Utopias Are Destined to Fail

June 9, 2014

I’m not sure “abstract” and “conceptualist” strategies can be joined together in a single new canon (strange bedfellows, those two), but kudos to those who are filling in gaps in the historical record. I’m surprised, however, that people forget that Dawn Ades's groundbreaking and democratic survey Art in Latin America (1989), published at the onset of the "boom" in Latin American art, included a fine essay by Guy Brett on "radical leaps": Soto, Pape, Clark, Camargo, Goeritz, they're all there, already canonized. At the same time, I’m bored by "either/or" rhetoric, dizzying swings of the pendulum, and condemnations of particular artists. I'm quite catholic in my own tastes: during my tenure as curator, Wellesley's Davis Museum has acquired "cool" South American art, like a Lygia Pape Tecelar, as well as "hot" Mexican art, like gouaches by María Izquierdo, and many other works that conform to no ready-made canon. We'd have bought a big glorious Soto (instead of a small 1966 multiple) if we could have afforded it (we'd have gotten a Kahlo too). As far as I’m concerned, there is plenty of room at the table for every stylistic language and theoretical approach Latin Americans have to offer (including "fantastic" ones). What concerns me is that when taken to an extreme, this attempt to prove that Latin America is "progressive, developmentalist, and optimistic" (and nothing else?!) leads to (1) the inflation of a lot of second rate abstraction (there were plenty of second rate figurative painters in post-Revolutionary Mexico, but at least they aren’t overpriced) and (2), and more seriously, a type of aesthetic cleansing, one that is very convenient for powerful corporations and institutions, for authoritarian regimes, and for collectors who don't like to be reminded of their maids and gardeners. The human condition is often uncomfortable and dirty (race, sex, and especially class still matter, after all), however sharply we dress or decorate our airports. Like the superquadra of Brasilia or the multifamiliares of Tlatelolco, there’s a "purism" (or Puritanism?) out there that denies messiness and the provocative or annoying voices that bring us down to earth; for everywhere and always, utopias are destined to fail. And by the way, I have no fears of marginalization: you are never going to get a line of people waiting to see a Tomás Maldonado show!