The Miami Art Museum, which they want to call MAM, is celebrating its 10th anniversary. It is not old for a museum, not even for an American museum. Florida, when I grew up here in the 1950s and part of the 60s, was not noted for its culture. It still is much better at presenting amusement parks and ball games than museums or the performing arts.
The focal point for its tourism success is a huge amusement park in the center of the state based on a cartoon mouse. Mouseworld tries to create a mythological America that never existed. It is the symbol of Florida. They even put one in France and an original in California – symbols of America like golden arches. Symbols and myths do not always deliver cultural benefits, educational excellence. Florida also boasts a beer garden for the kindergarten set in Tampa and multiple arenas for the worship of football and baseball, some terrific racing of cars, hydroplanes, and other beautiful things that go fast.
Miami has pop boat shows, grand prix racing, a new performing arts center, growing galleries, the “Design District” and some museums. MAM sits in the center of downtown and is planning to break ground for a massive new facility in 2008 in what is to become Miami’s Cultural District.
The plan was to report on the Tamayo show at MAM that ran from June through September 23. The plan was to report on it before it was taken down, but some surgery got in the way of my writing energies. The show (Tamayo: A Modern Icon Reinterpreted) was organized by the Santa Barbara Museum of Art together with the Consejo Nacional de Bellas Artes and Museo Tamayo Arte Contemporàneo in Mexico City. In Miami the Consulate General of Mexico also helped present it. If you get a chance to catch it in a different gallery or museum, do it.
Tamayo was known to me. Some of his works are familiar from the Modern and, I seem to recall, works in an L.A. museum and in books looked at in that great pile in my memory that have lost their titles and where I found, borrowed, bought, or merely looked at them. Rufino del Carmen Arellanes Tamayo (Mexicans have not only wonderful names, but lots of them) was Oaxacan, even though he ended up painting in both Mexico and the United States.
His history mirrors many other artists through the ages who were destined and groomed for some useful and responsible profession. His mother died in 1911 when he was 12-years-old and was moved with an aunt to Mexico City. She put him in accounting school (someone once suggested I become an accountant rather than photographer and, luckily, I demurred), so that he could do the financial reporting for the family fruit-selling business. He wisely followed the muse to the Escuela Nacional de Bellas Artes, where he sat in on classes until they took him in officially in 1917.
The early paintings are dark and heavily influenced by European movements, Cubism, Fauvism, Neo-impressionism, and other rising -isms of the new century. He threw in Mexico’s indigenous facets and the violence of the Revolution of 1910. Then he stirred in his hopes and dreams and the power of the –isms, and out of the cauldron came Mexican forces who labeled him traitor to the Revolution, which helped propel him into the New York of the 20s, and later the late 30s and 40s.
Sadly, some of MAM’s galleries, particularly for these earlier works, were poorly lighted. The lighting appeared to be an on-going problem that, we can assume will be addressed in the building for which ground will be broken next year. Not all the pieces were impressive, but the jewels among the choices were just that: jewels of his own modernism infused with the spirit of Abstract Expressionism of post-war New York.
There are Mexican women of Tehuantepec drawn Cubist style that still smell of chiles and emanate hot tropical style unknown to Picasso. There are supernatural figures with glowing eyes, phantoms of the post-war apocalyptic fears of nuclear annihilation that threaten to escape from the confines of the canvas frame, and symbolic birds with tropical colors and universal hopes and fears.
He was still painting in the 1970s and 80s, although death had become one of the motifs in his work. We are not surprised since that angel, that seductive temptress that comes for us all, hovered with his muse and he made his peace with her. He shows it in his work. He shows, too, the love for his wife of many decades in the portrait of her that embodies so much in so little. Luckily, these later pieces, the supernatural and the birds of the Cold War, are the ones I found in the better-lit galleries. MAM impresses in a state usually in love with the new and pop, chain stores and art on velvet.
Tamayo is gone from Miami, but wherever the show lands next, I hope you get to see it. If not, dive into a mound of art books and pull some of the images out to imprint in the galleries of your mind.
Ten to the first power at MAM. Yes, MAM. The show at the Miami Art Museum is called the Power of Ten. This one runs through October 23rd and you can still get there to celebrate gifts the museum has received during the first 10 years of its life as a “collecting institution.” Are they all good? Are they equal in vision in quality? They are gifts, mind you, and we all have a closet with some ties that didn’t make the grade, a pair of multi-colored golfing slacks along with the treasures without which our life would be lessened. So it must be with museums.
MAM held planning meetings and made its plan for the future way back in the pre-cultural Florida days of 1995. It was the Center For Fine Arts back then and decided it should become more than just an “exhibiting organization” – one that only presented collections from other institutions with no collection of its own.
The decision was to aim for five goals: to collect international 20th and 21st century art, to build its own collection, to reflect these goals with a new name (MAM like the “yes, ma’am” I was taught as a southern boy), to emphasize education – especially for children, and to find itself a site for a free-standing new museum with outdoor sculpture space.
In ’96 they mounted the first show of their gifts, Dream Collection, with 14 gifts for the new collection. They included a lot of my favorites: Adolph Gottlieb, Robert Rauschenberg, James Rosenquist, Helen Frankenthaler, Louise Nevelson, Al Held, and Gene Davis, along with artists with Miami and Florida connections. Since then the collection has been growing at about 25 new works a year. A George Segal was added, as well as a group of six by Joseph Cornell with his boxes of memories, reflections and dreams.
This show, reasonably well-presented and lighted (where lighting is appropriate) mixes the masters of the post-war world with Miami the masters of American-Latin culture clashes and fusions. There is a “photographic” triptych, “Waterlillies (After Monet)” that creates an astounding allusion and illusion of walking into that once wonderful gallery in New York’s MOMA with the Monet Waterlillies, the sculptural benches to sit entranced for hours with near-sighted Monet’s aged peek into the heaven of his water garden’s collage of floating colors.
This one is a different scale, but still has the set of three separated by the same sort of distance and, at first, the feeling that someone copied them. Not bad, this copy; but then the copy resolves into cut and pasted images that are not of water lilies small enough to become the eye’s trick.
There is a sweet Sol Lewitt called “Open Cube,” and the magnificent Fernand Leger mounted on the outside of the building near a pool of vanishing perspective that becomes a defining element of the entire museum, historical museum, and library complex.
Finally, I slipped into a dark room where the movie of the New York outdoor projection installation, Sleepwalkers, is played, which will become part of the new museum in “Museum Park.” Sleepwalkers is a movie of a set of movies projected on the walls of MOMA that follows six New Yorkers as they live their lives in the Big Apple from morning through the city-night, shown in the night of the city sometimes with snow falling in front of the projectors, screens split, images split between buildings and all working, all successful, the pulse of the City, the feel of the City, the architecture of the city reflected and reflecting those who inhabit it.
Tired and bone weary from negotiating a car-culture city by public transport, I fell onto the bench happy for any excuse to rest and was yanked back to the reality that is art, wide awake and alert to the sleepwalking nature of those who begin to live lives as if sleepwalking. I left happier than I entered.
That is the test of a museum experience. As Picasso wrote, “Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.” Dust the cupboards of your soul, even in south Florida.