A Trove of (Latin American) Art

By Jerónimo Duarte Riascos

Originally published in MoMA's post on October 18, 2016

This essay is the first in a series of texts commissioned by MoMA's post initiative about the works and artists that are part of the CPPC's modern art gift to MoMA. It is our pleasure to republish it here and to translate it into Spanish for our readers. Over time, we will publish and translate additional post essays that describe other works in the gift.

The Museum of Modern Art has just received what is arguably one of the most transformative donations in its history: more than one hundred modern works produced by thirty-seven Latin American masters, which have entered the collection through the generosity of the Colección Patricia Phelps de Cisneros.

The gift that The Museum of Modern Art is receiving from the Colección Patricia Phelps de Cisneros (CPPC) will transform MoMA’s collection of modern and late modern art for a variety of reasons. First, it is impressive in both size and scope, including 102 works of art (comprised of sixty-eight paintings, eleven sculptures, twenty drawings, and three prints) by thirty-seven artists born in and/or working in Latin America during the twentieth century and representing four countries, three constellations articulated around three foci of artistic creation, and a production that spans more than fifty years.

Second, it is a gift that reflects more than forty years of serious collecting. Begun in the 1970s, the CPPC’s initial emphasis was Venezuela, and its holdings include a retrospective core of works by important Venezuelan artists such as Gego, Carlos Cruz-Diez, Jesús Rafael Soto, and Alejandro Otero.

Later, in the 1990s, in consultation with respected scholars and curators, the CPPC engaged in a more ambitious endeavor: expanding its focus to other parts of the continent. The aim was to bring together a group of artworks that would, in turn, represent the three most productive constellations of Constructivist-based (for lack of a better term) art in the region. And this goal was attained brilliantly. This is perhaps one of the most notable particularities of the CPPC: far more than a collection of isolated masterpieces, it evokes the complex, multilayered, and often contradictory dialogues between twentieth-century Latin American artists and their creative processes, as well as between the different regions in which they worked, their contextual specificities, and their projected values.

Thinking of these art historical moments in terms of constellations allows for a better understanding of what happened in Buenos Aires and Montevideo, in work from Joaquín Torres García to Madí, the Arturo group, or Arte Concreto-Invención; in Brazil, both in Sao Paulo and Río de Janeiro, in the context of the Concrete and Neo-Concrete movements; and in Venezuela, from the early experiments in Concrete and Kinetic art. This is what makes the Cisneros’ collection one of a kind—its continental breadth attests to the various explorations that the Constructive, Concrete, Neo-Concrete, and nonobjective artists from Latin America undertook, and it is one of the few collections that can, simultaneously, suggest the relationship between their work and the contemporary artistic production occurring elsewhere.

The Cisneros gift will broaden public exposure to Latin American art, and it represents an enormous challenge and an exciting historical opportunity for The Museum of Modern Art. The Museum has the responsibility of integrating these works into its collection, not by assimilating them into a general (and generalizing) narrative of modern art but rather by accounting for and making visible the singularity of the artistic practices that they represent—or, their incommensurability vis-à-vis their canonic historical references, as Luis Pérez-Oramas, the Estrellita Brodsky Curator of Latin American Art at MoMA, has often stated.

These Latin American works expand an already important collection of pieces from the region (many of which were also donated by the Cisneros). They offer an unprecedented opportunity for the Museum to continue its efforts to acknowledge and present a more complex narrative on modern art—which, ongoing since the museum’s inception, have grown stronger with initiatives such as C-MAP. As this donation makes clear, a serious engagement with Modernism in Latin America shows the insufficiencies of any hegemonic art historical narrative: these new works are valuable not because they are oddities, but rather because in presenting a different history, they remind us of the contingency of all histories, narratives, and sense-making operations.

The Museum, we know it, is a sense-making machine—as are the artworks that live within it and the curatorial narratives that are presented alongside and with them. If, as detailed in its mission statement, “The Museum of Modern Art is dedicated to being the foremost museum of modern art in the world” and if one of the ways of achieving this is to “periodically reevaluate itself,” encouraging “openness and willingness to evolve and change,” then the Cisneros gift is an opportunity like no other.

Maybe this major gift will push some of the voices in the sense-making machine of the Museum toward a more plural, even if less-harmonious, choir.

  • The 102 works that compose the gift were produced between 1940 and 1990. The following artists are represented (the number of works by each appears in parentheses after their names): Hércules Barsotti (13), Omar Carreño (2), Aluísio Carvão (1), Lygia Clark (5), Waldemar Cordeiro (1), Carlos Cruz-Diez (3), Geraldo de Barros (1), Amílcar de Castro (1), Willys de Castro (5), Hermelindo Fiaminghi (1), María Freire (1), Gego (Gertrude Goldschmidt; 9), Carlos González Bogen (2), Elsa Gramcko (1), Alfredo Hlito (2), Judith Lauand (1), Gerd Leufert (4), Raúl Lozza (2), Tomás Maldonado (1), Mateo Manaure (1), Francisco Matto (1), Juan Melé (1), Juan Molenberg (1), Rubén Núñez (2), Hélio Oiticica (5), Alejandro Otero (13), Lygia Pape (2), Rhod Rothfuss (1), Luiz Sacilotto [1], Mira Schendel [5], Ivan Serpa [1], Antonieta Sosa [1], Jesús Soto [6], Rubem Valentim [2], Gregorio Vardánega [1], Virgilio Villalba [1], and Franz Weissmann [1].

As the public face of MoMA's C-MAP (Contemporary and Modern Art Perspectives), post comprises notes on modern and contemporary art around the globe, and may be found here.