“Nexus New York: Latin / American Artists in the Modern Metropolis,” the inaugural exhibition at the recently refurbished El Museo del Barrio in East Harlem, takes on a set of artists apart from the familiar high-modernist view of New York. (Imagine Broadway Boogie Woogie scored to the mambo.) That no such show has been attempted before tell us something, of course.
One sees about a dozen big names—the great Mexican muralists of the 1930s, Rivera, Orozco and Siqueiros; the singular Frida Kahlo; and Yanquis modernists like Jackson Pollock and Robert Motherwell—but twice as many unknowns. The best thing about this intensely enjoyable show is its reach into minor figures and archival material, giving a wide introduction to lesser-known chapters in the city’s complicated life as an art capital.
Organized by the museum’s director, Julian Zugazagoitia, and its chief curator, Deborah Cullen, the show sprints and doubles back over the 50-year period between the turn of the century and World War II. The curators put a premium on artist-to-artist networking, as artists from Cuba, Puerto Rico, Mexico and others introduced Latin American art to a prewar cosmopolitan circle hot for foreign influences. One of the lessons of the show is that artists, especially the good ones, have mysterious ways of discovering similar talents.
To summarize only one line of personal and professional connections: In 1880 the Uruguayan artist and illustrator F. Luis Mora moved to New York and took up teaching at the Art Students League. For a time, Georgia O’Keeffe was a student. O’Keeffe would go on to marry Alfred Stieglitz. Stieglitz would go on to partner with Marius de Zayas, a Mexican-born mover and shaker, to organize the first Picasso show on American soil, at Stieglitz’s 291 gallery in 1915. Future work by curators may be needed to fill in the gaps on de Zayas (who gave Diego Rivera his first one-man show) or other underrated or neglected figures, like proto–Pop artist Joaquín Torres-García.
For the most part, “Nexus New York” gives you all you think you need to know, like how during one of the worst years of the Depression, John D. Rockefeller commissioned Rivera, a pan-socialist and egoist’s egoist, to paint a mural demurely titled Man at the Crossroads Looking with Hope and High Vision to the Choosing of a New and Better Future, for the RCA Building in Rockefeller Center. Guess what happened to that. But “Nexus New York” also makes you want to know more—to get the lowdown on the bohemians and creative types with a curse on them, like Dorothy Hale. Hale, a Ziegfeld gal, threw herself a going-away party at her apartment on Central Park South. When the party was over, she threw herself out the window.
A more familiar figure, Alice Neel, delivers the show’s biggest jolt. The American-born Neel met her first husband, Cuban artist Carlos Enríquez, at art school in Pennsylvania in 1925. They were married a year later, lived abroad in Cuba and settled back in the United States, where they lost a child to diphtheria, and later split up. Neel had a nervous breakdown, painted murals for the WPA and later moved to East 107th street with her second husband, Puerto Rican musician José Negrón.
She spent more than two decades in the neighborhood, barely getting by and painting some of the finest portraits of the century. The Spanish Family (1943), of a tired-looking mother and her three kids, is as unsentimental a picture of family as any in art. If you’re looking for hard luck and a tough talent, Neel’s your woman. Her legend has been on a steady rise since her death, in 1984, and her appearance at El Museo del Barrio memorializes an aspirant of transnational culture who just happened to live up the street. Perhaps that’s why this show felt so much like a homecoming.
“Nexus New York: Latin / American Artists in the Modern Metropolis” is on view at the El Museo del Barrio, 1230 Fifth Avenue, till Feb. 2010.