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Points Of Reference

Viviane de Kuyper-Verduyn

assume vivid astro focus, (avaf) VIII, 2004. Installation of 31 works. Mixed Media. Dimensions Variable. Collection of Museum of Contemporary Art, North Miami. Gift of Howard and Patricia Farber. Photo courtesy of Museum of Contemporary Art, North Miami.

On the verge of spring, two Miami museums opened shows that went past the normal role of the museum exhibition—that of the public face of the institution. Romans à clef to the museums themselves, they gave coded insight into how new acquisitions, permanent collections, recent achievements, and aspirations for the future come together to create the institutions of today.

In North Miami, Pivot Points: 15 Years and Counting, curated by Executive Director and Chief Curator Bonnie Clearwater, combines new acquisitions from the commemorative Fifteenth Anniversary Collection with a selection of pieces from their permanent collection. The exhibition has a wide variety of work: Nicole Eisenman, Naomi Fisher, Pepe Mar, Roni Horn, Ragnar, Kjartansson, Albert Oehlen, Gabriel Orozco, Matthew Ritchie, Ryan Trecartin, and others fill the eight semi-open galleries and connecting corridor. All artists have been part of the museum’s history, as most have previously shown at MOCA or are included to historicize the other works in the collection. The work is showcased in more or less associative relationships, and deployed to commemorate MOCA’s constituency and focused vision on collecting art of our time.

Near the entrance, visitors are lured into “avaf VIII” (2004) assume vivid astro focus’s immersive disco installation, overloaded with reference to popular culture, art history, drawing and psychedelic imagery from 1960s California and 1970s New York.This collaborative space was originally conceived for the Whitney Biennial in 2004, and would seem right at home at one of MOCA’s Art Basel soirees. In its most positive light the work stays in the moment, generating energy between people and resisting ownership. The installed stairs, lights, and cables are overly constructed, assuring us that it’s not about the physical space itself. Yet in this setting, without people moving to the sound of the sludgy monotone chorus, “Where’s my whiskey? Can I bum a cigarette?” or interacting with the colored-plexiglass picture frames, the work has the dark feel of a nightclub long after the main act has left the stage.

Rick Ulysse, Untitled, 2012. Fabric and pom-poms. Collection of the Museum of Contemporary Art, North Miami. Gift of the Artist. Photo courtesy of the Museum of Contemporary Art, North Miami.

Avaf was greatly influenced by Cuban-born American Félix González-Torres’s work, and the next room holds “Untitled (Ross in LA)” (1991), a stack of endlessly printed paper waiting for visitors to take a sheet with them. In the same space we find Gabriel Orozco, whose work also cannot be reduced to physical product. “Empty Club Sketch” (1996), a digitally manipulated photo of an empty club with added geometrical spheres, serves a tiny reference to his subtle engagements with everyday objects.

Here we find a glimpse of the premise that underscores the exhibition: Clearwater makes clear that contemporary practice is rooted in the radical changes that emerged in art towards the end of the 1980s. Under the effects of postcolonial discourse, the AIDS crisis, and related art critiques of identity and notions of hybridity, not to mention the Internet boom, a more open-ended orientation of art’s social context emerged in the 1990s.

This connection is made directly apparent by showcasing some of the same artists shown in the inaugural exhibition for MOCA’s Joan Lehman building Defining the Nineties: Consensus Making in New York, Miami and Los Angeles in 1996. The works by artists like González-Torres, Orozco, Robert Chambers and Nicole Eisenman refer to that first show, providing an explicit connection to the quasi-historic 1990s.

These layers become apparent when we look at Nicole Eisenman’s feminist-forward cartoonish parody of history, “Amazon Scene” (1995). Depicting fully armed and scarcely dressed ladies holding their captive man at gunpoint, “Amazon Schene” exemplifies this antiheroic ethnographic turn in that decade, when a renewed emphasis on drawing surfaced in art. The critique of histories is underscored by its placement next to five remarkably strong drawings of imaginary Haitian history by local artist Rick Ulysse (born in 1983), who renders questions of identity, history and mythology in fantastic cartoons.

Emerging local artists are placed in the global continuum of art history. In doing so, the show brings contemporary art’s increasingly open and inclusive environment into a more local perspective. As such, we also find here one of Joseph Cornell’s characteristic boxes, an assemblage of found objects from 1948. In an interview Clearwater said, “When I talk to someone like Rick Ulysse, I can feel him channeling Joseph Cornell, whether he knows it or not.”
What complicates this further is the fact that contemporary artists use narratives of historic references in their work. Shinique Smith’s “and she has a bowl of lilacs in her room” (2008) makes a direct reference to an 18th-century Rococo painting by Jean-Honoré Fragonard. Only now the frivolous image of the lady on the swing has transformed into a colored bale of discarded clothing. Elsewhere Berlin artists Jonathan Meese’s sculpture “BABYADMIRAL NULLPE, SEESCHLACHT NO PROBLEM (Gefecht beiSALAMI und Lakritze)” (2007) uses symbols of history and power—swastikas, the eye of Horus—with the intention to neutralize all and express his ideal of a universal Gesamtkunstwerk: a total dictatorship of art.

There are myriad such dialogues latent in the arranged works, yet the most powerful thread is MOCA’s tradition of spotting movements and building relationships with its artists (many of whom had their first solo shows at the museum) and supporters. Now you can approach this revelry with a “what the heck, they earned it,” and there is no doubt that they certainly did. Yet this framing causes tension in the exhibition, for as local artists are put in this commemoration of the museum’s efforts, it makes them to an extent dependent on the institution. That could not only take away from the power of their work, but affect how we will see the past in the future. Then again, seldom does one come across a museum show that lays bare the importance of the intertwining personal and professional relationships to their organization like this. Here, nobody tries to hide how all this came in to being.


Meanwhile downtown, the Miami Art Museum (MAM) hung Frames of Reference: Latin American Art from the Jorge M. Pérez Collection, organized by Chief Curator Tobias Ostrander. It is the museum’s last exhibition before it is renamed the Pérez Art Museum Miami and moved to a new location on Biscayne Bay. Jorge Pérez famously donated $40 million to the Miami Art Museum, half of which came in the form of mostly Latin American modernist art selected by the museum. A selection of nearly half the 102 works comprises this exhibition. Entering the exhibition via the grand staircase, the spacious systematic presentation on tan walls, neutral lighting, and the generous plaques of educative text that accompany each work give the sense of walking into an modern European gallery of some stature; or, if you prefer, the second floor of the Met. At first, this presentation seems at odds with the hyper-contemporary facility that is being built at the waterfront. Yet the traditional display does seem to be a gentle nod to what is to come. Ostrander gives us a clear and elegant play on the transition from modern to contemporary, from the old to the new, from one culture to another, and from the private home to the public domain of the museum.

The paintings in the show progress thematically through genres ranging from landscapes, both countryside and cityscapes, to more psychological works, like those of Guillermo Kuitca. The same visual thread is kept in the thematic display of the (mostly) paintings in the show. This is a practical way to show the art in all its different facets, while promoting the overall breadth and quality of the collection. It is also a more pronounced version of the interconnectivity that the MOCA show relies on. This thematic display is often undergirded by formal associations, like placing the vividly colored “Los Papagayos” (1987) by Colombian Beatriz González, which references the corruption and repression of government officials in her country’s recent history, across from Cuban-Miamian artist Carlos Alfonso’s “Danza Macabre” (1987).

On the walls is a 20th-century selection of Latin American contributions to art history. You can safely say that Pérez admires tradition, especially that of the classic Latin American masters—many of the works represent the early or late years of an artist’s development, and his collection revels in the impact that European Modernism had on artists from the western hemisphere. An early Diego Rivera still life “Naturaleza muerta” (1908) from his time in Paris, bears resemblance to Cézanne’s still lifes with apples, and “Crucificción,” a dark oil by Chilean Roberto Matta Echaurren, clearly influenced by Surrealism, was painted shortly after the artist moved from Paris to the United States. Cuban master Wifredo Lam’s “La Table Blanche” (1939), also made in Paris, attests to the influence of Cubism, especially Picasso. Another example is an early still life from Fernando Botero, “Manzanas” (1957-1958), painted before he developed his identifiable style. It was also inspired by his travels to Europe, and especially by the work of Velázquez.

Wifredo Lam, La Table blanche, 1939. Gouache on paper, 38-7/8 x 26-1/2 inches. Collection Pérez Art Museum Miami, gift of Jorge M. Pérez. Photo by Sid Hoeltzell. © 2012 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris. Reproduction, including downloading of ARS represented works is prohibited by copyright laws and international conventions without the express written permission of Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Similarly, and in a move similar to MOCA’s exhibition, dialogues are created between works from different generations: “Cuanto Valió mi Coballende” (1994), an exemplary piece from Cuban-Miami artist José Bedia, hangs next to a “La Chevelure,” Wifredo Lam’s attractive light charcoal and oil from 1945.

This show is, of course, a personal collection. Some find the work a bit conservative: predominately figurative progressing towards abstraction, yet never reaching kineticism or barebones geometric abstraction. An interview from the end of 2012 about Pérez’s taste and journey in real estate might explain the tension that some feel: “When I was young, I liked the English, antique-y, clubby kind of style” . . . I liked that dark-wood, leather-books feel,” he said. But tastes change: “As I started doing more condos in the last 10 years, and as I changed the way my home was, my heart was also changing. These days, I like younger, more contemporary things,” he said. “My way of life has changed. Before, perhaps from insecurity, or my background, I was living in the ways I remembered.”

While moving to a lot of different places around Latin America at a young age might explain Mr. Pérez’s early affinity for tradition and interest in the origin of the artists development, there is a distinct difference between Pérez’s personal choices about collecting and the direction in which the museum that will soon bear his name is heading. Moving forward, it seems clear how these pieces in their new environment will provide essential modern touchstones for the predominately contemporary permanent collection. It’s going to get really interesting to see how these works will presage contemporary art—from Latin America, the States, wherever—and have their own interpretations affected by the coming years.

The suave design of the new building will make these connections even more visible. In 2000, Sir Nicolas Serota, director of Tate, presented the thematic division of the newly built Tate Modern galleries as an alternative to the linear presentation standard to institutional shows. The latter was believed to be far too static and unfit to present the heterogeneity of 20th century art. A decade later MAM’s staff worked together with the same architects (Herzog & DeMeuron) to take the non-linear modes of display a step further through differentiated galleries (Special Exhibition, Focus, Project, and Overview). Visitors will be encouraged to explore their own interests and make the connections along the way.

With these two local exhibitions, we have gotten a rare chance to see how museums and other patrons shape the present moment by defining how we see our history. Where MOCA commemorates its gifts by rightly celebrating its own history, MAM relies on an excellent presentation highlighting the historical import of the art itself. Shows like these seem to be part of the reality of a rapidly evolving contemporary art world itself where the powers are shifting on all fronts, and the time that museums had a steady captive audience and equal endowment is over.