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Q&A WITH SHIFRA M. GOLDMAN : Taking 'Artistic Gems' Out in Public : 'Modern Mexican Art' Curator Sees Plenty of Jewels in a Show She Admits Isn't Flawless

March 01, 1994|BENJAMIN EPSTEIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Exhibition curators generally speak with unbridled enthusiasm about their own shows. They soft-pedal shortcomings or ignore them altogether-- if they can see them. Shifra M. Goldman, guest curator of "Seven Decades: Modern Mexican Art From the Bernard Lewin Collection," at the Bowers Museum of Cultural Art in Santa Ana through April 25, spoke in a recent interview to her show's weaknesses as well as its strengths. She also spoke freely about the museum, the collection on which the show is based, other shows and art critics. "She's a pistol," said a Bowers spokesperson. sg,2 *

Question: How would you evaluate the Lewin Collection, on which "Seven Decades" is based, and how did it aid or limit your vision for this show?

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Answer: While the Lewin Collection is certainly the largest collection (of modern Mexican art) in Southern California and possibly the country, it's one collection, and I was not free to draw from other collections. Still, I was able to glean a show that was more than simply a collection of precious objects.

Also, a collector who collects has one kind of collection. But we're talking about a commercial gallery owner, someone who sells his work. After looking over the gallery collection, I chose X number of works to best represent a historical sweep, but the commercial activities of the gallery have left great gaps. As I write in the (exhibition) guide, the show is "an introduction to the pioneering and experimental conceptions and developments," and as such, it "allows visitors to see a number of little-known artistic gems."

Q: Artistic gems--is that like an unassuming wine?

A: By gems I mean works that are not constantly reproduced--outstanding small works that a museum might own. Mexican art is my area of specialization, yet there are works here that I'd never before seen. At ("Mexico: Splendors of Thirty Centuries," at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1991), they showed modern works that we'd seen over and over and over, even on postcards!

Q: Since you brought it up, how does "Seven Decades" compare to the "Splendors" show?

A: The "Splendors" show was enormous. (The 400-piece show was one of the biggest in LACMA's history.) "Seven Decades" is a small show, under 100 works, and it has no pretensions to be a historical overview. To mount a purely historical show for Bowers would have been very difficult in terms of what I had available to me. The Mexican government could draw on all the resources of Mexico. And they did. They took pulpits out of churches, materials out of remote villages . . . and there were protests about that.

When the "Splendors" show hit Los Angeles, the impact was huge. Los Angeles has the largest Mexican population of any city outside of Mexico City, and it has an active Chicano art movement . . . so the local Chicano community was very excited, and (there were) 350 subsidiary events from the Chicano community alone.

Q: What were your overriding goals for this exhibition?

A: I wanted to put together a show that would correspond to major shifts in ideas. . . . I'm also very aware that modern Mexican art gets very rare play, at least outside of New York. I was very conscious, and so was Mr. Lewin, of the "Splendors" show, which was a splendid opportunity, but I thought heavily overloaded with ideological biases.

Q: For instance?

A: It helped (promote) the NAFTA cause by portraying Mexico as a great civilization that continues without any contradictions. Yet today we watch the uprising of the Mayan peasants.

But then, I'm an art historian, not a political scientist.

Q: As an art historian, why do you say modern Mexican art gets "rare play"?

A: Many critics know only Eurocentric art, and anything that doesn't fit into that isn't treated well. Latin American art is systematically (treated as) second class.

I've tracked the Los Angeles edition of the L.A. Times for 25 years, and I have yet to find a critic who has any appreciation for any period or master of modern Mexican art. To say that Tamayo is not as good as Picasso, that's Eurocentrism. Even over the last 10 years, there are people who have written very stupidly about Latin American art, simply out of ignorance or (because they're) convinced that there are only several European masters and they condemn everybody else. Putting down Tamayo as not a very good painter, (writing that) after seeing a Matisse you cannot even consider Tamayo. . . . You don't have to paint like Matisse to be a very good painter. It was astounding to me that somebody could write this.

Q: So modern Mexican art is getting play.

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