Global recessions and armed crackdowns on protests are undoubtedly bad for art, but the old adage that hardship and suffering fuels creativity comes to mind when looking back at Brazil in the 1970s and considering the improbable success of Galeria Luisa Strina. The country was under a military dictatorship and, in 1974, suffering a sharp hangover from a so-called “economic miracle.” But that year, amid shortages of funds and freedoms, Luisa Strina gave São Paulo its first taste of Pop art and gave Brazilian artists their first exposure to the likes of Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol.
Ben-Day dots and slick screenprints might have seemed out of place in one of the world’s most repressive states, but Pop art must have reminded visitors to the gallery that Brazil had been one of the most optimistic countries in the world. After all, in 1961 the country had inaugurated Brasília, its built-from-scratch modernist capital city, and 10 years earlier had established what remains the world’s second-oldest art biennial in São Paulo. Prior to the dark days between 1964 and 1985, Latin America’s most populous country was shaping up to be the southern hemisphere’s first superpower.
This spirit lived on in the experimental milieu from which the gallery sprang. Brazil may have been a bit isolated, but there was no shortage of artists, dealers, and critics open to the experimentation that flourished in this new venue. In fact, you can measure the health of the scene around Strina’s gallery by the frequency with which her artists were getting into trouble with the police. The gallerist must have been a diplomat as well as an impresario, since she had to make regular trips to the police station to talk her artists out of trouble. In observance of the 40th anniversary of its opening, Galeria Luisa Strina is currently hosting a greatest hits show put together by Strina’s niece, the art advisor Fernanda Arruda.
“It’s not a retrospective,” Arruda, who is based in New York, tells me over Skype. “I’m trying to bring in some of the turning points of the artists and the gallery history.” She adds: “I decided I’m not going to ignore the fact that I worked there and have a very strong personal relationship with the gallery, so a lot of them also mean a lot to me.” The result is Eu represento os artistas, Revisited., which features some 21 artists who have shown with the gallery.
“I feel more pressured doing a show there because it’s my home and it’s artists I’ve worked with all my life,” Arruda says. Her aunt has supported the work and careers of many artists who’ve gone on to international success, including Pedro Reyes, Alexandre da Cunha, and Fernanda Gomes. In fact it’s been so extensively reported that the Brazilian art scene is, as Arruda puts it, “very healthy,” that it’s hard to remember a time when Latin American galleries weren’t regulars at the world’s biggest fairs — Strina was the region’s first dealer invited to participate in Art Basel, back in 1991. She now has the dubious distinction of being praised as “the grande dame of the Paulistano gallery world” in ArtReview‘s “Power 100.”
Arruda can’t say for sure whether art from Latin America is overlooked or over-hyped these days, but she finds the habits of international collectors frustrating. “The one thing which annoys me and happens a lot is that when they decide to collect Brazilian art, people feel like they have to do it in a historical manner,” she says. “They have to start with the neo-concretists and go on and on to get younger artists today.” In her role as an advisor, Arruda finds this a bit “narrow-minded,” pointing out that no one takes this approach to French or German art.
But this is just a small gripe compared with the 20 years of hardship that her country (and her aunt’s gallery) endured. “It was dreadful. It was very lonely,” Arruda recalls. “So now it’s a different time.”