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Mas al Sur: Expansive and eclectic Latin American art collections draw from far south of the border

Chilean artist Josefina Fontecilla is known for her work with fabric.

For her 1998 piece “Delirios” [Delirium] she recovered five large panels of brocade from a family house about to be torn down. Because paintings had been hung over the brocade for years, the fabric displayed varying colors: the original color that was protected by the paintings and the lighter color where the fabric had been dyed by the sun. Hung side by side, the panels become a moving chronicle of the passage of time and the endurance of memory.

Josefina Fontecilla, Delirios (Delirium), 1998. Five brocade fabrics naturally dyed by solar light

Josefina Fontecilla, Delirios [Delirium], 1998. Five brocade fabrics naturally dyed by solar light.

Though “Delirios” won Fontecilla an emerging artist’s prize and was shown at the Museum of Fine Arts in Santiago, audiences will not be able to find the work in Chile. It is traveling to The University of Texas at Austin, where it will join one of the most extensive collections of Latin American art in the country.

With upwards of 1,800 artworks at the Blanton Museum of Art, a rich and eclectic collection at the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center and an array of archives and research materials at the Benson Latin American Collection, the university has been a hub for those studying the art of Latin America for more than a generation.

“This sort of constellation means that for anyone in the field of Latin American studies and particularly in the field of Latin American art, this is a very important place,” says Gabriel Pérez-Barreiro, curator of Latin American Art at the Blanton.

The core of the Blanton’s collection came through donations by Barbara and John Duncan in the early 1970s. Barbara Duncan bought art directly from artists’ studios, so the collection has always been contemporary. Building on works selected by the Duncans, the Blanton has amassed one of the largest collections of Latin American art outside of Latin America. Its size is hardly the only thing that distinguishes it.

Almir Mavignier. Untitled, 1969. Color screenprint on paper

Almir Mavignier. Untitled, 1969. Color screenprint on paper.

Its breadth is just as remarkable. The Blanton’s Latin American collection represents more than 600 artists from 18 countries. Most collections tend to stop at the southern border of Mexico and focus on crowd pleasers like Mexican artists Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. The Blanton goes further.

“Our collection is unique in that it has a very deep and significant concentration of South American material,” says Pérez-Barreiro, “particularly Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, and more recently, Paraguay. Those are parts of the world that are so far away for most Americans. I think most people don’t have an image of what that art might be.”

Fontecilla’s work is part of the museum’s recent acquisition of 11 works from Chilean artists of the 1990s and 2000s, a group of installations that Pérez-Barreiro calls “a whole gallery’s worth.” The works represent a cross-section of the work being done in Santiago over the past 15 years, and some of the most significant works the individual artists have done. An exhibition of this work will be mounted in the spring as the final exhibition at the Blanton before it moves to its new home in 2005.

This work, like much of the work found at the Blanton, highlights the fact that even if an artist belongs to a particular culture, art is rarely created in cultural isolation. Though the popular conception of the art of Latin America is that it is all bright colors and folk scenes, the Blanton’s collection reveals an art as varied and rich as the artists who contribute to it. More and more, art comes about as part of an international dialogue.

“If there’s one thing the 20th century was, it was a time of mobility,” says Pérez-Barreiro. “Artists move. They are probably more mobile than most people. They absorb influences wherever they are and they can be in different scenes simultaneously.”

This is easy to see in the Blanton’s current exhibition, titled “Twister: Moving Through Color, 1965-1977.” With works from museum’s Latin American Art and Twentieth-Century American Art collections interspersed, a visitor walking through the exhibition would be hard pressed to say where the artists in the exhibition are from by simply looking at the paintings.

Kazuya Sakai. Filles de Kilimanjaro III, (Miles Davis) [Girls of Kilimanjaro III, (Miles Davis)], 1976. Acrylic on canvas

Kazuya Sakai. Filles de Kilimanjaro III, (Miles Davis) [Girls of Kilimanjaro III, (Miles Davis)], 1976. Acrylic on canvas.

The works in “Twister” make a claim for painting at a time when many artists were abandoning the form for video and performance. The paintings rely on geometric abstractions much more than cultural perceptions. The show offers a dizzying array of shapes and colors that have the viewer on the lookout for optical effects.

A highlight of the show is Kazuya Sakai’s homage to Miles Davis. It’s hard to get more international than Sakai, who was born to Japanese parents in Buenos Aires and lived in Mexico for a decade before the university invited him to teach as a visiting artist. He never returned to Argentina and died in Dallas. He is a Latin American artist of Japanese heritage painting a piece for an American jazz musician.

This loosening of boundaries is also key to an exhibition opening at the Ransom Center on Oct. 19.“Miguel Covarrubias: A Certain Clairvoyance” centers around Mexican artist Miguel Covarrubias, best known for the celebrity caricatures he published in the 1920s and ‘30s in places like Vanity Fair and The New Yorker magazines.

The Ransom Center’s exhibition is only the third major exhibition of Covarrubias’ work in the U.S. since his death in 1957. The exhibition is drawn from the center’s Nickolas Muray Collection of Mexican Art and features more than 90 works by Covarrubias and other artists in Covarrubias’ circle, including Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera and Rufino Tamayo.

Covarrubias came to the U.S. from Mexico City in 1923 when he was not yet 20 years old, and he was an immediate sensation. Cultural relations between the U.S. and Mexico were flowering and the Harlem Renaissance was in full swing. The charismatic Covarrubias quickly entered a world of famous personalities and before long he was publishing caricatures of Babe Ruth and Will Rogers.

Miguel Covarrubias. Balinese Man with Hibiscus, ca. 1935. Gouache

Miguel Covarrubias. Balinese Man with Hibiscus, ca. 1935. Gouache.

“His work is so wonderful. It calls upon a time period that was really lively, and full of excitement in New York City: the roaring ‘20s and the Jazz Age,” says Peter Mears, curator of the exhibition.

It was also the golden age of celebrity caricature, and Covarrubias was one of its masters. The explosion of mass media was whetting a new American appetite for celebrity. Caricaturists highlighted a celebrity’s public persona, and as a Mexican, Covarrubias also had the cachet of bringing an exotic perspective.

“Ralph Barton, one of Covarrubias’ friends and fellow caricaturists comments on Covarrubias’ eye,” explains Mears. “In this wonderfully satiric time period, he laments that this young Mexican was showing us the way.”

The exhibition marks the centennial of Covarrubias’ birth, and it draws attention to Covarrubias not simply as caricaturist, but as a renaissance artist. Over his remarkable career, Covarrubias illustrated poet Langston Hughes’ first collection, researched and wrote a comprehensive book on the island of Bali, became a leading anthropologist and introduced modern dance to Mexico City’s audiences.

Accompanying the exhibition is the book “The Covarrubias Circle: The Nickolas Muray Collection of Mexican Art,” co-published by the Ransom Center and University of Texas Press.

Muray, a celebrity photographer, was a close friend of Covarrubias, who helped him broaden his collection to a wider circle of Mexican artists. The university acquired the Muray collection in 1966, a year after Muray’s death. Its concentration of illustrations for books and magazines as well as correspondence connect it to the Ransom Center’s primary focus.

Miguel Covarrubias. Scientist Dr. William Beebe, 1928. Ink and wash

Miguel Covarrubias. Scientist Dr. William Beebe, 1928. Ink and wash.

“The center’s collections focus on 19th and 20th century literature,” Mears says. “In tandem, the art collection looks for modern art, in particular for artworks created by writers. We look for works that are visually associated with the literary world.”

The center’s immense collections—more than 100,000 objects from Europe, Asia and the Americas—contain many Latin American treasures, including papers of Mexican poet and Nobel Prize in Literature winner Octavio Paz and a large archive of the work of famed Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges. The Borges archive contains drafts of some of his earliest works and stories printed on handbills that were plastered to Buenos Aires walls in the 1930s.

Visitors might also find historical photographs of the Mexican Revolution or paintings by Mexican, Peruvian and Argentinian artists. One of the most popular pieces in the collection is “Portrait of George Gershwin in a Concert Hall” by Mexican muralist, activist and painter David Alfaro Siquieros.

Supporting the holdings at the Blanton and the Ransom Center is the Benson Latin American collection, with its archives and extensive collection of publications on Latin American art, including materials from Latin American countries themselves.

From large-scale geometric paintings to celebrity caricatures, Frida Kahlo to a nearly undiscovered Peruvian painter, the collections at The University of Texas at Austin offer an enlarged perspective on the work of artists from south of the U.S. border.

“The art offers a challenge to the viewer to consider a different set of concerns and expressions,” says Pérez-Barreiro. “It also offers a different context, an opportunity to learn about another part of the world.”


Twister: Moving Through Color, 1965-77” will run at the Blanton Museum of Art through Dec. 23.

Miguel Covarrubias: A Certain Clairvoyance” will run at the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center from Oct. 19 through April 24.

Vivé Griffith

Caricatures on banner graphic by Miguel Covarrubias

Images courtesy Blanton Museum
and Ransom Center

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  Updated 2014 October 13
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