While the Grey Gallery show stops around 1970, this one takes the many-splendored history of Latin American modernism right up to the present, to exhilarating and enlightening effect. It has been organized and sensitively installed by Luis Pérez-Oramas, who joined the Modern in 2003 and last year became its curator of Latin American art, the first curatorial position there to be designated by geography instead of art medium.
While the Modern has been remiss in displaying the Latin American works in its collection, it is hardly a late arrival to the field. It focused primarily on Mexican art during the 1930s, but by 1941 it was systematically collecting art from across the region and was the first museum in the world to do so. (Even Latin American museums tended to collect only national artists.) By 1943 MoMA was able to muster an exhibition (organized by Lincoln Kirstein) of around 270 Latin American works from its collection. Today this collection is probably the largest and most comprehensive of its kind.
Acquisitions in this area dropped off in the 1970s and ’80s, even as broadly international exhibitions like the 1971 “Information” had a strong Latin American representation. Still, MoMA’s Latin American holdings now number more than 3,500. The current exhibition has been selected from some 530 pieces added since 1996.
Until the late 1950s the museum’s acquisitions tended to favor figuration, whether Social Realist, Surrealist or Magic Realist. The recent acquisitions — mostly purchases — reflect a process of both catch-up and course correction. As in the Grey Gallery show, the latest additions emphasize abstract artists whose primary points of departure were Russian Constructivism and the more idealistic geometry of Mondrian. The show begins with the work of Joaquín Torres-García, a colleague of Mondrian in Paris in the late 1920s whose return to Uruguay in 1934 helped spread the gospel of abstraction in Latin America.
The styles that emerged there after World War II ran both parallel to and in opposition to developments in the United States, especially the scale of Abstract Expressionism and the material opulence of Minimalism. But it intersected fruitfully with contemporary European developments like Group Zero and Arte Povera, played an essential role in Op Art and helped spawn a version of Conceptual Art that valued the collaborative, the implicitly political and the ephemeral. This in turn set the stage for artists who have emerged since the mid-1980s, among them Ana Mendieta, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Vik Muniz and Fernando Bryce.
The selection here covers quite a bit of this ground, with large clusters of works by several artists and lots of inter-generational back and forth, both intended and unconscious. More than a dozen historic works from the late ’40s, the ’50s and the early ’60s, about half of which are gifts from Mrs. Cisneros, lay out various concerns of Latin American art.
Foremost is a conception of abstraction as unusually body oriented and actively engaged with either the optics of perception or the possibility of function. These ideas crop up early in a beguiling gamelike sculpture from 1945 by Alejandro Xul Solar; it deconstructs the compartments of Torres-García’s canvases into a series of painted blocks that look eminently touchable.
A more austere hanging sculpture by Gyula Kosice made of hinged strips of brass (1948) may be the world’s earliest example of Arte Povera; its casualness echoes in adjustable sculptures by Lygia Clark and later on Mira Schendel, whose woven rice-paper piece from the mid-1960s is one of the exhibition’s highlights. The idea of adjustability continues with Hélio Oiticica’s brightly colored box (which gains immeasurably from a higher pedestal than in previous appearances) and Cildo Meireles’s folding-rule sculptures from the early ’70s.
Some works imaginatively cross-fertilize aesthetic approaches. Black-and-white paintings and works on paper by Carmen Herrera, Willys de Castro and Hércules Barsotti split the difference between Op Art and more traditional geometric abstraction, which means they are dazzling without being dizzying. Jesús Rafael Soto achieved a similar fusion of Op Art and assemblage, making brilliant use of things like driftwood and tangles of old wire in two works here.
A related sensibility is at play in a sculpture from 1962 by Sérgio Camargo in which a chunk of driftwood is partly encrusted, as if by a crystal formation, with masses of small wood dowels painted white. The use of found material reaches opposing apotheoses in Ernesto Neto’s modest drawings (two use saffron) and Mr. Muniz’s large color photograph “Narcissus, After Caravaggio” (2005), which is the result of skillfully marshaling a pile of junk into an old-master image. And the emphasis on black and white abstraction is picked up, unexpectedly, in three small ink drawings by Gabriel Orozco.
This show repeatedly reminds us that art can be made out of almost nothing, and that strong color is a viable substitute for large size. The point is made early on in a group of 10 resolutely abstract collages from 1950 by Alejandro Otero of Venezuela that simultaneously pursue the implications of Mondrian’s “Broadway Boogie-Woogie” and of Matisse’s cut-outs, and in the small, bright free-standing forms in gouache on cardboard of Lygia Pape’s marvelous “Book of Creation” from 1959-60. Ms. Pape’s faith in color obviously echoes in Oiticica’s work but also in Santiago Cucullu’s new prints, in which bright abstract swirls are punctuated by dark, sinister images redolent of the clandestine events that riddle so much of Latin America’s recent history. Also relevant are Rivane Neuenschwander’s colored-over newspaper comic strips. These in turn echo Álvaro Barrios’s earlier use of newspapers; in the mid-1970s he persuaded a Colombian daily to publish his pastels and collage images regularly.
An obsession with fine lines, either organized or running free, is evident in drawings, prints and paintings on paper from the early ’60s by Gego (Gertrude Goldschmidt) and by León Ferrari. It can be followed through the show in Waltercio Caldas’s tiny printed-word drawings from the 1970s, a single extraordinary ink and pencil drawing by Eduardo Stupía from 1985 and, more recently, the drawings of the collective Assume Vivid Astro Focus (on acetate) and José Damasceno.
Plenty of other conversations and cross-references contribute to the richness of this exhibition, as do largely excellent selections, including, on the recent end, works by Los Carpinteros, Eugenio Dittborn, Abelardo Morell, Alfredo Jaar and Arturo Herrera. The implicit message throughout is that the house that classic Modernism built has always been more inclusive than previously thought, and is getting bigger all the time.
[imagen: Una pieza sin título de 1959-6, de Jesús Rafael Soto, en la exposición del MoMA]