Celebrating 10 years of a ground-breaking art department

¡Viva el MFAH!: Houston aims to become the No. 1 museum in the world for Latin American art

¡Viva el MFAH!: Houston aims to become the No. 1 museum in the world for Latin American art

In celebration of the 10th anniversary of its foundation of the Latin American Art Department and Collection and the establishment of its companion research institute, the International Center for the Arts of the Americas, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston is launching a series of exhibitions, publications and a major art installation.

The rise of Latin American art at the MFAH over the span of a mere decade is unprecedented in its depth, resulting in such landmark exhibitions as Inverted Utopias: Avant-Garde Art in Latin America in 2004 and Hélio Oiticica: The Body of Color in 2006.

Establishing the museum as the world's premier Latin American art research venue was a bold endeavor. But MFAH director Peter C. Marzio and Wortham Curator of Latin American Art Mari Carmen Ramírez saw the need for such investigation long before other museums.

"Frankly, she's number one in the world," Marzio says of prize curator Ramírez, who the New York Times recognized as the leading curator and scholar in the field in 2008. Seconds Robert Storr, dean of the Yale School of Art and curator of the 2007 Venice Biennale, "Mari Carmen is part of a larger field, but in this country she is pre-eminent. And in terms of museums that are active, Houston is absolutely out front."

While Houston's geographic location and exploding Latin American population is often attributed to the level of attention the museum applies to the field, Marzio concedes, "Mostly, it's her."

When MFAH buys, the art world reacts

The museum's numbers speak for themselves: Since its inception, the department has acquired 400 works in the new collection, mounted 15 exhibitions, released 11 publications and recovered thousands of documents.

The Museum of Modern Art in New York and Tate Modern in London have focused exhibitions on modern and contemporary art in Latin America solely in the past year. And with the MFAH as an example, museums across the United States have just recently added Latin American art curatorial departments. Through its relentless efforts, Houston is rewriting the history of art history.

Team Marzio-Ramírez have even put the Latin American art market into hyperdrive. When a work by a Latin American artist hits the auction floor, just the words, "Houston has been looking at this," grants it instant significance.

Notes Gabriel Pérez-Barreiro, director of the Patricia Phelps de Cisneros Collection in New York, a drawing by Venezuelan abstract artist, Gego, may have sold for $6,000 a decade ago, but following Houston's Gego retrospective, the same work may now fetch somewhere around $150,000.

The phenomenon has also been seen in the work of Brazil's Hélio Oiticica. Virgilio Garza, head of Latin American painting for Christie's New York, says that an Oiticica work on paper would go at auction five years ago for $14,000, but in the aftermath of an MFAH exhibition on the artist, a recent Brazilian gallery show had an asking price of $140,000.

The MFAH has committed to spending at least $80 million over 10 years on its Latin American programs, much of which will be displayed in a new building that will place the Latin American art collection within the global context of modernism. Two coups: Purchasing a pair of paintings by Xul Solar from the Buenos Aires foundation that manages his estate, and acquiring a collection of Brazilian Constructivist geometric art from São Paulo collector Alfred Leirner.

High-profile future exhibitions include Cosmopolitan Routes: Houston Collects Latin American Art, on display Oct. 24 - Feb. 6, 2011. The exhibition capitalizes on Houston's ascent as a center for private collecting of Latin American art, featuring some 90 works fresh off the walls of Houstonians' homes — particularly the department's founding members and the Latin Maecenas patron group.

Spanning early modernism in postwar Latin America to contemporary work, the selection represents distinct and defining conceptual and stylistic moments in Latin America's modern and contemporary art history. The show is guest-curated by Gilbert Vicario, the former assistant curator in the MFAH department and now curator of the Des Moines Art Center.

Four categories will be highlighted: Joaquín Torres-García and the School of the South, Lygia Clark and her contemporaries of Brazil's Concrete and Neo-Concrete movements of the 1940s through the 1960s, the work of Venezuelan artist Armando Reverón, and figurative and Surrealist work of artists such as Frida Kahlo and Remedios Varo.

Slated for February, 2011, the exhibition Carlos Cruz-Diez: Color into Space will be the first large-scale retrospective of the pioneering Venezuelan artist, featuring more than 150 works ranging from paintings, silk-screen prints, and unconventional color structures to room-size chromatic environments, architectural maquettes and videos. The star of the show will be a virtual recreation of the 87-year-old artist's studio, mimicking the cooperative guild-like workspaces the artist operates in Paris, Panama and Caracas.

Come Winter 2011, the 8,200 square-foot free-span space of the Mies van der Rohe-designed Cullinan Hall will host a new iconic work by Paris-based Venezuelan artist Jesús Rafael Soto: The Houston Impenetrable, an installation of 24,000 hand-painted plastic tubes, suspended 36 feet from the ceiling. Commissioned in the last year of the artist's life, the work stands as Soto's final work. A leader in the Kinetic Art movement of the 1950s and 1960s, he explored for decades his signature concept, the penetrable, which are "shapes" of color and line manifest in the thin, dangling tubes.

Risk-taking pioneers

The International Center for the Arts of the Americas has ambitiously held symposiums that result in publications, initiated collaborations with arts organizations throughout Latin America and launched a long-term project of locating and digitizing around 10,000 primary documents in several Latin American countries and the United States. This information will be available online, with synopses and annotations in three languages — allowing it to educate across national boundaries.

Marzio predicts that the digital resource will have the largest impact at universities. "Currently, scholarship on Latin American art is where American art was in the late 1940s — you couldn't study it, it just wasn't there," he explains. The online project will provide an entry point for students to draw upon concrete primary documents, without first establishing fluency in Spanish and Portuguese. "What we're hoping is that we're providing tools so that universities can offer Latin American Art 101 courses, and make the field part of the general education process, which will lead to more exhibitions and collecting," explains Marzio.

A component of the ICAA's agenda is the publication of a 14-volume anthology series in association with Yale University Press. The first installment, Resisting Categories: Latin American and/or Latino?  will arrive on bookshelves in fall 2011.

"What we have started here in Houston will serve generations of curators and scholars around the world," Marzio says. "It's a very long term risk because it involves a large expense without an immediate result.

"We're pioneers, while maintaining traditional standards," Marizo continues. Indeed, as the museum's contemporary Latin American collection has flourished, the institution has continued its pursuit of more traditional exhibitions, such as the recently-announced show of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist works on loan from the National Gallery in Washington, D.C.

"That's the dynamic quality of the MFAH," Marzio adds. "With one hand, we are maintaining certain traditions from antiquity to the present, and still breaking frontiers, becoming the number one museum in the world for Latin American art."

Mari Carmen Ramírez, MFAH's Latin American art curator, has changed everything.
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Carlos Cruz-Diez, detail of "Induction chromatique 53" (Chromatic Induction 53), 1973, Cruz-Diez Foundation at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (c) 2010 Carlos Cruz-Diez/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
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Carlos Cruz-Diez, "physicromieno 437," detail
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Jesús Rafael Soto (detail)