Latin Lesson

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I bundled up last night and made it to a preview of the upcoming show at the Museum of Modern Art devoted to Armando Reveron, a Venezuelan painter who died in 1954. It was odd weather for looking at work produced mostly in a Caribbean resort village. And for good measure it was almost all in wintry white. But I knew to expect that on the way in. With this retrospective MOMA signs on seriously to the accelerating effort to rewrite the history of modern art to admit the work of Latin American artists beyond the ones we already know, the Mexican muralists and the beset, uni-browed Frida Kahlo. The point is also to disarm stereotypes about Latin art as something that’s always warm, party colored and folkloric. In that vein the Houston Museum of Fine Arts is also hosting a retrospective of work by the Brazilian artist Helio Oiticica, which moves soon to the Tate Modern in London. No mojitos in that one either.

Reveron is a peculiar case. Born in 1889, the son of well to do but feckless parents — his father was a drug addict — he trained as an artist in Caracas, Barcelona, Madrid and Paris. (In Barcelona one of his teachers was Picasso’s father.) By 1915 he was back in Venezuela, struggling to reconcile the conflicting influences of Impressionism, Symbolism and the fantastic elements of Caribbean culture.

Six years later he made a crucial move with his companion Juanita Rios from Caracas to the coastal resort of Macuto. There he would create a walled compound called El Castillete and settle into the role of artist and local eccentric. More than eccentric, actually. Beginning in 1917 and continuing into the ’40s he suffered a series of mental breakdowns. Eventually he was diagnosed as schizophrenic and was even institutionalized for a few months in 1945.

All the same, in Macuto Reveron arrived at an astringent style that could be both delicate and powerful. In the scores of landscapes that he painted in the 1920s, and in a series of ghostly nudes, he drained his canvas of nearly all color, as though his surroundings had dematerialized under the intense Caribbean sunlight. His scenes dissolve into shimmer, like Bonnards, but without Bonnard’s jewel box pallette.

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Light Behind My Arbor/Armando Reveron — Collection Patricia Phelps de Cisneros, Caracas/Photo: Francisco Kochen

In many of his pictures Reveron also reduced his marks on the canvas to a minimum, which shifts attention in the good modernist way from the things depicted to the surface of the painting itself, even the warp and weave of the fabric. With so little information about what it is we’re looking at, his pictures achieve a kind of bright light obscurity. In the most radically reduced, every brushstroke equivocates on the central question we expect a brushstroke to answer — just what it is from the visible world that it’s supposed to be representing.

Reveron became a tourist attraction of sorts in Macuto, where well to do visitors from Caracas would drop by his compound for the thrill of watching him paint with a lot of strenuous theatrics, the madman-artist, the local Salvador Dali. For good measure, some time in the 1930s Reveron began to make the elaborate and grotesque life sized dolls, munecas, that he not only used a models in some of his paintings but began to treat them almost as living persons around his compound. Reveron never showed the munecas in galleries. He may not have thought of them as art. But they turn out to be some of the high points of the show. You find yourself thinking of Hans Bellmer, the German artist who made and then photographed surreal, sexually charged puppets. And also of Norman Bates’ mother in Psycho.

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Muneca/Armando Reveron — Collection Fondacion Museos Nacionales, Caracas

This is a show that could have been shorter. There are canvases that step right up to the border of tourist shop kitsch. You leave persuaded that Reveron is a wrongly neglected figure, but not a major one. So why not have a show before too much longer devoted to a Latin artist of more consequence? One who was infinitely inventive and who for some reason hasn’t had a major retrospective in a while. I vote for this one.

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