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MoMA demonstrates the art of diplomacy

February 27, 2007|Chris Kraul | Times Staff Writer

CARACAS, VENEZUELA — The loan of 103 artworks for the Museum of Modern Art's "Armando Reveron" retrospective, MoMA's first solo exhibition dedicated to a Latin American painter in 50 years, shows that the Venezuelan government can cooperate with the U.S., at least on a cultural level.

The shipping of works by Venezuelan Modernist Reveron (1889-1954) for the show that opened in New York on Feb. 11 received the backing of the National Museums Foundation run by Hugo Chavez's Ministry of Culture, which authorized the loan of two-thirds of the works that compose the show. The rest came from private collections.

Although it's naive to think the loan could launch this hemisphere's version of pingpong diplomacy, the exhibition amounts to a rare moment of concord amid frayed U.S.-Venezuelan relations, which in recent months have been characterized by nonstop invective. Leftist President Chavez routinely refers to President Bush as the devil, while Bush administration officials liken Chavez to Hitler.

"Because of the political situation, I was nervous about what it would mean for the Venezuelan state to allow a significant group of things in the national patrimony to leave for New York," John Elderfield, MoMA's chief curator of painting and sculpture, said in a telephone interview. He organized the show, which continues through April 16, with the Armando Reveron Project, a private Caracas-based group that assembled permission from about 30 private collectors and arranged for transportation.

"People said, 'You are doing an exhibition with state works from Venezuela; you must be joking,' " Elderfield said. "But the foundation was great. In the end they gave us everything we wanted, even let me go back and add a few things after I'd made the initial selection."

Given the tense relations between the socialist Chavez government and the moneyed classes here -- Chavez commonly refers to them as "the squalid ones" -- some Reveron collectors, who include Venezuela's wealthiest families, were concerned that letting the works leave the country might leave them open to confiscation or taxes, sources said.

Among the 30 private lenders to the show is Patricia Phelps de Cisneros, whose foundation owns an extensive collection of Reverons (her aunt posed for one of his better-known paintings) and works by other Latin American artists. She is the wife of one of Latin America's wealthiest media tycoons, Gustavo Cisneros, and is also on the MoMA board of directors. MoMA has received some criticism since the opening that it might have selected a different painter for its first Latin American solo show in 50 years. And others have speculated that the show is in appreciation for Patricia Cisneros' support. A museum spokeswoman said, however, that Cisneros had nothing to do with planning or funding the exhibition.

Politics aside, the show undoubtedly has raised consciousness both at home and abroad of Reveron, who previously had received only one solo U.S. show, a traveling exhibition shortly after his death. At the newly expanded National Art Gallery here, the 70 Reveron paintings and objects will soon receive an expanded new space of their own. The New York show is also a source of tremendous pride for the Caracas arts community.

"Finally, after so many years of waiting, Venezuelans have reason to weep with joy. We have Reveron in the MoMA," wrote Beatriz Sogbe in last week's issue of Zeta newsmagazine. Juan Ignacio Parra, the Reveron Project president, said in an interview that the MoMA show "gives Reveron's art its rightful place in global modernity."

MoMA-goers whose perceptions of Latin American painting are founded on the folkloric styles of Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera and Fernando Botero will have a surprise in store. Reveron's white-on-white figurative paintings are highly original, even eccentric, with no clear stylistic antecedents. The show, which surveys 30 years of the artist's most important production through drawings, paintings and objects, includes near-abstract studies of Caribbean landscapes, voluptuous nudes and straightforward treatments of the La Guaira port.

"He is unique in art history, and that's the whole point of the exhibition," said Gabriela Rangel, director of visual arts for the Americas Society in New York. "He was a pioneer of modernity."

Reveron was born into Caracas high society and studied in Paris, Madrid and Barcelona, where he took classes from Picasso's father. Upon his return to Venezuela in 1915, he took up with a group of Caracas artists who emulated the plein-air landscape style of France.

But soon Reveron rebelled and embarked on his own style. Elderfield describes it as "a form of impressionism ... that doesn't deliver in a five-second look. You have to give it time and wait for imagery to appear." Among his best known works are the landscapes bathed in the Caribbean's blinding light.

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