Review: Museo Jumex in Mexico City is an impressive filter

MEXICO CITY — The cultural ecology of any great city is a complex organism, its shape shifting over time. But in the modern era, always it starts with the same ingredient. It starts with artists, the yeast that makes the dough rise. Without them, money and talk are all there is.

Since the 1990s, after several decades of relative stasis, Mexico City’s cultural ecology has experienced an efflorescence. A cosmopolitan mix of important Mexican and expatriate artists — Britain’s Melanie Smith, Belgium’s Francis Alÿs, Mexico’s Silvia Gruner, Gabriel Orozco, Abraham Cruzvillegas, Teresa Margolles, Eduardo Abaroa and scores more — has been accompanied by significant growth in art’s essential critical, curatorial and commercial apparatus.

What was missing was a museum. A good museum functions as a permeable membrane between a rigorously involved art world and an otherwise preoccupied public.

Its absence here was no small void. Now, with the opening of the Museo Jumex, that gap is poised to close. An international program in contemporary art, including a significant permanent collection and an ambitious exhibition schedule, has made an impressive debut.

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British architect David Chipperfield has designed a simple, beautifully detailed, 43,000-square-foot building to provide the requisite urban sanctification. In five floors, its 17,000 square feet of gallery space includes sky-lighted rooms for the permanent collection at the top and special exhibitions one level down. An unusual, glass-walled space suitable for performance art and social programs occupies the second floor. (Curtains can darken the room.) A bookstore and offices are below the ground-level entry hall, while a large plaza out front hosts special commissions.

The museum is being inaugurated with four exhibitions. Together, they suggest what might be expected going forward.

Two shows intersect in an unusual way. Selections from a collection that numbers nearly 2,800 contemporary works, said to be the largest in Latin America, merge with a solo exhibition of seven Minimalist sculptures by the late American artist Fred Sandback (1943-2003).

Five dozen permanent collection works were chosen for inaugural display (several more are on view in the underground parking garage). Many will be familiar to art followers, if not to a local public.

They include classics from the 1960s and 1970s. Among them are a wall-hung Minimalist stack of metal and plexiglass boxes by Donald Judd, a Pop silk-screen of Jackie Kennedy by Andy Warhol and a small hatch-painting on paper from Jasper Johns’ abstract “Corpse and Mirror” series.

More recent examples include a tall, lacquered black plank by John McCracken, which stands on the floor and leans against the wall, bridging traditional zones occupied by painting and sculpture. Jeff Koons’ “Three Ball Total Equilibrium Tank” mysteriously suspends basketballs within the clear fluid inside a fish tank, creating a meditative state of psychic balance from ordinary leisure equipment found in a teenage boy’s bedroom. Alighiero Boetti took imaginative flight in a monumental drawing of varieties of modern aircraft, both military and commercial, rendered in ballpoint pen as if a giant, contemplative doodle of pain and pleasure.

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Mostly the sculptures, installations, photographs, videos and drawings emphasize the international dominance of Conceptual art for almost half a century. Younger practitioners include the late Mike Kelley, represented here by an austere display case that holds for anthropological scrutiny a strange, spiky rubber ball and a similarly styled plush toy. Made for children, the weird toys seem to have been designed with the cruelty of medieval weaponry in mind.

Nearby, Orozco’s improbably circular billiard table with no pockets removes any possibility for winning or losing the game. Instead, visitors are invited to pick a cue from the rack, aim the cue ball at a red ball suspended over the green felt from a ceiling cord and, with a good crack!, set the red ball swinging like a pendulum in space. This game marks only time’s passage.

A text-and-image canvas by John Baldessari, one of Conceptual art’s founding figures, features an ordinary living room lamp. As a domesticated symbol for learning, the lamp couldn’t be more homey. Yet, with typical wit, Baldessari also suggests the routine indignity suffered by paintings, hung over a side table and behind a lamp as part of common décor.

Paintings in fact are in somewhat short supply, despite the abundance of good ones being made today. (Whether that is representative of the Jumex collection as a whole is difficult to say, since it has yet to be fully digitized and made available online.) More common are critical abstractions about painting, such as a fine panel by Rosemarie Trockel. Made from machine-knitted wool, it entangles traditional aesthetic and social distinctions among art, craft and industry.

But painting’s relative dearth does dramatize a nice surprise: Eduardo Terrazas, 77, is not well known outside Mexico, but his big, 16-panel painting “Exponential Growth” (1975) magically morphs a solid black square into a solid white one. The rigorous logic of Sol LeWitt’s Minimalist geometry arrives at the mystical cosmology of Kazimir Malevich.

Less salutary overall is the relative lack of art by women. Of 50 artists in the inaugural shows, 80% are men. At this late date, that skewed ratio is unacceptable.

Into the midst of this eclectic display, a solo show of Sandback’s sculptures has been inserted by Patrick Charpenel, the museum’s director. Sandback’s works, made by stretching elastic cord taut among walls, floor and ceiling, are drawings in space.

A three-dimensional parallelogram materializes in an overlooked corner. The suggestion of a transparent wall efficiently divides a room filled with other artists’ work. “X” marks the spot on a hallway wall.

The intervention of these ephemeral, nearly invisible sculptures within a permanent collection display is meant to suggest a multidimensional reality — worlds hidden within worlds — theorized in advanced quantum physics. This scientific take on Sandback’s Minimalism gets a playfully unexpected twist in Mexico, with its rich literary and artistic histories of Surrealism and Magical Realism. Here, hidden worlds are to be expected.

The second solo show is a retrospective of James Lee Byars (1932-97), an American whose artistic trajectory might be implied by his birth in Detroit, modern industrial powerhouse, and his demise in Cairo, a destination he likely sought for its pyramid-power past. Dressed in his goofy uniform of top hat or homburg and black suit, Byars assumed the ancient persona of holy fool.

Many of Byars’ art objects are the residue of shamanistic performances undertaken during an itinerant career that had him living in Kyoto, New York, Venice, San Francisco, the Swiss Alps, New Mexico and Los Angeles. The latter was the site of an impromptu ritual performance, circa 1980, meant to sanctify the empty lot on Bunker Hill where the Museum of Contemporary Art was about to be built.

In the show, a big, shiny rectangle of shredded strips of gold lamé creates a non-nationalistic “World Flag” that is part tattered painting, part dazzling doorway to another realm. At the center of “The Red Tent,” a room-size environment made from draped parachute-fabric, a carved and gilded Tibetan chair seems to dematerialize in a bright puddle of crimson light. A 1972 series of urgent telegrams sent to Mao Tse-tung, Queen Elizabeth, Richard Nixon and the director of the Louvre Museum invites the leaders to Kassel, Germany, to experience the transformative avant-garde art exhibition, “Documenta 5.”

Jumex curator Magalí Arriola and Peter Eleey, curator at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, where the show travels next, have assembled an ample representation of Byars’ works, invariably executed in pure white (symbolizing everything), dead black (nothingness), shimmery gold (mystery) or florid crimson (elemental life force). Byars was not a major artist, and priestly trappings that could seem grandiose in person gain enchantment in retrospect. But he was committed to an art that might turn expectations for tidy answers into a search for meaningful questions.

Surveying an artist who privileged ephemera also carries a certain punch, given today’s dominance of crude commercial markets, where art is valued as luxury goods. That Jumex co-organized the show with MOMA likewise indicates the Mexican museum’s ambitions: It wants to be an international player, which can only benefit Mexico City’s artists.

Among them is sculptor Damián Ortega, first to be commissioned to execute a new work for the museum’s front plaza. A kind of atomic diagram, crossing a chronograph with a cosmological map, the mechanically complex sculpture was not quite ready for the museum preview. The plan is for a circular space orbited by pots, pans, kitchen chairs and other mundane domestic items rather than celestial planets and stars.

Ortega is 46, the same age as Eugenio López Alonso, sole heir to the Grupo Jumex processed-foods fortune and whose foundation established the museum. López divides his time between Mexico City and L.A., where he is a trustee at MOCA and, with past president Jeffrey Soros, is leading a fundraising drive to establish a $100-million base-endowment to pull the troubled museum out of its fiscal travail. He also sits on the board of Manhattan’s New Museum.

Since 2001, his foundation has run an impressive art exhibition space and library in a converted warehouse at the sprawling Jumex factories in Ecatepec, a gritty industrial area 30 or 45 minutes north of the city. (Travel time depends on traffic, notorious in a metropolitan region estimated as home to nearly 20 million people.) The current show by Danish collective Superflex — Jakob Fenger, Rasmus Nielsen and Bjørnstjerne Christiansen — is a bullish educational workshop on how artisanal labor might undercut anonymous factory production. Open to the public, few outside the art world visit.

The factory gallery will continue. But given the high public profile of the Museo Jumex, in the city’s fashionable Polanco neighborhood, plus its program’s international breadth, contemporary art has emphatically come out of the Mexico City closet.

Museo Jumex creates a striking focal point. It’s neither the first nor the only museum here to show recent art, but the others tend to be modest or limited by affiliations with schools or government.

Stalwarts like the Museo Tamayo and Museo de Arte Moderno, both nearby in the leafy precinct of Chapultepec Park, represent an older pastoral ideal — the art museum in a garden, where culture and nature are restorative agents set apart from the daily urban grind. Museo Jumex — like its neighboring Museo Soumaya, built by telecom billionaire Carlos Slim Hélu — is instead a gateway to a burgeoning new commercial and corporate redevelopment area, partly spearheaded by Slim.

For good and ill, they speak to current social realities. Even the moniker Museo Jumex indicates that. There have been many corporate collections of contemporary art, but is there another, similarly ambitious art museum in all the Americas named for a corporation whose wealth made it possible?