Remembering Sofía ImberFriday, June 14, 2019
I will be contributing a series of short appreciations of some of the outstanding individuals whom I have considered mentors in my life as a collector of art from Latin America. My first essay is about the remarkable Venezuelan cultural figure Sofía Imber.
Sofía Imber (May 8, 1924 – Feb. 20, 2017)
Everybody knows about all the big tech companies in Silicon Valley that have humble origins in someone’s garage—well, add to that list a garage in Venezuela where the incomparable Sofía Imber started what would become the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo in Caracas. The space had been an auto parts garage and was transformed by Sofía into a world-class museum that opened in 1974. She was its Director and principal curator until she was summarily fired in 2001 by Hugo Chávez over his radio program Aló Presidente; she had been outspokenly critical of him. Of course she was outspoken: Sofía was a renowned journalist whose intelligence could not be silenced.
Everyone involved in the cultural sphere of Venezuela and Latin America knew Sofía; she was an extremely influential figure who understood how to connect people and ideas. While living in Europe during the 1950’s with her first husband, Venezuelan writer and diplomat Guillermo Meneses, it was she who brought together European vanguard artists with Venezuelan modernist architect Carlos Raúl Villanueva, who was then working on the Ciudad Universitaria de Caracas. The artist Victor Vasarely and Villanueva became great friends, and, inspired by Villanueva’s desire to integrate art and architecture, Vasarely made three works for the University’s open air museum design, titling one of them Sophia. Thanks to Sofía’s introductions, Fernand Léger, Alexander Calder, Jean Arp and Henri Laurens are among the other artists who made works for the University, which was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2000.
When she and Meneses returned to Caracas, they created CAL magazine (Criticism, Art, Literature) with the designer Nedo MF. The magazine celebrated the free exchange of ideas, was experimental in its graphic design and was the go-to journal for new critical thinking about contemporary art.
I was so fortunate to know her as a friend and as a mentor when I was a young woman just beginning to be seriously interested in art. It wouldn’t be inaccurate to say that my interest in art—the beginning of my study of art—was a direct consequence of my relationship with Sofía Imber. I’ve been lucky to have had many wise advisors over the years, but she was my first important mentor. Sofía hosted a morning talk show with her second husband, writer and intellectual Carlos Rangel that was transmitted by Venevision. The show featured commentary and interviews with luminaries including presidents, Nobel prize winners, artists, and writers like Jorge Luis Borges and Octavio Paz. During the time that it aired, the show contributed greatly to public opinion and debates on current cultural and political issues.
Carlos Rangel was someone my husband Gustavo very much admired, and when the two men became friends, Carlos and Sofía and Gustavo and I would frequently have dinner together. That was always a treat, whether we went out to Hector’s, the restaurant right by Sofía’s museum, or dined at their home—among her seemingly endless talents, Sofía was a wonderful cook, and the discussions at table with the two of them were fascinating and wide-ranging.
Believe it or not, one of the first conversations I ever had with Sofía Imber was about the Lamaze childbirth method. I was eight months pregnant when we first met, and had been learning Lamaze. Sofía had had four children, and, as with everything in her life, was the first to know about everything new; I wouldn’t be surprised if she had actually met Dr. Lamaze when she was living in Paris. She was happy to find that I, too, had studied Lamaze.
Our focus quickly turned from motherhood and childbirth, though, to art. Although she did show European “masters” in her museum, Sofía was a tireless champion of new art from Latin America. After dinner, we would often go to the museum for an after-hours tour—more like a master class, really—of the artwork, with Sofía leading the way. Gustavo and I started to buy some works based on her recommendations of artists such as Vasarely, Seka Severin, Pedro Tagliafico, and Jesús Soto. She would tell us, “You’re going to Ecuador; you have to see this artist’s work,” and we would go! The Latin American artists who excited Sofía the most were often unknown (though many of them went on to acclaim) and were engaged in innovative approaches to art. For Sofía, it was, most emphatically, NOT art-as-investment—unless by that, we mean investment in the artists themselves. Those artists whom she championed always felt the profundity of her attention and the seriousness of her commitment. Jesús Soto, whose work she showed early on was one of many who felt intense loyalty to her even so many years later; he was vocal in his protests against her dismissal from the museum she had founded.
Sofía also invested in the cultural literacy of Venezuela; she made contemporary art visible throughout the country, taking it to even remote areas where people would not have otherwise had access. At the same time, Sofía directed the cultural section of the periodical El Universal where she was adamant about including emerging voices in art criticism. She was tireless, and brilliant, and visionary—and though she was “fired” from her museum, she will never be dismissed by history. In fact, the museum she founded is, to this day, still known popularly as “El Museo de Sofía.”