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MoMA looks south again

Latin American art has been underrepresented for decades at the New York museum. A refocusing is in progress.

January 05, 2008|Chris Kraul | Times Staff Writer

For those who fault the Museum of Modern Art for paying insufficient attention to contemporary Latin American art in recent years, the institution's splashy show of recent acquisitions amounts to sweet vindication.

MoMA opened "New Perspectives in Latin American Art, 1930-2006: Selections From a Decade of Acquisitions" to enthusiastic reviews in November. There was a certain novelty factor: It's the first group show in 40 years to highlight new additions to the New York museum's collection of works by Latin artists.

Admirers have praised the show's more than 200 paintings, sculptures, collages and photographs as an eye-opening short course in a hemisphere's postwar artistic evolution. But others have groused that it's more revelatory than it had to be, that the museum should have addressed contemporary Latin American art currents long before now.

Among the revelations are 10 abstract collages called "Orthagonals" by Venezuelan artist Alejandro Otero (1921-90) that are among the exhibition's biggest draws.

Otero mastered other mediums as well: He was at the vanguard of the postwar Latin America abstract movement that combined public art and architecture, completing numerous monumental, geometrical sculptures, some in conjunction with Venezuelan architect Carlos Raul Villanueva.

Otero's best known work in the United States is probably the mesmerizing "Delta Solar," a giant geometric construction whose moving parts evoke a sensation of flight, fitting for its location facing the Air and Space Museum in Washington. A thoughtful writer about art, Otero was a visionary who pushed boundaries. When he died in 1990 he was exploring virtual, computer-generated abstraction.

Emilio Narciso, a curator at Fundacion Mercantil, a Caracas collection that owns several Otero works, said the artist's charm, writings in a 1950s magazine called the Dissidents and protean talent helped launch the abstract movement in Venezuelan art.

"Until Otero, Venezuelan art was in the pictorialist tradition of landscape painting," said Katherine Chacon, director of a modern art museum here that bears Otero's name. "Otero broke with that."

And yet Otero has little name recognition in the United States.

The same could be said for a dozen other major Latin American masters, including Otero's compatriots Gego, Arturo Herrera, Gerd Leufert and Jesus Rafael Soto, whose works are also included in the show, which runs through Feb. 25.

Back to pre-World War II

Agreement that MoMA may have "overlooked" Otero and other Latin America Modernists comes from an unlikely source: the museum's resident authority, Luis Perez-Oramas, 47, who last year was appointed the museum's first permanent curator of Latin American works.

After World War II, "the intensity of the attention given to Latin American art slowed" and until recently remained in low gear, Perez-Oramas said.

"We are aware of that and we are catching up, trying to fill some gaps in the collection so that we can, with reliable authority, tell what happened in Latin America during the postwar period," Perez-Oramas said in a telephone interview. "Now there is new momentum."

As examples he cited the solo show last year of works by Venezuela's Armando Reveron (1889-1956), the museum's first exhibition in 50 years to highlight a single Latin American artist. Last year, the museum established a Latin American and Caribbean acquisition fund, financed by donors with a special interest in the region. In just two meetings, the committee has authorized the purchase of 15 major works, he said.

MoMA also has scheduled a number of shows featuring Latin American artists. In May, it will open a show at the New York State Museum in Albany with highlights of the museum's Latin American collection. In April 2009, it will produce a double retrospective of Argentinian artist Leon Ferrari and Brazilian Mira Schendel, and it has scheduled a retrospective of the Mexican artist Gabriel Orozco for 2010.

The current show is evidence of the new energy -- and cash -- being supplied by MoMA board member Patricia Cisneros, wife of Venezuelan media magnate Gustavo Cisneros. She is the scion of a prominent broadcast and publishing family and has also been generous in her support of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Two rooms at the newly remodeled MoMA bear the Cisneros name.

At MoMA's founding in the 1930s, Latin American Modernism was "one of the main lines of the collection," with American and European Modernism, Perez-Oramas said. Visionary director Alfred Barr gave Mexican muralist Diego Rivera his first solo U.S. show, he noted, and championed the works of Jose Clemente Orozco and other Latin Americans.

After World War II, the museum turned its attention elsewhere. There were major currents to track: the so-called New York school of abstract art, the European successors of Picasso and Dutch abstractionist Piet Mondrian, Pop artists such as Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein, and sculptors including Donald Judd.

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