A century of color and variation: The Latin American art world

The small exhibition installed in the alcove gallery near the ticket desk at the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena is somewhat unexpected. In recognition of Hispanic and Latino Heritage Month, an institution noted for the depth of its European, Indian and Southeast Asian collections has mounted a tightly focused exploration of forms of Modernism undertaken by 20th-century Latin American painters, photographers and lithographers between 1931 and 1985.

“Breaking Ground: 20th-Century Latin American Art,” at the Norton Simon through Nov. 4, features works by Diego Rivera, Manuel Alvarez Bravo, Rufino Tamayo, Jose Luis Cuevas, Angel Bracho, Roberto Matta, Gego (Gertrud Goldschmidt) and Antonio Frasconi. Some of the works have never before been on public display. Each, said curator Lynn LaBate, the museum's head of education, “represents a Latin American artist who has made a significant contribution to the world of 20th-century Modernism.”

Mexican artist Cuevas, featured in the exhibition with his 1966 lithograph, “The Marriage of Arnolfini,” “explored the underbelly of society,” LaBate said. “He broke with the tradition of Mexican art that is political or figurative, or highly decorative or primitive.” Influenced by existentialism, Cuevas' singular voice “represents the era in which he was working — an international era, not necessarily part of the national Mexican discourse.”

One of the two most striking paintings on display, Rivera's “Blue Boy with Banana,” was last shown at the Norton Simon in 2003 as part of an exhibition of works from the museum's extensive Blue Four Galka Scheyer collection. Influential art patron Scheyer built her collection of modern art around works by Jawlensky, Lyonel Feininger, Vasily Kandinsky and Paul Klee — her Blue Four. It encompasses hundreds of artworks, photographs and documents.

Scheyer commissioned Rivera's 1931 painting of a peasant boy, pensive against a background of blue that echoes his blue clothing. Although the legendary muralist would frequently do portraits of children “almost exclusively” for visiting tourists and art collectors — “it was almost like a cash cow for him,” LaBate said — this work, thought to be an homage to the Blue Four, is “atypical. It is very angular, very monochromatic … [and] there's a flatness that comes from his Cubist strategy that pushes the figure right up to the foreground,” she said.

Hanging next to the Rivera work and painted in the same year, the vivid, large-scale “Girl,” by Angel Bracho, is also atypical. Bracho, who became the director of one of Mexico's leading print collectives, is best known for his political revolutionary graphics.

“The colors of paint are bright and beautiful,” LaBate said, but the dark skin of Bracho's subject — a young peasant girl, peering upward, clad in a green striped dress and clutching a yellow basket and a doll costumed in red — is thought to be a reference to the ignored Afro-Mexican culture rooted in early colonial Mexico.

While the paintings by Rivera and Bracho “do have a political reference,” LaBate added, they represent what most people envision Latin American art to be: colorful and figurative. The rest of these works, exploring the “figure” through Modernism, depart from that common perception — from the pure abstraction of a 1966 untitled lithograph by Venezuelan artist Gego to the most recent work on display: “Design, 1985,” a multidimensional color etching by Chilean painter Roberto Matta, a seminal figure in Surrealism and Abstract Expressionist art.

Master photographer Manuel Alvarez Bravo's 1934 “Window to the Choir” (“Ventana al Coro”) — an evocative, architectural gelatin silver print — demonstrates “his use of texture, abstraction and his reference to Surrealism,” LaBate said. The juxtaposition of the Gego work and Mexican artist Rufino Tamayo's 1964 lithograph, “Variations on a Man No. 3,” offers a comparison of each artist's use of line. “One is figurative, one is pure abstraction,” she said. “It's an interesting dialogue between the two.”

Another aspect of the exhibition is the recognition of Los Angeles as a nexus for diverse works of art, LaBate said. The pieces by Tamayo, Cuevas and Gego are part of the Norton Simon's print collection from the Tamarind Lithography Workshop, founded in Los Angeles in 1960 and famed for its revolutionizing of print-making as a primary art form. The paintings by Rivera and Bracho came to the Norton Simon via the institution's former incarnation as the Pasadena Art Museum, which was also “the first venue in the United States to recognize the work of Manuel Alvarez Bravo,” LaBate noted.

The intimate exhibition offers the public a chance to see works by artists that are not the most iconic or well known, she said, “but that help expand our understanding of what these artists did and how they used Modernism for their own means of expression.”

What: “Breaking Ground: 20th-Century Latin American Art”

Where: Norton Simon Museum, 411 W. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena.

When: Through Nov. 4. Museum hours: Noon to 6 p.m. Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday; noon to 9 p.m. Friday.

Admission: $10; seniors, $7.

More info: (626) 449-6840, nortonsimon.org

LYNNE HEFFLEY writes about theater and culture for Marquee.

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