Latin American Artists in New York -- El Museo del Barrio

There's only until the end of February to see one of the most dynamic, interesting and original exhibitions now on in Manhattan: Nexus New York: Latin/American Artists in the Modern Metropolis. It's at the nicely refurbished, newly reopened Museo del Barrio in the upper reaches of Fifth Avenue. Take my advice: run, don't walk!!!

The exhibition is part of a rising celebration of Latin American art and its sophisticated relationship to global pathways. It is also a hymn to the way New York City functioned in the mid-twentieth century as a hothouse for transformation and cultural influence. The show charts the interactions experienced by artists from Latin America as they collaborated professionally, shared studios, studied with and loved counterparts from the United States, Europe and elsewhere.

The emotional and geographical intensity is captured in a brilliant and intense presentation of the lives of Alice Neel and Carlos Enríquez. Neel met the aristocratic Cuban artist at the Chester Springs summer school of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. Early Neel works, juxtaposed with works of Enriquez, are installed with a running narrative of their torrid relationship.

The exhibition shows rarely seen drawings and paintings from the Alice Neel estate and includes an informative video about their relationship composed of interviews with Neel and with those who knew her life and art. One of the exhibition's sensations is Neel's painting, Well-Baby Clinic, a scene of horrors and miracles.

The Neel-Enríquez pairing is typical of the mini-narratives that are contained within this richly researched and beautifully executed show. The curatorial interventions are pedagogical without being overly didactic, instructive without being overbearing. The charm and interest of the works themselves are not overtaken by the curatorial point being made.

Take, for example, the pairing of the dense, rich and lively caricatures of Miguel Covarrubias and the emerging production of the ubiquitous Al Hirschfeld. A portfolio of Hirschfeld's work shows the debt to Covarrubias--one that Hirschfeld readily acknowledged. The exhibition places Covarrubias-Hirschfeld into a larger story of graphic innovation. There's a generous representation of Marius de Zayas and Alfred Stieglitz together with other graphic artists of the period.

The show is also something of an ode to the Art Students League of New York, the workhorse facility that for so many years has brought together artists and art students from around the world. An essay in the catalogue by Katherine Manthorne describes how "many aspiring artists from Central and South America and the Caribbean--hungry for the new artistic languages utilized in Europe and the United States"--enrolled at the Art Students League and elsewhere. The Dominican artist Celeste Woss y Gil was perhaps the strongest of a group of painters who came to study at the Art Students League and who showed the influence of their great teachers, including Robert Henri.

Another exciting curatorial moment is the matching of Florine Stettheimer and Adolfo Best-Maugard. It's one of the felicities of this exhibition that Stettheimer looks like less of an eccentric or outsider when she is placed in this historical context.

More complex and interwoven with our existing ideas of fame is a section that shows the intersections between Diego Rivera and a variety of American artists--Raphael Soyer, Lucienne Bloch, Jackson Pollock and his older brother Sanford McCoy. One of the examples of taste and selection is that the curator, Deborah Cullen, invokes Diego and places him in context, but does not play to his larger than life influence. Diego is invoked through his admirers: one of the charming pieces is a drawing by Soyer of Diego, on his scaffolding in Rockefeller Center. This section contains the wild, stormy and disturbing painting by David Alfaro Siqueiros, "Birth of Fascism."

One of the many other benefits of the exhibition is to provoke renewed interest in the Ecuadorian muralist, Camilo Egas. Egas was one of the three muralists, along with Thomas Hart Benton and José Clemente Orozco, commissioned as part of Alvin Johnson's new building for the New School for Social Research on 12th Street (with Joseph Urban making his important architectural contribution). The extraordinary murals by Benton are now, oddly, accessible to the public in the lobby of the AXA building on the Avenue of the Americas at 52nd Street. Egas's work, handsomely represented in the Museo exhibit and discussed in a catalogue essay by Michele Greet, still languishes, largely ignored.

And how can one get enough exposure to Joaquín Torres Garcia? Fortunately, the curator was able to obtain a large number of works by this protean and imaginative artist who was so influential, almost a Warhol predecessor in his playing in the world of commerce and fine art. Drawings, watercolors, toys, paintings--all indicating how what has come to be known as American Modernism owes this Uruguayan (and Spanish) artist a stylistic debt.

Thomas Freudenheim in the Wall Street Journal wrote that Nexus New York: Latin/American Artists in the Modern Metropolis "isn't an exercise in Latino flag-waving; instead it celebrates the interdependence of artists and a sense of community that today's celebrity-artist world generally tends to ignore."

A word about the generous renovation of the Museo. On a recent visit, we ate at El Café which had a sustainable Latin cuisine served in a cleanly designed environment. It was a place where I'd love to go for dinner after a relaxed visit in the galleries, but the café closes daily at 5pm. The gift shop was having an interesting sale of its back collection of books, a mélange of ethnohistories of Latin America, novels and past catalogues.

Carved in the lintel above the entrance is a preserved sign of the past: Heckscher Foundation for Children, a use long ago removed from this site, but its deep inscription still remains. The renovation and reopening is a fitting intercultural tribute to Heckscher and the philanthropic spirit that made New York such a lively and productive place.