Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
December 3, 2020
Niko Vicario Hemispheric Integration: Materiality, Mobility, and the Making of Latin American Art Studies on Latin American Art. Oakland: University of California Press, 2020. 312 pp.; 40 color ills.; 20 b/w ills. Cloth $50.00 (9780520310025)
Thumbnail

In his important new book, Niko Vicario reconfigures how we understand Latin American art by mapping a set of relations among key protagonists from Mexico, Uruguay, Cuba, and the United States between 1933 and 1945. All prominent artists, curators, and cultural influencers, they participated in a vigorous conversation centered on economic policy, industry, and art. Vicario chronicles their interactions and the objects they produced in a narrative that revolves around David Alfaro Siqueiros, Joaquín Torres-García, and Mario Carreño. Nelson Rockefeller, as the patron responsible for the acquisition of a collection of Latin American art by the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in the early 1940s, also figures prominently in an account that tracks the relationships of “mutual entanglement” that engendered the emergence of Latin American art, what Vicario calls a “geo-cultural category” (9, 13).

It would be enough if Vicario’s study added nuance to a complex period that has been mischaracterized as either the closing chapter of nationalism or the staging ground for geometric abstraction. It accomplishes this and much more by breaking down binaries that have made it difficult to grasp the totality of art and politics during this moment. The book clears up many distortions, including the fiction that artists embracing Indigenous themes and those pursuing abstraction were, by definition, operating in separate camps. Joining a growing body of transnational studies (i.e., books by Lori Cole, María Amalia García, Michele Greet, Olga Herrera, Anna Indych-López, and Harper Montgomery), Vicario intervenes with an original and rigorous approach that puts into practice a social history of art embedded in the matter of art and in the dynamics of industry and trade.

His first two chapters examine Siqueiros’s and Torres-García’s efforts to foster hemispheric projects. It is provocative to begin the book with two artists who appear so different—Siqueiros, a communist forced into exile for his involvement in a plot to assassinate Leon Trotsky, and Torres-García, returning to Montevideo after having lived in Europe for most of his life. Siqueiros made murals featuring human forms and political messages and Torres-García promoted abstract painting and sculpture rooted in “Indo-American” imagery and Constructivism (83). And yet, Vicario reveals that they shared common concerns. Both wanted to concretize modes of production that could resist the neo-imperial forces of Europe and the United States, while simultaneously positing an independent Latin American modernity. Siqueiros embraced industrial materials: experimenting with a synthetic paint developed by the US automobile industry, Duco, he set out on an extended journey during which he taught artists in New York, Buenos Aires, and Havana to paint murals and portable murals with this new technology. His goal was, in a sense, to reterritorialize a US-invented technology. Meanwhile, Torres-García sought to invent a morphological language that drew on Andean sources, which he taught at his short-lived “Institute of Morphology in the Plastic Arts” (83–83) and described in countless lectures, drawings, and texts, which he disseminated on the airwaves and in printed copies to an extensive network of contacts in Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Paraguay, Brazil, and Mexico.

Vicario argues that Siqueiros’s and Torres-García’s projects were closely tied to anxieties about US economic control over the region. Both lamented that Latin American artists were succumbing to the pressure to make art “for export”—that is, art that molded itself to the fashion for the folkloric in the United States (1–3). They were also aware that Latin American leaders were urging countries in the region to correct trade imbalances; the concern was that Latin American countries exported mostly raw goods, while importing too many manufactured goods from Europe and the United States. Adopting “import substitution industrialization,” a policy devised by the Argentine economist Raúl Prebisch, would, many of the region’s leaders believed, correct the imbalance by restricting manufactured imports and encouraging the production of nationally made industrial goods.

Chapter 3 shifts the viewpoint to the very forces that import substitution industrialization was designed to resist. Chronicling how Rockefeller and his family shaped the programs at MoMA for collecting, studying, and displaying Latin American art, it focuses on key events that coalesced around 1940. These included Rockefeller’s appointment by Franklin Delano Roosevelt as coordinator of the short-lived federal agency the Office of Inter-American Affairs, the blockbuster exhibition Twenty Centuries of Mexican Art, a retrospective of the work of the Brazilian artist Candido Portinari, an exhibition of contemporary “North American” painting that toured Latin America, and Lincoln Kirstein’s trip in 1942 to the region to purchase art for MoMA. By digging deep into the archives, Vicario constructs a historically grounded account of how “Latin American art” became a category imbued with tensions and power struggle. For instance, in a “confidential” report that the curator Grace McCann Morley filed to the Office of Inter-American Affairs after having organized the touring exhibition of “North American” art for it, she openly questions the top-down practices of the agency and instead urges that future exhibitions be approached as collaborative endeavors organized in response to requests generated by Latin American colleagues.

In the fourth and final chapter, Vicario answers the question “How did the field of Latin American art come to shape the way pictures looked?” by exploring how Cuban artist Carreño crafted work that attempted to meet the expectations of both tourists and local critics seeking authentic expressions of lo cubano (156). In the painting that adorns the book’s cover—Sugar Cane Cutters (1943)—themes of the industrial, local, and hemispheric come together in an image of a pair of heroic peasants harvesting sugar cane. Crafted from Duco, which Carreño learned to paint with from Siqueiros, the portable mural demonstrates that Cuban labor and land were essential to the production of sugar, which was the export good that both supported the Cuban economy and signified its dependence on the United States. Vicario argues that this work, which was widely praised when it was shown at MoMA in 1944, was both made for and produced by the hemispheric conditions that shaped Carreño’s reality—it was, as Vicario states, “the savvy product of ‘interpenetration’” (156) and a bald form of “ethnocommodification” (175).

The complex web of exchanges that Vicario brings together throughout his book depends on manifold sources. These include archival documents gathered from Montevideo, Mexico City, and New York; the histories of import substitution industrialization and the Good Neighbor policy; and the close examination of artworks, many of which appear to be atypical and defy neat stylistic categories. It also depends on treating artworks as materials and forms that are at turns shaped by the external pressures of the market and by the imaginative will of artists. Duco—the industrial paint that came in a wide range of bright, long-lasting hues—is established as a key material that connects chapters 1 and 4. Similarly, people and documents serve as connectors whose roles change depending on the context. Kirstein, for instance, appears in chapter 1 as an observer of Siqueiros’s mural in Chile, and, in chapter 3, he returns as the curator of MoMA’s Latin American collection. MoMA’s exhibitions of Latin American art are a focus of chapter 3, while in chapter 2, when Torres-García receives the catalog for the exhibition Indian Art of the United States from MoMA curator René d’Harnoncourt, it prompts him to incorporate references to First Nations into his Universal Constructivist painting. I rehearse these examples of the historical complexity Vicario brings to his subject because his book reminds us—more than any other I can recall having read in recent years—of the need to attend to this complexity as we redouble our efforts to assess and redress the inequalities produced by power imbalances that continue to haunt how art is made and perceived.

Harper Montgomery
Hunter College, City University of New York