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How a Little Fish Swallowed the Big Fish

The Latin American Art Museum scores a coup--and puts itself on the cultural map--with a show of rare works by Diego Rivera.

March 16, 1997|Suzanne Muchnic | Suzanne Muchnic is The Times' art writer

Long before the Latin American Art Museum opened last November in Long Beach, executive director Patricia House had her eye on an exhibition she thought would make an impressive debut. It was "Diego Rivera: Of Time and Color," composed of 29 paintings and drawings by Mexico's most famous artist, from the collection of the Museum of Art of the State of Veracruz.

The show consists mainly of early and late works--from 1904, when Rivera was 18, to 1956, the year before his death--and brackets his central achievement as a muralist. Instead of signature pieces, it offers an intimate view of his development and final years. While far from blockbuster material, the show seemed perfect for a small museum with big aspirations. Diego Rivera would help put the new institution on Southern California's cultural map, House thought.

She made her appeal last summer, after seeing the exhibition in Washington at the Organization of American States building, where it was displayed in conjunction with a major exhibition of Olmec art at the National Gallery of Art. But she wasn't able to persuade Mexican authorities to send the Rivera show to the West Coast. It had been planned as a one-stop event, and the Long Beach museum had no track record.

But as the months passed, the exhibition organizers decided to allow the show to travel to Dallas--where it was shown from Dec. 10 to March 10 at the Federal Reserve Bank's gallery, attracting school groups and thousands of individuals. Meanwhile, Long Beach's newest museum got off the ground and its director's interest in the show was not forgotten.

About a month ago, officials from the Mexican consulate paid a visit to the fledgling Latin American Art Museum. The following day, House got a call. "The good news was, 'You can have the show.' The bad news was, 'You have to take it immediately,' " House recalls. Fortunately, the next exhibition on the museum's agenda was a selection from the Organization of American States' collection, which could be postponed easily.

So the museum's small staff went into high gear. They set the show dates--Thursday through June 8--made logistic arrangements, planned receptions and educational events, and began to get the word out.

What visitors will see is an assortment of works that are interesting precisely because they are not trademark images. Among them are "Mixcoac Ravine/Barranca de Mixcoac," the traditional 1906 landscape that won the 20-year-old artist a scholarship to study in Europe, and pieces that demonstrate his experimentation with European styles of Impressionism, Cubism and Futurism.

Instead of images of Rivera's celebrated third wife, painter Frida Kahlo, the show offers portraits of his mother, Maria Barrientos; his first wife, Russian artist Angelina Beloff; and his second wife, actress Guadalupe Marin. Also on display are portrayals of Mexican workers and peasants that establish Rivera's interest in the subject matter of his homeland.

In addition to rounding out the standard picture of Rivera, the show offers an opportunity for a public education program.

"We are very grateful to the museum for helping us create a more complete atmosphere of Mexican art," Mexican Consul General Jose Pescador said.

The museum, at 628 Alamitos Ave., is open Wednesdays to Saturdays from 11:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. and Sundays from noon to 4 p.m.

Information: (562) 437-1689.

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BIG ON SCULPTURE: West Hollywood's gallery row has a handsome new showcase for large-scale sculpture. After more than two years of planning, demolition and construction, Tasende Gallery will open its 7,500-square-foot space at 8808 Melrose Ave. on Saturday.

San Diego architect John F. Hussey has completely transformed the space--a former photographer's studio--by gutting the interior and creating a large, 23-foot-high gallery, surrounded on two sides by a mezzanine. A smaller gallery, reception area and storage facilities occupy the remainder of the first floor. Additional display space, an open-air sculpture court and a conference room are on the second floor.

Gallery owner Jose Tasende, who has operated a gallery in La Jolla since 1979, is known for organizing ambitious exhibitions of large-scale sculpture by Henry Moore, Isamu Noguchi, Mark di Suvero and Giacomo Manzu, among other prominent modern and contemporary figures. Tasende plans to exhibit a variety of work in Los Angeles, but the new space has been designed to accommodate the unwieldy sculpture that has been his trademark.

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