Critic’s Notebook: El Museo del Barrio reopens with ‘Nexus New York’


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New York’s El Museo del Barrio has reopened after a handsome 18-month renovation of its home in the Heckscher Building, a former orphanage on Fifth Avenue at 104th Street. The $35-million project added a new entrance, a restaurant and refurbished and slightly expanded gallery spaces, plus the infrastructure upgrades that you don’t see but are needed for future growth.

Conceived by El Museo’s director, Julian Zugazagoitia, the opening exhibition is absorbing and a bit of a surprise. It’s called “Nexus New York: Latin/American Artists in the Modern Metropolis.” At the start of the chunky and readable catalog, curator Deborah Cullen discusses Marcel Duchamp, the hugely influential expatriate artist from France, not from Latin America or the Caribbean, which is what one might expect for El Museo. Starting with a hugely influential French artist, however, turns out to make a marvelous point on which the show is built.


In the first half of the 20th century, which is the exhibition’s time period, New York was growing as an international crossroads for artists; any misconception one might have about Latin Americans being unique “outsiders” to this mix is simply wrong. The show underscores the important if often overlooked fact that, back then, just about all Modern artists were outsiders — whether they came from Latin America, Europe or across the United States. When they got to “the modern metropolis,” they formed artistic alliances with like-minded souls.

Duchamp, whose work is considered in the final gallery, was partly inspired by his relationship with Brazilian artist Maria Martins. His friend and collector, Walter Arensberg — who later moved his Dada and Surrealist collection from New York to Los Angeles — was also the silent backer of De Zayas Gallery, operated from 1919 to 1921 by Mexican artist and art dealer Marius de Zayas. He showed Manet, Matisse, Van Gogh and other European and American Modernists at his gallery.
Duchamp, Arensberg, De Zayas; that is one intriguing nexus that happened in New York. The exhibition is filled with such ground-level interactions, mostly represented by modest paintings, drawings, sculptures, photographs and, especially, abundant documentary material.
Some links — Mexico’s David Alfaro Siqueiros and Jackson Pollock, say, or Alice Neel and her Cuban husband, Carlos Enriquez — are well-known. Others, like Uruguay’s Joaquin Torres-Garcia and Adolph Gottlieb, or Mexican caricaturist Miguel Covarrubias, Harlem Renaissance painter Aaron Douglas and New York caricaturist Al Hirshfeld, are not.

This is a show that makes you want to know more. Seeing it is like exploring a rich archive, still in the process of being sorted out.

-- Christopher Knight