Jill Magid’s “The Proposal,” which chronicles a most unusual project surrounding the managed legacy of Mexico’s most renowned architect — the late Pritzker-winning Modernist Luis Barragán — is an investigation and an exhibition, a love letter and a rival’s riposte, a protest and an olive branch.
Inspired by a controversy that gets to the heart of custodianship issues, Magid, a Brooklyn-based conceptual artist fascinated by engagement with impersonal institutions, has created her own eyebrow-raising work about access to art, and it’s as absorbing as a caper, as maddening as a broken romance, and as thought-provoking as an impassioned editorial.
At the very least, after taking in “The Proposal,” your own views about our engagement with art will be as crystallized as a certain Magid-engineered object whose provenance pushes the very boundaries of that time-honored art world idea that “form follows function.”
When Barragán died in 1988, his boldly hued, stark buildings and structures across Mexico — lyrically geometric testaments to light and space — instantly became beloved totems to a life and career that produced plenty of beauty. But when his professional archive of tens of thousands of drawings, prints, models and files was sold in 1995 to the owners of a Swiss design outfit — rumored to be a wealthy manufacturer’s engagement present to his Barragán-besotted girlfriend — the newly formed, Basel-headquartered Barragan Foundation (no accent mark) closed off access to scholars and like-minded devotees, and vigorously policed images of the architect’s work via copyright enforcement.
Federica Zanco, the mysterious historian doling out rejections to the archive while claiming to be working on a catalog of Barragán’s work, seemed to be treating her deceased lover like a hostage. Was this a case of a well-intentioned loyalist rigorously preserving a great artist’s legacy, or an eccentric international kidnapping? One of Magid’s own pieces, shown in the film, comments on this tug of war between heritage and privatization, person and corporation: a neon sign spelling out the architect’s last name, with a wry oscillation between an accent and the symbol for a registered trademark.
Spurred by this tale of custodial carelessness on the part of Barragán’s trustees, and the unforeseen injustice of the archive’s fate — not to mention how it allegedly hinged on a boldly romantic whim — Magid hit upon an aesthetic scheme that she and Barragán’s descendants hoped would bring the architect’s professional output back to his homeland, and open it up again to the world.
“The Proposal,” which is more a cagily crafted document than a typical documentary, is Magid’s artistic seduction meted out in tantalizing pieces of background and foreground: how a great man’s work inspired a succession of bold gestures from foreign enthusiasts; voiceovers articulating the correspondence between an imploring Magid and a reticent Zanco, read like polite but firm rivals in a classic love story; visual snatches of research and papers spelling out Magid’s detective work and legal maneuvering; and finally the filmmaker’s dramatic, transatlantic gambit, played out with all the heart-stopping suspense of an “Ocean’s” thriller.
What Magid conjured was widely written about, so if you’re up on art world feather-ruffling, “The Proposal” won’t be surprising. But all others, be prepared to have your opinions about creative meddling in an artist’s afterlife brought into sharp focus.
The issues Magid raises about inaccessibility, power and control in the art world are unquestionably important, but I’ll admit to still wrestling with what I think about her elaborate reconstituting of Barragán the man into a vehicle for both personal glory and cultural good. Then again, artists live to transform how we see things, and “The Proposal” — sly, evocative and challenging — is, at heart, a compellingly argued case for the continued necessity of artists as not just inward-looking excavators, but eye-opening interventionists.
Running time: 1 hour, 23 minutes
Playing: Laemmle Monica Film Center and Playhouse 7