When Americans interested in art are asked what they have heard of from South America, the answer tends to be pretty much the same: two dead Mexicans and one live Colombian. The Mexicans are, of course, Diego Rivera, a great artist by any standard, and his wife Frida Kahlo, not a great painter by any reasonable judgment, but a tough and gifted woman who, owing to her hagiographic suffering (not to mention being ardently collected by the likes of Madonna), has become Exhibit A, by now somewhere above Artemisia Gentileschi in the pantheon of feminist art-saints. The live Colombian is probably the richest artist alive, the unbearably repetitious and banal Fernando Botero, 69, who has made millions, millions and millions of dollars painting and sculpting mountainously fat people over and over and over again. These sleek, bloated lumps of cellulite have the same appeal to the international nouveau riche that the semi-skeletal poor of Picasso's Blue Period used to.
Clearly, that can't be the whole story from the vast continent, and Harvard's Fogg Museum is filling in at least some of the gaps with a show of its diametric opposite: geometric abstraction, drawn from a distinguished and systematic collection made by Patricia Phelps de Cisneros, who lives in Caracas, Venezuela, and is an ardent evangelist for South American abstract painters and sculptors. Cisneros has a severe and finely tuned eye, and her collection is remarkably free from nationalist bias. This is a very catholic collection. Of course, some of the artists in it, such as the Venezuelan Jesus Rafael Soto, 78, have exhibited quite often in the U.S. But most of them are not all that familiar, and the show makes a strong case that some of them--including Brazil's Helio Oiticica (1937-1980) and Lygia Clark (1920-1988), Venezuela's Gertrude Goldschmidt (1912-1994, a sculptor who worked under the name of Gego) and Carlos Cruz-Diez, 78, and of course that long-dead Uruguayan father figure of South American abstraction, Joaquin Torres-Garcia (1874-1949)--emphatically ought to be.
There are practically no generalizations to be made that hold true across the whole spectrum of art activity in South America. How could there be? The histories of the countries that constitute it are so totally different, especially in the 20th century. What could a country like Argentina, long ruled by a semi-fascist dictator like Peron, intensely conservative in its cultural orientation, have in common with a long-running, more or less liberal democracy like Venezuela's? In the real world there is no unified entity called South America. What this show presents is not some fiction of a general cultural ethos but rather the work of a number of talents underknown by norteamericanos, some of whom have some things in common.
Decades ago, the great New York City painter Stuart Davis christened one of his pictures Colonial Cubism--a splendidly witty reference to the dilemma American artists found themselves in when they looked across the Atlantic to Paris. How could you get out of the colonial bind--the sense of being condemned, in the name of avant-garde aspiration, to imitate the outer forms of avant-gardism, to keep doing the new at second hand? This was the problem for South American modernists too--and in spades. The whole relation of South American art to Europe and then, after 1950 or so, to North America, was thorny and merciless to the "provincials."