Exhibitious of Latin American art in Europe and the United States have long labored under the apparent necessity of introducing or explaining an entire continent's artistic production to a public hitherto unaware of it. Surveys have inevitably been the norm, employing curatorial strategies that would be considered simplistic if applied to the history of European or North American art. As the work of twentieth-century Latin American artists became fashionable and attractive to the international art market in the '80s, certain European and American enthusiasts aimed to realize their long-held ambition to establish Latin American art in the mainstream of contemporary culture. But with some exceptions, such as Dawn Ades's pioneering "Art in Latin America: The Modern Era, 1820-1980" (Hayward Gallery, London, 1989) and Catherine de Zegher's audacious "America, Bride of the Sun" (Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Antwerp, 1992), the shows they produced followed routine historical procedures and a conventional notion of the art object.
Today, with the regular inclusion of Latin American artists in Documenta and in international thematic shows, this introductory phase might appear to be over. Until recently, however, we still lacked for a treatment of the antecedents of the current scene that reflected contemporary thinking in those countries themselves, since relatively little of the continent's art criticism has been translated. Hence "Inverted Utopias: Avant-Garde Art in Latin America" marks perhaps the most intellectually challenging megasurvey to date.
The exhibition's title refers to the famous cover of Joaquin Torres-Garcia's 1935 manifesto, "La escuela del sur," showing the map of South America upside down according to the standard global projection. Rather than constructing a geography or a chronology, joint curators Mari Carmen Ramirez, director of the International Center for the Arts of the Americas at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and the Mexican poet Hector Olea, structured their project and its huge, indispensable catalogue around pairs of fertile oppositions and contradictions. "Play and Grief," for example, established a nexus between an agonized expressionism and a clever freedom with materials; "Cryptic and Committed" showed the interrelation of two facets of conceptualism--political activism and an exploration of the enigmas of representation; and "Touch and Gaze" traced the eruption of the corporeal into the optical traditions of visual art.
The result is not the establishment of an alternative, exotic, or "other" modernism, but rather an expansion of our understanding of the utopian and dystopian facets of avant-garde experimentation, with cultural differences considered not as barriers but as challenges and stimulants. This enables one to think of art as a precarious yet insistent flow of ideas across cultures and generations.
Indeed, what receives institutional recognition here has long been understood and made use of by artists themselves. Almost thirty-five years ago, Vito Acconci was inspired by Helio Oiticica's participatory construction, Nests, 1970, made for "Information," MOMA's seminal exhibition of the same year. …