It is a well known fact that, in America, patrons tend to have too much influence in the curatorial decisions of the institutions they fund. At MoMA, curators dedicated to art from specific regions such as Latin America have usually been funded by wealthy wives whose names ornated the job titles. But does their influence stop there or are the curators forced to oblige to their specific taste if it is born in mind that their salaries are ultimately paid by those women. This is why when in early 2018, MoMA announced that Argentine Ines Katzsenstein was going to replace Venezuela Luis Perez Oramas as Estrellita Brodsky Curator of Latin American Art, it didn’t come as a surprise that she would be the new Patricia Phelps de Cisneros Curator. But what are the actual consequences of this?  Phelps de Cisneros’ passion for abstract art has to be understood in the context of the creation of her wealth during the oil-boom in Venezuela which, due to have happened under the rule of a military dictatorship it has been named ‘the dictatorship of concrete’. It was oil money that, ultimately, funded the work of artists such as Jesus Soto or Carlos Cruz Diez.


In many ocassions, Patricia Phelps de Cisneros has said that her ‘mission’ is to hang Latin American abstract and kinetic art in the major international museums along the canonic names of the Avant Garde. As a matter of fact, her own personal collection has a direct involvement in the dynamics of the international art market which, since its creation, has skyrocketed. The question is whether (MoMA new Patricia Phelps de Cisneros, Curator of Latin American Art) Ines Katzenstein will have enough leeway to resist the temptation to comply with her patron’s ‘taste’.


But the question is why former curator Luis Perez Oramas was replaced by Ines Katzenstein?  Firstly, it can be said that according to the way Perez Oramas curated the Tarsila do Amaral show currently being held at MoMA, his view of Latin American modernism is that of a bridge between the local elites and the European avant garde. As suggested in a previous post in this blog, this ‘purist’ approach prevented him from historicise the social conditions that allowed Tarsila de Amaral not only to fund herself but also to make her work circulate with success amongst the local white elite and, eventually, internationally. For someone like Perez Oramas, artists such as Xul Solar and Emilio Pettorutti in Argentina, Tarsila de Amaral in Brasil or Diego de Rivera in Mexico had the virtue of apply the lessons of the European Avant Garde to the local contexts in which indigenous people, black servants and tropical plants were to be included.

Patricia Phelps de Cisneros’ mission is however and according to what she has said, contrary to this version of ‘folk Latin American modernism’. She choses abstraction and kinetic art as examples of Latin American socio-economic development or, at least, of the attempt that the region had at that during the militar dictatorships that ruled the region from the 50s to the 80s. Hers are nostalgic dreams of a long gone native Venezuela where oil money flooded in, allowing artists to delve into individual projects of visual and optical experimentation per se. Of course, the individual drive of these artists went against the social realist attempt to reconstruct the social matrix that could reinforce local democracies. It also local painterly attempts such as the Nueva Figuracion or the Nueva Imagen to recover the human figure in order to problematise the way State was using violence against its citizens. From a strictly visual point of view, someone like Patricia Phelps de Cisneros is particularly fond with the way Latin American abstraction mirrors the way ‘desarrollismo’ used oil money to relocate slums in huge modernist building blocks on the fringes of Caracas to which abstract art visually might allude. From a more psychological point of view, it could be said that Phelps de Cisneros uses her collections to create a personal Latin America utopia without poverty but ultimately, without democracy and people. The attempt, however, to impose this view of Latin American might be misleading for ‘development’ as such was only an attempt financed by the haphazard discovery of massive oil reserves under the sea. There is also a visual link between the grid-like surface of Latin American abstract works of art and the modernist urban design of cities like Venezuela, Sao Paulo and Argentina and that is where the decision to hire the daughter of one of the architects that tried to forge a modernist architectural canon might make sense for a museum such as MoMA. To be continued.


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