Before the Second World War, in Mexico, Guatemala, Chile, Uruguay, and elsewhere, another American modernism was taking shape.
By John Dorfman
One March morning in 2003, a woman named Elizabeth Gibson was going for coffee near her apartment on New York’s Upper West Side when she saw a painting stuck between two garbage bags on West 72nd Street and Broadway. Gibson, a writer, had no interest in or knowledge of modern art but was immediately attracted by the painting, a four-foot-wide canvas with stylized human figures in vibrant hues of red, yellow and purple, in a cheap-looking frame. So she grabbed it and brought it home, where she kept it for months before eventually learning that what she had on her wall was Tres Personajes, a 1970 painting by the Mexican modernist Rufino Tamayo that had been stolen from its owner in Houston in 1987. Gibson brought it to Sotheby’s, who contacted the owner’s widow. She ended up consigning it to the auction house, where it sold for $1.1 million on November 21, 2007. (Gibson got a $15,000 reward and a smaller finder’s fee from Sotheby’s.)
Perhaps obscured by the headlines about the million-dollar find was the fact of the strange allure of this painting, which is characteristic of the richly colored, technically adept and imaginative works of the Latin American modernists. And it may not be stretching the trash-to-treasure metaphor too far to say that the journey of this particular Tamayo is at least somewhat symbolic of the journey of Latin American modern art from neglect to appreciation. A group of artists born just before or at the turn of the 20th century can now be said to make up a canon of Latin modernist pioneers who are not only market stars but key figures in an art history that recognizes that modernism is not only a creation of Europe and North America. Any list of the best would have to include Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, José Clemente Orozco, David Alfaro Siqueiros, Rufino Tamayo, Carlos Mérida, Alfredo Ramos Martínez, Joaquín Torres-García, Wifredo Lam, Roberto Matta.
The first generation of artists who created a uniquely Latin American version of modernism beginning in the years after World War I had gone to Europe in search of training and inspiration. There they adopted post-impressionist, Cubist, and allied styles, but generally found a lack of acceptance. They were considered second-class citizens of the art world. Rivera, who arrived in Paris in 1907, angrily returned to Mexico, where he gave up trying to be a Cubist and transformed himself into a politically engaged artist, champion of his native culture and its indigenous roots, and—in the words of West Coast dealer Bill Sheehy, owner of Latin American Masters in Santa Monica—“one of the greatest fresco painters and muralists of past several centuries.” In addition to Rivera, Orozco and Siqueiros were the top artists of the mural renaissance, Orozco in particular being known for complex compositions with a Symbolist twist. Others, like Matta and Lam, who were younger and arrived in Europe during the 1930s, had an easier time of it. The Surrealists were more welcoming. In any case, most of the Latin American masters, no matter how much or how little they drew on local material for their work, ended up being internationalists rather than provincials.
Mexico itself was particularly hospitable to Surrealism. Mary-Anne Martin, a New York dealer and former Sotheby’s expert who specializes in Latin American art, says, “There’s sort of a home-grown surrealism there. Everything in Mexico is surreal—the minute your plane lands and you take a taxi to the hotel, when a sword swallower comes up to your window and asks for some pesos, you just know.” The Fourth International Surrealist Exhibition took place in Mexico City in 1940, organized by André Breton himself. European artists like Marcel Duchamp and Joan Miró took part, as well as local artists like Kahlo and Rivera.
In those days, with Mexico a hotbed of artistic and literary creativity, not to mention political ferment, Latin American art was “in” with collectors north of the border. In the 1940s and ’50s, Mexico was a popular destination for travelers from the U.S., and works by major artists were quite affordable. But by the 1970s, recalls Martin, “people had these things in their attics.” Political climate change may have had something to do with it, she adds; the McCarthy period made some people leery of being seen to own paintings by left-wingers such as Rivera or Siqueiros. Then came Abstract Expressionism, and figural painting with strong overtones of social realism went out of fashion for non-political reasons.
Martin has been working for four decades to bring classic Latin American art all the way into the mainstream in the U.S., and one way to do that is to point out the connections between the modern art of both Americas. She cites a Siqueiros painting from 1936 that was recently purchased from her gallery on behalf of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. At the time it was painted, she says, Siqueiros was running an experimental political-art workshop in New York, where one of his students was Jackson Pollock. “This painting was of enormous interest to American museums looking for ways to connect their Pre-Columbian collections to modern American art. Pollock is sort of a nexus of those two worlds, and Siqueiros is the one who taught him to be free with paint, to use experimental materials. The MFA Boston is hanging it next to a Pollock. That wouldn’t have happened 35 years ago.”
Some of the Latin modernists, such as Matta (from Chile), Torres-García (from Uruguay) and Lam (from Cuba), are not so much associated with revolutionary politics and fit more easily into an international context of modern art. Matta was strongly influenced by Surrealism and evolved distinctly visionary styles of his own that kept changing over his long career. Both he and Torres-García were deeply indebted to occult movements, especially Theosophy, and to thinkers such as P.D. Ouspensky and Rudolf Steiner who reinterpreted traditional esoteric symbolism for the 20th century.
Carlos Mérida (from Guatemala) drew heavily on Pre-Columbian iconography in his work, as did Alfredo Ramos Martínez, an artist older than the rest who only recently has become highly collectible and reached high prices at auction (his Flowers of Mexico, from 1938, a stylized portrait of a female flower seller, went for a record $4 million at Christie’s in 2007). Born in 1871 and called “the father of Mexican modernism,” Ramos Martínez has two very distinct bodies of work: The earlier one is wholly European in style, originally Spanish-influenced, then post-impressionistic and influenced by Gauguin. This is not the work he is remembered for, according to Louis Stern, a dealer in West Hollywood, Calif., who has long championed Ramos Martínez.
What he is remembered for, says Stern, is a totally different, second body of work that came into being in the United States, where the artist moved in 1929 to get medical care for his disabled daughter. Settling in L.A., he was encouraged to paint Mexican material that celebrated rural life, which he did in a new, bold style influenced by art deco. It is these paintings, brought into being by a combination of nostalgia and commercialism, that really appeal to collectors today. According to Stern, not only U.S. but Mexican collectors and institutions are interested in Ramos Martínez, a major change from former times when the artist was resented by Mexicans for having abandoned the country. The negative opinion was ironic in any case, because at the time of the Mexican Revolution, Ramos Martínez revolutionized artistic training in Mexico with his Open-Air Schools, which brought the latest in post-impressionist techniques and outlooks to students around the country.
The concern with indigenous peoples pervades Latin American modern art, especially Mexican, whether in terms of subject matter or Pre-Columbian aesthetic motifs or both. One artist who is not strictly speaking blue-chip but who encapsulates the preoccupation with Indian cultures very clearly is Miguel Covarrubias. As a 19-year-old whiz kid with a sketch pad, he arrived in New York and soon was contributing witty caricatures of society figures to Vanity Fair magazine and was himself a darling of café society. He also chronicled the Harlem Renaissance and did book illustrations for American publishers. But he eventually turned his attention back to his native country and transformed himself into a very serious archeologist and art historian specializing in Southern Mexico, ancient and modern. He illustrated his books with his own detailed drawings and paintings of rural life among the Zapotecs and of ancient art objects and artifacts. In Covarrubias, the artistic project of rediscovering the Pre-Columbian past shades over into actual archeology and documentary illustration.
As for Tamayo, he may have created the deepest and subtlest integration of the ancient Latin American past with the modern way of art-making. Sheehy, who knew the artist well in his later years, says, “He was always asserting the relationship of the energies coming from Europe and the U.S. post-World War II with the ancestral arts of the Americas—Colima, Zapotec, with their formal distortions of figures, the way they reinterpreted the proportions of the human figures. He opened doors for a lot of artists who felt they had to make a false choice between being indigenous artists and otherwise. Tamayo, in my opinion, is the Latin American artist who makes the strongest assertion of this dual identity of being an artist of the Americas and an absolutely modern artist in the wider world.” In that sense, he stands for a whole generation of Latin American artists who now have transcended national boundaries and become full citizens of the world of art history.
This article originally appeared in Art & Antiques Magazine as “Latin Masters.”