Thursday November 23, 2017

In Conversation: René Francisco on Adiós Utopia

The artist and curator talks about the blockbuster show and its development

Lázaro Saavedra, El Sagrado Corazón (The Sacred Heart), 1995

Courtesy The Farber Collection

Artist, educator, and curator René Francisco is part of the curatorial team that created Adiós Utopia: Dreams and Deceptions in Cuban Art Since 1950, the major exhibition now on view at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. in a conversation with Cuban Art News, Francisco reveals the thinking behind the show, and its evolution from initial idea to exhibition opening.

How did the curatorial team come together for this project?

Ella Cisneros met Gerardo Mosquera and me during a fair in Lima in 2013, and we talked about her wanting to develop a historical exhibition of Cuban art. She already had in mind an exhibition of art from the 1950s, and Elsa Vega, who had been advising her about Cuban concrete and geometric art, was part of this.

An installation view of Adiós Utopia with geometric abstract works by Sandú Darié, Loló Soldevilla, and Carmen Herrera

Courtesy CIFO and Ella Fontanals-Cisneros

In addition to Elsa, Mosquera, and myself, she also invited the artist and critic Antonio Eligio Fernández (Tonel). Her idea was to present what we considered the outstanding Cuban artists and artworks, generally produced in Cuba. In her introductory text for the book Adiós Utopia (which accompanies the show) Ella spoke clearly about her sources of inspiration and her enthusiasm.

Tonel attended the first meetings, but then declined to continue with the project.

Tania Bruguera, Estadística, de la serie Memoria de la postguerra (Statistics, from the series Memory of the Postwar Era), 1995–2000

Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

You’ve given us a clear sense of Ella Fontanals-Cisneros’s personal commitment to the project. What part did the CIFO organization play?

Ella and her Foundation organized not only the preliminary meetings, but all the meetings and exchanges of ideas in Miami and Havana. They hired the curators, and organized visits to museums in Europe and the United States to secure venues for this ambitious show.

For the book, it was Ella’s idea to make not simply a catalogue of the show, but an expanded, amplified volume that included many artists and works that weren’t in the show—an approach that would give a broader and more fully developed perspective on the topic.

Ella Fontanals-Cisneros outside the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Courtesy CIFO and Ella Fontanals-Cisneros

The Foundation filmed many of these meetings and did much of the research on the artworks. They managed to find works in collections all over the world. Ella also organized a series of studio visits in Havana, and acquired works that the curators considered important, and that had not been acquired by other collections.

Neither Ella nor the Foundation intervened in the curators` decisions.

Raúl Corrales, La caballería (The Cavalry), 1960

Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

How would you describe the show’s curatorial thesis?

It started with this idea of a history of Cuban art since the 1950s, and that’s the concept we began working with. But given the size that a show like this implied, and the space limitations of the museums we were working with, we were obliged to trim that initial list by 40 percent.

Glexis Novoa, Sin título, de la Etapa práctica (Untitled, from the Practical Stage), 1989 

Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

This led us to opt instead for a thematic show. And that meant eliminating artists and artworks, in a way that would reduce the list coherently. We directed our focus toward political art, a theme that has been carried forward through the decades—political art relating to the spirit of utopia.

This idea is reflected very clearly in the book.

What we were looking for, in each of the decades we covered, was the highest utopian ideals expressed in works of real quality—works that would summarize and demonstrate, profoundly, the spirit and the fé visual, the “visual faith,” of artists who were at the forefront of important periods in Cuban art, with all their enthusiasms and rough edges.

Fernando Rodríguez, La Poda necesaria (Necessary Pruning), 1997

Courtesy The Farber Collection

We decided to go with works with immediate visual impact and not include documents, documentary videos, or texts. Nor works by artist collectives. Though they’ve been part of the story for a long time, we felt that their inclusion here might hinder or obstruct our intention for the show, which was to create for the viewer an evanescent, elliptical, and in some cases random stroll through this history.  

Los Carpinteros, Faro tumbado (Felled Lighthouse), 2006

Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

We avoided a linear, descriptive presentation and organized the exhibition and its layout along thematic lines, interrelating them and overlapping their messages.

So would you say that the show is chronological? At the end, where does it leave us in terms of Cuban art today?

There is no linear chronology. Otherwise, we would have included other, really fundamental artists in a more encyclopedic version. Instead, we set up a dialogue between generational discourses, related to conflicts and socio-political attitudes. That dialogue ranged from 1950 to 2015, and included deceased, paradigmatic artists as well as very young artists who rigorously express the most important current trends.

A view of the exhibition with a work by René Francisco and Eduardo Ponjuán in the background and an installation of flags by Wifredo Prieto in the foreground.

Courtesy CIFO and Ella Fontanals-Cisneros 

Any final thoughts?

Since its earliest stages, the show was welcomed by the MFAH and the Walker Art Center. Over a long period of time, the show’s curators worked with the specialists Mari Carmen Ramírez [of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston] and Olga Viso [of the Walker Art Center] to give shape to this long list of works in their respective museums.

Some of the artists, curators, and organizers of Adiós Utopia in front of the wall of posters at the entrance to the exhibition

Courtesy CIFO and Ella Fontanals-Cisneros

Adiós Utopia: Dreams and Deceptions in Cuban Art Since 1950 is on view at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, through May 21. It opens at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis on November 11.

Susan Delson has been the New York editor of Cuban Art News since 2009. A former member of the Metropolitan Museum of Art education department, as editor she has worked with the Museum of Modern Art, Asia Society, El Museo del Barrio, and other institutions. Her books include the film study/biography Dudley Murphy, Hollywood Wild Card and (as editor) Ai Weiwei: Circle of Animals. As a magazine editor, she has worked at Forbes, Louise Blouin Media, and other companies.