Tuesday September 30, 2014

Exhibition Close-Up: Our America at the Smithsonian American Art Museum

Spotlighting Cuban-American artists in a wide-ranging exhibition

Emilio Sánchez, Untitled (La Rumba Supermarket), late 1980s

Courtesy Smithsonian American Art Museum and Emilio Sánchez Foundation

This Friday, October 25, the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C. opens Our America: The Latino Presence in American Art, a panoramic survey of modern and contemporary Latino art. In an interview with Cuban Art News, exhibition curator E. Carmen Ramos turns a thoughtful eye to the Cuban-American artists in the show.

Tell us about Our America. How did the show come about?

When I joined the museum in October 2011, I was given two charges: to expand the museum’s pioneering collection of Latino art, and then to curate an exhibition drawn from the collection.

My goal in putting together an exhibition of Latino art at this institution—the Smithsonian American Art Museum—was to look at the relationship between Latino art and the national context in which it was born, which is the United States. In a lot of recent exhibitions that include Latino art, it tends to be associated with Latin American art more than the art of the United States. Since our museum is dedicated to the art of the United States, I thought it was important to explore those links—and to do so in a historical way.

So the exhibition includes works by artists who had been working in the United States since the late 1950s. One early work in the exhibition is by Carmen Herrera, who came to the United States in 1939. As you know, she’s been heralded as leader of geometric art in the Americas. She’s also associated more with Brazilian constructivists, even though she has been living here for most of her life, and was very much like [other] American artists [of her time]. She was in Paris, where she became enthralled with geometric abstraction, at the same time that Ellsworth Kelly was in Paris. They were both really interested in the same visual language. And I really wanted to show examples of that—the deep connection to the art of the United States and the movements of the United States.

Carmen Herrera, Blanco y verde, 1960

Courtesy BBC Mundo

How is the exhibition organized?

There are three main categories, and within those are related sub-themes. The first part is called “Reframing the Past and Present,” and it looks at how Latino artists have revisited and reinterpreted key themes in American history—issues of the landscape, of Western expansion…

María Magdalena Campos-Pons, Constellation, 2004

Courtesy Smithsonian American Art Museum

There’s a grouping within this category that focuses on migration. This is a central concept for the United States, given that we are a nation of immigrants, and there are many Latino artists who explore it. There are works, for instance, by María Magdalena Campos-Pons, who came to the United States in the late 1980s. Her migration to the United States brought her into direct contact with African American artists. She began to see herself as part of a global African diaspora, and her works began to blend her interest in revealing those ongoing cultural connections to African culture with her connections to Cuba.

The second major section, “Signs of the Popular,” looks at how Latino artists have reinterpreted popular culture. The third, “Defying Categories,” looks at how Latino artists defy our preconceptions—our ideas of what American art is, for instance, or that art can’t be political and aesthetic at the same time.

Tell us about the museum’s Latino collection, which is the basis for the show.

The collection I inherited was a bit of a time capsule. It was formed largely in the late 1980s and 1990s and reflected the currents of that era. When I came on board I wanted to expand the collection in two directions, making that the midpoint. My goal was to convey the broad aesthetic, conceptual, and historical breadth of Latino art.

I also wanted to include works by artists who did not necessarily identify their art in culturally specific terms. I thought it was important to reflect that this trajectory is also a part of Latino art. In that sense, the acquisition of a work by Carmen Herrera was very important. As is the work of someone like Teresita Fernández, a younger artist who does not necessarily present her work a Latino cultural context. She’s interested in how her work addresses issues of spectatorship, how it engages the landscape. I was particularly interested in that because the genre of landscape is very American.

Teresita Fernández, Nocturnal (Horizon Line), 2010

Courtesy Smithsonian American Art Museum

The collection includes about 600 works. Of these, the show has 92 works by 72 artists. Eleven of those artists are of Cuban heritage.

Let’s turn to those 11 artists. There’s tremendous diversity in this group alone. What were your criteria for selection?

Luis Cruz Azaceta, No Parking Here Any Time, 1978

Courtesy Smithsonian American Art Museum

I wanted to include works that gave a glimpse of the breadth of Cuban-American artists working in the United States. Works by Rafael Soriano, for instance, and Luis Cruz Azaceta were wonderful recent gifts. In the case of Rafael Soriano, we didn’t own any art by him. In Luis’s case we had some small prints, but nothing major. We were very excited about having him represented by a painting from his first mature body of work: the New York violence series or the “apocalyptic pop” series that he did in the late 1970s.

I go back to Carmen Herrera, because I think that’s one of the best examples. I really wanted something from the late 1950s or early 1960s. I wanted to present her as being a participant in a specific historical moment, when interest in minimalism was developing in the United States. She was there! I wanted the exhibition to present her as a participant, not after the fact.

The work that we acquired by María Magdalena Campos-Pons is Constellation, from 2004. I was interested in acquiring a work by an Afro-Cuban artist who dealt with the theme of migration from an African diasporic perspective. We have an important collection of African-American art, and I was eager to include a work by a Latino artist who engages that theme from another perspective—to show how Latino artists are complicating this idea that we are an African diasporic nation. That was another conscious acquisition of a specific work.

We were very excited to be given works by Rafael Soriano from his family, because he represents the first generation of Cuban artists who came as adults to the United States. So in a way, while our collection is not comprehensive—there are still many, many gaps—there is an attempt to show the broad arc of artists that have so many different experiences and trajectories yet are still part of the same community.

Rafael Soriano, Un Lugar Distante (A Distant Place), 1972

Courtesy Smithsonian American Art Museum

Several of the Cuban-American artists in the show are internationally renowned. But there are a few who might be less familiar.

María Brito, El Patio de mi casa, 1990

Courtesy Smithsonian American Art Museum

The works by María Brito and Arturo Rodríguez speak to the Miami generation—another important moment within the development of Cuban-American art in the United States. This was a generation of artists who came to the United States as children and began to explore issues of their particular biculturality. While they are not as well-known as some other artists, they are an important part of the Cuban-American artistic experience.

I think María Martínez-Cañas is a very exciting artist, and in many ways I place her and Abelardo Morell in the same category. They are two amazing photographers, and that’s one of the reasons they’re both in the exhibition. María Martínez-Cañas’s works can be overtly culturally specific—especially the work in the exhibition, which explores her personal history. Abelardo Morell is another artist who has really focused on his media in highly creative ways, and is an important photographer, period.

Abelardo Morell, Camera Obscura Image of Manhattan View Looking West in Empty Room, 1996 

Courtesy Smithsonian American Art Museum

Of course, Ana Mendieta is included…

Mendieta is one of the most iconic figures in the history of Cuban-American art, and her work was acquired long before I joined the museum. Her art is an incredible blend of contemporary art movements in the United States and her personal history—a confluence of earth art, performance, and a particular Cuban experience of exile.

Ana Mendieta, Untitled, from the Siluetas series, 1980

Courtesy Smithsonian American Art Museum

And Emilio Sánchez?

Sánchez’s work is often presented as being about light and shadow and architecture. But what I saw was an artist who was interested in exploring a long Cuban presence in the United States—especially his works that focused on the urban landscape of New York City. He would often visit immigrant communities and study and play with the signage he saw on bodegas and other businesses. The watercolor in the exhibition focuses on a bodega called La Rumba Supermarket. It really looks at the imprint of Latino and Cuban culture on the landscape of New York.

So, given the 3 major categories and sub-themes, how do the Cuban artists figure in the show?

Arturo Rodríguez, Sín título, 1998

Courtesy Smithsonian American Art Museum

María Magdalena Campos-Pons, María Brito, Arturo Rodríguez, and Abelardo Morell are in “Reframing the Past and Present,” specifically in the grouping called “Migrating Through History.” Carmen Herrera, Rafael Soriano, Teresita Fernández, María Martínez Cañas, and Ana Mendieta are in “Defying Categories.” And Luis Cruz Azaceta and Emilio Sánchez are in “Signs of the Popular.”

What are your hopes for the show? What would you like it to achieve?

I really would like us as a nation—as a nation of art-lovers—to begin to see Latino artists as American artists. They’re not foreigners, they’re not from another place, they’ve had a deep presence here in the United States, and I would like us to see them as part of this larger thing called American art. And I would hope that other museums begin to take that perspective in looking at Latino art.

Many people come to our museum to understand the American experience, so I was very aware that this exhibition will educate a lot of people about this community—not just from an art-historical perspective but from a historical perspective. We hope Our America is successful at showing the links between the two. 

Speaking of that, will the show travel?

Yes, it’s touring to 5 venues: the Frost Art Museum in Miami (March 28, 2014-June 22, 2014); the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento, California (September 21, 2014-January 11, 2015); the Utah Museum of Fine Arts in Salt Lake (February 6, 2015-May 17, 2015); the Arkansas Art Center in Little Rock (October 16, 2015-January 17, 2016); and the Delaware Museum of Art in Wilmington (March 5, 2016-May 29, 2016).

It’s going to many new markets, which is a wonderful thing.

Any parting thoughts?

The exhibition and the collection are attempting to present a broad and diverse vision of Latino art. When people walk through the exhibition, they’ll see artists working in practically every media—there’ll be video art, there’s photography, sculpture, painting, graphics, conceptual art. It’s really important to present a very broad and unruly, if you will, vision of Latino art.

Our America: The Latino Presence in American Art goes on view at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C. on Friday, October 25 and runs through March 2, 2014.