Mr. and Mrs. Coleccionista
The Boca Raton Museum of Art has a well-established, mostly noble tradition of showcasing art from local collections, usually in the gallery at the far northern end of the first floor not prime real estate, as museum space goes, but certainly respectable. For "Masters of Latin America: Selections from the Joan and Milton Bagley Collection," however, the museum has gone all out and devoted its main first-floor galleries to a private collection. There's even a lavish catalog featuring four-color plates of all 58 of the works included, and in the "Acknowledgments," Boca Museum Executive Director George S. Bolge indicates that the exhibition took a year to come together.
The catalog also includes "The Rewards of Living With Art," a short, admirably modest essay by the Bagleys; "The Collection of Joan and Milton Bagley," a somewhat amorphous essay by Mary Anne Martin, a New York gallery owner with whom the Bagleys have a longstanding relationship; and Bolge's "The Passion of Collecting," an earnest if uneven attempt to make sense of the urge to collect art.
After making your way through the exhibition and its catalog, you may find, as I did, that the urge to collect remains as elusive and mysterious as ever. But what a journey! The 58 paintings, sculptures, and drawings in the show (comprising the work of 16 artists) come from a collection that numbers hundreds of works of art, amassed over the course of 27 years, and it boggles the mind to contemplate what it must be like to live amid a collection so vast and diverse.
To encourage and enhance such contemplation, both exhibition and catalog include photographs of the art in situ, and it's immediately evident that the Bagleys' home has been not so much designed or decorated as curated. The works are seamlessly incorporated into their environment, which the couple actually had remodeled a few years ago to accommodate the growing collection. The altered structure now includes vaulted ceilings, skylights, and larger expanses of wall.
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Milton Bagley is a veteran ad man, which helps explain where the money to accumulate a significant collection comes from, although he credits the "driving force to acquire art" to Joan, a former docent with the American Craft Museum in New York. As their introductory essay explains: "It all began in 1979, as we approached our silver wedding anniversary. In response to the usual time-honored question, 'What would you like?' the reply was 'Something unusual. '"
To which one might add, "Mission accomplished." Although their collection includes some big names Botero, Lam, Matta, Rivera, Zúñiga the Bagleys seem to have followed their own sometimes-quirky tastes rather than the vagaries of the art market. Even their preoccupation with Latin American art seems to have come about serendipitously, as a result of exposure to it during their frequent vacations in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
It was in the galleries of Santa Fe that the Bagleys fell (and fell hard) for Mexican art, which, along with Cuban art, makes up more than half of "Masters of Latin America." Perhaps in commemoration of that discovery, the exhibition begins with The Girl From Janitzio (1949), a small, unassuming watercolor on rice paper by Mexican master Diego Rivera that is about as far from showy as you can get, considering Rivera's association with massive murals.
The lion's share of the show eight sculptures in bronze, black marble, and onyx and two works on paper, one in chalk, the other in charcoal and pastel also goes to a Mexican artist, Francisco Zúñiga. Most of these pieces are grouped together, to great advantage. Zúñiga's subject matter is the female form, both nude and clothed, occasionally stylized but usually portrayed realistically. They also range from tabletop-sized, as in the hauntingly pensive black marble Mujer con Rebozo (Woman With Shawl) (1975); to life-sized, as in Elena (1976), the artist's bronze portrait of his stern, dignified wife; to larger-than-life, as in Mujer con Manos en la Cara (Woman With Hands to Her Face) (1976), a magnificent bronze that occupies a prominent place in the Bagleys' living room.
The other "name" artists here are represented by less-impressive works. The hugely popular Colombian artist Fernando Botero, best-known for his comically rotund portraiture, has two pieces in the show. The 1982 oil Joven Nude is typical of his signature style, although the female subject appears squeamishly young. A sculpture, a 1989 bronze called Cavaliere (Man on Horseback), demonstrates how handily Botero's rounded forms translate to three dimensions.
Although I yield to no one in my fondness for great Chilean surrealist Roberto Matta, I can muster only minimal enthusiasm for Les Oh! Tomobiles, the large 1972 oil rendering of a traffic jam that occupies a prominent place both in the Bagleys' living room and near the end of the exhibition. Nor does the small oil El Pájaro (The Bird) (1954) do justice to Matta's Cuban counterpart, Wifredo Lam. (Oddly, two 1960 watercolors by Mexican artist Francisco Toledo seem closer to the surrealist spirit we expect from Matta and Lam.)
The Lam painting is grouped with most of the other Cuban works in galleries on the museum's eastern side. This subset of the collection is easily dominated by a trio of oils by Julio Larraz. Two are obliquely witty still lifes: The Cardinal (1981), which uses pomegranates and eggplants to suggest a portrait of a religious figure, and Phoebus and Deimos (1990), in which a table holds a huge melon flanked by two small apples that stand in for the title characters from Greek mythology, sons of Ares and Aphrodite, whose names mean "fear" and "panic," respectively, and whose responsibility it was to drive their father's chariot into battle.
The remaining Larraz painting, The Review (1988), is beautiful and fraught with meaning. On the surface, it's a simple portrayal of a woman bearing a large bowl of tropical fruit on her head as she walks alongside a whitewashed wall. Larraz draws on an amazing array of whites for the woman's dress, for the wall itself, and for the building beyond it.
But as with so much Cuban painting, there's a wealth of metaphor at work. The barrels of four cannons jut out above (and cast their shadows upon) the wall past which the woman walks, reminding her of her place in a society dominated by a military dictatorship. At the same time, there's a purposefulness to her stride, and the fresh fruit atop her head suggests life and vitality against the backdrop of stone and metal. And the small hole in the wall through which seeps rusty water can even be read as an ominous portent, a slow, steady erosion of the power looming behind the wall.
Another Cuban, Tomás Sánchez, contributes Desde las Hierbas (2000), a small tempera rendering of a grassy landscape that, lovely as it is, only hints at the grandeur of the artist's much larger paintings.
Also worth noting are a pair of works in oil and wax by Nicaraguan Armando Morales, Two Nudes, One Undressing (1974-82) and Granada: La Port et le Baigneus (1991). In both, Morales has an uncanny way of making human flesh look sculptural, almost as if it has been carved from stone or cast in burnished metal.
The Bagleys' showstopper, for me, is a 1982 oil called Nemesis, by Mexican artist Guillermo Meza. It's a portrait of a woman with a headdress and gown made of petal-like forms that seem to cascade down and over her, partially revealing her breasts. Part of the garment to the lower right of the canvas looks to have been bloodied, and her solemn face is half-concealed by a strange veil of some sort that blocks her eyes. I have no idea what it all adds up to, but the ineffable air of mystery is irresistible.
If there's a complaint to be lodged against the Bagley collection, at least on the basis of this exhibition, it's that more than half the works included were created in the past 25 years, which necessarily means that much of this art has yet to stand the test of time. That's a minor quibble, of course, applicable more to those who approach art as investment and less to those who, like the Bagleys, are governed by the pleasure they take from their collection. As they put it: "We never anticipated the importance that living with art would make in our lives. It's been a long and happy road we traveled together; it's not over yet."
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