The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, will unveil the monumental final work of the Venezuelan kinetic pioneer Jesús Rafael Soto next year. A rustling, swaying forest of 24,000 hanging plastic tubes that visitors are invited to touch, it will cap Houston’s aggressive round of acquisitions of Latin American art.
The museum will also mark the tenth anniversary of its path-breaking Latin American Art Department and Collection with a series of exhibitions, including a career retrospective by Venezuelan color abstractionist Carlos Cruz-Diez, and the launch of an electronic archive of letters, articles, and other historical source materials from the full sweep of Latin American art, colonial to contemporary.
The museum commissioned Soto’s The Houston Penetrable for its permanent collection in 2004, and the artist was working on it when he died, at the age of 82, in 2005. It is being fabricated according to his instructions by assistants at his Paris atelier, and will go on view in a cavernous hall in Houston in December of next year.
The Houston piece is similar in concept to Soto’s other sculptures made of thousands of dangling rods or cables, which Soto called penetrables. In the artist’s view, these works become complete only when viewers walk around in them, says Mari Carmen Ramírez, the Houston museum’s chief curator of Latin American art. Several penetrableshang in museums in Venezuela, and one hung in the Guggenheim in New York during Soto’s first major solo exhibition in the United States in 1974.
The Houston sculpture has a more complex interplay of color and light than previous penetrables because the tubes are made largely of a transparent plastic material, with an individually painted pattern inside each one, instead of opaque materials, Ramírez says. No more than four of the 24,000 rods are identical to each other, whereas in most previous penetrables all the rods are identical. All of the penetrables have a sensual, immersive quality and, like much of Soto’s work, a geometric simplicity. “It’s a complete sensorial experience,” Ramírez says. “The tubes create a color-and-light environment when the visitor enters them and feels them on the body.”
Next September the museum will launch a digital archive of some 10,000 documents relating to Latin American art, drawn from cooperating libraries, universities, private collections, and other sources all over Latin America. The search for materials turned up obscure jewels, such as texts published in 1920s Cuba in which essayists grapple with “race and what it means to be a Latin American artist,” Ramírez says. “You’re reading what people were saying in Cuba in 1927, and it gives you goose bumps because it sounds just like our multicultural debates today.”
The idea of gathering primary sources in Latin American art under one roof is not new, according to Edward Sullivan, dean of humanities at New York University and a historian in the field, citing a database of documents on Mexican art created at the National Autonomous University in Mexico City. But the Houston archive is bigger and more systematic than any previous effort, he says.
Sullivan’s career illustrates the phenomenal growth of academic interest in Latin American visual arts in the United States. In the early ’90s, he says, he had one or two doctoral candidates a year in Latin American art, if any. Now he averages ten a year. When he did his own doctorate in Spanish Baroque art, in 1979, “there was no one at all to study Latin American art with, at least not on the East Coast,” he says.
Interest in collecting Latin American art has also developed and is reflected in a more competitive acquisitions climate, Ramírez says. Houston has focused on works from the decades after World War II, in part “because those reserves are quickly drying up” as museums and private collectors move in. “The Tate, MoMA, LACMA are all buying the same thing, and that’s made it extremely competitive. You didn’t have that 15 years ago,” she says.
Her museum has gained a reputation for setting trends. In 2002, Ramírez organized the first major retrospective in the United States of the Venezuelan sculptor Gego, whose work is now in numerous institutions, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
Houston’s latest acquisitions include contemporary works by Chile’s Alfredo Jaar and Brazilian Cildo Meireles, plus a large installation by Argentine veteran Gyula Kosice, called The Hydrospatial City. The museum has also acquired major works by Uruguayan sculptors Julio Alpuy and Gonzalo Fonseca, from 1945 and 1966, respectively.
Both Alpuy and Fonseca were followers of the influential Joaquín Torres-García, whose work anchored recent major shows charting the rise of modernism in Latin America at El Museo del Barrio and the Grey Art Gallery in New York and the Newark Museum’s “Constructive Spirit: Abstract Art in South and North America, 1920s–50s.” That last show placed Soto, Torres-García, and other Latin American figures alongside Alexander Calder and Ellsworth Kelly, exploring how artists in both Americas wrestled with similar esthetic questions while often knowing little of each others’ work.
The growing attention to Latin American art has helped make global reputations for some artists extremely late in life. Cruz-Diez’s retrospective in Houston will be his third major U.S. exhibition in as many years, although he is in his 80s and is still little known in the United States. The artist was the subject of a book recently published by the Fundación Cisneros, launching its series documenting in-depth conversations between Latin American artists and curators, critics, and art historians.
“With Latin American art,” says Gabriel Pérez-Barreiro, the New York-based director of the Colección Patricia Phelps de Cisneros, “there hadn’t been much of an infrastructure to show or process it until now, so people didn’t have the opportunity to see it. They do now.”
Roger Atwood has been writing for ARTnews since 1999. Some of his articles can be read at www.rogeratwood.com.