An important gift will transform MoMA’s holdings of Latin American art

by F.R. / THE ECONOMIST / / In The News

LATIN AMERICAN art has long been an important feature of the collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Ever since 1931, when Alfred Barr, its then-director, followed an exhibition of Henri Matisse with a one-man show of the Mexican modernist, Diego Rivera, the museum has collected design, photography, film, architectural drawings, paintings and sculpture from region. In 2014 it put on the first American retrospective of Lygia Clark, a radical Brazilian who died in 1988. It brought together 300 works that were grouped around three themes: abstraction, Neo-Concretism and what the artist termed the “abandonment” of art. Now the museum can do even more, thanks to a donation from an important private collector.

The gift of 102 paintings and sculptures comes from Patricia Phelps de Cisneros, a long-time patron and trustee of MoMA, who has been buying art for more than half a century. Over the past 16 years she and her husband, Gustavo Cisneros, a Venezuelan-Dominican media mogul, have already donated 40 works to MoMA. This most recent gift will increase MoMA’s Latin American paintings and sculpture by as much as half again. It also includes plans for a Cisneros Institute to be opened in MoMA’s Midtown Manhattan campus, which will focus on curatorial research, hosting an annual international conference and producing publications on art from Latin America. “It’s the largest gift we’ve ever had,” says MoMA’s director, Glenn Lowry. “It’s the most important gift, and in terms of size it’s the biggest.”

The seed of the idea was sown in the first week of Mr Lowry’s directorship in 1993. But it was not until nine years ago that the two began discussing specifics. “We wanted to make sure that whatever we gave was the perfect fit,” Mrs Cisneros says. According to Mr Lowry, Mrs Cisneros offered the museum anything it wanted from her collection. “We had to be careful that we were not duplicating what we already had, that we were filling in weaknesses and that we were adding depth where we were already strong,” he says.

The curators focused on geometric abstraction, a movement that grew up in the 1940s and took its cue from Europeans like Piet Mondrian and artists of the Bauhaus group. Made of metal, paint on wood, plexiglass or woven paper, as well as more conventional materials to study the relationship between planes and angles, Latin American modernism evolved in four countries—Brazil, Venezuela, and the Río de la Plata region of Argentina and Uruguay—into an aesthetic all of its own. Artists such as Clark, Hélio Oiticica, Lygia Pape, Jesús Rafael Soto, Alejandro Otero and Tomás Maldonado have long been regarded as modernists, but it is only in the last decade or so that their work is being studied seriously alongside that of European and American modernists. “A whole chapter of international modernism is revealed in these works,” Mr Lowry says, “allowing a more complex understanding of modern art as an international, multifaceted movement.”

The Cisneros gift includes work by 37 artists, of which 21 are entering MoMA’s collection for the first time. Some of them, such as Clark, Oiticica and Mr Maldonado, are well known. The gift will help the museum fill in that layer of people who were working at the same time, but who are less studied. “What is truly important,” Mrs Cisneros says, “is that it allows us now to tell the story of geometric abstraction as a whole. It brings the movement together.”

MoMA will organise a major exhibition of the Cisneros gift after its new extension is opened in 2019. It will also allow the museum to reassess its own modernist collection of artists such as Jackson Pollock, Francis Bacon and Willem de Kooning. “Our interest from the outset is about the ongoing dialogue between different artists who were grappling with similar sets of problems all over the world,” says Mr Lowry. “The gift will catalyse a rethinking of how we think about our own we can do a room devoted to Lygia Clark, Alejandro Otero or Willys de Castro. In fact, we can show de Castro’s ‘Modulated Composition, 1954’ alongside the Mondrian that inspired it. Because we own that Mondrian.”