Saturday, March 29, 2008

More Puerto Ricans in the News: Maricarmen Ramirez

Last week's NYTimes Magazine, dedicated to prominent women in the artworld included an article that I described to my fellow members of the Latin American artworld and to my students as "a cross between a telenovela and The Godfather." Maricarmen Ramirez, the powerful curator and scholar of Latin American art, head of the Latin American Art department at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, was featured in the context of the alleged "discovery of Latin American art in the USA." This is someone that I have a lot of respect for and whose articles have been key to my education, her exhibitions have led me to see artists' works in new, enlightening ways. 

As I have commented many many many times, close study of the reception of art from Latin America and the Caribbean in this country during the 20th and now 21st century is premised on a series of tropes and binaries that recur each decade. Foremost among these is the notion of "discovery" and "re-discovery" obviously related to our colonial history. Related to this is the financial metaphor of the "boom." What strikes me is the ways in which some of us market ourselves as US-based Native informants and Cultural brokers who take (usually sole) credit for "putting Latin American art on the map" as we compete with fellow curators and scholars in the global artworld market place. This is very very much in evidence in the NYTimes article. On the one hand, sadly Ramirez has fed this dynamic herself by a very combative manner of presenting her extremely useful, and highly intelligent exhibitions, articles and projects as completely unique, while attacking her colleagues. Clearly, some kind of "tipping point" has been reached in order to allow people to go on the record with their grievances against her. What used to be provincial bochinche is now public knowledge. 

Aside from the fact that often she insults people, do we want our so-called field to be represented in the mass media in this way?  Maybe I'm being too much like Rodney King "Why can't we all get along?" But we are now witnessing a situation where people who should be working together collegially to promote these artists are in some kind of an ego-tripping, capitalist-emulating, neo-Colonial dynamic that apes the worst types of US global corporate culture. The latter of course, are, I believe, all features of our supposed "insertion" or "inclusion" within US museums.  

And Lubow's framing of the story as that of Ramirez as someone who "puts Latin American art on the map" is, of course, another clearly problematic colonial metaphor. Journalists reinforce these tropes each and every time they are assigned or propose an article about this geographic construct known as "Latin American art." And this is the way in which the conveniently packaged region has been promoted by dealers, curators, art historians and collectors within the US, as many people have rightly observed ad nauseum. 

Lubow (as do many of us in the artworld) also reaffirms another rather tired stereotype - the binary of abstraction versus political figuration. This binary plays into the hands of so-called mainstream US museum curators as well as allows rich right-wing collectors to suppress art with political content. Of course this paves the way for certain Native Informants and Cultural brokers to gain entry into prominent US museums. Paulo Herkenhoff's use of the term "Manifest Destiny" in relation to MoMA was especially apt. And Edward Sullivan's observation that a new canon is being formed in reaction to an older one is also very prescient. He rightly underscores the ways in which such US-driven binaries impair the study and proper understanding of the full intellectual, formal, political complexities of the works of individual artists, of the kinds of modernities that developed in specific areas. And, I would add, it implicitly denies the fact that figuration can be a form of modernity and experimentation, and that form and content are not by nature opposing terms. Such ideas are now commonplace in art historical discourse, yet they seem to be ignored in the so-called Latin American art field as elaborated by some Native Informants and Cultural Brokers.

Finally, a few observations:
Ramirez did her PhD thesis on Mexican Muralism but, like intellectuals tarred as enemies of the people during the Cultural Revolution, she now has to perform the requisite public renunciation of Frida Kahlo, the new bogeyman. 

She invokes her Puerto Rican origin repeatedly to claim a marginal status of some kind. Yet in Puerto Rico many criticize her for her renunciation of her earlier interest in Puerto Rican artists. Looking at her history, we see how these artists gradually disappear from her exhibitions or acquisitions in favor of the Southern Cone. And, by the way, Puerto Rico is NOT the last remaining colony in the Caribbean, as a friend who works for the State Department pointed out to me. 

The misogynist schadenfreude that pervades much of the artworld is much in evidence as some men attack a powerful woman who expresses herself in forthright ways that, were a man to adopt them, would pass unremarked upon or be a source for congratulation. And of course, to me it is a sad irony to see a female Latina curator using an attack on a Mexican woman artist as a strategy to buttress her position in the male-dominated artworld. 


THE ARTICLE - Note the cliched title "After Frida"

After Frida
Published: March 23, 2008
How the curator Mari Carmen Ramírez has helped put Latin America at the center of the international art world.


madrina said...

creo que mucho del artículo del NYT es precisamente bochinche. me hubiera gustado que se concentrara en el trabajo (formidable) que ha hecho MCR a través de su carrera.

dejo la ética a los que le toque.

si el producto cultural es serio y riguroso-- riefenstahl, borges, ¿a cuántos otros creadores a quienes repudiamos sus políticas personales?-- me quedo con la obra final. a partir de ahí se abre un universo completo de significados.

en cuanto a la persona (con P mayúscula)-- no conozco a MCR personalmente ni me interesa en lo más mínimo. lo que sí me interesa es su trabajo, las exposiciones que monta (¿quién olvida la memorable INVERTED UTOPIAS?).

la curadora de carnegie mellon, elaine king, sacó un libro de arte y ética hace un año y pico, Ethics and the Visual Arts. me parece que donde mejor se da este tipo de discusión es precisamente en ese contexto...

Petite Maoiste said...

Si todo lo que dices es verdad. Tengo el libro de King y es muy util.

madrina said...

btw... i do hope that art survives bochinche. utópica yo.

blog on, maoiste, and rest assured that you are doing important work. te sigo como fiel lectora :)

Petite Maoiste said...

Mulling this over as I shopped for groceries and cat litter:

Just to make a few clarifications -
Of course I am complicit since I knew about the bochinche, even though I try to take the high road of collegiality.

Ramirez just because she was born in Puerto Rico, is of course not "obligated" in any way to promote artists from the Island if she finds them below par in comparison with Souther Cone artists and if she wants to work on Greek or German art that is her right. What would Art History be like if all art historians or curators were expected to ONLY work on artists from their birthplace. Pretty boring. But given artworld politics, those of us from the outer reaches are expected to do our part in ways in which European or White people are not held accountable.

Maybe Ramirez DOES think Frida Kahlo is a shitty painter but I don't and it seems like everyone thinks it's great to hate on her now.

Anonymous said...

Madrina, I agree that MCR has done very important work manifest in her exhibitions and texts. Inverted Utopias was certainly memorable for the number of works on view, many of them by not-so-known artists, and the enlightening juxtapositions. The premises of the show though are not infallible and should be interrogated.

What bothers me is precisely the grandiloquence in everything written and done by her. Everything she does she presents as the definitive statement on Latin American art, when I think it would be more productive to have a bit of humbleness and present work in a way that is open for debate and critique. This is not self-demeaning.

In a field as small as that of Latin American modern art, I think ethics and collegiality are crucial to advance research.

Like petite maoiste, I take issue at her playing the marginalized Puerto Rican, when she does not particularly support artists from there, and when she is herself known to isolate herself refusing possibilities for collaboration where she's not a protagonist.

Heino said...

I will interrupt the inspiring discussion by adding two feminist remarks to the general NYT bashing: a) isn't it nice that with Kimmelman and Lublow the paper of recored sent two decidedly male, some might claim reactionary commentators in the battlefield. And b) isn't it specifically noteworthy that in an ironic twist Ms. Cisneros, sometimes referred to as the dark Lordship of Latin American Art World, becomes the noble benefactor in juxtaposition to the pushy art marketeer Mari Carmen Ramirez?

Petite Maoiste said...

Well said, Anonymous, because that is the worst part about it (or I imagine it would be) for participants trying to further appreciation of artist's works, not to claim protagonism as a curator. Curators are nothing without the artists who make the work. And if there was more collegiality, more could be done to advance the serious study of artists from these countries.

Yes, Heino, it's a good observation that the two male writers are the ones endowing these selected women as the important (token) ones. I had not considered this, new binary, between Patricia Cisneros and Maricarmen Ramirez. And perhaps this portrayal of Cisneros as the noble benefactor might shed light on what led to the article in the first place? Note the fact that in passing Lubow reveals that the Cisneros Collection PR firm is run by John Elderfield's wife. But this is going a bit far into the CSI/Bochinche Zone perhaps....

Anonymous said...

Frida, Bananas and Watermelons

For those of us interested in Mexico’s contribution to Modern Art history (including the work of Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, Siquerios, Clemente Orozco, Rufino Tamayo, Francisco Zuniga, and many others) there is a potent story behind the Lubow article. The problem is not that everyone thinks that the art south of the border is Frida Kahlo. The issue is that a prominent and brilliant Director of a leading museum’s Latin American Art department is divisively attacking an artist whose name recognition is probably on par with Picasso and Van Gogh. Her self-portraits, like Andy Warhol’s, are some of the most recognizable self-portraits in the history of art. The fact that Frida is Mexican and is female makes this more sensational. It is insulting and a travesty for Texas’s and Houston’s growing Mexican and Mexican-American communities.

Shamefully Patricia Phelps Cisneros uses the same approach – with her often repeated positioning that art of South America is not Frida, bananas and watermelons.

In 2002 MFAH proudly celebrated, with much fanfare, the endowment of their new International Center for the Arts of the Americas. An important group of scholars and collectors had a unique opportunity to hear Mr. Marzio outline the institutions plan for the new area. The MFAH would proceed conservatively but intended to collect the most important art from the most important artists of the region. Mr. Marzio emohasized that the board had come to realize that by not collecting Latin American art in the 20th century they had squandered a great opportunity. The institution had failed to engage the large and rapidly growing Hispanic community which now constituted 37% of Houston (in 2002) and by 2020 was forecasted to be more than 50%.

When one of the wealthiest Museums in the world states that it will focus on Latin American Art - museums, scholars and collectors listen.

What the layman needs to know is that, in the year 1900, Houston’s Mexican population was estimated to have numbered an insignificant 1000 people. The Mexican Revolution (which commenced in San Antonio on November 20, 1910) changed Houston’s future demographics. Hundreds of thousands of Mexican families took refuge in Texas following the largest tragedy in the entire history of the Americas. Although impossible to tally, it is estimated that the number of deaths may be double that of the 620,000 of the American Civil War.

Following this tragedy, the Mexican and Mexican-American community takes pride that Mexico’s muralist painters created what many identify as the first artistic movement in the history of the New World – The Mexican Mural Renaissance - leaving many masterpieces in U.S. territory equally as important to Mexican culture and history as Jackson Pollock’s paintings are to U.S. culture. By 1932 Diego Rivera was widely recognized as the most important artist on the American continent.

Those influenced by Mexico’s rich arts and culture in the 20th century is impressive - from Tina Modotti to Edward Weston, from Henry Moore to Jackson Pollock, from Frank Lloyd Wright to Andre Breton.

We have visited the MFAH multiple times over the last three years, and are dumbfounded. On all occasions we were unable to locate one piece of Mexican 20th century art on display.

75 to 80% of Houston’s Hispanic population is of Mexican descent. Today it is probable that more than 50% of the entire student body of Houston is of Mexican descent. The time is quickly approaching when the Rosa Park’s of the Mexican-American community will demand a privileged seat on the cultural understanding bus of our children’s future.

U.S. Museums need to reevaluate why (after 20 years of promises) they have failed to adequately engage their large and rapidly growing minority/majority Mexican-American communities whose roots are embedded in Mexico. Certainly these institutions would like tp capitalize on the growing number of tourists arrivng to their cities from Mexico? When the MFAH, LACMA and others accept this as an integral part of their mission, I am confident they will quickly rise to the challenge.

Frida Kahlo and Mexico’s Modern Art legacy is more than a decorative appendage of Latin American Art.

Daniel Quiles said...

As Petite Maoiste rightly recognizes, the issues here hinge on this ideology of "discovery." The question is, "discovery" for whom? The reason the NYTimes article is appalling is not new; we all know that these articles are directed towards a particular, white, wealthy, quasi-urbanite reader who is defined as "normal" and "open-minded" and is greeted daily with a variety of equally "interesting" tidbits about life and culture elsewhere. So if this is indeed a recapitulation of a "colonialist" dynamic (and I'm not sure if that's quite right, as MCR is a power broker in her own right, albeit in a specialized economy that spans the elites of the Americas), that operation of rendering the NYTimes reader the ground of all that might or might not be "discovered" is carefully hidden.

MCR's complicity in this process should be critiqued, yes. But it should also be recognized that this is precisely one of the channels through which "we," those for whom this art is NOT a discovery, must pass in order to get the art we love more publicity. One NYTimes article can have the effect of dozens of authoritative and final MCR or Gabriel Perez-Barreiro blockbuster exhibitions. Thus is it a shock to see that when MCR sees an open door, she runs through it? This is why she's at the "top" of our field. Like it or not, the precise manner of backlash toward her in future decades will likely define our field for the foreseeable future.

The fact that a stupid and arbitrary binary (Frida v. abstraction/conceptualism) has to be constructed to make our art world make sense is not surprising. One wishes that many of our colleagues would be any more disposed to resist binaries than the NYTimes...

Petite Maoiste said...

Excellent points, Anonymous.

The history of MFAH's engagement with Latinos in the US is quite problematic. Prior to Remirez's tenure, they had included the 1956 Gulf-Caribbean exhibiiton, curated by the Cuban expatriate collector and protege of Alfred H. Barr (he faciliated the MoMA's 1944 Cuban art exhibition) Jose Gomez Sicre. This show was sponsored by US oil companies and posited a pan-American link predicated on sites of US investment.

Under Marzio's tenure, they hosted the highly controversial exhibition of contemporary Latino artists "30 Contemporary Hispanic Artists" which Ramirez attacked in articles on the premise that it was highly sterotypical and because it relied on a misleading geographically-determined survey model.

Marzio defended the exhibition on demographic grounds in an article he wrote prior to her being hired as his curator. At that point, Marzio still claimed that MFAH's mission to serve "hispanics" in the area dovetailed nicely with shows such as the Hispanic one which did include a few Chicanos.

Ramirez joined MFAH apparently reconciled to the contradiction between her earlier critiques of Marzio and his "outreach" to "Hispanics" and apparently comfortable with the "demographic" approach to justifying the inclusion of Latin American art in their program. I agree that it is ridiculous that they cite the "demographic" imperative when they want to justify their so-called leadership role in collecting and exhibiting Latin American art, when they ignore the artistic production of the country most well-represented in the ancestry of Spanish-speaking people in the Houston area.

An insidous aspect of this is the willful conflation of Latino with Latin American which allows museums to on the one hand satisfy US government and corporate funding demographic imperatives while on the other hand, conveniently omit Latinos - Chicanos and Puerto Ricans- from actual programs and acquisitions in favor of Latin Americans from outside the US.

However, should not these artists be included because they are good, and not to fulfill some sort of quota? Do museums say, We show Picasso because we have 80,000 Spaniards in New York? We should beware of this strategy.