On the Lam

It's relatively early in the year, I know, but "Wifredo Lam in North America" is such a knockout that I'm prepared to go ahead and declare it one of the best exhibitions of 2008. Yes, it's that good.

The show, now at the Miami Art Museum (MAM), is the Cuban-born artist's first major South Florida retrospective, and it includes more than 80 paintings, drawings, watercolors, gouaches, and prints along with a smattering of memorabilia. It takes up the museum's entire second floor; even so, you might leave hungry for more.

Wifredo Oscar de la Concepción Lam y Castilla was born in Cuba in 1902 and died in Paris almost 80 years later. In between, he charted one of the more remarkable artistic lives of the 20th Century. As art historian and critic Edward Lucie-Smith, who wrote one of the excellent exhibition catalog's six essays, has noted, "Lam came from a background which was exotic even by Latin American standards."

The artist's father, who was in his 80s when Lam (the last of eight children) was born, was Chinese, while his mother's heritage included Cuban, Congolese, and a trace of American Indian; his godmother was a Santería priestess. Lam was married three times, first to a Cuban who died along with their young son of tuberculosis a couple of years later; then to a German, from whom he was divorced after seven years; and finally to Lou Laurin, a Swede who bore him three sons. (He also had another son through an outside relationship.)

By the time Lam wed Laurin in 1960, he had already spent 15 years (1923-38) in Spain, where he fought on the Republican side in the civil war; a few years in France, where he became involved with the surrealist group; and more than a decade (1941-52) in his native Cuba before returning to Paris, where he spent most of the rest of his life. The couple were committed world travelers, however, and by her account, they visited Scandinavia, Russia, the United States, Mexico, India, Nepal, Ceylon, Thailand, Egypt, and Kenya. He had already spent some time in Haiti as well.

Along the way, Lam accumulated an everybody-who-was-anybody roster of friends and acquaintances: such artists as Picasso, Matisse, Miró, Braque, Léger, André Masson, and Asger Jorn, to name a few, along with writer and surrealism founder André Breton and anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss. Picasso and Lam became especially close, with the former's art influencing that of the latter, particularly during the 1940s, after Lam had returned to Cuba.

I linger on all this because Lam's rich, far-ranging life fed directly into his art. Tropical landscapes, the syncretic religious traditions of Santería and voodoo, the arts of Africa and the South Pacific (ceremonial masks, specifically), cubism and surrealism — these are just some of the things that came to bear on his prodigious output, which his widow estimated at 2,500 pieces. The exhibition — which originated at Marquette University's Haggerty Museum of Art in Milwaukee and travels to the Museum of Latin American Art in Long Beach, California, before ending its tour at the Salvador Dalí Museum in St. Petersburg — pays cursory attention to Lam's early work, most of which is unmemorable except as hints of what was to come. The Portrait of Sra. García de Castro, II of 1937 is a vibrant exception, a surprisingly mature exploration of color and pattern that could be mistaken for a Matisse.

The '30s also mark the appearance of the long-haired lovelies who would haunt Lam's work for years to come — and who would become increasingly unrecognizable as the artist absorbed the influence of Picasso. As these figures became subsumed in the geometric forms of cubism, they also gave way to strangely beautiful hybrids that blend human elements with flora and fauna. It is in these trademark Lam creatures, with their masklike faces, that his Afro-Cuban heritage comes into full play. They are at the heart of Lam's widely agreed-upon masterpiece, The Jungle (1943), which, unfortunately, isn't included here. (Lam wrote of this piece, "Indeed, a friend of mine says that in spirit it is very close to certain medieval representations of hell.")

I came to Lam by way of these alien beings, who struck me as having a distinct affinity with the similarly exotic, biomorphic figures that populate the canvases of Chilean surrealist Roberto Matta, an artist who has long fascinated me and who was also the subject of a smashing MAM retrospective several years ago. Lucie-Smith and other scholars have remarked on the aesthetic kinship of Lam and Matta, with Lucie-Smith observing that they are "two other Latin American exiles who are often mentioned in almost the same breath..."

But where Matta's explorations took him into the realms of 20th-century science and science fiction, Lam's anchored him to the earth with his tribal imagery and its ubiquitous masks. As Lowery Stokes Sims, who also has an essay in the catalog, puts it: "There is, however, a difference in philosophical approaches in the work of the two artists. As Lam's work continues to hover on the edge of esoteric spiritualist content during the 1950s, Matta's, in contrast, evolved into a postapocalyptic imagery."

Not surprisingly, Lam and Matta crossed paths in Paris, although I have yet to find any definitive references to any conscious artistic cross-pollination between the two. Years later, however, both were featured in an exhibition at the Pierre Matisse Gallery in New York, leaving us to speculate at what an extraordinary show that must have been. You can also get a sense of the overlap in a masterly painting such as La rumeur de la terre (Rumblings of the Earth) (1950), which also carries more than a whiff of Picasso's Guernica.

If you're pleased with Lam at MAM — and if you aren't, I'm not sure if I want to know you — you can further enhance your museumgoing by stopping off at the Gary Nader Gallery in the Wynwood arts district on your way out of town. Nader, one of the top Miami showcases for Latin American art, is piggybacking on the MAM exhibition with "Wifredo Lam: A One-Man Show," which is almost as impressive as its institutional counterpart.

Unlike many such satellite shows, which often consist of little more than a few lithographs, Nader's is the real thing, a full-scale retrospective with dozens of Lam oil paintings, many of them of museum quality. Between these two first-rate exhibitions, you can see in one day more Lam originals than most people will ever see in a lifetime. It's an experience I highly recommend.

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Michael Mills