Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
July 12, 2019
Edward J. Sullivan The Americas Revealed: Collecting Colonial and Modern Latin American Art in the United States The Frick Collection Studies in the History of Art Collecting in America, vol. 4. New York and University Park, PA: The Frick Collection in association with Penn State University Press, 2018. 224 pp.; 48 color ills.; 16 b/w ills. Cloth (9780271079523)

Over the past few decades the arts and visual cultures of Latin America have become an exciting, rediscovered area of scholarly exploration, collecting, and marketing. The increased scholarly attention is evidenced by new academic and museum positions and events, from the creation of curatorial chairs dedicated to Latin American art to world-traveling exhibitions displaying the works of artists from diverse Latin American nations of the colonial through modern periods. These trends have paralleled a vibrant market of international collectors and auction houses that have focused their attention and catalogues on the arts from Central and South America, Mexico, and the Caribbean.

What is less well-known and studied, even by many scholars, is the rich history of collecting and displaying of Latin American artwork by patrons, collectors, and museums within the United States. In a highly valuable compendium, The Americas Revealed, Edward J. Sullivan brings together chapter essays by eleven specialists that introduce readers to the histories of collecting Latin American art by US individuals and museums. The volume emerges from a similarly titled 2014 symposium at the Frick Museum’s Center for the History of Collecting that featured presentations on public and private collecting of Spanish colonial and Latin American art by museum and university specialists and scholars. 

Sullivan’s focus on museums, collecting, and display in the United States fills a large lacuna in scholarship. Publications such as Shelley E. Garrigan’s Collecting Mexico: Museums, Monuments, and the Creation of National Identity (2012), Maya Stanfield-Mazzi’s “The Possessor’s Agency: Private Art Collecting in the Colonial Andes” (Colonial Latin American Review, December 2009), and the catalogue from the 2013 Brooklyn Museum exhibition Behind Closed Doors: Art in the Spanish American Home, 1492–1898 (edited by Richard Aste) survey the collecting, display, and exchange of Latin American art outside the United States, and a few case studies have been written on the origins of individual collections in public museums of North America (e.g., Diana Fane, “From Precolumbian to Modern: Latin American Art at the Brooklyn Museum, 1930–50,” in Converging Cultures: Art & Identity in Spanish America, 1996, and Marcus Burke, “History of the Davenport Museum of Art’s Mexican Colonial Collection,” in Treasures of Mexican Colonial Painting, 1998). As such, there has been no publication with a comparative approach to the historical developments of collecting Latin American art within the United States.

Much of the English-language scholarship of the 1980s and 1990s that investigated the histories, exhibitions, and development of collections of Latin American art revolved around issues of identity and how to refer to the diversity of artists from the colonial through contemporary periods, and from the enormously diverse geopolitical region of “Latin America.” This conversation about naming has continued into more recent discussions in the arts (for example, Héctor Olea, Mari Carmen Ramírez, and Tomás Ybarra-Frausto’s Resisting Categories: Latin American and/or Latino?, 2012). The problems of misnaming and homogenization of the region are acknowledged in Sullivan’s introduction, but that is not the focus of the volume. The originality and utility of The Americas Revealed is found especially in its comparative and synthetic scholarly analysis of the historical developments and issues specific to eleven different publicly displayed collections, and of the role that US collections and museums have played in the fashioning of a unique image of Latin American art within the United States. The featured collections include those of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York; museums of art in Philadelphia, Phoenix, Houston, and San Francisco; and the significant private collections of Roberta and Richard Huber and Patricia Phelps de Cisneros. In a chapter in The Americas Revealed concerned with the interconnected problems of collecting and displaying Latin America art, Mari Carmen Ramírez argues “it may be time to recognize once and for all” that (citing Beverly Adams) “the idea of collecting modern and contemporary art from Latin America on a comprehensive or continental scale arguably began in the United States in the mid-1940s” (104).

Questions of canon formation and what might have constituted an understanding of “American” art are underscored in Ronda Kasl’s essay, which concerns the Mexican majolica collection offered in the early years of the twentieth century to the Metropolitan Museum of Art by private collector Emily de Forest, who argued for the place of the Mexican pieces as part of “an American museum” (78). Miriam Basilio, in her essay examining MoMA’s changing policies and exhibition catalogues of the 1930s and 1940s, convincingly demonstrates how many works by Latin American artists were excluded from MoMA’s canon due to the distinction curators and critics made between art they perceived to be locally inspired and art that engaged with international concerns. These specialists also preferred form and abstraction over content and figuration, partialities that caused art of the Americas to be assessed as folkloric or derivative, with the consequence that Latin American arts and artists were largely isolated in their regional contexts and relegated to marginal status (35, 43).

Other essays make clear the pivotal role of US museums not just in canon formation, but also in the construction of the very concept of Latin America. Delia Solomons places jointly the idea of Latin America and the act of collecting Latin American art within an “anticommunist hemisphere” (44). Basilio locates the definition of Latin American art and MoMA’s development of its Latin American collection against the background of World War II and the strained relations of FDR’s Good Neighbor Policy. This context affected the specific collecting practices and initiatives of individuals linked to the museum (including Alfred Barr, Dorothy Canning Miller, and Holger Cahill; 31–35). In this light, Anna Indych-López argues that the trajectories of US interests in Latin American visual cultures were often driven by “the vicissitudes of the marketplace in which most visibly advanced and influential knowledge is produced in the curatorial rather than the academic disciplines” (66).

Other chapters in the anthology, such as Joseph Rishel’s on the Philadelphia Museum of Art, show how institutional collections were formed as much by way of historical coincidences and unexpected turns as via cultural and political intentions on the part of administrators and curators. The public’s understanding of Latin American art (and Latin America) could also be determined—regardless of collectors’ and patrons’ exact intentions—by the display of works in new exhibitions. Indych-López, in this regard, contextualizes Diego Rivera’s 1935 Flower Carrier display at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art within the popular use of modern Mexican imagery in movies at the time. Mexican art, which increasingly became a signifier of leftist politics of the 1940s, was adopted by filmmakers (many of whom were collectors of Latin American art) and used to denote the “defiant morality” and the “political subversion” of the characters within the films. But more importantly, the adoption of works such as The Flower Carrier within films of the period “reveals a strategic discursive deployment of Mexican art” (72–73).

Several essays also stress the importance of strong regional connections forged through shared academic interests, academically trained acquaintances, or initial tourist interests. Due to Mexico’s proximity to the United States, collectors established contacts in Mexico that helped build collections and thus led to the formation of major portions of public museum collections. Berit Potter demonstrates this was the case for the regional interests of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s first director, Grace McCann Morley. The same could be said of other important collectors establishing or taking advantage of regional contacts, even if at first they were led there by corporate interests or government-related travel, such as in the examples of Roberta and Richard Huber and the Philadelphia Museum of Art; Patricia Phelps de Cisneros and the Blanton Museum at the University of Texas, Austin (and other institutions); the Friends of Mexican Art at the Phoenix Museum; and of course, Nelson Rockefeller at MoMA.

The Americas Revealed explores a range of cases in the development of Latin American art collections in private and public institutions in the United States. It also informs us of many of the effects of hemispheric politics upon collecting trends. Conversely, and just as important, it points to how the category of “Latin American” in the arts has been constituted, altered, transformed, and even resisted by the curation and display of works by collectors and institutions. In these ways, the volume reveals the complexity of the taxonomic term in studies concerning the art of the Americas. 

With his understanding of the complexity of the problem, Sullivan admits that a larger, more complete study would have incorporated an analysis of the role of auction houses and galleries in the formation of corporate and institutional tastes across global markets. Pointing the way for further research, he concludes that a history of acquisitions would merit recounting “in a volume unto itself” (27). But for now, he has collected an impressive group of essays that for the first time frames a wider history of collecting Latin American art in the United States. It is an immensely useful scholarly volume.

Oscar E. Vázquez
Professor, Art History, School of Art & Design, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign