Interview with Gabriel Perez-Barreiro

Buenos Aires, 21 May 2016, Part One

Hans-Michael Herzog: At the dawn of this new century, a great number of initiatives focusing on contemporary Latin American art were launched. Let’s talk about what happened and did not happen in these two decades.

Aside from our Daros Latin America Collection, the list is a long one: the Mexican collection Jumex; Mari Carmen Ramírez and her megaprojects in Houston, the Halle Collection in Phoenix, Arizona; the one assembled by Venezuelan-Catalan Alfonso Pons; the great collections of Patricia Phelps de Cisneros and Ella Cisneros-Fontanals (although both already existed before this century); the Inhotim project by Bernardo Paz in Minas Gerais; the Malba in Buenos Aires… And let’s not forget the Museum of Modern Art in Havana. Worth mentioning also are the Latin American exhibitions and acquisitions in huge museums—such as TATE Modern, Centre Pompidou or MoMA—and the large number of galleries that opened at that time, as well as art fairs and biennials. I dare say that all this marked a new beginning.

What were our hopes twenty years ago? To what extent did they materialize? In the international arena, how did art from Latin America develop?

First of all, Gabriel, tell me when and how you began to get acquainted with Latin American art.

Gabriel Perez-Barreiro: My case is perhaps unusual. I’m not Latin American. I’m European. I was born in Galicia, in La Coruña, and grew up in England. Galicia is closely connected to America due to its history of migration. As a child, the village elders spoke of Havana or Buenos Aires as neighboring cities. In other words, they never talked about Madrid: theirs was a transatlantic world. Somehow, that must have stuck with me.

I studied Art History and Latin American Studies. Back then I was very interested in literature, especially Latin American literature. And also, in its art. But that subject was not even considered. Area Studies were anything but art. They covered literature, history, sociology, political science, you name it… except for art. And, conversely, art history was anything but Latin American.

I pondered on how I could wed these two interests of mine. When I was a 21-year old undergraduate at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, I had to spend an immersive semester in a town of my choice as part of a course requirement. I chose Buenos Aires, mostly for its literature and its music. As soon as I arrived, I said to myself: “I’ll go to the museum to see if I find something that interests me.” There was a solo show of Gyula Kosice. I didn’t even know who he was. I knew nothing. I went in, saw the exhibition and it changed my life. “I want to study that,” I decided.  It shed a light on me. But my interest was very specific: I didn’t want to be a Latin Americanist (nor did I even know this was even an option). I wanted to study that. I was taken with geometric practices and their converging ideas of utopia… So, I got my PhD on that and fully focused on that. And then what happened? An entire field became visible to me and I got hooked on contemporary art, which I was not aware of before. I started traveling and things started to happen. My professors warned me: “What you are doing is all fine and dandy, but don’t think you’ll ever be able to make a living from it. There are no jobs. And I said: “I don’t care.” In my early twenties I was not into practical matters. However, they were wrong. The field was growing and I’ve never lacked for work.

I discovered very important art histories: essential but unseen due to a series of factors that my Latin Americanist education was helping me to understand: the dependency theory, all those issues… In other words, I realized that in Europe—and then in the United States—we thought in terms of a geopolitical map that we were applying retroactively, although it had been fabricated in the postwar period. For example, when we talk about the West it is basically a North, and everything else is considered derivative. The world was not always like this. Modernity had a different geography. Art communicates in a different way. National-state identities were not the most important factor for the vanguard movements. There were other, much more specific influences: cities, communities… A community can have one foot here, one foot in Russia, one foot in Poland, one foot in England and one foot in Buenos Aires. This is what modernity is all about: specific hybrids. I’m interested in recovering a more complex sense of modernity, a cultural geography. And so naturally I was at odds—and I continue to be at odds—with this other project: the Latin Americanist vindication project; that of a common identity which has to be understood in a different context and which must keep its “difference” as a unity in itself. I am more of an integrationist. I want all those stories to intersect and be narrated from other viewpoints. That’s why I immediately opposed those who have defended a separatist vindication project: the idea that there is an inverted utopia and, therefore, also one that is standing up straight. Having said that, this position has its advantages. We need both. But, clearly, I went the other way. Again, the reason is that I did not approach this issue as a political problem beforehand, but rather as a historical problem, from which the political subsequently arose.  

When did you start working with Patty Cisneros?

Eight years ago. In 2008. For a long time, I knew who she was because she collected exactly that which interested me. We had crossed paths many years before without knowing it. The gallery owner Miklos von Bartha, from Basel, was collecting Argentinian concrete art in the early 1990s. I had seen these works in the studios in Buenos Aires during the very same years that von Bartha was visiting them. As a young researcher, I witnessed how this art was being produced. For the first time, someone at an international level had taken an interest in this work. It was a very complex process due to forgery disputes and other issues, in which I had some incidence, but that is another story. Patty bought many of these pieces. Decades later, I saw them again in her collection.

Paulo Herkenhoff introduced us when I was working at Americas Society and he was at the MoMA. When I left for the Blanton Museum in Austin in 2003, one of the things I did was reactivate the Cisneros Graduate Seminar that Mari Carmen Ramírez had begun, but had been suspended when she left. So, I embarked on a project of reconstruction. A series of exhibitions from the Patricia Phelps de Cisneros Collection [CPPC] were already scheduled. I told Patty that we should make a large show—instead of three smaller ones—within the framework of the research seminar, so that the students could participate in the entire curatorial process. She liked the idea and the result was the exhibition “The Geometry of Hope”, which opened in Austin and then traveled to New York. It became a great media success. The timing of the show made visible works that had already been exhibited in New York at several venues—including the Americas Society, when I was working there—but that few people had seen and were not well understood at the time. During this process, Patty asked me to be the head of the CPPC, and I accepted. I started working with Patty in 2008. 

Where were you in 2000?

In January 2000, I went to New York to head the Americas Society. I was there until mid-2003, when I went to Austin. It was a very difficult time for the Americas Society: during my time there, it had four presidents in three years. Lots of instability back then. It was a valuable institution, but a very complex one. And then, the Twin Towers fell on us! It happened precisely the day we opened “Abstract Art from Río de la Plata”, the exhibition curated by Mario Gradowczyk and Nelly Perazzo. I had my tie on and was ready to leave the house, when I saw the smoke emerging. Obviously, we had to cancel and opened the show a few days later. I had to witness very unhinged situations when I arrived in the United States. I was called from Madrid to run the institution. For me, it was an inconceivable leap. I had never been to the United States and never been one of those people who are dying to live in New York, thinking that it’s the center of the Universe. I still don’t think that way, despite all the years I’ve lived there.

Really?

It’s simply not one of my dream places. But hey, this opportunity came up and it was a good one. I quickly learned the U.S. system, which I knew nothing about. My frame of references had been Latin America and Europe. I began to understand how differently the United States faces Latin American issues.

How do you see this relationship? Valuable or counterproductive?

The subject is extremely complex because it’s double-edged. On the one hand, the United States is a country that absorbs everything. A country governed by an advanced capitalist system. This means everything is possible; all differences are eventually accepted because they become commodities. The European context is very different. Take their political worldview: a European believes there are original inhabitants and that everyone else is foreign and different. Growing up in England, I remember that the far right believed that immigrants could be repatriated so they could go back to having an “original” nation. And we see this in many other countries. What’s more, until Trump appeared this had never been a mainstream political discourse in the United States. In other words, it has been a country that accepts everyone, but on the basis of a project of assimilation in a market of differences.

Therefore, the demographic and political backgrounds in the United States and Europe diverge considerably. One thing that really caught my attention was how many U.S. curators accept the market system as a natural fact. That was quite a shock. I would refer to an artist that really interested me and the first thing many asked was: “Which gallery is she with?” I was used to a system where the best artists in Latin America did not have a gallery. For many important artists at the time, being represented by a gallery in Chelsea was not something important nor desirable. They worked things out differently. Luis Camnitzer made a living by teaching, for example. But U.S. curators in my experience are very confident in the market. Adam Smith-style. The market selects the best and its invisible hand brings it to your doorstep.

All this must be navigated in order to understand what that country is like, how it operates, and what the possibilities are. The country has changed a lot: it is now a driving force. Museums have been intelligently incorporating many significant Latin American works. Before these last 15-20 years—around which our conversation revolves—U.S. museums presented Latin American blockbusters: “We are doing this now, and then we’ll forget about it.” The recently created organic programs at the MoMA, Tate, and others are valuable because they systematically nurture their collections. This constitutes a radical step, which was inconceivable 20 years ago. Inconceivable! They used to curate shows with names like “Celebrate whatever”, “New Art from X, Y and Z”… Very stereotypical. And they were widely criticized at the time. There’s a lot of literature written back then, which questioned stereotypes like “the fantastic”, etc. And the response has been this one new strategy. North American museums understand who constitutes their political public. The museum directors I talk with and those who come to us say things like: “My population is 30% Hispanic and I don’t know what to do.”; “I don’t have a single Latin trustee”; “I don’t have any Hispanic on my staff.” They realize that they have a segregation problem. They are well aware of that, and it weighs significantly in their decision-making processes.

European museums don’t care that much about that. Their origins are different. Theirs are aristocratic collections. Their policies lie elsewhere: in giving citizens access to objects that used to belong to the very few. In the United States this is not so easy. There is no aristocracy. Museum collections were created recently and are at the service of a community, which to them represents the consumer: a customer. Museums are corporations that respond to their clientele. In Europe, they are older, stronger structures. Maybe not more solid, but generally more traditional. I am hypersimplifying in order to trace their diverging mindsets. The U.S. museum has more of an obligation to think of its public as its shareholder. 

That is good, in a way.

Yes, in many ways it is very good. But here you have another problem: most of this 30% Hispanic population in the United States is composed of legal or illegal immigrants from the lower classes. The Latin or Hispanic experience in the United States is not the same as in Latin America, whose art is generally more elitist and belongs to middle and upper-class levels. The bond between intellectuality and social class is tight knit. In the United States. this other conflict arises. The museums say: “We want to talk to the Latino community about their own experience” and they bring an artist from the Latin American cosmopolitan bourgeoisie. Then, an interesting or often frustrating discussion generates between what it means to be Latino (or Latinx) and what it means to be Latin American.

Please elaborate on your views of the treatment that great museums like MoMA or Tate have been giving to Latin American art in recent years. In principle, it seems positive that the Tate has a Latin American art program with designated curators and all. However, I have my doubts. Goodwill exists, but I wonder if it really translates into something substantial. I don’t see it as a very well-thought out strategy. I see it more as an arbitrary move. Let’s say we are given a bone without the meat.

Do you detect any results in Latin America itself? Any tangible and constant development? Do you have a specific example in mind?

Look, I’ve changed my mind a lot. For my generation, MoMA was the enemy. We read papers about how MoMA was Latin America’s great repressor and things like that. Wifredo Lam hanging right next to the wardrobe, and so on. Now I’m taking a closer look, partly because I work closely with these museums. This allows me to observe how they work from the inside. I think their organic approach is commendable since—little by little—Latin America is being integrated into the museum. Obviously, Patty has been a fundamental player in this evolution for decades. It is evident, for example, in the hanging of the collection, in public programs, in publications… The Latin American theme is being taken out of the ghetto. One or several works from Latin America are generally included in any exhibition—on mobile architecture or whatever it may be. For me this was a dream: that it would not always be seen within the framework of difference, but as part of a broader repertoire.

The museum that has most successfully achieved this integration is the MoMA. I think the way Latin American art has been normalized there is creditable. It is already incorporated in any topic. I remember, for example, a room in the permanent collection with works by [Alejandro] Otero, [Josef] Albers, [Ellsworth] Kelly, Willys de Castro and Max Bill. What was interesting was that the lesser known piece in this entire group—the one that had received the least exposure—was Max Bill’s. So, we have arrived to that rarity: the Latin American artist enjoys more visibility and helps to rescue a European from the basement, whose works have been there since the 1960s. It seems to me that here we are witnessing a more integrationist and interesting ecosystem.

Take, for example, the Texas experience. What did I like about a museum like the Blanton? It was a small museum, a university museum that generated specific knowledge. First with Mari Carmen’s series of important exhibitions, such as “Realigning Visions”. They were not essentialist projects; not “the art of this or that.” They were specific projects, like what we organized later: “The New York Graphic Workshop: 1964-1970” or solo shows of artists like Jorge Macchi or Waltercio Caldas. Exhibitions that allowed us to go in depth, to be very specific and to introduce new material to the system. Being able to do things that were not popular or populist, that were not sexy for the market. Without those university programs, we cannot generate future curators, lecturers for the programs, writers for the essays… Before, there were no graduate programs in Latin American art. Back in my days, there was Essex and Austin. Now there is Columbia, there is Yale …

Gabriel Pérez-Barreiro has a PhD in History and Theory of Art from the University of Essex (Great Britain), and an MA in Art History and Latin American Studies from the University of Aberdeen. He has authorednumerous books and articles, and lectured extensively on modern and contemporary art from Latin America. Today, he is senior advisor to the Colección Patricia Phelps de Cisneros and lives in New York. Among others, he was the director and chief curator of the CPPC (2008-2018); curator of the 33rd São Paulo Biennial (2018); curator of Latin American Art at the Blanton Museum of Art (2002-2008); general curator of the 6th Mercosul Biennial at Porto Alegre, Brazil (2007); and director of Visual Arts at The Americas Society in New York (2000-2002).

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