Latin American art is more important over the long haul for the Museum of Art|Fort Lauderdale than even Princess Diana and King Tut. Those royal visitors were just that — guests from the outside world, invited in to stimulate publicity and generate big bucks. Latin American art is in the museum's blood.
Nearly a decade and a half ago, MOA|FL presented "Breaking Barriers: Selections From the Museum of Art's Permanent Contemporary Cuban Collection." It was a landmark exhibition featuring works by nearly a hundred artists. Two years ago, the museum followed up with a sequel of sorts, the smaller but no less ambitious "Unbroken Ties: Dialogues in Cuban Art," with works by more than 50 artists. It was named Best Group Exhibition in last year's Best Of Broward-Palm Beach issue (stay tuned for next week, when we'll name this year's winner).
Now we get a pair of related shows that both broaden and sharpen the conversation about the Museum of Art|Fort Lauderdale and Latin American art. "Latin American Art From the Collection of Pearl and Stanley Goodman" is, as the title indicates, drawn from the private collection of the Goodmans, longtime supporters of the museum who have been seriously collecting Latin American art since the early 1990s.
The second show, "Recent Acquisitions From the Museum's Latin American Art Collection," might ordinarily take a back seat to the primary exhibition, but in this case, it's as strong if not stronger. The Goodman show, which gives us 74 works by 46 artists, provides breadth and historical context; the so-called secondary show goes for depth and currency, emphasizing 41 artists and 56 works, most of which have entered the museum's collection in the past five years, thanks to the diligence of Jorge Hilker Santis, a veteran curator and head of collection research at the museum.
Stanley Goodman, a retired cardiologist, and wife Pearl, a former schoolteacher and realtor, started their amazing collection at Art Miami in 1991 with the purchase of a work on paper by David Alfaro Siqueiros, one of the triumvirate of great Mexican muralists that includes Diego Rivera and José Clemente Orózco. The collection is usually displayed in its entirety in the Fort Lauderdale house the Goodmans bought in 1967. The selection culled for this exhibition is heavy on works from Cuba, Mexico, Uruguay, and Argentina, with a smattering of art from Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Peru, and Venezuela, along with a handful of works by artists who were immigrants to Latin America from elsewhere.
Both show and catalog feature commentary by one of South Florida's leading authorities on Latin American art, Carol Damian, an art history professor at Florida International University as well as director and chief curator at FIU's Frost Museum. Damian identifies five areas into which the Goodmans' collection can be categorized: the Mexican muralists and social realism, surrealism, geometric abstraction, "personal mysteries and universal movements," and "issues of identity and social commentary."
There are strong entries within each field, with the Mexican muralists and surrealism coming off particularly well — a testament to the Goodmans' educated tastes and independent scholarship. The show includes half a dozen works by Rivera, including four exceptional paintings that convey a sense of the humble lives of ordinary Mexicans, and there are outstanding works by Siqueiros and Rufino Tamayo.
But it is the section on surrealism that's most breathtaking. The Goodmans typically eschew still lifes and landscapes, but they also zero in on the mental landscapes of such surrealist masters as Cuban Wifredo Lam, the first artist they bought at auction, and Chilean Roberto Matta. The catalog includes a portrait of the Goodmans standing before a wall in their home graced by a world-class Lam flanked by two equally impressive Mattas from the 1950s; it's enough to make you drool.
The transition from the Goodmans' collection into that of the museum is all but seamless, although the two shows have only one artist — Argentina's Graciela Sacco — in common. From there on, it's one stunner after another: two surreal pastels by Carlos Estévez, a Cuban, that meld man and insect; Argentine Victoria Gitman's meticulous re-creation of a postcard of a Velázquez painting; an elaborate mixed-media installation about childhood trauma by Cuban exile María Brito; an oil-on-wood exercise in magical realism that alludes to Kafka and Cervantes by Benjamin Cañas of El Salvador; large-scale color photographs by Puerto Ricans Carlos Betancourt and Quintin Rivera Toro; and much, much more.
In general, the newer works traffic more in latter-day magical realism than in the social realism we witnessed in the first show, and there is a greater willingness among the younger artists to explore nontraditional media. The "issues of identity and social commentary" Professor Damian identified as one of the dominant themes of the Goodmans' collection come even more to the fore.
The two shows make for fascinating comparisons and contrasts. Taken together — and that's how they should be approached — they make for one awesome excursion through the visual culture of Latin America.