Monday, October 26, 2009

"Nexus New York: Latin/American Artists in the Modern Metropolis"

The lure was at least double. I had never visited El Museo del Barrio on upper Fifth Avenue and I did not know much about art in the Americas. The museum has just reopened after a modest makeover. I did not like the plasticky colors in its lobby and shop, both of which imitated the corporate look of better funded boutique museums. The lobby, shop and cafe space could have been given over to the art.

Because the art was so compelling, and still looked crowded in the slightly expanded galleries. The "Nexus New York" show was so much more than Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. They were there, she represented by "The Suicide of Dorothy Hale," and he by his drawing for the Rockefeller Center mural. But there were also Cuban Carlos Enriquez and American Alice Neel, husband and wife, and artistic rivals in their figurative art. Placed side by side, their paintings of each other,  their surviving daughter (one died),  and neighbors were a fascinating study of influence and divergence. Neel's painting "Well Baby Clinic" was a scene from hell.

Mexican-born Marius de Zayas, who with Alfred Stiegltiz, brought the first Picasso show to New York, was represented by his satiric cartoons of American personalities. The images of Joaquin Torres-Garcia's New York street scenes might prefigure Pop Art, but they were even more interesting in their abstract relationships. You could see the artist developing that abstraction into a language he called Universal Constructivism. There was a hard curatorial balance to maintain between relating Latin American artists to their more famous American and European counterparts and seeing them as themselves. I think the show succeeded in maintaining that precarious balance.

In the permanent collection, a big painting called "Totemism" was peculiarly compelling to me. I don't remember the artist's name, and could not find it by googling. Unlike most images of totem, this one not only zoomed in but also filled merely the left half of the painting. The right half was painted in a bold yellow that was fierce and spiritual. The painting was both abstract and figurative, line and color, in a fusion that was totally original.

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