There are some extraordinary visual moments. Among the most interesting are Carlos Mérida’s portfolio of color lithographs depicting scenes from the Popol Vuh, a sacred Mayan text written in K’iche’, and several cases of Taíno artifacts. These sit alongside contemporary works like Juan Sánchez’s gorgeous painting The Most Cultural Thing You Can Do (1983), which fuses luscious colors and rich textures, pictographs, and a photo-collage of a tattooed Puerto Rican flag along with a text from the Young Lords about self-reliance and protection. Sánchez’s ability to create politically and spiritually charged works in a formally beautiful language has few parallels in contemporary art.
The exhibition is also strong in photography and printmaking. There are compelling images by Hiram Maristany, Perla de León, Máximo Colón, Héctor Méndez Caratini, Luis Carle, Julio Nazario, and Geandy Pavón, to name a few. The late ADÁL (Maldonado), a genuine Nuyorican Dadaist, blows us away with his blurry Out of Focus Nuyoricans series. Technical virtuosity and conceptual clarity is also evident in the linocuts and woodcuts of the Puerto Rican maestros Lorenzo Homar and Rafael Tufiño, who influenced Nuyorican printmakers whose works are also present. Worth a second look are José Alicea’s portfolio centered on a poem by Julia de Burgos, Antonio Martorell’s woodcuts with Ernesto Cardenal’s “Salmos,” and the funky and empowering graphics of the Taller Boricua artists. Folk art is also well represented, with paintings, textiles, and objects mounted alongside the work of trained artists. Particularly exquisite among these are four Mola cotton textiles by Guma artists from the 1970s.
El Museo boasts an eclectic collection of paintings, from the geometric abstractions of Carmen Herrera, Fanny Sanín, and César Paternosto, to the expressive figuration of Nitza Tufiño, Jorge Soto, and Beatriz González. The section dedicated to the late painter and printmaker Myrna Báez (1931–2018) is simply breathtaking, making this viewer wish for a major retrospective of her work, long overdue. Five prints and two paintings by Báez present her poetic realism, where the human body appears both sharp and fluid and the landscape pulsates with movement.
Rounding things out are two works commissioned specifically for this reframing of El Museo’s collection. Glendalys Medina’s sculptural, site-specific intervention, Cohoba, brings viewers into the ceremony that lies at the spiritual center of Taíno life. Like a small, darkened chapel built to hold saintly relics, Medina’s creation grants comfort and serenity to the visitor. By way of contrast, Maria Gaspar’s Force of Things is a minimalist tour de force of sculpture, painting, and video. It commemorates the demolition of the largest single-site prison in the country, Chicago’s Cook County Department of Corrections. In a cold, white space, visitors are confronted with actual jail debris salvaged from the site—penal objects rarely visible beyond carceral spaces. Gaspar’s open-ended arrangements enable viewers to experience, if only for a moment, the same emptiness, brokenness, and despair that prisons and jails regularly inflict on their inhabitants.
Aesthetics have always been inseparable from politics, and the curators of Something Beautiful make this refreshingly palpable. They write: “Unlike the majority of mainstream art museum collections, which continue to center Eurocentric values and art historical canons despite efforts to diversify, our collection is grounded in a decolonial project.” That’s been true since El Museo’s founding in 1969, when it emerged from and for the Nuyorican community. Since then, it has expanded to embrace the city’s many other Latino communities (Chicano, Dominican, Cuban, Central and South American), as well as Latin America, without forsaking its Nuyorican origins. The reinstallation of the collection is therefore much more than a simple updating of a single institution. With its focus on hybridity—that paradoxical, lifegiving fusion of Indigenous, African, and Spanish cultures—it’s a profound statement of the complexity of Latinx identity as a whole. It will surely resonate with Latinx communities across the United States and beyond.
Juan de Pareja, Afro-Hispanic Painter, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, through July 16
Something Beautiful: Reframing La Colección, El Museo del Barrio, through March 2024