes of art historians or artists discussing the work on view in adjacent galleries are already ubiquitous museum fare.
The promised video of Tamayo talking about his art is not yet on view. (Another tape on Tamayo's art will be running "within the next week" in a "video center" at the museum, according to a spokesman.)
Meanwhile, judging by the lone explanatory wall text (also translated into Spanish), the Modern isn't much interested in words as teaching tools. One entire paragraph (out of eight) is devoted to a rehash of honors Tamayo has won. Another describes his generosity in donating art to Mexico.
The crowds that glanced quickly at the exhibit at Sunday's public opening before heading out to the food and family activity booths on the lawn seemed bored or mystified by the paintings. So much for the wide appreciation of Tamayo's art "even by those who only partially apprehend his themes," according to Whitchurch, "perhaps because, as (Tamayo) believes, 'the average person recognizes and responds to what touches the roots of human experience.' "
The question is, what human experience? How deeply do these images of flat, blocky, pinheaded figures with skinny arms and circle eyes move the viewer? How significant is it that Tamayo chases after an aura of childlike wonder with shadows of styles past their prime?
The heart of the show is really the small group of works from Tamayo's more open-minded beginnings, before he got stuck in a School-of-Paris rut. In a 1929 portrait of a girl with curiously dulled eyes, he uses flat areas of paint and a Picasso-esque nose to build a strong sense of character. "Woman Staring at the Moon," a watercolor from 1936, borrows from folkloric art for the Y-like barren trees and the sturdy figure with her chisled mass of dark hair.
Just about the last painting that still has a spark of life in it is "Boy Playing" of 1945, another Picasso-is-my-master figure with hands like goblets and a body vaguely fragmented by memories of Cubism. This massive child sits in front of three pale green geometric toys. On his face is the world-shattering scowl universally known to parents of small children.
After that, no matter whether Tamayo's subject is TV, a robot or the spaceships of the astronauts (three down-to-earth subjects that look startling in the context of the long procession of pinheads), his art offers the sort of wishy-washy modernism that soothes the would-be-sophisticate and leaves everyone else hungry for substance.