Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 16, 2018
Ana Clara Silva and Eugenio Valdés Figueroa, eds. Adiós Utopia: Art in Cuba Since 1950 Exh. cat. Houston: Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 2017. 404 pp.; 250 ills. $95.00 (9780692820735)
Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, March 5–May 21, 2017; Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, November 11, 2017–March 18, 2018
Installation view, Adios Utopia: Dreams and Deceptions in Cuban Art Since 1950, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, March 5–May 21, 2017 (photograph © Will Michels; provided by Museum of Fine Arts, Houston)

A series of international flags stripped of their color by Wilfredo Prieto framed the entrance to the Museum of Fine Arts Houston’s presentation of Adiós Utopia: Dreams and Deceptions in Cuban Art Since 1950. Titled Apolítico (Apolitical, 2001), Prieto’s gray-scale flags guarded the balcony of the second-floor gallery where the exhibition was on view, as if demarcating neutral ground for the oft-contested field of Cuban art. Visible just beyond Prieto’s muted palette, a burst of color belonging to over fifty posters dating to the 1960s and early 1970s boldly announced some of the original political and cultural aims of the 1959 Cuban Revolution. The striking juxtaposition of these modestly sized examples of Cuban graphic design with Prieto’s large-scale, twenty-first century installation provided an apt entry point for Adiós Utopia, which ambitiously attempted to nuance the conflicting fervor and failure inspired by the revolution as revealed in the work of the nation’s artists over the course of more than fifty years.

Adiós Utopia resulted from a multiyear project led by experts from both sides of the Straits of Florida. Curated by the Havana-based team of René Francisco (artist and professor at Cuba’s Instituto Superior de Arte), Gerardo Mosquera (critic and independent curator), and Elsa Vega (art historian), the exhibition was overseen by Mari Carmen Ramírez, Wortham Curator of Latin American Art at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and Olga Viso, former executive director of the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, whose respective institutions were the show’s two host venues. Major support was provided by the Cisneros Fontanals Art Foundation and the Cisneros Fontanals Fundación para las Artes, which published the accompanying catalogue and whose influence was writ large in the exhibition checklist. Numbering over one hundred paintings, sculptures, drawings, photographs, and videos, the artworks were drawn exclusively from US and European public and private collections (i.e., not from Cuba or its national museum), with the exception of pieces borrowed from the artists themselves. Accordingly, while not without its shortcomings, Adiós Utopia was an impressive achievement in today’s era of ever-shifting but still ever-fraught US-Cuban relations.

In contrast to such exhibitions as Cuba: Art and History from 1868 to Today (Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, 2008) and Cuba Siglo XX: Modernidad y Sincretismo (Centro Atlántico de Arte Moderno, Las Palmas, Spain, 1996), both of which focused on an overarching, chronological sweep of Cuban art (and neither of which was presented in the United States), the curators of Adiós Utopia arranged the show according to a thematic approach, limiting their selection to artists based on the island. Although the sections sometimes spilled over into multiple galleries, a vague chronological progression was nevertheless perceptible, particularly in the first gallery, titled “Abstraction: Universalism and Artistic Language.” With a few contemporary incursions, the gallery was principally dedicated to the abstract paintings, sculptures, and reliefs of the group of artists known as Los Diez Pintores Concretos (Ten Concrete Painters). This welcome exploration of the years preceding 1959 provided important background about the period leading to Fidel Castro’s eventual triumph. Indeed, it is perhaps because the Cuban Revolution remained as yet unrealized that the art of Los Diez may come closest to the utopian ideals at the heart of the show. Although this gallery addressed the aspirations surrounding abstraction in midcentury Cuba, which were soon followed by attitudes of suspicion, the presentation was nonetheless flawed by the glaring absence of Los Once (The Eleven). As charted in Abigail McEwen’s Revolutionary Horizons: Art and Polemics in 1950s Cuba (Yale University Press, 2016), this loose collective, whose members practiced gestural abstraction, not only preceded Los Diez chronologically but also conceived and presented their artwork in firm opposition to the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista, whom Castro would ultimately overthrow.

Whereas the show’s first section focused on artistic form, the remainder of the exhibition was organized around ideas: “Cult and Destruction of the Revolutionary Nation”; “The Imposition of Words: Discourse, Rhetoric and Media Controls”; “Sea, Borders, Exile”; and “Inverted Utopias.” Two additional sections, including the aforementioned “Poster Art” as well as “Salomón’s Wisdom,” a subsection dedicated to the graphic production of Santiago Armada (Chago), were inserted somewhat awkwardly into the physical space of the exhibition but are more fully explored in the catalogue. At times, the show’s eclectic themes seemed to tilt too much toward the literal. For example, the galleries dedicated to “Sea, Borders, Exile” were dominated by oceanic waves, as in the early examples of Concretist painter Luis Martínez Pedro’s celebrated series Aguas territoriales (Territorial Waters, 1962–63), while “The Imposition of Words” principally contained letters and bodily imagery of tongues and mouths. Nonetheless, the show’s thematic arrangement allowed for the cross-generational approach advocated by the curators in their consideration of the “dreams and deceptions” raised by Cuba’s revolutionary project.

For general audiences in the United States (particularly those beyond Miami and New York, where many of the featured artists have had their works presented in fairs, galleries, and museums), Adiós Utopia provided the first major overview of Cuban art since the Museum of Modern Art’s 1944 show Modern Cuban Painters. Departing from that historical exhibition’s curatorial focus on a timeless and exotic tropics—summarized by Alfred Barr in terms of “Cuban color, Cuban light, Cuban forms, and Cuban motifs” (The Bulletin of the Museum of Modern Art, 1944)—Adiós Utopia instead suggested how specific social and political trends that took place in the time leading up to and just after the Cuban Revolution and during its post-Soviet aftermath impacted the cultural field, and vice versa. Unfortunately, this complicated history was somewhat occluded by the curators’ decision to forego chronology in favor of theme. Thus, while wall labels apprised viewers of the context informing individual artworks, the exhibition achieved its goal best during those most visually obvious moments of praise or dissent. Such was the case in the photographic pairing of the iconic image of Che Guevara (1960) by Alberto Díaz Gutiérrez (Korda) alongside Arturo Cuenca’s 1987–88 Ciencia e ideología: Che (Science and Ideology: Che), which, taken from the back of a billboard featuring the guerrillero’s image, exposes the fragile structure behind the ideology.

A further complement to the Korda/Cuenca dyad was provided by Mi homenaje al Che (My Homage to Che, 1987) by Tomás Esson, in which two monstrous beasts copulate before a framed image of the revolutionary leader. When first exhibited in Havana in 1988, this painting drew the ire of Cuban authorities, who effectively censored the work. Once again on view to the public in Adiós Utopia, Esson’s painting was joined by a number of other rarely exhibited works from the 1980s whose canonical status is bound to this period of political and cultural tension in Cuba. These works included a series of drawings and small assemblages cocreated by Eduardo Ponjuán and René Francisco, removed from the infamous exhibitions held at Havana’s Castillo de la Real Fuerza in 1989. These works may have best epitomized the highs and lows of the exhibition’s thesis, and their presentation in the show referenced the experiences and expertise of curators Mosquera and Francisco as critical figures from this historical moment. Other highlights included Juan Francisco Elso’s sculptural assemblage Por América (For America, 1986), depicting Cuban national hero José Martí as a Saint Sebastian–like figure, and Antonia Eiriz’s dark, Neoexpressionist paintings of the early 1960s.

While the majority of the exhibition was arranged in small galleries, the show’s centerpiece was a large open area dominated by installations by Antonio Eligio Fernández (Tonel) and Glexis Novoa. In the Tonel work, cement blocks were arranged into the shape of the Cuban island and its title, El Bloqueo (The Blockade/The Embargo), was spelled out in concrete letters. Nearby, Novoa’s wall-mounted piece evoked the shape of a Soviet-era memorial altarpiece; however, the stylized and stridently colored letters emblazoned on the component canvases were not Cyrillic but imaginary lettering. Alluding to the presence of the United States and the Soviet Union in Cuba, these two works, both created in 1989, were originally shown together as part of the exhibition La tradición del humor (The Tradition of Humor) at the third Havana Biennial. Indeed, the humor and grand scale of Tonel and Novoa’s art set the stage for many of the contemporary works on view in the remainder of the show. Thus, as the exhibition’s concluding statement, the nearly life-size Faro tumbado (Felled Lighthouse, 2006), by Los Carpinteros served as a literal representation of an “inverted utopia.”  A replica of the coastal fortress and lighthouse El Morro, the work recreated the quintessential image of Havana’s harbor—a symbol of mutual reception and protection—sprawled across the gallery floor.

The impressive, illustrated catalogue accompanying Adiós Utopia represents a critical contribution to the field of Cuban art-historical studies in English. With an illustrated timeline by Beatriz Gago Rodríguez and essays by the curators as well as Tonel, Rachel Weiss, and Iván de la Nuez, the tome helps fill in some of the exhibition’s gaps, including documentation of the ephemeral work of Cuban art collectives from the 1980s and 1990s. Absent, however, from both the exhibition and book are those artists of the Cuban diaspora, who, while beyond the curators’ parameters of art from the island, are to this author impossible to ignore when considering the exhibition’s premise. Still, Adiós Utopia remains remarkable for its attempt to capture the nuanced implications—positive, negative, and in-between—of the Cuban revolutionary project for the island’s cultural field.