Frames of Reference: Latin American Art from the Jorge M. Perez Collection, newly opened at the Miami Art Museum, is an appropriate and telling title. This highly anticipated exhibit unveils for the first time some of the works that Perez has donated to the museum. His gift of art and cash convinced the board of directors to change the name of the museum — due to open in December in its new digs on Biscayne Bay — to the Pérez Art Museum Miami. It was a controversial decision, so many eyes have been focused on this show, the final one in MAM’s Flagler Street building.
What they will see, as the title alludes to, are references — to cultural, historical and artistic strains that arose out of a variety of Latin American countries in the last century, with a concentration on mid-century artists. But this is not a complete survey of Latin American art, and it should not be viewed as such. These are framed references to the origins of certain genres of modern and contemporary Latin painting, mostly figurative, from lands below our border; they are also specifically references to the world of the man who collected them.
Out of the 110 works that Perez donated, 43 are displayed on the second floor (some future works that he collects will also go to the museum). The first thing that jumps out is that this is all painting, and almost all are visual narratives. In other words, there are no monotone or wildly abstract canvases, no photography or video. That’s intentional, the way that MAM’s chief curator Tobias Ostrander planned it. And the way he installed it is excellent — the walls have been painted a soft tan, giving the exhibit a quiet feel, and the pieces are distributed with enough space to give them each breathing room.
What jumps out next is that this doesn’t look like a typical Miami show. Our emphasis and strength has been contemporary art — often art made in the decade of this century. Because of the newness of our institutions and even our art scene, we rarely see big, sprawling shows focused on earlier eras. Says Ostrander, “What we have here are now some of the oldest works in our collection.”
These works come from the hands of such heavy hitters as Wifredo Lam, Roberto Matta and Diego Rivera, but also from lesser-known names from countries such as Peru and Uruguay. The exhibit is loosely set up to guide you — from images of the countryside, through folkloric culture, to more urban and abstract imagery and more interior, internal explorations. But it’s always interesting to remember how personal many of these works are, following the paths of not just 20th century art history, but of Perez as well.
Born in Cuba, he was raised in Argentina and became familiar with the cultures of coastal Colombia and Mexico in particular. Perez, president of the development company the Related Group, recalled in an interview how, when he finally settled in Miami, he wanted to keep part of his cultural heritage with him through art. So he collected works with telltale, bright tropical colors, touches of Magical Realism, frames filled with symbols and portrayals from Afro-Caribbean culture, representations of religious rites, imagery exuding a longing — for a lost home, for lost worlds.
Matta’s 1938 Crucifixión, for instance, fits perfectly into this mold, an amazing piece. So too does a much later, huge, incredible painting from Carlos Alfonzo — a tortured work, Danza macabre, expressing the pain of exile and a life soon to be cut short by AIDS. One work that could be but should not be overlooked comes from a name lesser-known in the United States, a small lithograph black-and-white 1963 self-portrait from Mexican artist Juan O’Gorman, who would later take his own life.