The Buenos Aires Museum of Modern Art (Museo de Arte Moderno de Buenos Aires, MAMBA) reopened its doors on July 12, after an 11-month refurbishment that doubled its exhibition space, introduced a café and uplifted its bookstore. The results of the renovation are clear to see: there are greater possibilities in terms of exposure, both internally, within the museum's walls, and externally, as a museum. The first exhibition in its new 4000m2 space makes this more than clear: it says, 'there is no chance of overlooking us.' Not as a museum, nor for what MAMBA stands for: modern art from Buenos Aires, Argentina and Latin America.
MAMBA’s first show after re-opening, which will run until mid-October, is called A Tale of Two Worlds - Latin American experimental art in dialogue with the MMK collection 1944- 989. It is the fruit of a collaboration with the Museum of Modern Art in Frankfurt (MMK), where the show has been on display prior to its presentation here. The initiative to take a shared look at a period in modern art from different continents was stimulated by a grant from the German government, which helped to encourage a broader take on art-history.
The study of the history of art in Europe and the canon derived from it often does not go beyond the continent itself or North America. So, in a nod to inclusivity and for a more complete overview, over 500 pieces from both institutions and some private collections are placed next to and opposite one another, showing how the arts transformed comparatively from 1944-1989 in different parts of the globe.
The dates set a framework for the exhibition, which marks both historical and political moments as well as artistic currents of the period, although they – according to the curators – are not to be regarded chronologically but rather “as an associative narrative.” This is pleasant for the eye but less helpful when searching for more coherence in the 16 themes, with titles that vary from ‘Urban Cartographies’ to ‘Alchemy And Colonisation,’ ‘When Pop Goes Critical’ to ‘Examining the Brushstroke: Expressionism Gets Conceptual.’
From the catalogue it becomes clear that the exhibition is built around three axes: Lucio Fontana, conceptualism and the artist as a person, but this does not shine through, nor is it mentioned in the Buenos Aires version of the exhibition. Curator Javier Villa explains that this division worked better in the three-floored museum in Frankfurt than in Buenos Aires’ own museum of modern art: “Even though these axes are still present, the space of this museum could not offer the same division as in Frankfurt, which would have complicated the fluid experience of the current storyline. This is why we decided not to emphasise them, so as not to complicate the visit.”
Without these three base points – first, Lucio Fontana as the connecting artist between the continents and its artistic currents; second, conceptualism having a different sociopolitical meaning in Europe and the United States, compared to in Latin America; third, the artist’s body, act or self image as subject-matter – the storyline gets lost. But Villa and his fellow curators – Klaus Görner, chief curator at the MMK, and MAMBA Director Victoria Noorthoorn – have indeed managed to create a visually fluid experience.
The juxtaposition of works is done masterfully, in most of the old and new corners of the museum. One is filled with artworks by Brazilian avant-gardist Geraldo de Barros, who invites you to look at architecture as an abstract play of shades and lines with his black-and-white photographs. The corner furthest away is physically and architecturally remoulded by David Lamelas. Next to the well-travelled Argentine artist, one can find the homage to Fontana, the ItalianArgentine master. His cut paintings and sliced spheres work beautifully opposite Kenneth Kemble’s Prohibida – an informalist work made of jute and nails, suggestive of a vagina.
Female artists, however, are scarcely represented in A Tale of Two Worlds. Only 20 out of the 100 artists are female. Questioned about this, Villa responded: “I am aware of the disproportionality and personally I believe we failed in not having been able to find more female artists to fit this exhibition’s specific narrative.”
Of the female works present, two of them have turned one of the galleries on the first floor entitled ‘Alchemy and Colonisation’ into a magical space breathing beauty and offering reflection. The small geometrical sculptures of bronze, wood and one colour, by Argentine artist Liliana Maresca, are shown in vitrines, scattered as islands throughout the space. And they work wonderfully well with the two-dimensional paper works by the Swiss-born Brazilian Mira Schendel, who studies the material and effect of colour in and through her art. The way the colours and compositions of both women artists are juxtaposed caresses the eye.
The visual fluidity present in the exhibition is a great accomplishment for the curatorial team. Especially when attempting to show so many artists from different backgrounds simultaenously. But neither the De Barros-Lamelas-Fontana and Kemble combination nor the Maresca-Schendel dialogue provide an innate continental comparison.
However, in the ‘Pop going Critical’ section this changes. Here we encounter an Andy Warhol Brillo Box, placed in front of Antonio Caro’s Colombia painting, where the latter has written his country’s name in the colour and font of CocaCola. It’s an excellent combination of works, where the politicisation of the consumer good, as opposed to the mentioning of a consumer good, illustrates the different use of popular culture in the Americas. Even though Warhol’s fame may overshadow Caro’s, it is that ‘Colombia’ in Coca-Cola lettering that stands out. Such a comparison could and would not be made normally, were it not for this exhibition.
In the hallway, I find Caro painting corn in black and white on the wall, opposite Liliana Porter’s subtle conceptual series Wrinkles from 1968. Caro explains that corn unites the Americas. I ask him what he thinks of the comparison of his Colombia with Warhol’s Brillo Box. “I find it to be an honour, really. I have always looked up to Warhol and am heavily influenced by him.” When sharing my thoughts that his work comes across as stronger, he humbly defends the pop artist: “I think that Warhol illustrated the US culture as an ideal, which could equally be considered political.” This kind of dialogue, emerging out of juxtaposition of art from supposedly different worlds, is what makes this exhibition so enticing.
A Tale of Two Worlds makes clear that Latin American art should not be underestimated by the European-Anglo Saxon art-world. It is a clear proposal for a more inclusive worldview of art, one which could be extended even further.