Thursday November 23, 2017

Media Watch: Adiós Utopia

How has the US media covered the exhibition?

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

Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Adiós Utopia: Dreams and Deceptions in Cuban Art Since 1950 opened March 5 at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Co-curated by Elsa Vega, René Francisco, and Gerardo Mosquera, with museum advisors Mari Carmen Ramírez of the MFAH and Olga Viso of the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, the show was hailed as an ambitious, groundbreaking exploration of contemporary Cuban art and its evolution.

Many national and international art publications included the show in their season previews. But which ones wrote about it in depth? What did the Texas art world make of Adiós Utopia? And how was the show covered elsewhere?

Here, in chronological order, is a selection of the show’s coverage, with links to the full articles.

Irreversible Congas: MFA’s Adiós Utopia Looks at Cuban Art Since 1950

Arts and Culture Texas

February 14

In a pre-opening interview with Museum of Fine Arts curator Mari Carmen Ramírez, writer Devon Britt-Darby took readers through the exhibition’s themes and sections.

“’Rather than chronologically surveying Cuban art from 1950 to the present, the exhibition ‘tries to track the relationships of the different generations of Cuban artists who were trained in Cuba,’ said Ramírez, who organized the U.S. tour. ‘We’re not dealing with the diaspora; we’re dealing with the story inside Cuba. So it tracks their relationship to the social and cultural utopia of the revolution—the sense of promise that it brought about.’”

Antonio Eligio Fernández (Tonel), El bloqueo (The Blockade), 1989

Photo: Will Michels, courtesy Museum Fine Arts, Houston and Texas Observer

A Bumpy Journey From Havana to New York Ends at “Wild Noise/Ruido Salvaje”

New York Times

February 16

Reviewing the current exhibition at the Bronx Museum of the Arts, critic Holland Cotter closed with a mention of the Houston show.

“We may find a bolder take on truth-in-history in a larger show, “Adiós Utopia: Dreams and Deceptions in Cuban Art Since 1950,” which opens at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, on March 5,” he wrote. “In terms of point of view, the title alone speaks volumes.”

Cuban Art Catches a Wave

Houston Chronicle

Reprinted in Repeating Islands (full article)

March 10

NOTE: Reading the full story on the Houston Chronicle website requires online registration. It is also available, without registration, on the website Repeating Islands.

Senior arts writer Molly Glentzer took pains to place the exhibition in a broader cultural context.

“For an island that doesn’t stretch as far as Texas and has been politically and economically isolated from the U.S. for nearly 60 years, Cuba has played an outsized role as a nation of artists. The country has an astoundingly rich tradition across the visual and performing arts, as well as cinema. It boasted the first art academy in the Western hemisphere, and since the modern art era, it has had a distinctive visual art scene, on a par with those of Mexico and Brazil.”

Later in the story, she quoted exhibition co-curator Gerardo Mosquera about his concerns for the current generation of Cuban artists.

“He fears good artists will be tempted to fulfill the expectations of U.S. collectors. Or they might produce ‘political art for exportation,’ he said – ‘stereotyped political art following certain clichés. That’s even worse, to my view, than painting landscapes.’

On the plus side, Mosquera said, a number of young Cuban artists are still working ‘very seriously, in a quite radical way.’”

Wilfredo Prieto, Apolítico (Apolitical), 2003

Photo: Will Michels, courtesy Museum Fine Arts, Houston and Texas Observer

Hello, Cuba; Adios, Utopia: Cuban Art in Texas

The Observer

March 10

Within days of the show’s opening, a review appeared in The Observer, the New York–based website of the former weekly newspaper (owned by Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner).

Frame from the video installation El peso del vacío (The weight of void), 2005, by Alexandre Arrechea

Courtesy Cubaencuentro

David D’Arcy began his review with a nod to the complicated situation facing the movement of artworks from Cuba to the US. “Like it or not, you’ll have to travel to Houston to see the most comprehensive exhibition of Cuban contemporary art on view today,” he wrote. “’Adios Utopia’ will win plenty of friends for these intrepid Cuban artists, but not many for the Cuban government. Not a single work from a Cuban state institution is here. Cuban officials are well aware that any state property can be seized to satisfy outstanding U.S. legal judgments against Cuba.”

In discussing the show, D’Arcy singled out several works, including a lesser-known piece by Raúl Martínez. “The isolation of an island nation and sheer scarcity have made recycling a medium in its own right in Cuban art, a kind of arte povera by necessity,” he wrote. “An early work in the show is a shrine by Raul Martinez to his father, with a picture of a fisherman in a found frame, with net slung over part of it. The Spanish word for shrine is altar, like the English altar, and Martinez’s father has the look of a humble saint.”

Art and History Collide in Monumental Exhibition of Cuban art at MFAH

CultureMap Houston

March 13

For arts writer Tarra Gaines, “if any one word does come close to describing the exhibition, it might be: historic.”

“Adiós Utopia reveals how 20th century Cuban history influenced the country’s art and how art influenced and reflected the Cuban Revolution. ‘We noticed that many of the large exhibitions of Cuban art were focused more on Cuba and on the unique Cuban history than on the art,’ explained Gerardo Mosquera, one of the three organizing curators of Adiós Utopia. ‘The exhibitions were organized mainly from Cuba’s history to the art, and we decided to go the other way around, to go from the art to history. We focused on excellence, to gather very powerful important pieces of art and have them tell the story from the art.’”

Los Carpinteros, Faro tumbado (Felled Lighthouse), 2006

Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Adiós Utopia: MFAH’s Cuban Exhibition is Less Than Revolutionary

Houston Press

March 14

Houston Press critic Randy Tibbits was strongly positive, but at the same time a little ambivalent, in his assessment of the show. “Let me say up front that this is a worthy exhibition with art to show and points to make, and even things to teach. Unfortunately, it seems to me that it’s also an exhibition whose time came last year, or maybe even a decade ago, when the political and diplomatic issues that infuse many of the pieces would have seemed more immediately relevant. . . . This exhibition might be a perfect fit in Miami or Havana, but in Houston and Minneapolis, one wonders.”

He continued: “The striking thing is that the art, decade after decade, is so often so much of its time. Yes, it’s art of a revolution, but it’s not revolutionary art. Think of the truly revolutionary art of Degas mounted in these same galleries only weeks ago, for a sense of the difference. Which is not to suggest that going to see ‘Adiós Utopia’ isn’t a good use of your time. It certainly is. Most art made anywhere at any time is not revolutionary, but still it can be satisfying and can tell important tales of its time and place.”

The wall of Cuban posters at the entrance to the exhibition.

Courtesy CIFO and Ella Fontanals-Cisneros

Cuban Loans Travel to the US via Europe as Barriers Remain in Place

The Art Newspaper

March 15

Rather than the show itself, the UK-based Art Newspaper focused on the logistical obstacles that the exhibition’s organizers had to overcome.

“The US embargo on Cuba is still in place and few planes that travel between the countries are large enough to transport art, so many of the works that the MFAH borrowed from Cuban collectors and artists had to be routed through Europe,” wrote Julia Halperin. “And in order to properly crate the works, shippers had to source wood on the black market because of a shortage in Cuba.”

She quoted Ramírez: “‘Even though supposedly the Obama administration normalised relations with Cuba, there are so many unsolved issues,’ says Mari Carmen Ramírez, the curator of Latin American art at the MFAH. ‘We are the pioneers in this, but we are having to pay the pioneer’s price—testing the ground to see how far a project like this can go.’”

Antonia Eiríz, Los de arriba y los de abajo (Those on top, those below), 1963

Courtesy MDC Museum of Art + Design, Miami

Adiós Utopia at the MFAH

Glasstire {Texas visual art}

March 20

“For me, Antonia Eiriz’s large oil paintings are the dark heart of the Cuban Revolution, and a key to the rest of the show,” wrote Michael Bise in the online magazine Glasstire. “In big square canvases that might easily be the album art for Nine Inch Nails’ angst-saturated 1994 record The Downward Spiral, Eiriz drags Goya, deaf and blind, onto the stage of the revolutionary ‘60s to witness, all over again, the disasters of war. Speaking across half a century, she shows that every revolution, whether conservative or progressive, feeds on an unquenchable thirst for revenge. A heart needs blood to beat.”

Carlos Rodríguez Cárdenas, Resistir, luchar, vencer (Resist, Fight, Win), 1989–1990

Courtesy The Farber Collection

Bise also found an affinity with the work of Carlos Cárdenas. “Adios Utopia boasts more work in painting, sculpture, photography and video than can reasonably be accounted for in one review, but the painting installation Fight, Resist, Win by Carlos Rodriguez Cárdenas returns me to my own bleak generation. Born in 1973, Cárdenas is three years my senior and his darkly comic paintings seem to prove that the dead-end irony of Generation X knows no borders or walls. Twenty medium size canvases, arranged in three rows, spell out the words, LUCHAR, RESISTIR, VENCER. Each canvas accounts for a single letter. The letters are animated by hapless humanoid figures who fight against angular robots within the geometric confines of their runes.”

The New Republic

Houston City Book

March 28

“Writer and political activist Jean Genet once said, ‘It is the duty of the revolution to encourage its adversaries: works of art,’” wrote Chris Becker in his review. “This symbiotic yet contentious relationship between art and political revolution is the subject of Adiós Utopia: Dreams and Deceptions in Cuban Art, an expansive, immersive exhibit of Cuban art from 1950 to the present day, on view March 5-May 21 at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston.”

Work by Raúl Martínez was again singled out for description. “The exhibit also features pop-art-inspired works from the 1960s and ’70s, including Raúl Martínez’s 1972 painting ‘Rosas y Estrellas (Roses and Stars),’ a brightly colored, almost psychedelic portrait of seven leaders of Latin American independence, including Castro and Che Guevara. ‘He presented the Cuban national heroes together with normal people — peasants, workers, youngsters, the Beatles, animals,’ explains Mosquera. ‘He was deconstructing official iconography, using pop art and vernacular visual culture.’ Martínez, a gay man, believed in the ideals of the revolution, although he portrayed those ideals with some irony, and much of his work alluded to the government’s oppression and internment of homosexuals.”

Raúl Martínez, Rosas y Estrellas (Roses and Stars), 1972

© Archivo Raúl Martinez, courtesy The Farber Collection

Adiós Utopia, Hello Texas

Texas Observer

March 28

Perhaps more than other writers, Michael Agresta considered the physical presentation of the works within the exhibition space.

“At the center of Adiós Utopia, past the row of giant flags on one side and the exuberant wall display of ’60s-era poster design on the other, is a big open space dominated by Glexis Novoa’s untitled large-scale installation from his 1989 Etapa práctica (Practical Stage) series [top image above]. After Prieto’s flags, Novoa’s is the biggest single artwork in the show. Modeled on a Soviet-era monument, it covers the entire back wall with angular oil paintings mimicking marble blocks, painted with letters from the Cyrillic alphabet. The letters, however, add up to nonsense. At the center of the tomb-shaped arrangement is a portrait of a man resembling the guerrillero heroíco himself — but it’s actually a warped self-portrait of the artist, incorporating certain facial features of Guevara’s.

Novoa’s piece represents a rupture point in the period leading up to the fall of the Berlin Wall, when nearly exhausted revolutionary themes found a new resonance in what [Texas art historian George] Flaherty calls ‘auto-critique’ of the Revolution, often manifesting as satire. To its right are artworks representing the early history of the island utopian dream, stretching back into the decade before the Revolution; to its left is the art of the last 30 years, where utopia is elsewhere, artists dream of big-dollar sales on the international market, and Cuba, in a globalized world, is increasingly connected to every country except the United States.”

Lázaro Saavedra, El sagrado corazón (The Sacred Heart), 1995

Courtesy The Farber Collection

Cuba’s Unfamiliar Modernist Past Arrives in Houston

New York Times

April 2

Here is critic Holland Cotter’s review in full.

“The full cultural effects of Cuba’s current rapprochement with the United States remain to be seen. But you get a vivid sense of the island’s still-unfamiliar modernist past in ‘Adiós Utopia: Dreams and Deceptions in Cuban Art Since 1950’ at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

Organized by three Cuban-born curators, Gerardo Mosquera, René Francisco Rodríguez and Elsa Vega, the show is an interpretive survey that suggests, through art, what worked in the revolutionary experiment—and what didn’t.

Some of the material, like 1960s abstract painting, is little-known outside the island. More widely circulated forms, like posters, are here in unprecedented abundance. What you take away is the impression of tough political thinking taking place within an always delicate social system, and one that has never been more vulnerable than now.”

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.