Interviews

On Curating, and Translating, Latin American Art

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Mira Schendel, “Sin título, de la serie Objetos Gráficos” (1967) (all images courtesy of Colección Patricia Phelps de Cisneros)

I met Gabriel Pérez-Barreiro at the Coleccion Patricia Phelps de Cisneros‘s offices on Varick Street, a welcome change, he said, from their former offices on the Upper East Side. Pérez-Barreiro has been the Cisneros director for the past six years. The collection, also based in Caracas, is one of the most acclaimed in Latin American art, and includes modern, contemporary, ethnographic, and colonial art. A selection of its modern collection was most recently on view at the Royal Academy in London.

Pérez-Barreiro grew up in a family of translators — he is Spanish — in a multi-lingual home, with a love for literature as well as art. He came to Latin American art largely through his studies of modernist literature, and decided he would pursue art history after studying abroad in Buenos Aires. He earned his PhD in Latin American art history in 1996 from the University of Essex — one of a handful of programs that offered the degree at the time, and where he became a founding curator of the Essex Collection of Latin American Art. He went on to serve as the Director of Visual Arts at the Americas Society, and prior to the Cisneros, he was the Curator of Latin American Art at the Blanton Museum in Texas.

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Installation view, ‘Radical Geometry: Modern Art of South America from the Patricia Phelps de Cisneros Collection’ at the Royal Academy of Arts, London

Given Pérez-Barreiro’s diverse and prolonged history in the field, I was curious to hear his thoughts on the changing landscape in the exhibition of Latin American art. In the past year alone we’ve had the Lygia Clark show at the Museum of Modern Art, the Mira Schendel at the Tate Modern, Other Primary Structures at the Jewish Museum (featuring Latin American sculpture from the 1960s), Urbes Mutantes at the International Center of Photography (Latin American photography from 1940s to the present), and Under the Same Sun: Art from Latin American Today, which was recently on view at the Guggenheim in New York. In addition, the Guggenheim recently launched its UBS Global Art Initiative program, centered on Latin American art, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art just hired its new Latin American curator in July.

Gracious, articulate, and frank, Pérez-Barreiro discusses the stereotyping of Latin American art and its audiences, the drawbacks of institutional politics when displaying and acquiring art, and his own process in curating.

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Elisa Wouk Almino: Latin American art, previously ignored by the Western canon, has recently piqued the interest of major museums and collectors. Why now?

Gabriel Pérez-Barreiro: Visibility has gone up fairly consistently in the last 10 to 20 years. There’s definitely a process that started within the academic and curatorial world, where a very small group had a clear project: here’s a big realm of art history that no one’s paying attention to. We need to on the one hand study it and on the other promote it. The more significant change was the market awakening to that. There are all kinds of reasons — globalization in general, the inherent nature of capital, and the strengthening of the Latin American economy. Then museums, particularly in this country, have seen the demographic change. Now it’s seen as an almost quasi-racist act to not show Latin American art.

Installation view, 'Radical Geometry: Modern Art of South America from the Patricia Phelps de Cisneros Collection' at the Royal Academy of Arts, London
Installation view, ‘Radical Geometry: Modern Art of South America from the Patricia Phelps de Cisneros Collection’ at the Royal Academy of Arts, London

EWA: There seems to be an emphasis on modern and constructivist art — the focus of your collection — in these exhibitions. What do you make of this emphasis?

GP-B: I’m of a generation that could not stand the stereotypical view of Latin America. Our own interests were in 20th-century modernism. On the one hand, it is a kind of backlash, on the other, a genuine sense that these are really important art historical movements. Now we’re in the other backlash — several people have said we probably should have a Frida Kahlo show, a revised Botero show. We destroyed these artists so systematically and now people will probably be interested in them again. We [the Cisneros Collection] do get a lot the accusation that we’re this super cosmopolitan east coast view, and it’s true. There are many other histories out there — this is the particular one we’ve focused on. Before, the field was filled with what we thought was crap, and we wanted to fill it with something better. Now it’s different. The field gets richer, I don’t think one thing replaces the other.

EWA: The Lygia Clark exhibition elicited mixed reviews in the American press. In reaction, MoMA curator Luis Pérez-Oramas said in an interview that exhibitions that stray from the North American canon leave critics irritated.

GP-B: I had a really interesting conversation yesterday with a different curator at MoMA. He had come from England, like me, and we were talking about what the challenges were working in this country, in this city specifically. And he said an interesting thing: when a British person is cosmopolitan and interested in the world, they’re just interested in the world. When an American is, or a New Yorker is, what they do is compare it to their version of what is important. Is this more or less important than Jackson Pollock? No Brit says, is this more or less important than Francis Bacon. You don’t feel that you’re competing for something. I think when you read things like the Roberta Smith reviews, or whatever else Luis was referring to, there’s the sense that the art historical establishment here still feels that huge heritage of having constructed an official art history to which Latin American art, at some level, is still a challenge.

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Installation view, ‘Radical Geometry: Modern Art of South America from the Patricia Phelps de Cisneros Collection’ at the Royal Academy of Arts, London

EWA: Museums, as you mentioned, are now planning on including Latin American art in the canon. At a place like the Met, where would you situate this Latin American wing?

GP-B: There’s this whole debate about what is Latin American art, the separatist position and integrationist position. I’ve always been on the integrationist side. The majority of museum directors in this country are white. They’ll say: we want to reach out to the Latin American community, so we’re going to do a Diego Rivera show. They do the show, they serve tacos and guacamole at the opening, and have a salsa band. Great, you’ve done this stereotypical event and then you’re surprised that nobody from ‘the community’ came. Nobody wants to be patronized. There’s this tension between a very sophisticated curatorial debate and institutional politics. It’s not always the case, but the idea of the Latin American wing — I’ve always thought it very problematic.

EWAHow do you approach curating? You once described curating as an act of translation.

GP-B: To me art is a language. As a curator you’re more fluent in that language because that’s what you do all day, and most of the time you’re dealing with an audience that is less fluent than you are. There is a lot of resistance to the idea of the curatorial world, that you don’t need any interpretive apparatus, that you should just let the work speak for itself. That’s like saying let’s go to a conference with people speaking Chinese and let them speak for themselves. But that doesn’t mean I’m going to understand it, I’m going to need a translation. The act of cognition is different, I think. And it has to be mediated.

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Installation view, ‘Radical Geometry: Modern Art of South America from the Patricia Phelps de Cisneros Collection’ at the Royal Academy of Arts, London

EWA: Do you think artistic intent is essential to the understanding of an artwork? Does the curator have a responsibility to the artist in that sense?

GP-B: There are cases where you can’t, because that context is lost to us. With modern and contemporary art, I think it’s extremely important. For example, when we were doing the Mercosul Bienal in 2007 we created these pedagogical stations where the artists were asked to come with a statement, to make transparent what they were trying to do. You could read the text and look at the work and say, I don’t think you did it, or I think what you did was something else. There’s a lot of distrust of intentionality, and I think it’s because people confuse intentionality with explanation. Intention is like medium: it’s an essential factor in the art-making process.

A lot of Latin American artists, from the beginning of the [20th] century, created their own discursive structure: magazines, space, institutional structure, criticism. When you look at the North American model there was this stereotype of the American artist as a brute who drank a lot, and you would never really ask the artists because they’re sort of like monkeys — they don’t really understand what they’re doing. You had the professional critic and institutions that spoke for the artist. In the North American context what’s often surprising is that these [Latin American] artists were so articulate. I think some have a problem seeing an artist like Lygia Clark who made a huge effort to explain her work.

EWA: What are some of the criteria you use when acquiring new contemporary works for the Cisneros Collection?

GP-B: We’ve thought a lot about what it means to collect contemporary art. There’s no category of Latin American contemporary art as such. It doesn’t mean anything. We decided we had to root this in a research practice. We have to go out and see what’s being made in Latin America that’s significant, that for whatever reason isn’t circulating. Let’s not rely on the art fairs. By the time it gets there it’s gone through a thousand filters. We’re not filtered people. Most of what we (principally our contemporary curator Sofia Hernandez Chong Cuy) do is travel and do studio visits. We go to places that aren’t so visible in the international art market, like Ecuador. Generally people don’t know that we’re doing it. We don’t announce it.

EWA: Is there more freedom in acquiring work for a collection than, say, for a museum?

GP-B: It depends on the museum and on the collection. At the Blanton, for example, it was more liberal, because it’s in a university and there were no boards or complex structures. I would literally be in Buenos Aires in front of a piece I wanted to acquire, and I’d just call up the director and she’d approve it. That would never happen at the MoMa, at the Met — they’d have to go through a thousand committees. As a result they’re much more conservative. It was beautiful to be in a place where your lack of resources was compensated by freedom. If you gave me the choice of 10 million dollars or freedom I’d have freedom because it doesn’t take a whole lot of money to build a collection.

EWA: What art do you like to see on your own time?

GP-B: I study and work in the field of Latin American art, but not because I think it’s any better. I’m interested in art. In fact, it’s funny, Latin American art exhibits tend to bother the shit out of me. Partly because it’s my field. I go in and I know who owns it, how much someone paid for it … If you ask me what’s my personal favorite place to go see art, I’d say the Cy Twombly galleries at the Menil Collection. I also love looking at nineteenth century painting. My real, personal, deep enjoyment and profound connection … a lot of it isn’t exclusively with Latin American artists.

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