in other words

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Special Issue: America

Popping the Bubble

America Means North and South

Antonio Dias, The Illustration of Art/Uncovering the Cover-Up (1973) © Antonio Dias. Courtesy the artist and Galeria Nara Roesler, New York, New York, and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

BY Esther Gabara, PhD
E. Blake Byrne associate professor of romance studies and art, art history & visual studies, Duke University

Published
In Other Insights

In 2014, the Chilean-born artist Alfredo Jaar re-created the first major artwork he made in the United States for an exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum entitled “Under the Same Sun: Art from Latin America Today”. The work, A Logo for America (1987-2014), was a a 38-second video showing a map of the United States emblazoned with the message “This is not America”. That it was included in a show titled to specifically single out Latin America tells us something about the structures of art history and about art institutions.

Alfredo Jaar, A Logo for America (1987-2014) © Alfredo Jaar

The original work and its re-installation tell us that, despite Jaar’s billboard-sized proclamation in bright white lights in Times Square, the United States still has not gotten the message. Significantly, the reduced visibility of the re-created work—in 2014 the “logo” flashed across LED screens for just three minutes, from just 11:57pm until midnight each day, while in 1987 it repeated every six minutes, 24 hours a day—suggests that it may now be even harder to change the way people think about America.

Reminding North about South

For this special issue of In Other Words I want to briefly recall key artistic efforts to remind the north about the right to the name America that the southern portions of the continent have. The phrase—“el continente americano” [the American continent]—needs explanation as much as translation. The Spanish phrase refers to the entirety of South, Central and North America as one single and singular entity. The small, artificial fissure of the Panama Canal is not significant enough to divide the giant continent. “América”, with a small accent over the “e”, refers to the continental land mass as well as the Caribbean islands.

Raúl Martínez, El Vaquero (c.1969) © Raúl Martínez Estate, Ciego de Ávila, Cuba

In fact, it was Cuban essayist and art critic José Martí who wrote the foundational text in the history of this idea, Nuestra América (Our América, 1891), which appeared just before the United States asserted its political, military, and economic power over the hemisphere in the Spanish-American War of 1898. Martí’s famous essay was fully American: first published in Revista Ilustrada, a Spanish language periodical in New York City, it appeared soon thereafter in El Partido Liberal in Mexico City.

Nearly a century later in 1992, in the flurry of events around the quincentennial of the Spanish conquest of the continent, Carolina Ponce de León, Gerardo Mosquera, and Rachel Weiss co-organized the exhibition “Ante América” (“Regarding America) at the Luis Ángel Arango Library and the Banco de la República in Bogotá, Colombia, which sought to look at art “from [América] itself and from the South”.

Our America

Citing Martí, Mosquera described this Southern point of view as: “a discourse of integration. South American, Caribbean, Mesoamerican, indigenous, Chicano, African North-American, exiled Latin American in Europe, artists participate in it… that is, that entire conglomerate of diversities that we can sense—more than specifically explain—under the general rubric of Latin America, or better, of Our America.”

Those contemporary American artists included Antonio Caro, Enrique Chagoya, José Bedia, Jimmie Durham and Maria Thereza Alves, Guillermo Gómez-Peña, Ana Mendieta, and Jaar himself. Even a long-time advocate of marginalized artists such as New York Times art critic Holland Cotter, who praised the high quality of the artists in “Ante América”, expressed some confusion about the organizing concept. While it could almost be a show of Latin American art, he wrote back in 1993, “somewhat mysteriously, artists from Haiti, Jamaica and North America who are not of Hispanic descent are also represented”.

Juan José Gurrola, Familia Kool Aid from the series “Dom-Art” (c.1966-67). Courtesy the Fundación Gurrola AC and House of Gaga, Mexico City, Mexico and Los Angeles, California

From Bogotá, “Ante América” traveled to the Queens Museum of Art (now the Queens Museum), and appeared simultaneously with the Museum of Modern Art’s massive “Latin American Artists of the Twentieth Century”. Again, América confronts “Latin America”, and the contrast between Mosquera’s text and the MoMA press release is notable.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the MoMA exhibit—which was commissioned by the Spanish entity Comisaria de la Ciudad de Sevilla para 1992—envisioned “Latin American” art burdened by an insurmountable debt to Europe. The gallery dedicated to “Early Modernism explores the effects of advanced European art on Latin American artists” while “Expressionism and Landscape Painting comprises works that evince highly personal interpretations of the European landscape tradition” and “Surrealism and Lyric Abstraction shows the effects of the emigration of artists from Europe to the Americas”. 

The ongoing struggle for the South’s right to America leads to (but by no means will end) with my current curatorial project, “Pop América, 1965-1975” which will open at the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University and the McNay Art Museum, San Antonio this year and next.

America as a Concept

The product of extensive collaborative research with scholars, curators, and artists across the hemisphere, “Pop América” follows “Ante América” and a new generation of exhibitions which consider the relationship between categories constituted as US Latino/a and Latin American art. Our exhibition explores America itself as a universal concept associated with ideas of freedom, progress and diversity. We feature artists who have explored the rich complexities of América, and thus create a more inclusive and accurate—if also more challenging—image of America.

Rupert García, Unfinished Man (1968) © Rupert García. Courtesy the artist and Rena Bransten Gallery, San Francisco, California
Photo credit: John Janca

Pop art offers a special opportunity to engage this history of debates over America. Some reviews of Tate Modern’s “The World Goes Pop” (2015-16) decried the small number of US mainstays such as Andy Warhol. Regardless whether one agrees or disagrees with the criticism, it highlights the degree to which “Americanity” adheres to Pop even in its international wanderings.

“Pop América, 1965-1975” features a selection of artists who formed a pan-American network—including Luis Cruz Azaceta, Antonio Dias, Rupert García, Rubens Gerchman, Beatriz González, Juan José Gurrola, Carlos Irizarry, Marta Minujín, Raúl Martínez, Marisol, and Felipe Ehrenberg—and honed in on Pop’s radical potential to alter the meaning of America.

They did so at a critical moment in the emergence of contemporary art practices, including media art, performance, and a range of new realisms, and at a key juncture in the relationship between the US and the rest of the hemisphere, when new economic and political relationships were put into place. As much as powerful variants of geometric abstraction have received merited attention recently, these important contributions to post-war figuration played a key role in the emergence of contemporary American art and warrant similar consideration.

The title of the exhibition was inspired by Chilean Hugo Rivera Scott’s Pop América (1968), which featured the word “América”—with an accent—in a collage that referenced the aesthetic of mass media and advertising permeating Pop internationally. Rivera Scott also recalls that he sought to emphasize the action of “popping” or exploding América, drawing our attention to how he and other artists turned “Pop” into a verb. Their paintings, designs, sculptures, assemblages, and performances made forceful interventions into art and society, and invited viewers to respond actively. More than a style or movement, the exhibition presents an exercise of “Popping” the icons of the postwar “American way of life”. The artworks, then and now, enliven once again important debates over what “America” is and what its art can do.

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