Tamayo: A Modern Icon Reinterpreted, opening at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art on Saturday, February 17, represents a triumph against odds and expectations. Due to his complex and sometimes adversarial role within the culture of Mexican art, Rufino Tamayo was the last of the great 20th-century Mexican artists to achieve his rightful place in the international pantheon. This show, and its accompanying catalogue, both of which were created here in Santa Barbara by SBMA curator Diana C. du Pont, will provide a compelling new account of how it was that this happened. Until very recently, historians of 20th-century Mexican art tended to speak of the “Three Great Ones.” Well, now there are four.
Alongside the original three — Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros, and José Clemente Orozco — Tamayo is unquestionably the most controversial. This was part of what attracted du Pont, who admitted she loves “taking on something problematic like Tamayo,” because she feels he has not been sufficiently understood. Du Pont said one important reason she embarked on this study and exhibition of Tamayo’s work now is that “he needed to be interpreted with a greater scope now that we have more avenues to understand modern Mexican art.”
Before du Pont’s recent efforts at reinterpreting him, Tamayo was commonly considered an outsider to the mainstream of Mexican painting. He is still described by The Bulfinch Guide to Art History as “politically neutral and opposing the muralists’ commitment to a public, popular art.” Although Tamayo was clearly inspired by Mexican subjects and folk art, until now he has primarily been known as an advocate of arte puro, and a dedicated formalist who was overly dependent on European Cubism.
In du Pont’s new version of the story, we see Tamayo was profoundly engaged by both Mexican art and international modern art as a whole. From this viewpoint, Tamayo’s context includes virtually every major international artist from Monet to Pollock, with special emphases on the surrealists, all phases of Picasso’s career, and the abstract expressionists. Recent developments in the understanding of these movements have re-politicized both formalism and the entire history of abstraction in European painting, rendering Tamayo’s interest in them a part of, rather than distinct from, the overall political tendency of Mexican art in the 20th century.
Du Pont has dubbed this most distinctive, central period of Tamayo’s works “fusion modernism.” Successful fusion modernism requires that a monumental intelligence constantly be at work, assimilating and translating the various movements of 20th-century art. As a result of this extraordinary and sustained effort on Tamayo’s part, it is impossible to walk away from the SBMA show without a better understanding not only of Mexican art, but also of virtually all the important modern art of the Americas and of Europe. In works such as “Claustrofobia” and “Danza de la Alegria,” lucid colors and significant gestures are at once eloquent and primal. Tamayo’s large-scale nudes are among the most significant such figures in 20th-century art, and serve both to elaborate a compelling individual aesthetic and to explore the human condition, which is nearly always Tamayo’s true subject.
It is also clear that, far from being indifferent to politics and national identity, Tamayo skillfully engaged both, even if he did so in ways contrary to the ideology of the dominant school in Mexico at the time. Looking at a piece like “Dos Personajes Atacados por Perros” (“Two Characters Attacked by Dogs”), a mixografia collaboration with fellow artist Lea Remba, it is difficult to imagine how this man’s work could ever have been perceived as apolitical. In his art, Tamayo seems to have constantly asked, “What does this artistic technique look like when applied to a Mexican subject?” Or, “What does this aesthetic concept look like from a Mexican point of view?”
The Regional Museum That Could
Tamayo is the kind of ambitious traveling exhibition that usually originates at a national museum — one with a large staff and a history of launching major retrospectives. In fact, the majority of traveling exhibitions that appear in Santa Barbara were put together elsewhere by other, larger institutions. As du Pont freely admitted, “When you are in a regional museum, the assumption is that perhaps a show of this scale is not something you need to take on.” But du Pont insisted “size has no bearing on quality — it’s the will and the vision of the institution to participate in an engaging dialogue” that matters.
In fact, SBMA did more than just put this important exhibition together — it put it on the fast track. “We grabbed this opportunity, ” du Pont said. “All the players with whom we had established relationships in the cultural sphere in Mexico, specifically in the government, were likely to change or leave their posts with the election of a new president there in 2007. Many times I said, ‘Are you sure?’ or, ‘Can we do this in the available time?’ At the highest levels, there were discussions like that. But the decision was always to proceed, [even] understanding the challenges.”
Du Pont sees the size of SBMA — and the limited specialization and hierarchy that result — as advantages when speed and flexibility are called for. “That’s another nice thing about a museum of this scale. You don’t have a big meeting about every little thing. A lot of the decisions were made on the spot, very quickly and directly.”
Although it did require the staff move swiftly, in other ways SBMA has been working thoughtfully and surely toward this show for years. To begin with, SBMA has been building up its Latin American collection for more than a decade. Acquisitions in the last 10 years alone include works by Tamayo, Siqueiros, Roberto Matta, Rafael Perea de la Cabada, Joaquín Torres-García, Fernando de Szyszlo, and Gunther Gerzso. During this same time, SBMA has judiciously loaned out pieces to other institutions, creating currency within museum culture, which runs on reciprocity. The museum has also attracted attention through the quality of the touring exhibitions it has hosted, including shows focusing on Siqueiros, María Izquierdo, and Agustin Victor Casasola. Furthermore, SBMA has promoted respect for Latin American artists by emphasizing monographic exhibitions of their work at a time when many are still ghettoized in group shows. In addition to the single-artist shows mentioned above, SBMA curated a major retrospective of Gunter Gerzso’s works in 2003, which set the stage for this year’s exhibition, and a smaller show of Matta’s works on paper.
Importantly, SBMA has also gotten its financial house in order and has kept its eye on its current mission, which is, in the words of its director, Phillip Johnston, “to be recognized as a leading museum on the West Coast.” Johnston noted a number of important recent traveling shows have landed in Santa Barbara — not in Los Angeles or in San Francisco — as their only West Coast venue. “We envision the personality of our museum will be so appealing that the level of achievement cannot help but be recognized,” he said.
A Really Big Show
Tamayo will certainly help to fulfill that aim. The show’s scope is impressive by any standards. A major retrospective (the first of Tamayo’s work in the U.S. in almost 30 years), it represents a high level of scholarly ambition and expertise. It features 100 of the artist’s strongest paintings, and covers Tamayo’s entire career, focusing on the iconic figural works of the 1940s and ’50s. The paintings come from four continents. Some have not been exhibited for decades and others have never been on public display. The show premieres in Santa Barbara and will travel to Miami and Mexico City. The accompanying catalogue is both a scholarly tour de force and a treasure trove of large-scale reproductions, each individually corrected for color balance by du Pont, who also edited the work.
It is remarkable that a museum in the United States was able to take the lead in organizing an exhibition of works by such an important Mexican artist. The show thus reflects a high level of trust in SBMA on the part of institutional and individual donors in Mexico, as well as on the part of the Tamayo family, which own his archives and the rights to his works. Du Pont emphasized the importance of having credibility in an undertaking like this. “We’re not calling up cold. When we say we’re going to do it, we’re going to do it,” she said. “We’ve shown we’re not just a passing moment.”