Exploring New Horizons in Latin American Contemporary Art

Time and Space: A Personal Saga

by | Dec 30, 2001

Fernando de Szyszlo, Inkarri, 1968.

When I first traveled to Peru by boat with my family fifty years ago, the country seemed as far away from Argentina as Boston from Buenos Aires. My husband had been sent there by W.R. Grace, a New York-based company with diverse businesses around Latin America. Living in Lima from 1947 to 1955 gave me my initial exposure to the distinct cultures among the countries of this vast region. As we traversed the hemisphere by plane I looked at the work of the contemporary artists and learned new popular songs and rhythms with the guitar. In my mind the two arts complemented each other and it was a joyous new experience.

On returning to the New York area, I began to explore the relationship among some of the most notable artists of the postwar generation in each country in Latin America, something that was difficult at a time of unreliable phone lines, no faxes, no Internet, and only scanty airplane connections. I chose the postwar generation because it corresponded to the period I spent in Peru, when the big winds of change started to blow in Latin America. These changes resulted not only from the material advances in transportation and communication, but also from the different types of cultural, economic, and political factors that opened up Latin America to the postwar international order. Artists of this generation exemplified the changing atmosphere of the times and also had strong and identifiable personal styles.

Countries were too isolated from one another then for tendencies to coalesce into definable continental movements. The artists were interpreting contemporary art in a different way than their counterparts in Europe or the United States. Despite the fact that many more artists were traveling back and forth, there was still something distinctive happening in Latin America.

At that time, it was hard to find out about the art and artists of Latin America. I gathered all the information I could from organizations such as the Pan American Union in Washington D.C., the library at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA), New York, and a few galleries that represented Latin American artists in New York. The field of Latin American art, practically unrecognized in the United States, lacked institutional support and necessary networks.

As a result of my exposure to Latin American art and my growing interest in collecting, I completed a master’s degree at the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University. My thesis research was devoted to the unorthodox study of Latin American art, concentrating primarily on colonial art from the Viceroyalty of Peru and Bolivia in the 17th and 18th centuries, and on the work of the Uruguayan modern master, Joaquín Torres-Garcia.

In the mid-1960s, two major exhibitions of Latin American art showed at institutions on the East Coast. The first, The Emergent Decade: Latin American Painters and Paintings in the 1960s (1966), conceived by Thomas M. Messer, the director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, was a milestone in the launching of contemporary Latin American art. The second, Art of Latin America Since Independence (1966), was curated by Stanton L. Catlin, and co-organized by the Yale University Art Gallery and the Archer M. Huntington Art Gallery (now the Jack S. Blanton Museum of Art) of the University of Texas at Austin. In conjunction with this second exhibition, Catlin and Donald Goodall, then director of the Huntington, organized a groundbreaking conference on Latin American art at Yale University. This event was key in enhancing future exchanges within the United States and Latin America about Latin American art.

These two exhibitions brought together elements of time and space into Latin American art. Instead of seeing Latin America as a collection of disparate arts they unified and related distinct Latin American visions. As I looked at a decade’s worth of art in these two exhibits, I was struck by the changing context of time, remembering when time seemed to stand still, and an artistic generation still spanned 25 years. The exhibits, together with the conference, established connection and communications that sped up the interchange in the world of Latin American art.

My professional involvement with Latin American art began in the late 1960’s when I volunteered to work on the Museum of Modern Art’s Latin American art collection. MOMA’s Latin American collection was formed in the 1940’s and was garnering renewed interest among the museum’s staff, including William S. Liberman, Bernice Rose, Riva Castleman, and the International Council director Waldo Rasmussen.

In the late 1970s I curated several exhibitions on modern and contemporary Latin American art. One of these exhibits, Joaquin Torres-Garcia (1874-1949), to honor the centennial of the artist’s birth, took me to Uruguay were I selected works from the collection of Torres-Garcia’s family. In 1976, I traveled to Mexico to prepare with the artist Gunther Gerzso (1915-1999) the exhibition Gunther Gerzso: Paintings and Graphics Reviewed.

By the time I curated the exhibit Recent Latin American Drawings (1969-76)/ Lines of Vision for the International Exhibitions Foundation at the Center for Inter-American Relations (now the Americas Society), time and space were moving faster and drawing closer. Often, the hub through which information flowed was Miami or New York.

The information flow intensified sharply with the first major auction of Latin American art in New York, held on October 17, 1979, jointly organized by the Center for the Inter-American Relations and the Sotheby’s Parke-Bernet. This auction was a Center benefit to develop greater interest in Latin American art and to cultivate a market for the field.

Inter-American gallery links were not as established as they have become today. Even the task of moving the works of art from one place to another was a promethean effort. Although most of the artists —many of whom I knew— were very cooperative, they were also apprehensive about participating in an innovative auction, since the value of the works had not been internationally established.

A selection of the works was displayed at the Center for Inter-American Relations before the auction to promote a greater awareness of contemporary Latin American art among the New York public. The selection included many artists who have since attained international recognition. The auction was a success. The critic Rita Reif quoted Edward Lee Cave’s impressions of the auction in the New York Times: “The standing room-only crowd witnessed the birth of a new market. There were collectors and dealers from throughout South America and from all over the United States.”

Because of these efforts, U.S. art collectors became more aware of Latin American art. Thus, the new idea of auctions reinforced or even created fresh linkages with and within Latin America. The auctions created their own artistic “routes” and information systems, making exchanges of cultural information and opportunities easier.

Scholarship of curators and art historians dedicated to Latin American art is of lasting importance. Researched texts that can be used as academic references are vital for future generations. Technological advances such as fax, phone systems, cable television, and above all the Internet, are speeding up the access to shared information. Thus giving artists- and others – a grounding in common reference points.

Accelerated travel and expanded communication have transcended former geographic barriers. An artist can be national or international or both. These new linkages have had an energizing effect. Whether working at home, in Europe, or North America, Latin American artists share a keen interest in the development of their own countries.

As we move forward in the 21st century, new visions and technologies will take Latin American art further beyond its own boundaries, a striking difference from when Peru seemed as far away from Argentina as Boston from Buenos Aires.

Winter/Spring 2001

Barbara Duncan, a New York-based art historian, formed a collection of paintings and drawings which became the core of the Latin American art collections at the Jack S. Blanton Museum of Art at the University of Texas at Austin, where is now a consultant, as she has transversed time and space, she has also collaborated closely with the center for Interamerican relation which laster became the Americas Society. She is also a member of the DRCLAS subcommittee on the arts.

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