The Creative Brilliance of the Latino / New York City Connection

by Randy Shaw on December 17, 2009

I have reviewed many fine books in 2009, and if I had to select a single book that interested readers must buy rather than get from a library or borrow from a friend it is the newly released, Nexus New York: Latin American Artists in the Modern Metropolis. Edited by Deborah Cullen, director of curatorial programs at New York City’s El Museo del Barrio, this book accompanied the exhibit of the same name that marked the museum’s reopening this fall after a major renovation. I saw the exhibit and found it to be artistically, culturally and politically powerful.

The book is a monumental achievement in its own right. It shows how the cross-fertilization of Latin-American and New York City artists shaped the home terrains of both, particularly impacting the era’s cultural politics. While it includes well known artists like Alice Neel and Diego Rivera, it also exposes the historic importance of figures like Joaquin Torres-Garcia and Miguel Covarrubias, the latter of whom came to shape the imagery of Harlem. From the only photos of Rivera’s destroyed Rockefeller Center mural to photos of David Alfaro Siqueiros teaching students in his Experimental Workshop, this book offers an impressive range of rare treasures.

While many books and museum exhibits depict the influence of European artists on their American counterparts from 1900-1940, the impact of Latin American artists on the New York City cultural scene during these years has been largely overlooked. That’s one of the many reasons why Nexus New York is such a vital resource, as it effectively reclaims a critical aspect of our nation’s cultural and political history.

The book is structured through a series of separately written chapters on various components of the Latin American-New York City nexus. Some examples include the Havana-New York connection – literally embodied by Alice Neel’s marriage to the Cuban artist Carlos Enriquez – the impact of the largely unknown “transatlantic visionary” Marius de Zayas, the correlations between Mexican culture and the “New Negro” movements, the role of Mexican revolutionary artists in New York, and, what may be the book’s most surprising highlight, a chapter on the forgotten career of Joaquin Torres-Garcia, whose artist achievement this book and exhibit will hopefully revive.

While not every chapter is scintillating, and some of the writing is stilted and overly academic, the extensive artwork included in the book allows the pictures to compensate for weaknesses in the prose. And this book includes art rarely if ever available for purchase in mass-market formats. For example, Lucienne Bloch’s photo of Diego Rivera’s legendary Man at the Crossroads mural – incredibly, the only one available of a work whose demolition by the Rockefeller family came to symbolize how money dictates a society’s art.

The Genius of Covarrubias

Miguel Covarrubias is far from a household name today (I had never heard of him) but one look at his artwork and his lasting influence becomes clear. Covarrubias arrived in New York City from Mexico at age 18, and soon developed a style that came to define the images of the Harlem Renaissance. Covarrubias became the nation’s leading caricaturist, regularly publishing in Vanity Fair and influencing the now much better known Al Hirschfield.

Covarrubias’ images of African-American singer Josephine Baker helped transform her into a worldwide phenomenon, and Harlem poet Langston Hughes used Covarrubias’ images as the cover for his first book of poems. Critic Alain Locke felt that Covarrubias’ Latin tradition enabled him to use caricatures of blacks with “no hint of social offense or disparagement.” His work, along with others in the book, show that the now rich Afro-Cuban and Afro-Latino traditions were significantly influenced by the visits of Latin American artists to New York City in the 1920’s.

The Undiscovered Joaquin Torres-Garcia

Stuart Davis is a well-known New York City artist from the 1920’s era whose Lucky Strike painting is frequently on display in New York’s Museum of Modern Art. In contrast, Joaquin Torres-Garcia, whose art adorns the book’s cover, was likely little known outside the critical community until this book and exhibit. By generously including several works by Torres-Garcia, and juxtaposing some with that of Davis, it becomes clear that the Uruguayan-born Torres-Garcia provided a vision of modern New York that deserves much broader recognition.

As Cecilia de Torres describes in her essay, “Torres-Garcia’s New York: The City as Icon of Modern Art,” this artist arrived in New York City in 1920 and proceeded in the next few years to create an astonishing body of work. And his production went beyond wonderful paintings of city street scenes; Torres-Garcia also made several albums of newspaper and magazine clippings of the New York environment, and ran a business creating wooden toys of iconic city working people.

Torres-Garcia’s legacy may have been forgotten in the United States because he was 46 when he arrived in New York City, returned to Spain in 1923 and spent the rest of his career in Europe. His works are currently in his native Uruguay. But his legacy has been reclaimed in this book, which is also true for many other artists too numerous to include within the space of a review.

A Special Achievement

Deborah Cullen has achieved something very special with both the exhibit and book, and she and her colleagues at the El Museo de Barrio deserve enormous credit for the sheer ambition of their mission and their having accomplished it.

This is not a book to read straight through on an airplane or while sitting by a pool. Rather, this is a book like a wonderful dessert; you don’t want to eat it too fast, and its better to savor each bite. That’s why if you are interested in the subject matter, you should purchase the book so you can enjoy it at your own pace. And for those who enjoy reading in Spanish, the book includes a Spanish version, another example of the bold and encompassing vision of Cullen and her colleagues.

Randy Shaw is the author of Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century.

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