December 2006

Remapping the Territory: Mari Carmen Ramí­rez and the Curating of Latin American Art

Remapping the Territory

With a $60 million budget and a mandate to transform the scholarship of Latin American art, curator Mari Carmen Ramírez is doing just that at Houston’s Museum of Fine Arts

By Roger Atwood

A prominent figure in the recent surge of interest in Latin American art, Mari Carmen Ramírez is trying to get audiences to look past established figures like Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. As chief curator of Latin American art at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, she’s more concerned with lesser-known figures like Abraham Palatnik.

Palatnik, a native of Brazil, achieved a measure of notoriety in 1951 when he submitted Aparelho Cinecromático, a motorized installation of twirling blades and colored neon lights, to the São Paulo Bienal. The jury initially balked at accepting the piece—it was the first kinetic-art installation nearly anyone in Brazil had seen—but eventually the work was allowed into the festival, where it won the international jury prize.

Palatnik, however, was still deemed too unconventional and was asked not to submit works for the biennial’s competition again. “It’s a very curious case, because he was doing advanced work and was one of the pioneers,” says Ramírez. “People didn’t understand that kind of work at that time.”

Ramírez says she prefers to focus on overlooked trailblazers like Palatnik in order to “get past the habit of boiling down the heterogeneity of the region to a few figures.” She continues in that vein with “Hélio Oiticica: The Body of Color,” an exhibition opening on the 10th of this month, which showcases an artist she considers one of the greatest innovators of the postwar period.

A diminutive 51-year-old with an easy laugh, Ramírez came to prominence in 2001 when she was hired as the first director of the Houston museum’s International Center for the Arts of the Americas. At the time, the institution’s board members believed that they had been neglecting their community’s growing Hispanic population. To remedy this, the museum’s director, Peter C. Marzio, charged Ramírez with the tasks of assembling a collection covering the main art- historical trends of Latin America and directing scholarship on the art of the region. Working with a ten-year budget of $60 million for research and acquisitions, Ramírez has steered her department to a position of leadership in the field.

“I think Mari Carmen is doing for Latin American art what Alfred Barr did for the New York–Paris axis at the Museum of Modern Art,” Marzio told ARTnews. “Our Latin American collection is still very small compared to the rest of the 20th-century collection, but it will grow. Every big museum is playing catch-up on this, and we just hope we’re a little ahead of the others.”

Ramírez made her first major curatorial statement at the Houston museum in June 2004 with “Inverted Utopias: Avant-Garde Art in Latin America,” an iconoclastic exhibition that she organized with her husband, the Mexican architect and writer Héctor Olea. Eschewing chronological and geographic methods of exhibiting art, the show presented a kaleidoscopic mix of Latin American art from the postwar era to the present arranged by theme, such as “Play and Grief” and “Vibrational and Stationary.” Many of the artists featured in the show, including Palatnik, were unfamiliar to the American audience. Among those represented were Venezuela’s Carlos Cruz-Diez, whose 1965 site-specific light installation Chromosaturation was reconstructed for the show; the German-born abstractionist Gego, also of Venezuela, whose drawings and wire sculptures are composed of skeins of intersecting lines; the revolutionary Mexican muralists David Alfaro Siqueiros and José Clemente Orozco; Brazilian sculptor Lygia Clark, much of whose work — including masks, suits, and gloves made of rubber or fabric — is meant to be worn by the viewer; and Cildo Meireles, also of Brazil, who created a site-specific installation of wood, rubber balls, and audio.

“‘Inverted Utopias’ turned into a blueprint for what we wanted to do at the MFA,” says Ramírez. “It was like a first mapping of the territory. It got to the heart of what the avant-garde was in Latin America.”

The exhibition was a landmark event that others in the museum world still look to as an example. “It was a manifesto against received ideas, against the clichés about Latin American art as all colorful and representational, against the stereotypes that had hidden so much for so long,” says Julián Zugazagoitia, director of El Museo del Barrio in New York. “It had a big impact.” The show, which never left Houston because it was “too monumental and costly to travel,” Ramírez says, was named best thematic museum show in 2004 by the U.S. section of the International Association of Art Critics. (It tied with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s show “Beyond Geometry.”)

The multidisciplinary approach of “Inverted Utopias” was an unprecedented way for a museum to show Latin American art, but, Ramírez says, it seemed very natural to her in light of her upbringing. Born in San Juan, Puerto Rico, she was raised in a household where art, politics, and literature were topics of daily discussion. Her family included the prominent Puerto Rican writers René Marqués and Trina Padilla de Sanz, who was also a European-trained concert pianist and an early-20th-century suffragette. Because there were few museums on the island, Ramírez gained her grounding in the visual arts through public intellectuals like the charismatic Colombian critic Marta Traba, who wrote on literature, history, and art, and whom Ramírez heard lecture in Puerto Rico in 1978.

“We had these towering cultural figures, people who wore many hats,” recalls Ramírez. “That’s the tradition I came from — curators who were not only academics but public figures. That’s how I see my work, straddling different cultures and disciplines.” She earned her Ph.D. in art history at the University of Chicago, where she completed her dissertation on Mexican muralism in 1989, and remembers being surprised by the narrow art-historical approach to studying art. “t was a big shock,” she says. “The way of thinking about art was so formal, and I was interested in the social dimension.” While finishing her graduate studies, Ramírez served as director of the Museum of Anthropology, History, and Art at the University of Puerto Rico in San Juan from 1985 to 1988. After obtaining her doctorate, she moved to the Jack S. Blanton Museum of Art at the University of Texas in Austin, where she was curator of Latin American art before arriving in Houston.

Ramírez travels frequently to Latin America to stay in touch with the various artistic communities there, and, she says, she continues to unearth new artists who “never cease to amaze me” for both the quality of their work and the way they have been neglected by critics. Among her proudest discoveries are León Ferrari, a sculptor now in his 80s, who has become an international star in the past decade, and Juan Carlos Distéfano, who makes monumental sculptures employing a fiberglass casting technique. Both from Argentina, Ferrari and Distéfano now have works in the Houston museum’s permanent collection.

Ramírez’s latest major project, the show of Oiticica’s works, is the first significant exhibitiondevoted to the artist. An early influence on the cultural movement known as Tropicália, which took its name from one of his installations, Oiticica (1937–80) was a prominent figure in the sphere of Neoconcretist artists, poets, and critics in Brazil in the 1960s. He drew from the iconography of the favelas, the rickety shantytowns of Rio de Janeiro, and is difficult to pin down because of the many mediums he experimented with. “He was against the whole commercial aspect of art,” Ramírez says. Oiticica’s work includes body art, public actions, and malleable fabric-and-sand sculptures, but he is perhaps best known for his vividly colored paintings and painted-wood constructions that resemble origami. The show runs through April 1 of next year and will travel to London’s Tate Modern in June.

Another initiative Ramírez is undertaking at the International Center for the Arts of the Americas is the creation of a digital archive that will give scholars instant access to correspondence and other primary-source materials from the history of Latin American art. She notes that, in terms of popularity in the United States, Latin American literature “has always been light-years ahead of visual arts” from the region, and that this gap is reflected in the paucity of university-level courses and research on the subject. “There are still very few programs where you can actually study Latin American art,” she says. The archive currently has about 1,500 documents, including letters between writer Jorge Luis Borges and Argentinean artist Xul Solar; the essays of Uruguayan artist Joaquín Torres García; and manifestos by Mexican muralists.

“Many of these documents have never circulated or were unknown outside their country,” she says. The archive is expected to go online in 2008 and will be accessible to the public for free. Because the museum does not actually acquire the materials but simply borrows them to scan into a database, Ramírez says she expects the number of documents available to eventually reach 10,000.

“As a museum, our first commitment is to build a collection, but you can’t have a collection in a vacuum,” she says. “The research has to be there.” With a field as historically neglected as Latin American art, Ramírez explains, the importance of such research increases: “It’s a foreign culture, and if you’re going to show its treasures, you should be able to explain what they mean.”

ROGER ATWOOD is a Washington, D.C., correspondent for ARTnews.