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.
A couple of the strongest works in the show come from a major contemporary player, Guillermo Kuitca, born in Buenos Aires of Jewish descent. Perez lingers over his works as he explains that the topographic-looking pieces reference concentration camps in Eastern Europe. Then he stands in front of maybe the most moving paintings in the exhibit: “There’s so much childhood anguish here,” Perez says, when observing the large painting Un taller para el Joven Kuitca, from 1985. The darkened scene, clearly reminiscent of a stage set, pictures an empty baby carriage careening down some stairs, and a lonely little boy in the middle.
Another star turn comes from José Bedia, who now calls Miami home. His large-scale mural-like piece, depicting mythical, mystical and religious figures, How Much Was My Coballende Worth, was one of the first works he made here after leaving Cuba. One of the most overtly political pieces is a later work from Colombian Beatriz Gonzalez, an outstanding work that almost looks like replicated prints but is painting, showing one anonymous general after another parroting some sort of propaganda, in unbelievably rich red, blue and green colors, called, yes, The Parrots, from 1987. They could be Castro’s Cuba, the Argentina of The Generals, or any other dictatorship so ubiquitous in Latin America in the 20th century. Another standout: Cuban Tomás Sanchez’s landscape triptych. And a small gem from Argentine Alejandro Xul Solar, a watercolor of an apartment façade from 1954. In fact, imagery from the rural pampas as well as from the bustling port city of that South American country clearly resonate with Perez, as there are a number of works from Argentina.
There are flaws in the exhibit. The early works from Lam and Rivera, while interesting to note, are not examples of their best works, when they found their voices and became trail-blazers for Latin American art. Some important trends that germinated in Latin America are missing, but then they might not have fit in with this figurative exhibit as Ostrander curated it. There will be more scrutiny on this show than on others, and multiple voices should be heard. After all, Miami’s flagship museum will be opening a new chapter in its gleaming Herzog & de Meuron building, and the public wants to know what direction it is taking.
But Miami also need more art historical shows like this. And it was great to see a tour group of kids, as it traipsed through the exhibit on a recent morning, find an affinity for the paintings. Standing in front of an oil-on-sand canvas from the great Oaxacan artist Francisco Toledo, El mago inexperto, the kids wanted to know more about the lion. When pressed by their guide, they couldn’t necessarily answer — did it look real, or a little magical?