Adiós Utopia: MFAH's Cuban Exhibition Is Less Than Revolutionary

Raúl Corrales, La caballería (Cavalry), 1960, gelatin silver print, Couturier Gallery, Los Angeles.
Raúl Corrales, La caballería (Cavalry), 1960, gelatin silver print, Couturier Gallery, Los Angeles.
© Estate Corrales/Courtesy of Couturier Gallery, Los Angeles

How do we deal with Cuba? It’s a question we thought was pretty much resolved for us last year with Obama’s first-in-decades presidential visit to Havana and accompanying photo ops with Raúl Castro. In some ways, it’s a question that seems so last century. But here it is again, raised anew by the exhibition “Adiós Utopia: Dreams and Deceptions in Cuban Art Since 1950,” curated by Gerardo Mosquera, René Francisco Rodríguez and Elsa Vega, all based in Havana, now on view at The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

According to Mari Carmen Ramírez, Wortham Curator of Latin American Art, MFAH, and director of the International Center for the Arts of the Americas, who, along with Olga Viso, executive director of the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis (the show's next destination), served as museum adviser, the idea of a major exhibition of Cuban art in the United States has been in the air for years.

Perhaps in large part because of the political tensions and the embargo that have frozen official contacts between the United States and Cuba since the Cuban Revolution in 1959 (but not just because of that, I think, after seeing this show), there hasn’t been an exhibition of Cuban art on this scale in the United States since 1944, when the Museum of Modern Art in New York mounted one called “Modern Cuban Painters.” With the thaw in recent years, the time seemed right.

This timely opening was noted not just in Houston. In fact, an exhibition titled “Wild Noise/Ruido Salvaje,” exploring “contemporary Cuban art from the 1970s to the present,” opened just last month at The Bronx Museum of the Arts. Reviewing that show in The New York Times and finding it wanting, Holland Cotter suggested that the show now open here in Houston might be the one to see for those wanting a fuller view of modern Cuban art.

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Let me say up front that this is a worthy exhibition with art to show and points to make, and even things to teach. Unfortunately, it seems to me that it’s also an exhibition whose time came last year, or maybe even a decade ago, when the political and diplomatic issues that infuse many of the pieces would have seemed more immediately relevant.

As one long devoted to what is sometimes summarily (and wrongly) dismissed as “regional” art, I know that lots of worthy art doesn’t get shown in major museums, especially in places where there is no substantial population base or heritage connection to the art on show. This exhibition might be a perfect fit in Miami or Havana, but in Houston and Minneapolis, one wonders.

The fact is that Cuba is a rather small island country that has been cut off from the free flow of people and ideas for much of the past 60 years, with a population approaching 7 million at the time of the revolution and just over 11 million today. By comparison, its neighbor Guatemala has 17 million, and yet the idea of an exhibition of modern Guatemalan art touring major U.S. museums is unthinkable.

Why the difference? The curators make a forceful argument that modern Cuban art warrants such a show because of its disproportionate importance on a hemispheric — maybe even a world — stage due to the revolution itself, and reactions to it. One wonders if perhaps the disproportionate, and in some ways hysterical, response of Cuba’s giant neighbor, the United States, isn’t a more likely reason.

The striking thing is that the art, decade after decade, is so often so much of its time. Yes, it’s art of a revolution, but it’s not revolutionary art. Think of the truly revolutionary art of Degas mounted in these same galleries only weeks ago, for a sense of the difference. Which is not to suggest that going to see “Adiós Utopia” isn’t a good use of your time. It certainly is. Most art made anywhere at any time is not revolutionary, but still it can be satisfying and can tell important tales of its time and place.

And so the initial gallery of 1950s geometric abstraction and concrete art, which is a time and style that I find particularly exciting — and which was important and well executed throughout Latin America, as we’ve seen in numerous MFAH exhibitions of the region’s art over the years, under the curatorial wing of Ramírez — is a thrilling sight.

It’s interesting to learn that Cuba, in the period, had its own organized group of practitioners of the style — Diez Pintores Concretos — including the Romanian-born Sandu Darie, and Loló Soldevilla, Cuba-born but spending critical years in Paris in the early 1950s. It’s a scenario repeated throughout Latin America in the mid-20th century — think of the wonderful floating spaceships of Gyula Kosice, Argentinian but originally from Czechoslovakia, that we saw in “Cosmic Dialogues” in 2015, and the worlds of Juanito and Ramona created by Antonio Berni at his studios in Buenos Aires and Paris, and on show in these same MFAH galleries in 2013.

It is interesting to note that a diaspora spurred by World War II, which infused Cuba and other Latin American countries with new ideas from Central Europe, was echoed by a diaspora of Cuban artists going abroad after the revolution — a subject for a different show, but another provocative one.

This show, however, is about those who mostly stayed in Cuba, whether by choice or not, and made art shaped by, and shaping, the revolution through its transformation from utopian quest to self-perpetuating regime with principles of clay. This is the important story told, and shown, by “Adiós Utopia” — primarily a historical story of art in time and place. It’s the story of art as an element and molder of events and culture through a momentous time that’s the takeaway here, rather than the art itself in a rarefied art-for-art’s-sake realm.

Some of the works in the show you may recognize because we’ve seen them before at MFAH, even as recently as last year in the excellent exhibition “Contingent Beauty: Contemporary Art from Latin America”: Yoan Capote’s Stress (in memoriam), made of concrete, wood and human teeth; and Tania Bruguera’s Estadística [Statistics], a Cuban flag woven from donated human hair.

Some you may at first think you’ve seen before, as I did when I spotted Mi homenaje a Che [My Homage to Che] from 1987 by Tomás Esson, with the wild, lush, colorful composition and brushwork of the time. It reminded me of the 1980s work of Texas artist Melissa Miller — only with a different political point, of course.

There are works in the show that are Cuban Pop, Cuban Minimalist, Cuban whatever was going in the 60-plus years covered — though the arrangement isn’t chronological, but rather thematic, with sections titled “Cult and Deconstruction of the Revolutionary Nation,” “The Imposition of the Words: Discourse, Rhetoric, and Media Controls” and “Sea, Borders, Exile” among others.

There is a section of colorful, pointed posters that are particularly vigorous — as is so often the case in revolutions everywhere. And many of the photographs — these may be the most engaging works in the show, especially the early ones — are ironic, amusing, beautiful, stirring. La caballeria [Cavalry] of 1960, taken by Raúl Corrales shortly after victory over the dictatorship, when the ideals of the revolution were still new and believable, with fearless revolutionaries on horseback surging forward, flags snapping in the winds of destiny, has the force of Eugène Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People from a century before.

If you’re a student of the Cuban Revolution, or of art and revolution more generally, this is a show for you — of interest in itself, but also as a prelude to “Paint the Revolution: Mexican Modernism, 1910-1950,” an exhibition of the revolutionary (in several senses) art of our powerhouse Latin American neighbor, Mexico, which will be coming to MFAH in June.

“Adiós Utopia: Dreams and Deceptions in Cuban Art Since 1950”
Through May 21. Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 1001 Bissonnet, 713-639-7300, mfah.org.


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