Cuban Art at El Museo del Barrio

For a rare opportunity to view a great assemblage of classic and contemporary Cuban art, be sure to make your way to El Museo del Barrio, 1230 Fifth Avenue between 104th and 105th Streets.  El Museo’s exhibit, Caribbean: Crossroads of the World, which opened June 12th, brings together a trove of Caribbean art from collections around the world, including more than twenty works by Cuban artists. The exhibit is about much more than Cuban art, of course, but in Cuban New Yorker my focus is on that which is Cuban in New York, so no one should interpret my admittedly insular approach as a slight to the many fine and important non-Cuban works in the exhibit.

Caribbean: Crossroads of the World is actually a multi-site collaborative exhibit that spans El Museo, the Studio Museum in Harlem, and the Queens Museum of Art. The entire project was under the general direction of Elvis Fuentes (Art History, Universidad de La Habana, 1999), the accomplished Associate Curator for Special Projects at El Museo. This weekend I was only able to make it to El Museo.

The entire exhibit is organized along thematic lines and not by style or epoch, so unless one understands the themes being explored through the works, the pieces do not seem to fit together (other than being works by Caribbean artists). The themes pursued in El Museo’s portion of the exhibit are “Counterpoints” and “Patriot Acts.”

But don’t get hung up on the unifying themes, which are slightly abstruse and not always easy to trace throughout all the works. Just enjoy the art on the walls and in the display cases. With or without a theme, there is something endearing about an exhibit that finds a pretext for including a portrait by Armando Menocal (1890) as well as gelatin silver prints by Ana Mendieta (1981, 1983), and just about everything in between.

Virtually every well-known Cuban artist is represented.  Works have been gathered from museums and private collections, including the MOMA, the Hirschhorn, the Schomburg, the Bacardí Collection, and the collection of those leading collectors and dealers of Cuban art, Ramón and Nercys Cernuda of

Victor Patricio Landaluze, Ladies by the Window, ca. 1860. Collection of Ramón and Nercys Cernuda

Cernuda Arte.  The two matancero brothers, Esteban and Philippe Chartrand, each have dreamy nineteenth-century landscapes of their native province on display at the exhibit. Also from the colonial period there are two classic examples of the costumbrista style of Victor Patricio Landaluze, Ladies by the Window (ca. 1860) and Lady on a Horse (ca. 1870).

The romantics of the early Republican period are also represented, not only by the Menocal portrait (not his best work) but also by a gauzy 1925 landscape of Viñales, Paisaje con Mogotes (not well translated as Lanscape with Cliffs) by Domingo Ramos.

Domingo Ramos, Paisaje con Mogotes, 1925. Collection of Ramón and Nercys Cernuda

It is fair to say that nothing in Cuban art draws greater attention than the vanguardistas of the mid-twentieth century, and most of them are there, at least temporarily, in El Barrio. Carlos Enríquez is represented by a small painting of the exterior of his hideaway studio, El Hurón Azul (undated, from the Bacardí Collection). There is an abstract oil simply called Paisaje (1941) by Fidelio Ponce León from the Cernuda collection.

Fidelio Ponce de León. Paisaje, 1941. Collection of Ramón and Nercys Cernuda.

Of the two oils by Amelia Peláez in the exhibit, the big eye catcher is a large and vibrant piece, Fish with Baroque Columns (1950), also from the Bacardí Collection.  Borrowed from the Hirshhorn is El sueño (1947) by Wilfredo Lam, and from the Farber Collection, a gouache by Antonio Gattorno, Ascension (1947).

Antonio Gattorno, Ascension, 1947. Farber Collection.

But what really struck a chord of familiarity within me, and brought a grin to my face, was finding on the wall of El Museo one of Mariano’s roosters. It is simply entitled El Gallo (1941), as if it is the rooster and not one of literally dozens Mariano painted over the course of his career. That’s the one item in the exhibit I would’ve most wanted to take home with me, although there is little chance of that: it belongs to the MOMA.

Perhaps the best part of this exhibit for the fan of Cuban art is that in addition to the familiar, there are also intriguing works by lesser-known or up and coming artists with whom I, at least, was not well acquainted. It is undoubtedly not a coincidence that three artists in the exhibit, who, despite their evident talents, have not reached the prominence of many of their contemporaries, were Afro-Cubans. After viewing El Beso (1930-32), an evocative bronze piece loaned by the Schomburg, I want to learn more about its Afro-Cuban sculptor, Teodoro Ramos Blanco, who died in 1972. I am also curious about Roberto Diago Querol, represented by his Cabeza (ink on paper, 1946), who died under mysterious circumstances in Madrid in 1955 at the age of 35. There is also an untitled 1972 painting by the primitivist Ruperto Jay Matamoros, who passed away in 2008.

Not as noteworthy, in my view, are Angel Acosta León’s untitled portrait of José Martí (1955-60) and Felipe Jesús Consalvos’ dogmatic collage “Uncle Sam Wants Your Surplus Fat” (n.d.).  But there are two sculptures by young artists that are both whimsical and thought-provoking. One is Abel Barroso’s Cigars with

Abel Barroso, Cigars with Ideology, 2001. University of South Florida.

Ideology (2001), a carved cigar box with a lithographic scroll inside that can be hand-cranked to reveal a historical lesson about Cuba, Tampa, and cigars. And then there’s Yoan Capote’s 2006 plaster sculpture Rational (2006).

Yoan Capote, Rational, 2006. Collection of Ben Rodríguez-Cubeñas.

When you buy your admission ticket at one of the three venues for the exhibit, you receive a “passport” that entitles you to visit the other two sites at no charge. Based upon my experience at El Museo, I will definitely find my way to Harlem and Flushing to view the rest of Caribbean: Crossroads of the World. And I’ll no doubt post a blog or two about what I see. I wonder if there are any chino-cubano restaurants in Flushing that I could review while I’m there . . .

6 responses to “Cuban Art at El Museo del Barrio

  1. Marilu Menendez

    I have not seen El Museo’s—I am going on Friday…but discovering the Cuban pieces at the Studio Museum in Harlem gave me equal joy. There is a Menocal of bleeding mambises, VERY sentimental–but so nice for this other Cuban New Yorker to stumble upon, so far from home….there are Portocarreros, Marianos, and the old paisajistas in Harlem, among others….and a Bedia that I would steal and a set of Guaraicoa miniatures that are spectacular… But I have to admit that my biggest pleasure was to see ourselves among the other islands…part of a bigger whole. I loved the Haitan pieces, so elegant and those from Jamaican ones, so wickedly on point. I am definetedly going to Queens too….

    • Thank you, Marilú. I will definitely make my way to Harlem and Flushing before long. And you’re right: there is an undeniable pleasure in stumbling upon so many familiar artists and works. I was not expecting that when I walked into El Museo this past weekend.

  2. Many thanks for your kind words, Lisandro. I am so glad that you enjoyed the show at El Museo, and hope you will enjoy the other two. I must add a couple of things – the Menocal portrait of Fernando Ylas has never been shown before. It was in the De Murias family for over 100 years, and I find it intriguing and vivid. The Acosta León is an early piece, but impressive nonetheless. You could tell this young painter was not afraid to try. And Consalvos is definitely one of my favorites. Totally unknown except for a few, he was a cigar factory worker who lived in NY and Philly, and after retiring created hundreds of collages using cigar stamps, paper clips, even dollar bills (being very poor) to make these collages. He was, of course, an intuitive artist, self-taught, ‘untrained,’ or whatever term you may want to use, but he definitely mastered the technique. Also interesting is his choice over traditional painting or quilt. His collages have a great sense of humor. I would dare to place his work next to any of the masters in the genre. A gallery (Fleischer/Ollman) in Philly has done a lot to make his work known. Last but not least, José Cuchí is a painter that although born in Puerto Rico, he traveled to Cuba and Dominican Republic, and he taught as well.

    • Thank you, Elvis, for sharing with the readers of Cuban New York your expert insights on these works, especially highlighting the importance of those pieces that I was too eager to dismiss in my post. I tip my hat (in Spanish it is even more emphatic: we remove our hat — “me quito el sombrero”), you are the expert. [Elvis, as I noted in my blog, is the Project Director for the exhibit and he is Associate Curator for Special Projects at El Museo del Barrrio].

  3. Beatriz M Peña

    I enjoyed your review My husband and I are the owners of the Landaluze “Lady on a horse” that you mentioned, as well as sculptures by Cardenas at the Studio Museum and by Lopez Dirube in the Queens Museum. A 1945 magazine and a 1942 book illustrated by Lam are also at the Museo del Barrio. The book is none other that the Cuban edition of Retorno al país natal by Aimée Cesaire, translated by Lydia Cabrera printed in La Habana in 1942 and signed by both. It is the second edition of this book, the original in French was first published in Martinique in the 30s and the French edition was not published in France until the end of the war. Another copy of the Cuban edition is owned by the French National Assembly and it was shown at the fabulous exhibit last year at the Grand Palais in Paris, based on the Annonciation collaboration of Cesaire and Lam with beautiful engravings (we also own a copy) It is a shame how the graphic work of Lam especially his collaboration with the major poets and writers in France of his generation has been largely ignored by Cuban art collectors (not us, we have a very large collection¡).

    • Thank you for your comment. I did notice the magazine and book iluustrations by Lam in the glass case in the exhibit. I did not mention them in the post because it would have taken a lot of space to describe and explain their significance, but they are indeed important pieces. I am glad you brought them to the attention of the readers. I will be on the lookout for the pieces you mentioned when I go to the Studio Museum and to Queens. BTW, I did have the pleasure of meeting and talking with Aimée Cesaire when I helped to organize an international conference on Negritude at Florida International University circa 1987.

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