By HOLLAND COTTER
It’s a little embarrassing to watch the New York art world “discovering” Latin American modernist art year after year, as if forever only half-aware of its existence. And it’s depressing to know that the Museum of Modern Art, which could have been collecting widely in the field for decades, had to wait for a windfall in the form of a gift collection to deal with this material in a serious and committed way. We are, after all, talking about the art of a continent and a century, not just a fad from yesterday.
No surprise then, given the circumstances that the city is only now getting its first fair devoted to Latin American art. And no surprise to anyone familiar with this art that the fair, called Pinta and installed at the Metropolitan Pavilion on West 18th Street through tomorrow, looks as good as it does. With just 35 galleries, Pinta is a big event in a small package. The layout, by the architect Warren A. James, is stylish and airy. In general a less-is-more sensibility prevails. For once, a fair looks like an art exhibition, not a job-lot display. And when a booth is crowded, the pieces can be blamed, as is the case at Appetite, a gallery with branches in Buenos Aires and Brooklyn that shows young artists working in an accumulative mode.
The thread that runs through Pinta, and partly accounts for its stripped-down appearance, is modernist painting and sculpture from the 1940s through the ’70s. The first thing you see is a group of open-work steel and glass sculptures by the Brazilian artist Waltércio Caldas presented by Gabinete de Arte Raquel Arnaud from São Paulo. “Transparent” is the word Mr. Caldas applies to this work, and it is apt.
Durban Segnini Gallery of Miami has abstract pieces, including a kind of tabletop tower with a curling window from 1967 by Eduardo Ramírez Villamizar, a mini-Frank Gehry before Frank Gehry came into his own. At Leon Tovar there’s a subtly kinetic piece by Jesús Rafael Soto (1923-2005); the slightest breeze will set its curtain of dangling rods into optically shimmering motion.
A 1952 sculpture in clear plastic by María Freire at Sammer Gallery Miami is exemplary of the soaring utopianism of a heady era. And something like this spirit survives into the present in paintings by Fanny Sanin and Tony Bechara at Latin Collector, of recent date but in classic abstract geometric style.
At the same time “classic” is defined many ways in Latin American art: by a spidery 1962 León Ferrari ink drawing at GC Estudio de Arte; by figurative paintings by Wifredo Lam at Treart; by a booth full of Xul Solar watercolors at Rubbers International Gallery; and by the marvelous etchings by Gego (Gertrude Goldschmidt, 1912-94) at Cecilia de Torres, a gallery that, along with Mary-Anne Martin Fine Art (not in the show), has long been one of the city’s primary showcases for Latin American material, old and new.
Pinta has its share of new art too, with up-to-the-minute work by Alexandre Arrechea, Eugenia Calvo, Arturo Duclos, Darío Escobar, Nicolas Guagnini, Marco Maggi and Damián Ontiveros Ramírez scattered here and there. (Don’t miss the witty and moving 2007 video by Liliana Porter at Hosfelt Gallery.)
Notably sparse, however, is overt religious or political imagery of a kind that still defines contemporary Latin American art for many people. And it is hard not to see a direct correlation between the playing down of such content and the current spurt of interest in Latin American work by the New York art world mainstream.
In any case all such balances could shift next year when, if things go as planned, the fair will increase the size of its exhibition space and, presumably, the number of participants. If strength really is in numbers, maybe New York, a Latin American city, will finally see what it has been missing all this time.
But why wait a year? Check out Pinta, and start to get smart now.
Pinta, the Contemporary Latin American Art Fair continues through tomorrow at the Metropolitan Pavilion, 125 West 18th Street, Chelsea; pinta-art.com.