A New Post for a New Year: My Roommate Alicia Herrero

[Images courtesy of aliciaherrero.com.ar]

The end of 2012 was oh-so-hectic down here, but it’s a new year now, and to make good in a small way on the whole seasonal rebirth/renewal theme, I’m posting an update. It’s a long-overdue introduction to my indefatigable roommate/dueña/friend, visual artist Alicia Herrero.

One of my luckiest breaks in Buenos Aires was finding my way into Alicia’s beautifully restored turn-of-the-century PH. She’s not only a wonderful person to live with and a constant source of insight and intellectual challenge; she also makes great art. Her most reject project, Museo de la economía política del arte (Museum of the Political Economy of Art), just ended a solo showing at Buenos Aires’ prestigious 11 x 7 Gallery. It’s wonderful.

The show uses images, video, and three-dimensional pieces to critically examine contemporary art market practices and their influence on artistic production and on the capitalist system at large. At its heart stands the Action-Instruments Box, a “toolkit” that enables anyone with a computer to develop alternative metrics for the success of art. Model graphs show works reshaped along two axes, one measuring the piece’s price per square centimeter at auction, the other the overall average for the lot in which it sold. A neatly designed catalog incorporates dozens of these lushly colored analyses; the huge mutli-fold pages reproducing elongated Rothkos and Warhols force a visual confrontation with the far-from-aesthetic forces bubbling just beneath the surface at Christie’s and Sotheby’s. I love this box, and I’m not alone. MALBA, BA’s leading museum, acquired one for immediate display.

[In the Banco Nación]

Alicia has done lots of other stuff, too, including a bold series of performances/ interventions in spaces like the Banco Nación and the Argentine Capitol planned under the aegis of the University of Buenos Aires’ Laboratorio de Investigación en Prácticas Artísticas Contemporáneas, which she leads. It’s all on her website, in Spanish and in English. Right now I’m helping Alicia update the English side, and the more time I spend there, the more enganchado I get. Check it out if you’ve got some time.

Welcome to 2013 — ¡E.M.A.N.C.I.P.A.C.I.O.N. ya!

[In the Capitol]

Carlos Cruz-Diez and the Color of Broad Appeal

As I explain in a recent feature for Juanele, the Carlos Cruz-Diez retrospective at the Museo de Arte Latinoamericano de Buenos Aires (Malba) is one of the most engaging shows I’ve seen, period. It’ll be on view through March and if you come to BA you have no excuse not to check it out!

Photo by Jorge Miño. Courtesy of Malba.

* * *

The challenge facing curator Mari Carmen Ramírez could hardly have been more daunting — present the life’s work of a formally inventive and dramatically undervalued artist in a way that does justice to both his conceptual heft and his public-spirited drive to engage and transform his viewers. As tens of thousands of visitors to Malba’s new single-artist retrospective,  Carlos Cruz-Diez: El color en el espacio y en el tiempo (Color in Space in Time), have discovered, Ramírez was up to the task, delivering a show that is as instructive as it is accessible, and an awful lot of fun.

A household name in his native Venezuela, Cruz-Diez is far from unknown in the broader art world. His works form part of many of the most celebrated permanent collections on the planet. But as Ramírez notes in her essay, “Lo que está en juego es el color” (The Issue at Stake is Color), Cruz-Diez has never before received a solo exhibition in Latin America, the US, or Europe, and he’s been relegated to second-tier status in the critical literature. For an artist who has managed not only to pull color off the two-dimensional canvas but to bring it fully into the public sphere, Cruz-Diez has not received his due.

Photo by Jorge Miño. Courtesy of Malba.

Perhaps this neglect can be attributed to Cruz-Diez’s insistence on swimming against the grain of contemporary art-critical expectations. Critics tend to call Cruz-Diez a “ kinetic artist,” a label which itself underscores the artist’s awkward relationship with the critical establishment. While it’s true that many of Cruz-Diez’s works rely on the viewer’s movement to make their point, the “kinetic” label suggests an artist who’s primarily interested in motion, when even five minutes with Cruz-Diez’s work makes it clear that interrogating movement is far from his top concern. At heart, Cruz-Diez is really a “color artist” — but for a generation of critics eager to move beyond the aesthetic transcendence-through-color of abstract expressionists like  Mark Rothko and  Morris Louis, an exhaustive exploration of color isn’t conceptually interesting, and a preoccupation with the viewer’s aesthetic experience probably seems passé. So Cruz-Diez is called “kinetic” — and by that standard, he isn’t very interesting at all.

This wider conceptual turn in art criticism has yielded many insights and encouraged plenty of interesting work, but if it can’t make room for an artist as provocative and broadly engaging as Cruz-Diez, it’s gone too far. To center art on conceptual concerns while deriding interest in aesthetic elevation is to deny all but the best-read and most historically aware viewers a way into the artistic experience and a reason to engage it beyond a superficial glance. It’s a choice, in other words, that leaves a lot of potential viewers behind, reinforcing the (largely but not always) unspoken conviction that the best contemporary art does not and should not have mass appeal.

Photo by Jorge Miño. Courtesy of Malba.

Cruz-Diez, Ramírez’s retrospective reveals, made a very different choice. As the artist himself explains in one of the show’s excellent wall texts, color isn’t just something that spices up our world; it’s elemental to the way we experience it. Color happens — it makes other things happen — and Cruz-Diez wants to use his art as a prompt to make us all think about it. If this tangible, aesthetically-centered, far-from-elite project explains why El color en el espacio y en el tiempo is Cruz-Diez’s first real retrospective, it also explains why more than 56,000 people have seen the show in its first month, why so many of them linger on Malba’s top floor, and — most remarkably of all — why such a high percentage of the chatter one overhears up there is actually about the art.

Of course, Ramírez deserves a hunk of the credit as well. Ramírez heads the Latin American art department at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, where the Cruz-Diez retrospective was on display for the first half of the year. Her accompanying text is a pleasure to read, but her curatorial skills are perhaps even more evident when she is at her most invisible. The top floor of the show features a largely chronological organization, beginning with Cruz-Diez’s early works before moving on to his fisicromías (“physichromies”), the reflective, additive, and subtractive works for which the artist is best known, and which command a large majority of the exhibition’s wall space. Smaller galleries at the far end of the top floor and downstairs highlight the artist’s public works and reproduce two of his immersive chromographic “environments.” And with the exception of an introductory note and a few isolated curatorial observations, the wall text accompanying the exhibition comes directly from the artist himself.

Photo by Jorge Miño. Courtesy of Malba.Photo by Jorge Miño. Courtesy of Malba.

Allowing Cruz-Diez to speak for himself works well because his pieces are so engaging on their own terms. His first fisicromías are simple assemblages of horizontal wooden slats painted red, green, black, and white, some protruding from father than others to form shapes. Visitors following the exhibition watch the materials, shapes, colors, and effects slowly change, as wood is replaced by PVC, mirrors, and silkscreened aluminum. The immersive environments — one with three sub-rooms, each filled with a different color of filtered light, the other with overlapping, moving bands of color projected onto white walls — are testaments to the power of color to shape our perceptions of space and place. And the public art projects presented downstairs, shown only after the viewer has seen color projected, reflected, and transformed up close in dozens of ways, point to the vastness of Cruz-Diez’s ambition: to revalue color as a central dimension not only of the artistic experience, but of human perception, writ large.

Cruz-Diez’s works aren’t themselves ideal candidates for lengthy prose description. They’re better experienced than recounted; the top floor of Malba awaits. Sure, Cruz-Diez’s vision may not be as philosophically intricate as some of his contemporaries’, but what it lacks in esoteric complexity it more than makes up for in breadth and interactivity. Oh, and — did I mention? — in color.

Photo by Jorge Miño. Courtesy of Malba.

MALBA Turns Ten

Malba, the Museo de Arte Latinoamericano de Buenos Aires, celebrated its tenth anniversary a few weeks ago with a wine-soaked tripple whammy of an inauguration. Here’s an entry I wrote about it on Juanele’s blog:

The first thing to catch my eye at this past Wednesday’s three-in-one, 10th-anniversary Malba extravaganza wasn’t the glam crowd spilling out from the lobby, nor the twisty-twirly tile number Nushi Muntaabski had done on what used to be the museum’s front-yard fountain — it was the mountain of wineglasses and champagne flutes, some half-full but most bone-dry, that had turned the admissions desk into the strangest centerpiece I had ever seen. The moral of this story: When Malba celebrates its 10th birthday by opening three new exhibits at once, people come — and they drink.

But Wednesday night was about much more than wine — at least for those visitors who ventured beyond the crowded-as-a-cattle-car lobby to the discordantly underpopulated galleries upstairs. In addition to Muntaabski’s plaza — seen publicly for the first time that night — Malba was inaugurating two new shows — a reinstallation of its permanent collection, interspersed with works from the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; and El color en el espacio y en el tiempo (Color in Space and Time), a blockbuster Carlos Cruz-Diez retrospective.

The permanent collection will retain its current arrangement through February 6, 2012, when the works on loan will be sent back to Houston. Organized chronologically, the show is an informative introduction to 20th Century Latin American art, and it’s rich in highlights, including  Tarsila do Amaral‘s wonderful Abaporu, prints by  Xul Solar, a pleasant cubist portrait by  Diego Rivera, and, of course, familiar attention-grabbing canvases by  Frida Kahlo and  Fernando Botero. The Houston additions — particularly  David Alfaro Siqueiros‘ hauntingly titled Concentración (Cabeza de niño) – do help to shake things up a bit, as does the installation’s open layout. Still, regular visitors who had been expecting dramatic change are likely to be disappointed; nether the selection nor the arrangement differ much from the permanent collection’s previous incarnation.

The Cruz-Diez show, in contrast, is just too cool. I won’t say much, as Cruz-Diez more than warrants his own (surely forthcoming) review. I’ll simply note that the exhibition, which does almost magically precise things with color and light, runs through March 5, 2012. You should see it. And given that admission to the museum is free through September 30th, there’s no better time than this week.