Until the End
I was lucky that I got to know Juan as my professor and mentor and eventually, he became my husband. Through the years, I watched as he collaborated with his colleagues, had meetings and gave feedback to those who sought it, and encouraged the young artists and future art historians. He was generous with his time, a great listener and always helped to promote those who were not given their proper place in the Cuban Art world.
I learned so much from Juan. We visited many museums. It was one of our favorite past times. We would talk about the composition, skill and message of artworks as we made our way through exhibitions. I will miss the happiness that we shared each time we discovered an inspirational piece.
I am amazed at Juan’s perseverance. He met with people and communicated with them, even when he could no longer speak into the computer program that would type out his words. As his voice became a whisper, I would write down what he wanted to say, in a document or in an email. He never gave up. He worked until the very end.
To all of his colleagues who surrounded him with love as the wicked disease ravaged his body, I am so grateful. He had a clear mind to the end and loved working with each of you. Thank you for honoring the bravest man I have ever known and his life’s work.
Ms. Patricia Wiesen
Snapshots with El Profe
Juan Antonio Martínez was born September 2, 1951 in Jaruco, Cuba, to a family of modest means. His family went into exile shortly after the arrival of the 1959 Revolution; first to Spain, and eventually to Miami, where Juan completed high school, continued to college, discovered his vocation for art history and eventually received a PhD from the University of Florida in Gainesville. His dissertation became his first book, the now classic text Cuban Art and National Identity: The Vanguardia Painters, 1927-1950. He spent his teaching career first at Miami Dade Community College, and at Florida International University, retiring from there due to the neuro-muscular disease that ended his life October 11, 2020, at the home of his second wife Patricia Wiesen, in Coconut Grove, Florida. Juan authored the authoritative monograph on Carlos Enríquez (Cernuda Arte Editions), the monograph on Cuban American artist María Brito (A Ver series), and countless catalogue essays and articles. His monograph on painter Fidelio Ponce is forthcoming (Cernuda Arte Editions). Juan is without a doubt, a founding figure in Cuban Art History in the exile, and in the history of Cuban American Art, as contemporary American Art.
I first met Juan in early 1994, when we were part of a national advisory board for the then third reincarnation of the Cuban Museum. Other members were the late Ricardo Viera, Dr. Lynette Bosch and INTAR curator Inverna Lockpez. We spent three intense days together drafting all of the organizing documents for the museum, from Code of Ethics to Collecting and Exhibition policies. Sadly, that third incarnation of the museum went nowhere, but Juan and I became instant friends, and over the years our friendship grew and deepened through collaborations on panels at conferences, museum, and gallery visits, writing projects, always reading each other’s work before it was published, and socializing with family and friends. I thought of him as a mentor, he always reminded me he was merely a slightly older brother. I miss him terribly, but I continue to converse with him through his texts, and since we both are “católicos, apostólicos y Cubanos exiliados,” I know we will see each other again.
Below are three snapshots of our many adventures:
- February 1999, Juan and I were running the first panel exclusively dedicated to Cuban Art at the annual meeting of the College Art Association. And what a gathering of scholars we had on the panel: E. Carmen Ramos, Ingrid Elliott, Rocío Aranda Alvarado, Julia P. Herzberg and Harper Montgomery. The meeting was being held in LA, and it coincided with the opening of the brand-new Getty Museum. Juan and I were like excited school children: we were going to see James Ensor’s The Entry of Christ into Brussels in the Year 1889, which the Getty owned. The two of us ran through the galleries, by passing mannerist works, baroque paintings, some small but exceptionally good Davids and Goyas, some terrific post-impressionist pictures, and then the last gallery dedicated to painting. There was the Ensor in all its splendor. We spent a good 40 minutes in total silence and contemplation. It was extraordinary. As we walked out of the gallery making our way to the public reception for a glass of wine, we said simultaneously: “Neo-figurative Latin American Art owes Ensor a great deal.”
- In the Spring of 2002 Juan and I chaired a panel, on Latin American and Latino art criticism for the Historians of British Art annual meeting in Liverpool, England. A substantial part of the conference was dedicated to Latin America, and we had been invited to present a panel by Francis Frascina and the late David Craven. Unlike CAA panels, the Brits liked less panelists and more depth. We were fortunate to have Florencia Bazzano speak on the criticism of Marta Traba and Holly Barnet-Sanchez speak of Tomás Ybarra-Frausto's rasquachismo and Chicano Art. Juan did the intro, and I did the closing. At the end of the panel, a rather arrogant member of the audience got up and instead of asking a question started ranting about not knowing anything about either of these critics and wondering if they had been worth a panel at the annual meeting. I became enraged at the euro-centric ignorance of the woman, but before I responded, Juan squeezed my knee and leaning into me said: “No te encabrones Alejo. No vale la pena encabronarse por cuestiones de arte y de ignorantes. La vida es breve.” (Don’t get pissed Alejo. It is not worth it to get pissed over art and ignorant people. Life is too brief.) He smiled. I calmed down and responded with humor, brevity, and grace – three qualities I learned from Juan.
- After Ramón and Nercys Cernuda invited me to lecture at their gallery in the summer of 2009 (due in part to Juan’s suggestion), I started visiting Miami more regularly after decades of not setting foot there. Juan would sometimes pick me up at the airport, take me to visit artist’s studios, and after his marriage to Patricia, they would host marvelous lunches at their Coconut Grove home. I would come with my wife Debbi and my daughter Isabel, and Juan would gather Arturo Rodriguez and Demi, as well as María Brito. He would preside over the table like the benevolent patriarch that he was, jokes would be shared, toxic Miami politics discussed, and of course our lives, our loves, always family and art. I owe Juan great and deep friendships with Arturo and Demi, with Ramón and Nercys, with María. He always told me that Miami was his home, and for better or worse, it was the capital of the Cuban exile: “Alejo, its your capital too.”
In November of 2016, now the fourth re-incarnation of the Cuban Museum opened a survey exhibition I organized on the work of Luis Cruz Azaceta. By then Juan was frail and in a wheelchair. He came the day before the exhibition opened and the two of us walked together through the galleries. As usual, his comments were sharp, thoughtful and very generous. Before he left, he congratulated me and said words that I recall to this very day: “These are our artists. They are Cuban and American artists, like us. We have to tell their stories. When I am gone, you are going to be the old man of Cuban art history, and you have to keep telling their stories.” I promised him that I would.
Alejandro Anreus, PhD, Professor of Art History and Latin American Studies, William Paterson University
If it is indeed so hard to say anything of interest about
friendship, then a further insight becomes possible: that, unlike
Love or politics, which are never what they seem to be,
Friendship is what it seems to be. Friendship is transparent.
From a letter by J.M. Coetzee to Paul Auster
I first met Juan Martínez around 1986, thru Sheldon Lurie. We were organizing a show of my work in one of the Miami Dade College Galleries, we immediately hit it off, we had a lot of shared tastes in art, music and literature, we were especially fond of the work of Carlos Enríquez and Fidelio Ponce, which we felt at the time were not recognized enough.
Juan was one of my favorite friends, I always called him “El Decano” half in jest and half seriously.
He had an incredible personality, a highly intelligent person without a trace of self-importance or pretentiousness. We got together for lunch every month or so, first he would come to my studio and discuss the work in progress that I was doing, and always in a very constructive way, but he pulled no punches when it came to difficult stages in my work. At the end of every session, we were always hungry, and we went to lunch, but our encounters were always very constructive.
We kept the same relation through the years. When Juan became sick and was unable to move, we communicated by email. Sometimes his caretaker, Marie, brought him to my house in his equipped van, in his wheelchair, and I would show him my latest work. We really enjoyed those moments together.
I do not think I ever met a person with Juan ’s quality of character in facing so many odds. Until the very end, he maintained his habitual composure and great sense of humor.
I will always miss him.
Tres Amigos: Arturo, Juan and Alejandro (2018)
I first met Juan Martínez casually at an art opening here in Miami in the 1980’s. His cordial and low-key demeanor didn’t begin to reveal the accomplished scholar he was. We continued to run into each other at subsequent openings and developed a good friendship.
Years later I learned that I had been chosen by the A Ver board for a monograph on my work. Needless to say, I was elated by the news and thrilled to hear that Juan had been selected to write the book.
As part of his research, Juan spent weeks in my studio going over hundreds of images of my work. In my mind’s eye, I can see us now sitting at my dining room table sipping café Cubano as we talked about the works depicted in the slides and the creative process that brought them into being.
It was a humbling experience at Books and Books in Coral Gables when Juan talked about the book in front of the large number of people who came to support us.
I will always remember Juan Martínez for his talent, his vast knowledge about art history and for the depth of his friendship.
On Juan A. Martínez
I don’t recall exactly how I met Juan Martínez, but neither can I remember not knowing him. I suspect Alejandro Anreus played a role, but only because I have never seen one without seeing the other. They had perfected a repartee that was intellectual and cosmopolitan, both also somewhat combative and always down-to-earth funny – in a word, Cuban. While I grew up in a family that identified as Mexican, I did so in Miami during the 1960s, living in a largely working-class unincorporated community that had quickly became majority Latino. Our neighbors were a unique mix of earlier exiles from the Deep South and newer ones from Cuba. One day in 1968, my sister and I had new playmates living next door, Jorge and Lourdes López, whose family had spent three days on a raft – which apparently also carried their father’s table saw. The day after they moved into the neighborhood, families dropped by to offer the López’s their extra household items. They also hired Mr. López to saw things for them, doing so more as a show of support than urgent need.
In the 1970s, my family moved to Chicago where my new best friends were Puerto Rican and Black, and then everything else, too. By the 1990s, as I started a career as a scholar and teacher, I was fortunate to meet other Cuban-born friends that I somehow had always known, including Carmelita Tropicana, Ela Troyano, and José Esteban Muñoz. I felt at home in their presence.
With Juan and Alejandro, I was also inspired by their bracing engagement with the field of art history, and everything else that came under the rigorous upending of their Cuban choteo. In 2004, I launched the book series A Ver: Revisioning Art History, recruiting both as authors, with Juan writing one of the early books. This series was the first, and perhaps still the only, publishing effort dedicated to monographs on individual artists from the various Latino communities in the U.S.: Mexican American, Puerto Rican, Cuban American, Dominican, and so on. But the idea was to put the focus on the artist’s life and art, and not burden the artist with the task of representing everyone else who shared their ethnicity. Juan got it! He understood that identity and ethnicity were important parts of the story, but one had to start by giving close attention to the particulars of the art and the artist’s life. Not only that, he agreed to write about one of my favorite artists, María Brito.
Juan’s book was more than a purely intellectual exercise, disciplinary maneuver, defense of a political-cum-cultural identity, or “service to the community”—it was an effort to look past the categories these approaches require and to see the artist and her artwork through her own experiences and as an integral part of the world. María herself sets these terms in her autobiographical installation Merely a Player (1993)—commissioned for an exhibition I co-curated—in drawing her title from Shakespeare’s As You Like It:
All the world's a stage,
and all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances;
and one man in his time plays many parts.
Indeed, as the installation explores, María has played many parts in her lifetime, some written by social convention, cultural heritage, or political circumstance, and others discovered over time, through trial and error, serendipity, and what Juan called her “appropriation of past art and a will to allegory.” María’s art draws upon pre-modern and modern references, from the Baroque to Surrealism, while it also gives unique form to the political ruptures that have been at the center of her own life. María was born in Cuba in 1947, and her parents sent her and her brother to the United States in 1961 through Operation Pedro Pan, the largest exodus of unaccompanied minors in the Americas. In some ways, her art has addressed this rupture, but it has done so outside political and cultural frameworks. Thus, as Juan argued, her work represents “a will to allegory,” but it is an allegory marked by a central paradox: while each component within an artwork has an easily deciphered symbolism, often within an autobiographical register, the larger meaning is ambiguous, offering no easy correlation to social, cultural, political, spiritual, or moral meaning. In her artwork, María constructs fragments of domestic space in a way that engages not only associations with the family and home, but with the unconscious, the nation, and the lasting legacy of the conquest of the Americas. Juan saw this aspect of her work as part of an artistic project to instantiate an “identity in the making,” not a finished product, one wherein the component parts necessarily “exist in tight but uneasy accommodation,” resulting not in absolute truths or counter-truths but in “anxious interiors.” For Juan, these anxious interiors reveal that what is most private about the self is also most public, and most contradictory, making us all “merely players” with at best the opportunity to play many parts, while still remaining a surprise even to ourselves. In summing up an entire book in one paragraph, I run the risk of making Juan seem unbearably dense and theoretical, whereas his writing is eloquent, nuanced, and open-ended with respect to the art and to art history. But also with respect to the artists he studied.
That Juan made a lasting contribution to art history and to generations of students is without question. But what I remember most is his laughter, genial and bracing (in both senses of the word), and filled with the underlying ethics of choteo—of knowing more than those who simply ignore and disdain others, of irreverence because things really do matter in this world, and of a life dedicated to paying close and caring attention where others do not.
Chon A. Noriega, PhD, Director of the UCLA Chicano Studies Center, and editor of the A Ver series of monographs on living Latino artists.
A Mentor and a Friend
The recent loss of Juan Martínez was not unexpected but was deeply saddening to all of those who knew and loved him. Over his years as a professor of art history and specialist in Cuban art, Juan touched the lives of so many people—artists, students, art historians, and curators. I count myself as one of his mentees, despite the fact that I did not attend Florida International University, where he taught for his entire career. From afar, his example and unwavering support allowed me to persevere at a time when there were few role models for being an art historian devoted to Caribbean and Latinx art. Even in the throes of his unfortunate and debilitating illness, he remained committed and curious about Cuban art on the island and the diaspora. I feel fortunate that I can still conjure his joyful voice and infectious smile.
When I arrived at the University of Chicago in mid- 1990s, I was determined to study Dominican art, from the island and its diaspora. While the presence of Dominican artists has improved over the past couple of decades, studies of Dominican and Dominican American art are still rare, a predicament that continues to inform the field’s underrepresentation within studies and surveys of Latin American and Latinx art. To make my way in such a vacuum, I forged bounds with scholars in other disciplines, like the historian Robin Derby, who was then an advanced graduate student in History at the University of Chicago. I built a community of support with my fellow classmates, many of whom had interests outside of the established tracks of Latin American art. Working with this cohort, we invited several scholars to campus to present their work, and they in turn shaped our development.
Juan Martínez was one such scholar. He quickly became a pillar of support over the long haul. As a student, I devoured his Cuban Art and National Identity: The Vanguardia Painters, 1927-1950. This important book, which is a foundational textbook that broadened our collective understanding of modern Cuban art beyond international figures like Wifredo Lam, provided a template for the study of modern art in a Spanish Caribbean nation that was shaped by colonialism, slavery and U.S. imperialism. Juan’s study and continued scholarship paid significant attention to race and class and how these constructs shaped Cuban modern art. Even as my work on Dominican modern art came to articulate the nuances of modern art there, Juan’s study provided a framework from which to start and ask questions. Simultaneously, Juan’s work piqued my interest in Cuban art, which became the subject of my dissertation. Like Juan, I too became fascinated with the interplay of racial and nationalist politics in Cuban art, yet my desire to get to the root of this dynamic drew me to the nineteenth century. In 1999, Juan and my other beloved mentor, Alejandro Anreus, organized the first ever CAA panel devoted to Cuban art. It was a personal milestone for me and other young scholars like Ingrid Elliott and Rocío Aranda-Alvarado, who were also touched by Juan’s scholarship. In the subsequent years, Juan read my dissertation chapters, wrote recommendations, and always welcomed me when I visited Miami, especially after I assumed my job as Curator of Latinx art at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. His on-going scholarship, from his work on Carlos Enríquez, María Brito, to his reconsideration of the Miami Generation, continued to open new worlds for me. I miss him deeply and realize that the best way to honor him, is to continue mentoring the next generation the way he supported me. Adios querido Juan. Your life made a huge difference for me.
E. Carmen Ramos, PhD, Deputy Chief Curator of American and Latinx Art, American Art Museum, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC
Testimonial/Homage to Juan Martínez
It was a young novice art student who in 1982 walked into Miami-Dade College Wolfson Campus in the heart of downtown Miami and into influential professor Juan Martínez’s art history course. In my first art history course ever, I naturally had no expectations. Entering the class, I saw Professor Martínez instantly; I noticed his unruly mob of jet-black hair, which he did not notice at all. The second reckoning was that I had a teacher of Latino descent for the first time. It was a moment of cognizant awareness, acceptance and questioning why this had never happened in the past.
What I cherish the most from Juan’s art history classes, in those semi-dark light rooms looking at what seemed countless slides, was how accessible he made sharing his knowledge. He accomplished what I now think of as remarkable for someone who came with no previous art history background and little to no experience with Art, other than what I had learned in the K to 12 public school system. He told jokes and shared stories with his students of the lives of these artists and art movements. Prof. Juan Martínez made this foreign and unknown art world seemed accessible and within my reach. I wonder if the familiarity came from hearing the names of Renaissance artists spoken with a Spanish accent or his passion, enthusiasm, and desire to communicate and transfer this information to us, left the same sort of desire to know, create and share, which was also embedded within us. He instilled within me a curiosity and lifelong passion for Art. His evident joy of teaching Art History stayed in my mind and heart. I came away from those courses with a similar kind of burning desire and willingness to know. I left Miami to complete my studies and had many other art history courses. I always sustain an immeasurable amount of respect and appreciation for Juan Martínez and his genuine desire to communicate with passion his love of Art to his students.
In 2016, while participating in the Dialog in Cuban Art, an artist’s exchange project curated by Elizabeth Cerejido, I found myself at the Perez Art Museum in Miami on stage with the distinguished Professor Juan Martínez. The latter moderated one of the panels for the symposium. I felt an incredible sense of honor and accomplishment just being there at that moment in time. Here was Juan Martínez beholding one of the students he taught over thirty years ago, and I was now an esteemed colleague on stage with him. Thank you Juan.
Juana Valdes, Associate Professor of Printmaking, University of Massachusetts
Remembering Juan Martínez
I met Juan Martínez when he applied to a CAA session I was chairing. I had just gotten my Master’s in Art History, and he was already teaching at Florida International University. This was in 1992, one of the first years that CAA presented sessions on modern and contemporary Latin American art. Juan spoke eloquently on “The Experiences and Art of the First Generation of Cuban American Artists in Miami,” which I greatly appreciated as a first-generation Latina myself, but also as an emerging scholar who saw in Juan much hope for the future of our emerging field.
Nowadays it is really hard to understand what it felt to be a student of Latin American art in the 1980s. Back then, it was rare to find anyone teaching or publishing about Latin American art in the United States. Along with few professors like Jacqueline Barnitz and Ramón Favela, Juan Martínez was one of the pioneers in our field. In the 1990s, his wonderful book on the Cuban avant-garde of the 1920s filled me pride and served me as the best ammunition against so many in academia who dismissed the field as lacking anything worth of study. Over the years, I participated with Juan in other projects and events, but it was this first impression of a young, modest, charming, and brilliant scholar that has stayed with me most vividly. He made a remarkable contribution to our field through his numerous publications and his mentorship of so many accomplished colleagues both in the fields of Latin American and Latinx art history.
Florencia Bazzano, PhD, Assistant Curator of Latin American and Latinx Art, Blanton Museum, UT, Austin
A gathering of art historians from South and North America (February 2011, NYC) after the presentation of the María Brito monograph at El Museo del Barrio. (l-r) Florencia Bazzano, Laura Malosetti, Rocio Aranda Alvarado, Yasmin Ramirez, Gustavo Buntinx, Robin Adele Greeley, Andrea Giunta, Megan Sullivan, A. Anreus, Lisa Crossman, and Juan.
CINTAS Fellowship Lifetime Achievement Award, 2018-2019
12th Annual International Latino Book Award First Place
Triple Crown Award Winner for monograph: María Brito (A Ver), 2010
MacArthur Foundation Grant, 2001
Ford Foundation Travel Grant, 1996
Ford Foundation Travel Grant, 1995
Teaching Incentive Program Award, FIU 1995
Faculty Development Grant, FIU, 1995
Ford Foundation Travel Grant, 1993
Mellon Research Grant, 1992
Samuel H. Kress Foundation Traveling Fellowship, 1990
Florida State University Fellowship, 1986
Florida Endowment for the Humanities, 1982
Cintas Foundation Lifetime Achievement Award with Carol Damian and Jorge Duany, 2018
Books, Chapters, Articles, and Catalogue Essays
Carlos Enríquez 1900-1957: The Painter of Cuban Ballads
Miami Editorial Cernuda Arte, 2010
Maria Brito A Ver: Rethinking Art History monograph series
Los Angeles, UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center Press, 2010 (Peer Reviewed)
Wifredo Lam in North American Collections: A Look at The Eternal Presence
Miami: Miami Art Museum, 2008: 32-39
Social and Political Commentary in Cuban Modernist Painting of the 1930s
Social Realism in the Western Hemisphere: A Critical Examination of Art Between the Wars
Alejandro Anreus, Diane Linden, and Jonathan Weinberg, eds.
Pennsylvania: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2006 (Peer Reviewed)
Guido Llinás the Printmaker: An Interview/Essay
Guido Llinás: Forgotten Cuban Master
Bethlehem: Lehigh University Art Galleries, 2003: 17-20
Los Paisajes Míticos de un Pintor Cubano: La Jungla de Wifredo Lam
José Manuel Noceda ed.
Wifredo Lam: La cosecha de un brujo
La Habana: Editorial Letras Cubanas, 2002: 425-37
(Reprint and translation of 1986 article in Caribbean Review)
Cuban Vanguardia Painting in the 1930s
José Veigas, Cristina Vives, et al. Eds.
Memoria: Cuban Art in the Twentieth Century
Los Angeles: California International Arts Foundation, 2002: 52-55.
Modernismo, Criollismo e identidad: el romancero guajiro de Carlos Enríquez (1934- 43)
Estudios 19 (Caracas, enero-julio, 2002):209-226. (Peer Reviewed)
Carlos Enríquez y sus declaraciones artísticas sobre el romancero guajiro
Revista de la Biblioteca Nacional José Martí, 3-4 (La Habana, julio-diciembre, 2000): 24-29.
Lo Blanco-Criollo as lo Cubano: The Symbolization of a Cuban National Identity in Modernist Painting of the 1940s. Damian J. Fernandez and Madeline Cámara eds. Cuba, the Elusive Nation. Interpretations of National Identity. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2000: 277-291. (Peer Reviewed)
Cuban Painting in the Republican Period, 1902-1959 Cuba - A History in Art
Daytona Beach: The Museum of Arts and Sciences, 1997
The Invisible Modernism: Early Twentieth Century Latin American Vanguard Art
Art Nexus #24. Bogotá, April-June 1997. (Peer Reviewed)
The Group Los Once and Cuban art in the 1950s: Guido Llinás and Los Once After Cuba
The Art Museum at Florida International University, 1997
Una introducción a la pintura cubana moderna, 1927-1950
Cuba: Siglo XX, Modernidad y Sincretismo
Las Palmas de Gran Canaria: Centro Atlántico de Arte Moderno, 1996. (Peer Reviewed)
Antonia Eiriz in Retrospect
Fort Lauderdale Museum of Art, 1995
Some Observations on Arturo Rodríguez's Life and Paintings
Fort Lauderdale Museum of Art, 1994
Cuban Art and National Identity: The Vanguardia Painters, 1927-50.
Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1994. (Peer Reviewed)
Cuban Vanguard Painting in the 1930s
Latin American Art #2 (Arizona: Spring 1993): 36-39. (Peer Reviewed)
A Preliminary Study of Agustín Fernández' Formative Phase
Agustín Fernández: A Retrospective
The Art Museum at Florida International University, 1992
Afrocubans and National Identity, Modern Cuban Painting: 1920s-1940s
Athanor XI. Florida State University, FL 1992: 70-75 (Peer Reviewed)
Modernism, Tradition, and Nationalism: Carlos Enríquez' 'El Rapto de las Mulatas’
Caribbean Studies. 1-2 (San Juan PR: Summer 1989): 101-111. (Peer Reviewed)
The Mythical Landscapes of a Cuban Painter: Wifredo Lam's 'La Jungla'
Caribbean Review #2 Florida International University, 1986: 32-36 (Peer Reviewed)
Exhibitions and Book Reviews
Andrea O’Reilly Herrera. Cuban Artists Across the Diaspora, Latino Studies (January 2012)
Alejandro Anreus. Orozco in Gringoland. Art Journal (Spring 2003 issue)
Lynette M.F. Bosch. Ernesto Barreda, 1946-1996. Art Nexus No. 23, January-March, 1997
Edward Lucie-Smith. Latin American Art and Marta Traba. Art of Latin America 1900- 1980 Hispanic-American Historical Review, Vol. 76, No. 2, May 1996
Luis Camnitzer. New Art of Cuba. Art Nexus No. 14, October-December 1994
The Studio Museum in Harlem. Wifredo Lam and his Contemporaries 1938-1952. Art Nexus. No. 57, January-March 1994
Selected Papers Presented in Professional Conferences
and Invited Lectures
Wifredo Lam, entre el Caribe y Europa
Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Monterrey
Monterrey, Mexico, October 30, 2008
Cuban Art in Miami since 2000 Cuban Art Today Symposium
University of Miami, Coral Gables, Florida, April 10, 2008.
The Artistic Vanguard in Cuba, 1920s-1940s Cuba: Art and History from 1868 to Today
Musée des Beaux-Arts de Montreal, Canada, April 2, 2008
Beyond Picasso and Afro-Cuban Culture: Wifredo Lam’s The Eternal Presence, 1944
Wifredo Lam in North America
Miami Art Museum, Florida, February 10, 2008
Maria Brito’s Symbolic Interiors and the Cuban-American Experience
Siglo XXI, Latino Research into the 21st Century
University of Texas at Austin, TX. January 27-30, 2005 (Peer Reviewed)
Primitivism from Within, Aspects of the Life and Work of Wifredo Lam and Carlos Enríquez
Conference on Caribbean Visual Culture
Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies, New York University
New York, April 24-25, 2003 (Peer Reviewed)
La representación de una cultura blanco-criolla en la pintura moderna cubana de la década del 1940
Centenario del Natalicio de Wifredo Lam (a conference on the occasion of Lam’s centennial birthday)
Centro de Arte Contemporáneo Wifredo Lam, La Habana, Cuba. December 10, 2002 (Peer Reviewed)
Afrocubanismo, Criollismo, Barroquismo y Lo Cubano en la pintura del período republicano
Latin American Studies Association, XXIII International Congress, Washington D.C.,
September 7, 2001 (Peer Reviewed)
Cuban Colonial and Republican Art: Thematic Continuities
Cuban Collection, Museum of Arts and Sciences, Daytona Beach, Florida, May 1, 2001
Contemporary Cuban Art, A Synthesis of the National and the International.
Clarion University of Pennsylvania, Clarion, Pennsylvania, March 15, 2001
From Modern to Contemporary: Cuban and Cuban American Art
from the Lowe’s Permanent Collection
Lowe Art Museum, Coral Gables, Florida, February 1, 2001
From the Good Neighbor Policy to the Trade with the Enemy Act:
Cuban Art Exhibitions in the United States, 1939-1995
Austin Museum of Art, Austin, Texas, September 24, 1999
Imagining the Nation: Cuban Painting in the Republican Period, 1902-1958
Institute of Latin American Studies, University College London, London, UK. November 27, 1998
La Pintura Moderna en Cuba, la Escuela de París y la Expresión de lo Cubano
Centro Atlántico de Arte Moderno, Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, Spain. April 16, 1996
The Invisible Modernism: Early 20th Century Latin American Vanguard Art
Southeastern College Art Conference, Washington D.C., October 13, 1995 (Peer Reviewed)
The African Presence in Cuban Art, 1920-1995
University of Florida, Gainesville, FL. March 17, 1995
Memory and National Identity in Cuban Art
Norton Gallery of Art, West Palm Beach, FL. October 23, 1994
The African Presence in Contemporary Cuban Art, 1945-1993
Rhode Island School of Design, Providence, RI. April 22, 1994
Afrocubanismo and its History.
Panelist, Brandeis University, Boston, April 20, 1994
Examining the African Presence in Cuban Art and Society
Panelist, Nexus Contemporary Art Center, Atlanta, GA. February 25, 1994
The Art and Experiences of the First Generation of Cuban-American Artists
Panelist, The Studio Museum in Harlem, New York, NY. November 8, 1993
Latin American Art and Its Impact on Contemporary Art
Panelist, The Studio Museum in Harlem, New York, NY. January 23, 1993
Fidelio Ponce and His Times
The Cuban Museum of Art and Culture, Miami, FL. November 20, 1992
The Representation of the Peasant as a Metaphor for the Nation: Cuban Painting 1930s
Latin American Studies Association, XV International Congress, Los Angeles, CA. September 25, 1992
The Art and Experiences of the First-Generation of Cuban-American Artists in Miami
College Art Association, 80th Annual Conference, Chicago, IL. February 12-15, 1992.
The Art of Juan González: 1975-1990
Center for the Fine Arts, Miami, FL. February 6, 1992.
The Afro-Cuban Presence in Cuban Art, 1850-1950
International Congress of Americanists, New Orleans, LA. July 7-11, 1991. (Peer Reviewed)
Other Conference Related Activities
Wifredo Lam in North America: A Symposium
Moderator, Miami Art Museum, Miami, FL. May 17, 2008
Women in Cuban Art: The Artist and the Image
Chair/Discussant. 6th CRI Conference on Cuban and Cuban-American Studies Florida International
University, Miami, FL. February 6-7, 2006 (Peer Reviewed)
Latin American Art: The Critical Discourse from Within
Co-chair with Dr. Alejandro Anreus
28th Annual Conference of the Association of British Art Historians, Liverpool, UK. April 5-7, 2002
Points of Contact Between Cuban and US Art
Chair, 4th CRI Conference on Cuban and Cuban-American Studies
Florida International University, Miami, FL. March 6-9. 2002 (Peer Reviewed)
Cuban Art: Encounters, Divergences, Transculturation, and Crossovers
Chair, College Art Association 87th Annual Conference, Los Angeles, CA. February 10-13, 1999
Contemporary Cuban Art: from Modernism to Post-Modernism
Chair, 1st CRI Conference on Cuban and Cuban-American Studies.
Florida International University, Miami, FL. October 10, 1997 (Peer Reviewed)
My favorite part of working at FIU was the students. Teaching at FIU confirmed my love for sharing with students my knowledge of art history. The challenge was to make it relevant to their lives for majors and non-majors alike. In general, teaching there gave me a lot of positive energy, satisfaction, and many good memories.
* * *
He became the expert on Cuban art of the Vanguardia period. He represents FIU in a level of scholarship that is respected throughout the academic community. That’s a very lasting legacy.
Carol Damian, PhD
Florida International University
University Park, Art and Art History Department, Miami, FL
Professor Emeritus, 2013
Associate Professor 1996
Assistant Professor 1990
Subjects: Modern Art, Contemporary Art, Art and Politics, History of Cuban Art, Methodology, and Special Topics in 20th Century Art.
Miami-Dade Community College
Wolfson Campus, Arts Department, Miami, FL
Associate Professor 1984-89
Assistant Professor 1981-84
Subjects: Art History Survey I and II, Modern Art, and Interdisciplinary Humanities.
From Modern to Contemporary, A Selection of Cuban and Cuban-American Art from the Lowe’s Collection. Lowe Art Museum, University of Miami, Coral Gables, Florida, November 15, 2000
Origins of Modern Cuban Painting
Frances Wolfson Art Gallery, Miami-Dade Community College
Miami, Florida,October 12, 1982
FIU Top Scholar Award, Professor Emeritus (2013)
Cuban Studies, a scholarly journal with rotating editorship. Edited by the Department of History of The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Member of editorial board.
(Courtesy of the Estate of Juan A. Martínez)
Notes on Collecting Modern Cuban Art in Miami, 1980-2010
Juan A. Martínez, 2018
Today, there are a number of magnificent private art collections in Miami. The best known are those placed in public display by their owners, namely the Margulies Collection at the Warehouse, the De la Cruz Collection, and the Rubell Family Collection. The Jorge Perez collection is also well known because he donated a large part of it to the Dade-County museum that bears his name. These, however, are the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Most are of contemporary art, yet other periods of art and non-western art are well represented in South Florida private collections. The practice has been steadily growing since the 1980s and given extra impetus by the presence of Art Basel and its satellites post-2001.
When the wealth of art collecting in Miami is documented and the story told, I am sure that modern Cuban art (1920s-1950s) will fill one long chapter. What follows is a personal testimony of the collection of such art in this city since 1980. By the use of the names Miami and this city, I often mean Dade-County. The observations are from an art historian, who has studied this art with an eye in archives/libraries and another in the artworks. The collections, which have grown exponentially in the last thirty years, offer today a wealth of visual documentation to curators, critics, and scholars producing exhibitions, catalogues, books, and videos on this period of Cuban art. All along my writings and lectures have benefited considerably from being exposed to Cuban art in Miami. My aim is art historical documentation using facts, descriptions, and anecdotal evidence. The time-line is 1980 to 2010, when I first and last curated an exhibition of this period in Cuban art.
This narrative depends on knowledge based on forty years of conversations with collectors, visits to collections, galleries, and museums, as well as research on the art itself. My memory of the art in specific collections is aided by recently reviews of exhibition catalogues, Sotheby’s and Christie’s sales catalogues, newspaper articles, and informal interviews with gallery owners. The story gives a brief introduction to modern Cuban art and to the collectors, outlines collecting issues, gives an account of the arrival and circulation of the art in question, and offers an insight into specific collections. Descriptions of the artwork in the selected collections is meant to give a sense, if highly concise, of the art itself and aspects of its importance in relation to the artist’s career and/or Cuban art.
Modern Cuban Art
In the late 1920s, a group of young artists in Havana began to paint using non-traditional styles appropriated from European modern art. They were reacting against the various forms of naturalism promoted by Cuba’s art academy, San Alejandro, and seeking to renovate or even revolutionize Cuban art. The new direction(s) in art were then called: arte nuevo, vanguardia, and moderno. Today, it is mostly known as modern. The new tendency triumphed by the mid 1930s and thrived in the 1940s and 1950s. Since then, Cuban art is discussed in terms of generations, rather than movements, and these coincide with decades. Among the best-known artists of the 1930s, also known as the vanguardia generation, are Eduardo Abela, Víctor Manuel García, Amelia Peláez, Antonio Gattorno, Fidelio Ponce de León, Arístides Fernández, Carlos Enríquez and Wifredo Lam. They tended to simplify forms and painted in more saturated colors than traditional art. These artists also reinvigorated certain “Cuban” themes, like the island’s landscape, peasants and their traditions, and AfroCuban culture, with sympathy for the working poor and the marginalized.
The 1940s generation introduced bright coloration and elaborate forms, often labeled as neo-baroque. This approach to form, thought at the time to have a certain Cuban quality (compared to then Mexican or North American art), was used to represent quotidian life with emphasis on the city of Havana. The outstanding artists of that generation are Mario Carreño, René Portocarrero, Mariano Rodríguez, Cundo Bermúdez, Roberto Diago, Mirta Cerra, and Luis Martínez Pedro. To be sure, the art of Peláez and Lam reached their full force in the 1940s.
A new generation of artists emerged in the 1950s, some continued to work with figuration and the most avant-garde turned to abstraction, influenced by such a tendency in global modern art at mid-century. Among the better known artists of that generation are Agustín Cárdenas, Guido Llinás, Hugo Consuegra, Raúl Martínez, Tomás Oliva, Raúl Milián, Rafael Soriano, José María Mijares, Agustín Fernández, Loló Soldevilla, and Sandú Darie. In the 1960s, painting was challenged by film, photography, and posters, art forms with potential to reach the masses as desired by the revolutionary government. Three major painters emerged during that decade, Antonia Eiriz, Angel Acosta León, and Servando Cabrera Moreno, while Martínez transformed his style from abstract expressionism to an adaptation of pop art.
The artworks of the fore mentioned artists and a few others are the ones that make up the collections discussed in this essay. Modern Cuban art was for decades collected by a Cuban educated elite, mostly professionals, and a few foreigners. The artworks, mostly paintings, were sold for moderate prices, or even gifted to friends. Beginning in the 1990s, the art of the first and second generation began to be assiduously collected outside of Cuba, mostly in this country, and the prices increased considerably. After years of neglect by curators and collectors, the works of the third generation are increasingly exhibited and collected.
I have known twenty some collectors of modern Cuban art in Miami since the 1980s. Their collections have ranged from about twenty to fifty or more paintings, less so drawings, and even less sculpture. In two cases, the collections have over one hundred pieces. The collectors have been primarily businessmen, doctors, and lawyers. They are mostly men or couples and in two cases women. Their ages range from the forties to the eighties, and in some cases those I will mention have passed away. The older ones were familiar with Cuban art before exile and the younger ones became aware of it in Miami. The ones I have known are part of a Cuban elite, who migrated to this country in the 1960s, are well educated, come from solid middle-class to prosperous families, and have succeeded in business or the medical and law fields. They consider themselves Cuban, rather than Cuban American, and their self-image as exiles or immigrant is in flux.
Some Collecting Issues
The collecting issues of motivation, privacy, length of collections, and forgery are not unique to Cuban art. However, these matters have some characteristics that are unique to its collection in Miami.
In an article on collecting art in Britain, Zaza Hlalethwa, succinctly states the basic motivations for collecting art practically everywhere. “Centuries ago, a lucrative culture of buying art was established. Rich people began buying art for three reasons: it looks beautiful, it makes money while it rests in their homes, and buying art is something that other rich people do.” (The History of Collecting Art-a Timeline, The Guardian, London, June 1, 2018). Thus, aesthetics, investment, and status drive this old and nearly universal practice.
These three motivations are present in our case, but each incentive has played changing roles since the 1930s. Up to the 1980s, aesthetic and cultural values were probably the dominant motivator in collecting modern Cuban art. In more recent times, investment has become more prominent. The global economic tendency to see art as a highly desired commodity coincided with the demand and increasing prices for modern Cuban art in the last thirty years. These circumstances have led to the emphasis in the economic incentive. At the same time, the increase in prices has left out the intellectual middle class that originally collected the art in question. The issue of status has been constant in the collecting of Cuban modern art. For the intellectual class of its day, among which it circulated, the art provided the status of being progressive and cultured. It separated them from Cuban society’s old and new money class, specially the philistines among them. In more recent times, the sought status is also socio-economic.
Beyond the outlined motivations, there are other important ones in our case. For Cuban and Cuban Americans (those born or raised in this country), a major desire for collecting has been pride in their Cuban identity and an affirmation of it on their walls. The condition of prolonged exile, existing side by side with permanent migration, and until recently the impossibility of even visits to the homeland, left Cubans without direct contact with much of their material cultural heritage. Works of art have provided a tangible and symbolic approximation to their culture. This has been particularly so in the case of pre-revolutionary works of art, those from the time that nurtures Miami’s Cuban nostalgia.
Yet, there is more to collecting. Zara Ellis, in her brief study, Gustave Caillebotte as a Collector of Impressionist Painting, gives a more nuance view of art collecting. “He bought many spurs including fulfillment, curiosity, respect and social acceptance. Collecting to Caillebotte was exciting, tempting, and adventurous. It brought him satisfaction but, it also brought him responsibility to preserve and protect." (Gustave Caillebotte and hisRelationship to his Contemporary Art Market, Cheshire, Book Treasury, 2013). These motivations and behavior are present to different degrees in the collectors I have known. Motivations for collecting art are numerous and overlap. Temptation, excitement, personal satisfaction, and the responsibility to preserve live side by side. The preservation of modern Cuban art in Miami after decades of being exposed to all kinds of conditions, like excessive heat, humidity, and in some cases neglect, needs better acknowledgment.
One of the issues that at first surprised me was the desire for privacy. I have repeatedly run into collectors of Cuban art who did not want to be identified by name or at least want to keep certain purchases a secret. This was particularly the case in the 1980s. Some did not want to call attention to themselves and their valuable possessions. Most were fearful that the original owners, whose art was taken by the government upon their departure for exile or was left with relatives or friends when they left Cuba and then sold, would reclaim them. Particularly In the 1990s, during Cuba’s economic depression, government, relatives and friends sold the art in their possession to survive. A lot of it ended in Miami and claims were made. In a few cases, the collector just wanted to be left alone. The interest in privacy is perhaps best seen in the Lists of Works section of the exhibition catalogues of the Museo Cubano de Arte y Cultura (Miami), where many collections are labeled Private Collections. Today, most collectors list their names.
The historical record teaches us that private collections of art are usually in flux, individual works or entire collections come and go. This is particularly the case In Miami with the art in question. The majority of the large collections of modern Cuban art have lasted about one decade, a few were in place for twenty years, fewer longer than that. Business bust, divorces, older age and death, or just loss of interest has resulted in selling the artworks. Except in two cases, the collections discussed in this essay no longer exist or are being dismantled as I write. I include them because they should be part of the historical record. They have played an important role in the exhibition, preservation, and study of modern Cuban art. Small collections tend to be more stable.
The one problematic issue has been forgeries. Whenever the art market goes up in relation to an artist, movement or country, there is the appearance and surge in forgeries. In the case of modern Cuban art, it is a post 1990 phenomenon. Growing wealth among Cubans in Miami since the 1980s, coupled with the Cuban economic depression of the 1990s, increased the demand and accessibility to modern Cuban art. This in turn resulted in raised prices and an opportunity to make easy money from fakes. The lack of experts outside of Cuba made the situation worse. Forgeries were made in Cuba, Mexico, Spain, Miami, among other places. These forgeries complicated the situation, but did not diminish the demand. Consequently, many collectors bought fakes at one point or another, eventually finding out the truth. It did not help that some individuals, who were familiar with modern Cuban art, but were far from being connoisseurs, declared themselves experts and began to give certificates of authenticity.
Matters were complicated by at least two factors. One was the peculiar method of doing authentications in the 1990s. The persons seeking a certificate would only pay for the service if the expert deemed that the work was real. Thus, the system encouraged erring on the side of authentic. Secondly, many times authentications were asked after the piece was bought. This was equally problematic. My observation does not excuse any lack of ethics on the part of the so-called experts. They and I should have done a better job at educating collectors to the fact that a “no” is more valuable than a “yes,” for it saved money and face. I did reports of authenticity for works of art by Enríquez. I began when I was doing research for a monograph on this artist and wanted to see as much of his art as possible. By that time, I had seen a large sampling of his work in Havana and Miami. I detected many fakes and made mistakes both way. A few that I thought were good turned out to be false and at least two that I thought at the beginning to be false were authentic. Visually, the range of fakes goes from obvious to convincing.
For anecdotal sake, these are some of the situations I encountered with fake paintings. Many were done on old canvas, erasing the previous painting, and often using the old frames, nails, backboards, and even dust. Signatures were erased and replaced by desired ones, often above the original. Paintings were urinated on and put in an oven to create a worn surface. A kind of instant aging. Marine transparent sealing was put on the painting to make it oblivious to black light. Many false and hard to prove provenances made this useful tool useless. Fake certificates of authenticity also abound. One ingenious trick was to use difficult to find catalogues and books, replace the original illustration on a given page with the photo of a fake, make a xerox, and present it to the potential buyer. The list goes on.
Arrival and Circulation
Where did these artworks come from and how did they get here? Some of it arrived in Miami with the first Cuban refugees in the 1960s. A lot more was brought to this country in the 1940s and 1950s by art dealers or collectors visiting Cuba. The vast amount arrived from everywhere post 1990.
Some lucky Cuban exiles who left early after the revolution were able to bring at least part of their collection. Others were able to smuggle their collection with the help of foreign embassies. One salient example is that of Isabetta Lancella, the daughter of Enríquez and Alice Neel. In the early sixties, she returned to her father’s house/studio in the outskirts of Havana, known as the Hurón Azul, and recuperated about a dozen paintings and drawings. She then took them out of Cuba with the help of someone in the Spanish embassy. These included two major pieces of the 1930s: Hamlet c. 1933 and Musicos 1935. All of the works ended up in Miami and are still mostly in the collection of Isabetta’s family. Some exiles brought just a few pieces without much drama. As the Cuban exodus began in earnest in the early 1960s, the government only allowed persons leaving the country to take a few articles of clothing and a ridiculous amount of money.
The art historian, curator, and director of the Art Museum of the Organization of American States, José Gómez Sicre, organized a number of shows of the art in question and had them travel throughout the U.S. during the 1940s and 1950s. The art in those exhibitions was for sale. Later, the art dealer Ramón Osuna, also based in Washington DC, sold Cuban art from his galleries, the first named Pyramids Gallery, then Osuna Art Gallery. They are important pioneers in the marketing of Cuban art in the United States. At mid-century, a number of New York art galleries represented Cuban modern artists: Pierre Matisse (Lam), Perls (Carreño), Julian Levy (Portocarrero), Rigl (Mariano), and Delphic Studio (Ponce). It should also be noted that American tourists, upon recommendations from Gómez Sicre and others, visited artists and bought Cuban art in Havana. Beginning in the 1980s and picking up the pace after 2000, many of the artworks bought in Cuba or sold in this country in the 1940s and 1950s arrived in Miami. Most famously, about a third of the paintings shown in the storied 1944 exhibition Modern Cuban Art at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, are today in Miami private collections. In the majority of cases, the artworks that came to this country at mid-century disappeared from view. Two telling cases are Enríquez’s Las Tetas de Madruga 1943 and Gattorno's La siesta c. 1940. These were well-documented paintings when first shown, then disappeared from view, their whereabouts unknown. The first painting was found, by the collector and gallery owner Ramón Cernuda, in a private collection in Dallas, Texas in 2005; the latter was found by the writer Sean Poole in an attic in Massachusetts towards the end of the 1990s.
Beginning in the 1980s, Christie’s and Sotheby’s auction houses began to have specialized sales of Latin American art. These soon began to be important supply sources for modern Cuban art bought by Miami collectors. The art sold by these auction houses comes from all over the world and in the case of Cuban art, a representative amount was bought by North Americans going back to the 1940s. The most famous example is Alfred Hitchcock acquisition of Ponce's Five Women after the MoMA show, resold by Sotheby’s in 1991. Another significant case is the 1984 Sotheby’s sale of Joseph Cantor’s collection of fifteen oils and eleven works on paper by modern Cuban artists. Mr. Cantor was an Indianapolis collector, who made his money in motion picture theaters and real estate. He began buying paintings by Lam during his first trip to Havana in 1949. Among the paintings in the sale were Lam’s renown Cuatro Elementos 1945, and Antilles Parade 1945. He also owned a few Portocarrero’s, including Figuras de carnaval 1952, and Ponce’s large Florero c. 1943. In the 1940s, Ponce introduced color into his paintings, the touches of pink and green in this still life attest to that new direction in his art. All of these major paintings are in Miami today. The selling of important paintings long in North American collections, but away from the public eye, continuous to our day. One major example is the 2007 sale in Sotheby’s of Carreño’s La danza afrocubana 1943, one of three related large duco paintings about life in the Cuban countryside. It was exhibited in Havana’s Lyceum in 1943 and in the 1944 MoMA exhibition, then Perls Art Gallery, which represented Carreño, sold it and it remained in a private collection for fifty years. The painting was bought by Cernuda Arte for a record 2.6 million dollars and ended in a Miami collection.
Two individuals working in Sotheby’s in the 1980s acted as an important conduit to Miami collections, Dolores Smithies and Giulio V. Blanc. They had extensive knowledge of Cuban art and were collectors themselves.
Whereas for decades modern Cuban art trickled to Miami, in the 1990s a flood gate opened. Miami art galleries, independent dealers, and major auction houses provided a growing prosperous class of Cubans a steady supply of art. A significant part of that supply came from Cuba. The necessities brought about by the economic depression of the 1990s, known as the Periodo Especial, led the Cuban government to allow the sale and exportation of the art in question. The dire poverty there and the wealth here also led to a good amount of smuggling. This was particularly the case with those artworks considered by Cuban officials to be too important to leave the country and classified as National Patrimony. Some of the work coming from Cuba belonged to known prime collections, others came from the professional class at large.
After my book on modern Cuban art came out in 1994, established and improvised dealers began to contact me in order to show me works of art recently brought from Cuba. Sometimes they knocked on the door of my former West Miami home without calling first. They obtained my phone and address from acquaintances of acquaintances. During a period of about two years, many came looking for certificates of authenticity and names of potential buyers. I provided only questions and my gratis oral opinion on the pieces. I saw many paintings ranging from fakes to pieces deemed national patrimony. Three stand out in my memory. One day a person just showed up and laid on the floor of my living room Enríquez’s Horno de carbon 1937, looking badly damaged from the smuggling operation. This is one of the earliest and foremost Cuban protest paintings, based on an actual event the artist witnessed in a trip to the interior of the island. The image shows two malnutrition men tending to a primitive coal oven in a hellish landscape. When I first saw it, my heart began racing because of the importance of the piece and the fact that it was almost destroyed. On another occasion, I was shown Enríquez’s Diablito 1938. The relatively large painting shows an elaborately costumed shaman dancing in presumably an Afro-Cuban religious ceremony. This painting had been out of sight for decades and was remembered from a photograph in a journal and an exhibition entry. In this case, it was in rather good conditions. The third of the outstanding pieces brought to me was Ponce’s Naturaleza muerta con jarron chino, c.1944. This is a large, colorful and ambitious still life, well documented and liked in its day. These paintings stayed in Miami and are in practically the same private collections since they arrived.
Local gallery owners and dealers working out of their houses are responsible for obtaining and selling the bulk of the modern Cuban art in this city. Among them, Cernuda of Cernuda Arte has been instrumental in finding long forgotten and more recently acquired modern Cuban art. His many findings can be seen in his yearly publication, Important Cuban Artworks. The following are some of Mr. Cernuda’s most significant acquisitions for his gallery.
Carlos Girón Cerna was a poet and Guatemala’s General Counsel to Cuba in the 1930s. He and his wife Rosie befriended the Havana intellectual and artistic vanguard of the time. He became close with Ponce and acquired some outstanding and rare pieces from the artist, such as El baño 1935, showing two nude bathers coming out of a body of water, and Naturaleza muerta 1935, a minimal image full of pathos, rather than the expected sensuality associated with such a genre in Cuban art. In the collection were also two notable portraits of Rosie, one by Victor Manuel and one by Ponce, which accentuate their very different styles.
In the following decade the European writer Robert Altman took refuge in Cuba from World War II. He befriended many Cuban artists and intellectuals of the time, married a Cuban woman named Hortensia, and among other things wrote and lecture on art. He put together a premier collection of modern Cuban art, which he took to New York in the 1950s and later to Paris. Recently he has parted with part of his collection and some of it ended in local collections through Cernuda Arte.
Other foreigners, who lived and bought modern Cuban art in Havana in later decades, were William Bowdler and Madame Odette Lavergne. Bowdler was a political officer in the United States embassy in Havana, 1957 to 1961, and bought paintings by Víctor Manuel, Portocarrero, Bermúdez, Estopiñán, and Milán; Lavergne lived in Cuba between 1964 and 1971, as wife of the Canadian ambassador, amazing a collection of fifty eight pieces. She had a preference for Víctor Manuel, Peláez, and Portocarrero. Many of them are today in Miami collections.
Among the better known Cubans whose collections Mr. Cernuda acquired, all or in part, are that of the husband and wife poets Cintio Vitier and Fina García Marruz and that of Carmen Armenteros. Both were strong in paintings by Ponce.
Some of the collections brought to Miami by Mr. Cernuda were put together outside of Cuba. One unexpected place was Haiti. Gómez Sicre organized a number of exhibitions of modern Cuban painters in Port-au-Prince in the 1940s at the Centre D’ Art. This center was led by the North American Dewitt Peters and apparently became a place where some of the Haitian elite and foreigners working in Port-au-Prince bought Cuban art. Dr. Gerard Lescot, the Minister of Haitian Foreign Affairs between 1941-46, bought a group of fine Enríquez’s paintings and drawings. He also commissioned the artist when visiting Haiti to do a portrait of his wife. His most important acquisition was Enriquez’s Heroe criollo 1941-2. In the early 1940s, Enríquez painted two similar oils of a mounted desperado with a woman in his arms and a gun in his hand, running from an unseen threat. These are two outstanding paintings by this artist. He titled one Bandido criollo 1943, which he sent to the New York MoMA exhibition of 1944, and the other, Heroe criollo, which he sent to an exhibition in Mexico and then to Port-au-Prince. Heroe criollo was never heard from again and it was thought that both titles belonged to the painting that went to New York. It is not unheard of that a work of art goes by two names over time. Then in 2009, Heroe criollo was reunited with Bandolero criollo on the walls of Cernuda Arte and their history clarified.
Perhaps the first collection of modern Cuban art belonging to a North American happened in Port-au-Prince. Maurice De Young III, while manager of Hotel Olaffson in the mid-1940s, befriended Mr. Peters and amassed a collection of modern Cuban art. He bought multiple paintings by Bermúdez, Enríquez, Mariano, Martínez Pedro, and Víctor Manuel. Upon his return to the United States, he brought his collection with him and recently his family sold it. Many of these works are today in local collections.
Other gallery owners have also played important roles in this story. Roberto Borlenghi, the owner of Pan American Art Projects, has a sharp eye honed from many years of working with art and the experience of two decades of purchasing visits to Cuba. Although he mainly represents contemporary artists, Mr. Borlenghi has brought large quantities of modern art out of Cuba, most notably pieces which border on national patrimony. To mention a few: Víctor Manuel’s Olvidados 1940s, a large and rare painting about ill fated Jewish refuges from WWII; Mariano's Mujeres luchando c.1940, one of his first colorful, sensual paintings; Diago's Pianista 1940s, an over five feet oil on paper on canvas of an Afro-Cuban entertainer; and Peláez Peces grises 1931, a large, unusually dark, rather abstract, and stunning still life from her Parisian period.
Mr. Borlenghi bought the Diago from Antonio Alejo, a professor at the San Alejandro academy, who apparently got it from the artist. Pianista was part of a diptych, which other side did not survived due to irreparable damages. He bought Pescado gris from the son of a Havana collector named Luis Blanco, who acquired it from Peláez. Porfirio Sardiñas was a one-artist collector, he befriended and bought only works by Victor Manuel. Roberto bought his collection, including Olvidados. Jorge Fernández de Castro and his wife Marta Sardiñas, Porfirio’s sister, put together a limited, but exquisite collection of paintings by Enríquez, Víctor Manuel, Ponce, Peláez, Portocarrero, Mariano, Bermúdez, among others. Jorge was a lawyer, who came from a well-known family in Havana, and along with his wife had close ties with most of the Cuban modern artists. Long after Jorge’s death, around 2000, Marta took her collection surreptitiously to Spain. Soon thereafter, Mr. Borlenghi acquired most of it, including the much reproduced Bermúdez’s Retrato de Marta 1940s and Enríquez’s L’Écuyère c. 1933, He also bought Enríquez salacious drawings for the illustrations of a controversial and erotic poem by the Renaissance author Pietro de Arentino.
Recently, Mr. Borlenghi exhibited in his gallery about eighty modernist works dating from the 1920s to circa 1960. In the group were significant paintings by Víctor Manuel, Peláez, Abela, Ponce, Enríquez, Bermúdez, Diago, Lam, Mariano, and Milián, among others. The exhibition also included two sculptures, one from Cardenas and the other, a large bronze, from Juan José Sicre. The latter was a pioneer of modern sculpture in Cuba and is rarely collected in the United Sates.
More notable galleries, which have sold modern Cuban art in Miami for years, are Gary Nader’s Nader Fine Art and Israel Moleiro’s Latin Art Core. The former offers modern art from Latin America, including Cuba, while the latter sells mostly modern and contemporary Cuban art. Latin Art Core has been at the forefront of marketing geometric abstraction from the 1950s and early 1960s. One other gallery, Tresart, founded by Antonio de la Guardia in 2006, specializes in modern and contemporary Cuban art. He has also been successful in importing modern paintings from long standing Havana private collections.
There is a relatively new development in the demand for modern Cuban art. Speaking to two gallery owners recently, I was told that they are increasingly selling the art in question to collectors outside of Florida, many of them North Americans. Participation by Miami galleries in art fairs in Dallas, Los Angeles, Atlanta, New York, and Chicago have helped to expose modern Cuban art and widened the circle of collectors. For instance, Bermúdez's famed Romeo y Julieta 1943, was in two Miami collections since at least the early 1980s. Recently, Mr. Cernuda sold it for about half a million dollars to a collector in Massachusetts. Christie’s and Sotheby’s semiannual auctions of Latin American Art are also exposing the art in question to collectors everywhere. The continued curiosity about Cuba among North Americans and Europeans feeds those markets.
The first major collection of modern Cuban art that I saw belonged to José Martínez Cañas. He was president of Frito-Lay of Puerto Rico from 1972 to 1977, when he put the collection together. In 1980, his collection was exhibited at the former Metropolitan Museum of Art of Miami, located at the time in the historic Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables. The museum occupied the second floor of the loggia behind and to the right of the hotel. A courtyard with a fountain and two grand staircases welcomed the viewer. It was actually a collection of modern Latin American art, which included many Cuban artists. There were fifty paintings in total. The Cuban selection was first rate and included works by Ponce, Peláez, Enríquez, Carreño, and Portocarrero, among others. It had five excellent Peláez paintings, three from her European stay, Mujer sentada 1929, Crisantemus 1930, and El coco 1932, one from the height of her career, a still life from 1943, and another still life from the 1954. He also owned one of Lam’s best-known renditions of the woman horse theme, Femme Cheval 1950.
Two paintings stopped me on my track that day. These were Enríquez’s Eva c. 1940 and Ponce’s San Ignacio de Loyola c. 1938-39. Eva is a medium size canvas of a nude with a dreamy facial expression and painted in transparent layers of blue and green tonalities. The guard, seeing me stand in front of it for a while, came over and told me: “she was the painter’s second wife and when she left him for a woman, he put a knife through the figure’s stomach. Look closely and you will see where it was restored” I thought, what a painting and what a story! I told myself, I have to find out more about this artist. In 2010, I published a monograph on him, Carlos Enríquez, The Painter of Cuban Ballads. In the case of Ponce, I was moved by the extensive use of white, the strange still life of a rabbit with a dagger stuck on his bleeding neck, and the tilting figures. This painting, I mused, must be the most unique and the only irreverent representation of the founder of the Jesuit Order. I was also moved to research Ponce’s life and work, the result is an unpublished monograph, A Cuban Original: The Art of Fidelio Ponce de León. These two paintings were exhibited at the storied Modern Cuban Painters exhibition at The Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan in 1944. Sometime thereafter they ended up in Miami, where they are today.
An aside. Certain art exhibitions in important museums place a stamp of approval on artists, movements, or schools of art and add value to the works of art shown in it. The aforementioned exhibition at MoMA, which Cuban art historians and collectors have elevated to the realm of the mythic, is one of those.
“Mr. Cañas's possessions were attached after he was sued over misappropriation of funds. Judgments rendered over several years in Pepsico's favor [the parent company of Frito-Lay] transferred ownership of the instruments, as well as that of 50 Latin American paintings, which sold for $578,800 at Sotheby's in May of 1984”. (New York Times, June 29, 1984) Today, one of the paintings in that collection will easily cost the amount of the entire collection then. In the late 1980s and beyond, I saw many of these paintings in local collections and exhibitions at the former Museo Cubano de Arte y Cultura.
My early interest in Cuban art led me to curate a twenty-seven paintings exhibition with the ambitious title Origins of Modern Cuban art. Its setting was the Frances Wolfson Art Gallery of Miami-Dade Community College, downtown campus, and the year was 1982. At the time, I was working in that college as an art historian and Sheldon Lurie, the curator of the gallery, encouraged me to do the show. It included major paintings from The Museum of Modern Art, the Museum of Modern Art of the Organization of American States, Washington D.C., and the Museum of Arts of Daytona Beach. These were works that had never been exhibited in Miami. Through acquaintances of acquaintances, I contacted a small number of persons who collected modern Cuban art in Miami and whose paintings made up about half of the exhibition. Two of those collections are worth writing about.
One afternoon, I visited the home of the late Francisco Mestre, a businessman, who lived on Sunset Drive. We walked around a spacious living and dinning rooms, well lit from large windows, where he showed me about a dozen paintings. The two I chose for the exhibition were Enríquez’s Los mambises, 1940s, an energetic and painterly piece about Cuban freedom fighters in action during the War of Independence, and Peláez Los botes, 1929, an austere early cubist landscape done in Europe. The most impressive work I saw that afternoon had nothing to do with Cuba. In the backyard of the house, there was a large metal sculpture of a lion, supposedly from the Hellenistic period.
During the local search for my exhibition, I came upon one of the best collections of modern Cuban art of any time and place. Lodovico and Conchita Blanc, with the help of their art historian son, Giulio, put together an exquisite collection of mostly masterpieces. They welcome me into their Coconut Grove home, which different from Mestre’s, its spaces were relatively small and dark. In an unassuming way, Lodovico show me one magnificent painting after another.
In an intimate living room, on the long wall was Peláez's Dos hermanas leyendo 1944, a large and bold gouache painting of two female figures reading, supposedly her sisters. The painting offers a unique combination of cubism and expressionism. Its technique is looser than most of her paintings. I also included in the exhibition Los marañónes, 1939-40, one of Peláez cubist minimalist pieces with a strong round center. At the time, the painting was one of a few in the United States representing her post-Parisian early mature work. Another is Marpacifico 1936, a favorite subject of hers, also in this collection. Leaving the peaceful Peláez paintings, I encountered the disturbing Enríquez’s El rapto c. 1933, from his Parisian period. The image shows, in mostly grey, black, and Venetian red, a seated man with a strong arm firmly holding a kneeled nude woman, her head and neck violently cut off. Of the many rape scenes in European art, where he took the idea, particularly from Surrealism, this is one of the most savage. I also borrowed this painting for the exhibition. Two other paintings, which caught my attention, but did not fit the purpose of the show, were Bermúdez’s Romeo and Julieta 1943, and Mariano’s Gallos peleando 1944. Bermúdez represented Shakespeare’s star cross lovers nude in the tropics, she on a balcony, he reaching out to her, his pronounced nose surreptitiously touching one of her nipples. Mariano, the painter of roosters, rarely showed them fighting as in this painting. Having a different sensibility towards color, the former harsher, the later warmer, both paintings are chromatically intense. These two paintings were also included in the 1944 MoMA show, and when sold recently, each reached a price of half a million dollars. A sum that was then unimaginable. One last painting that I vividly remember from that day was Lam’s Femme Peignant ses Cheveux À, ca. 1938. He took the much-painted theme of a woman combing her hair and reduced it to its essence. In a large canvas, he represented a frontal dark-skinned female figure, dressed in white, and combing her long, jet black, straight hair. Minimal geometric lines, sure and precise, and a restricted palette give it an iconic quality. This is one of Lam’s outstanding paintings from his early mature period in Paris.
A cultivated taste, knowledge of art history, and money to buy when the art in question was relatively affordable allowed Lodovico and Giulio Blanc to put together an extraordinary collection. Due to aging and deaths, this collection, which lasted for over three decades, has recently been sold little by little. In the history of collecting Cuban art, this one is for the books.
Looking anew at the 1980s catalogues published by the former Museo Cubano de Arte y Cultura refreshed my memory of the collectors of Cuban art active in that decade in Miami. Those catalogues give evidence of the level of collecting in the 1980s. The Victor Manuel exhibition (1982) included 26 paintings, 34 drawings, and 3 lithographs; Eduardo Abela (1984) 24 oils and 4 works on paper; Carlos Enríquez (1986), 29 oils and 31 works on paper; Cundo Bermúdez (1987) 33 oils, 25 works on paper, and 1 encaustic; Amelia Peláez (1988) 16 oils, 20 gouaches ( a favorite medium of hers), 9 drawings, and 3 ceramics; and Fidelio Ponce de León (1992) 35 oils, 15 pencil drawings, and 2 pastels.
Among the collectors the Cuban Museum catalogues brought back to mind was Mario Amiget, a Cuban with strong Catalonian roots. He was a businessman, who specialized in boutique furniture for business. In his and his wife Ligia’s airy and well lit Coral Gables home, they had a large collection of Cuban modern painting and some by Cuban-American artists. Of the twenty some paintings I saw there on a couple of visits, I was most impressed by Peláez Naturaleza muerta con peces 1943, her most expressionistic version of a subject she repeated over time; Enríquez’s Rapto 1956, actually not a rape scene, but one of his last and most poetic man and woman equestrians riding into the sunset; and Bermúdez’s Cuarteto habanero c. 1957, a lyrical take on his beloved musician theme. He was a close friend of this artist and owned a variety of Bermúdez’s oils and drawings.
One of the most dynamic and intuitive collectors I met in the 1990s is Bruno García. He is a retired businessman. By dynamic, I mean that he often bought, sold, and traded the works in his collection. I mention intuitive because he had little knowledge of Cuban art but had an eye for outstanding pieces. I visited his home in Coral Gables on various occasions. He was the first owner in Miami of the storied Enriquez’s Horno de Carbón, and the collector responsible for its major and excellent restoration. He owned the well reproduced Peláez’s Naturaleza muerta, 1949. It stands out for its intricate arabesque made of thick black lines and its colors like sunlit stained-glass windows. He had a unique Carreño of a single had drum, La tumbadora 1950. Its vertical and narrow composition suggest that it was part of a tryptic. He owned numerous Victor Manuels, including one of his most ambitious carnival scenes from the 1940s. He collected some colonial art, having at one time a small painting of a man on a horse by Guillermo Collazo, a rare find outside of Cuba. He also collected contemporary Cuban art, including that of Cuban Americans. He sold his collection of Cuban modern art some time ago, but kept his pieces of contemporary art. His collection was pioneering, he began collecting in the 1970s, and substantial, with over one hundred pieces at its height.
The lawyers and businesspersons Pedro Ramón Lopez and his wife Teresa Saldise amassed an extensive collection of modern Cuban and Latin American painting in the 1980s and early 1990s. They owned General Bank, a Federal Savings and Loan, and an insurance business. Accused by the federal government of using their business to buy art for personal use, the Latin American art bought with bank money was taken by the government. The rest, bought with the insurance money, they took it and fled to Spain.
I once visited their Miami Beach home, which spacious rooms and tall walls were full of paintings. They had Lam’s Mañana verde 1943, a widely exhibited masterpiece with allusions to Afro-Cuban nature spirits. They also owned Carreño’s Cortadores de caña, 1943. This large work is part of three duco paintings, where Carreño paid energetic tribute to life in the Cuban countryside. Today, Cortadores de caña and its companion pieces, Danza afrocubana, and Fuego en el batey, are among his best-known works. Peláez was well represented. There were two from her Parisian years, then rare in Miami, Mujer sentada 1929 and Crisantemus 1930 (earlier in the Martínez-Cañas collection). They also owned a 1945 still life by her. It was a medium size gouache on paper with an intricate composition of strongly black outlines. I also remember Enríquez’s outrageous and beautifully painted Mas halan un par de tetas que una carreta c.1943, based on a machismo rural saying: a pair of female breast pulls more than an oxen driven carriage. There, I first saw a geometric abstract Portocarrero from the 1950s, Tiro al blanco. It was rare then to find paintings from this phase of Portocarrero’s work. The last paintings I remember from this collection were three excellent Abela’s Paisaje con animales 1958, Cabeza de muchacha n/d, and Muchacha con flores n/d. Some of the paintings in this collection came back to Miami, others ended up in places like New York (Enriquez, Mas valen..) and Santo Domingo (Carreno, Cortadores…).
Another major collector of that time was the real state developer Arturo Munder and his wife Sylvia. Their collection was extensive and pioneering. They owned Peláez El balcón 1942, showing two ladies with a caged bird in a balcony. A Havana scene. It made it to the cover of the catalogue for the 1944 MoMA exhibition. Another excellent painting in their collection was Ponce’s Barco fantasma c.1944, a highly abstracted image of a ghost ship in a violent sea. It’s mysterious quality arises from its nebulous forms and color: dark greens with bold white streaks. I also remember a cityscape by Abela, Ciudad de la Habana 1960. A childlike and chromatic representation of a cityscape. One of my favorite was Enríquez’s Guasamil Baseball Club. The painting represents a few poor AfroCuban children playing baseball on a street in Enríquez’s neighborhood. The quick execution suggests the improvised nature of their game in a marginal Havana neighborhood, which although play out millions of time throughout Cuba, had never been shown in modern Cuban art. Miami collections are rich in the “late” work of Abela (late 1950s-early 1960s) and Enríquez (1950s). To the best of my knowledge, Mr. Munder sold his collection some time ago.
A rare exhibition for Miami concerns the show of one private collection with catalogue. In 1988, Miami Dade College exhibited Twentieth Century Cuban Art from the Collection of Ramón Cernuda and Nercys Ganem. Mr. Cernuda is a businessman, who owned an editorial house and in the last twenty years the art gallery, Cernuda Arte. He is a long time passionate art collector, an avid reader and collector of texts on the subject of Cuban art, and a connoisseur. Mrs. Ganem, like her husband, has developed a keen eye for determining the good, the bad, and the excellent. She studied literature and is an experienced editor.
The 1988 show included 24 oils and 24 works on paper by a wide variety of artists: Eduardo Abela (2) Victor Manuel (4), Aristides Fernández (2) Fidelio Ponce (6), Carlos Enríquez (4), Amelia Peláez (4), Domingo Ravenet (1), Mario Carreño (1), René Portocarrero (4), Mariano Rodriguez (1), Cundo Bermúdez (2), Roberto Diago (1), Raul Millian (3), Roberto Estopiñán (1), José M. Mijares (3), Agustín Fernández (1), Servando Cabrera (1), Ángel Acosta León (4), Antonia Eiriz (1), Gina Pellón (1), and Arturo Rodriguez (1). The show was an eye opener in terms of the extensive size and quality of specific collections of Cuban art in Miami. This phenomena could not be gleaned from the Cuban Museum exhibitions, given that such shows were put together from various collections and many collectors chose to remain anonymous. Sheldon Lurie, the curator of the exhibition and the director of the gallery, wanted to do more shows featuring specific local collections, but they never materialized.
Soon thereafter, Ramón and Nercys began to invite me to their home in a high rise apartment on Brickell Avenue. The building is one of Arquitectonica’s early iconic buildings in Miami. Their home is replete with Cuban paintings and drawings neatly presented in a series of rooms and corridors. You enter their apartment through an L shape passage with a painting on the right wall and another on the wall in front, barely suggesting what was to come. As you turn the corner, the painting on the upfront wall was for a long time a large Portocarrero, El café 1940s. It shows a seated woman in front of a table with a cup and a still life on it. This oil on board was painted in white and brown giving it an unfinished look of just undertones. However, its emotional power is as strong as his fully colored works. I looked at this painting, which is an acquired taste, as a welcoming sign.
Turning to the left is the spacious, well lit, white wall living room. It ends in sliding glass doors overlooking a balcony and beyond, Biscayne Bay. It was furnished with two white sofas, two wood Cuban rocking chairs, and a black grand piano. This is the Hall of Fame. On the right side is Enríquez’s Bandolero criollo 1943, grand and commanding, followed by Mariano’s playful La pescera c. 1942, next is Ponce’s irreverent San Ignacio de Loyola c. 1938-39, followed, for the longest time, by Enríquez’s Eva c 1940, the nude portrait of his second wife. These were among the paintings from the Martínez Cañas collection, which returned to Miami. At some time, Eva was replaced by Peláez’s Pescados 1950s, which is a still life of fish with its original frame. The image is rather abstract and painted in luminous white, blue and red. The wall ends with a large Acosta León’s Untitled 1963, done in Europe at the end of his brief career. It shows a strange brownish creature on wheels and held by strings, as if a marionette. It rides against an off-white empty background. In reality, the subtleness and variety of colors is difficult to describe. Ramón likes to show it sideways, which works fine. This painting’s strong presence acts as an exclamation mark at the end of the wall. They are fans of Acosta León’s work and own a number of them, including one of his famed coffee machines in oil and haunting self-portraits.
Four of the mentioned paintings in this wall were included in the Modern Cuban Painters exhibition in MoMA, 1944: the two Enríquez, the Ponce, and the Mariano.
Turning right to face the shorter wall, it has a wide French door leading to an office-library. On the left side of the door hangs a small Abela of the 1950s or early 60s, his last period. It shows a mother and child in white against a nondescript background of brown and the most intense blue. In front of the painting, on a pedestal, sits a small bronze by Cárdenas, one of their favorite sculptors. To the right of the door is Lam’s Su Defaut du Jour 1945. This 6 by 4 feet painting is from his brief white period. Using sharp elegant lines and soft patches of black, he conjured up ghostly hybrid figures, gently emerging from a void
The other long wall of the rectangular living room has eight painting in two tight rows of four, one above the other. Beginning on the left, there are two rather large Mariano’s. The one below, Mujer y gallo, 1941, shows a monumental female figure, sitting in front of a landscape, holding a rooster about to peck her lips. This is his Cuban version of the myth of Leda. The one above, Mujeres luchando 1941, shows two large female figures, wrestling in a playful way against a landscape. Both are among his most recognized and thus reproduced works. Next are two Carreño’s next to each other on the upper row. Their styles are so different that they seem have been done by two different artists. He burned through visual languages during his long career and mastered them all. To the right is Costurera 1943, a harmonious synthesis of line and magnificent colors. He transformed a laborious low paying job in a crowded interior into a fancy neo-baroque fantasy. The other Carreño, a synthetic cubist composition, is titled Pastoral, 1946, and it is another Cuban version of a Classical theme. In this room, Enríquez, Mariano and Carreño all have paintings referring to ancient Classical myths. It may have been a way for these artists to universalize their Cuban characters and scenes. Back to the painting, it shows three peasants at leisure, playing music, and having a picnic, in the midst of a luxuriant landscape.
Below these paintings, there are two Havana interiors, one by Bermúdez, Desnudos c 1948, the other by Portocarrero, Interior del Cerro 1943. The first is a rare representation of a rampart business in Havana, a brothel, sanitized by the visual language and by the title. The painting depicts a number of nudes seemingly waiting for customers in a neo-colonial interior. Portocarrero’s also shows a neo-colonial interior. His is highly decorated and inspired in the artist’s childhood memories of the houses in that neighborhood in Havana. The interior, more of a melancholic conceit than a representation of an actual place, reveals him as a master colorist and leader of the neo-baroque elaborate compositions, so characteristic of modern Cuban art in that decade. Mariano’s Mujer con gallo, Carreño’s Costurera, and Portocarrero’s Interior del Cerro are prime examples of the paintings which led the North American art historian and curator Alfred H. Barr Jr. to declare in 1944, that the Cuban artists “were drunk with colors.” Bright colors and complex compositions are the two visual elements most associated with modern Cuban art of the 1940s, or the so-called School of Havana. The overall style was named by contemporary critics barroquismo or neo-baroque, and went as far as being associated with a Cuban quality that went beyond mere subject matter. A will to form. (See the writings of Alejo Carpentier, Jose Lezama, Guy Perez Cisneros, and José Gómez Sicre). Did the painters follow the writings of these critics in their choice of form or did the critics put into words what the artists were doing? Was it a little of both? I am still studying that. I do know that in the case of Peláez, it was an internal and organic process influenced directly by Cuban colonial architecture.
The last row includes two Víctor Manuel paintings, Retrato de Rosie, c 1935-36 and a landscape. Rosie was the wife of the Guatemalan poet and cultural ambassador Giron Cerna, who befriended the Cuban artists. This was probably a commissioned piece. It portraits Rosie seating with her hands in her laps, one in an unusual gesture. She seats straight up and looks out, but her eyes suggest that she is lost in thought and her mouth hints at certain sadness. Around her dark hair there is a halo effect. The background holds a vase with white lilies and a small painting of an Indian woman’s face. Both seem symbolic, the latter may be an allusion to her Guatemalan heritage. The rural landscape is typical Víctor Manuel, river, bohíos, palm trees, and relaxed guajiros under a blue sky. What is different in this case is the tremendous luminosity of the colors and suggested clear light.
The living room gives way on one side to the dining room. On the back wall, there was for a long time a large Peláez, Frutero 1947, with its original frame done by the artist. This painting lets the viewer observe the obsessive quality of her patterning, her organic approach to geometry, and her strongly lid colors. It is one of her most ambitious easel paintings. Later, it was replace by a large Tomás Sánchez of water, trees, and sky, a beautiful meditative piece.
The rest of their collection is placed in corridors, a small waiting room, and bedrooms. In these spaces, the Vanguardia or first generation modern painters are well represented by a group of excellent paintings. They are Abela’s Fiesta en el batey 1927, one of the earliest pieces of modern Cuban art, about rural popular culture; Gattorno’s Guajiros y platanos c. 1929, one of his early guajiro paintings, a sad look at their condition; Víctor Manuel’s Muchacha vestida en blanco and Dos mujeres, two large and beautiful melancholic paintings of languid women against landscapes; Ponce’s Primera Comuniónc. 1933 and Los tres Cristos c. 1935 top examples of his dark and of his white paintings respectively, not to mention his religious work; Enríquez’s masterpiece of social criticism, Horno de carbón 1937 and his dreamy depiction of a cleansing ritual, Limpieza de elementales 193?, with reference to Afro-Cuban culture; and Aristides Fernández’s La lluvia c. 1930, a bluish, dreary rainy day, different from the typical sunny ones represented by his contemporaries. These are outstanding paintings from a critical decade in modern Cuban art.
The 1940s also shine outside the living room. There are two excellent Portocarrero paintings of his long running series Catedrales, a linear early one, 194? , and a rich in impasto/color from 19??, plus one of his most ambitious Valle de Viñales 1944 paintings; Bermúdez’s El monje rojo 1948, a monumental and stark figure against an empty background, painted in broad brush strokes, and his Retrato de Marta 1947, a more recognizable and colorful Cundo in his signature style; Diago’s five by three and a half feet bold painting, Pianista 1940s, a dark yet lustrous image of a nude black woman, wearing jewelry, and playing a piano, seemingly in a risqué Havana night club; and Victor Manuel’s Carnaval 1940s, a large and sunny view of this popular street festival bordering on costumbrismo. These are superb and in some cases unique pieces (Diago’s Pianista and Bermúdez’s Monje rojo) in the artist careers.
At the end of one of the corridors is a 1970s large male nude by Servando Cabrera. It’s location, size, transparent layers of color, and frank nudity are eye openers. Of the 1960s painters, Servando Cabrera and Acosta León are well liked among Miami collectors.
Collectors of modern Cuban art in Miami mostly stay away from works on paper. Ramón and Nercys, however, have an extensive collection of drawings. An entire long wall is dedicated to exquisite drawings made by every major and minor modernist artist. Some are seminal pieces in the artists’ development, such as Peláez’s Mamey 1936. The centered fruit of the title sits in front of a stained glass window glowing in reds, … This is one of the first pieces in which she incorporated the decorative elements of Cuban colonial architecture.
I must confess that two of the paintings I have enjoyed the most in this collection are not by modernist artists. One is the largest Esteban Chartrand that I have seen, a panoramic view of the Valle de Yumurí in his native Matanzas province. Alexander Humbolt, the so-called second European discoverer of Cuba, could have based his studies on the Cuban landscape from this encyclopedic painting. The other is an intimate view of a remote beach by Leopoldo Romañach. Looking at this medium size painting one could feel the hot yellowish grains of sand, the beckoning turquoise water, the tranquil shoreline, the expansive blue sky, and the warmth of the soft wind.
I would like to leave this extraordinary collection, which has been around since the 1980s and it is still growing, with a historical fact and a personal anecdote. On May 5th 1989, agents from the United Sates Customs Service, complying with orders from United States Attorney for the Southern District of Florida, Dexter Lehtinen 1988-1992, searched Cernuda’s home and office and confiscated about 200 painting. The order alleged that the purchase of such paintings violated the Trading With the Enemy Act. According to court transcripts:
“This seizure is part of an on-going controversy surrounding the exhibition and auction of Cuban art organized by the Cuban Museum in Miami. Petitioner Cernuda has served the museum in various executive capacities during the last eleven years. Beginning in late 1987, dissension arose among museum directors and in the community concerning the museum's exhibition and auction of art created by artists now living in Cuba or those who have not renounced allegiance to Fidel Castro.
The dissension focused on a benefit auction planned for April 1988, which was to include such art. Those opposing the auction suggested that it would violate the TWEA, at which point auction organizers withdrew the disputed art to avoid any possible legal violations.
Despite withdrawal of the works from the auction, the controversy continued regarding the museum. Cernuda and other museum directors were the subject of death threats. A bomb exploded on May 3, 1988, damaging a director's car and the museum itself. Seventeen incumbent board members, opposed to the museum's dealings in art associated with Castro's Cuba, also resigned that month. Because of the controversy the museum was subjected to city and state audits, which failed to uncover financial impropriety. Nevertheless, the Florida Legislature withdrew its financial support for the museum on May 18, 1988.
After the April 1988 auction, petitioners attempted to comply with the TWEA by seeking licenses to exhibit Cuban works. Thus, in December 1988, Cernuda wrote to the Office of Foreign Asset Control ("OFAC"), the federal agency responsible for enforcing the TWEA, requesting permission to exhibit the work of a Cuban dissident artist. OFAC never responded to this request.
The next contact Cernuda had with government officials was on May 5, 1989, when agents of the U.S. Customs Service searched his personal residence and the office of his company, Editorial Cernuda, pursuant to duly executed warrants. The agents seized approximately 200 paintings that appeared to be of Cuban-origin. This seizure is the subject of this petition.
At present, the government has issued no criminal indictments against petitioners for TWEA violations surrounding the importation of the disputed paintings, although more than four months have passed since its agents seized the paintings. Nonetheless, Rule 41(e) gives this court the discretion to hear pre-indictment requests for the return of unconstitutionally seized property.”
On September 18th 1989, District Judge Ryskamp, United States District Court S.D. Florida, ruled that Ramón Cernuda had not violated the TWEA because art is “informational material,” and therefore falls under the First Amendment clause. He ordered the immediate return of the seized paintings. Due to this ruling, art could be imported from Cuba and it has on a large scale. Collecting Cuban art and exile politics have clashed from time to time, but never so dramatically, nor with such influential results.
Now, a personal anecdote regarding one of my visits to Ramón’s and Nercys’ home. Every time I visited them, I met other collectors, artists, and intellectuals. Conversations touched on Cuban art, culture, politics, collecting (who recently acquired what), traveling, wine, and more. The food, Cuban of course, was always delicious and the wine, usually Spanish, flowed. In one of my first visits, I was sitting on the sofa in front of Enríquez’s nude painting of his second wife Eva Fregaville, when she walked in. She was about eighty years old and had not seen the painting since the early 1940s. Eva was shocked. She looked at it silently for a while and became teary eyes. She then sat down and explained that she posed for the painting soon after they began their relationship in 1939 and that he painted it rather fast. Beyond that, she did not want to talk about him. To add to the drama, she looked around and saw the irascible poet and novelist Enrique Labrador Ruiz, who she had not seen since the early 1940s, when Enríquez threw him out of his house because he was making a pass at her. That night, they got along well and stories of a melancholic Cuban past filled the air. Cuban history and Miami’s present often mix on the walls and the conversations of Ramón and Nercys home.
One modernist artist whose work on paper is widely collected is Ponce. He produced a vast amount of pencil and pen drawings, wonders of the imagination and the hand. To the best of my knowledge, the most extensive private collection of Ponce’s works on paper in Miami is that of the lawyers Pedro Martínez-Fraga and his wife Lisa. When I was working on my Enríquez monograph, he invited me to his condominium in the Brickell area to see Enríquez’s Bañistas 1937. This is a small, but seminal work of women bathers in a lake, one of his favorite subjects from this time on. He had many jewels by modernist painters. I was surprised to see two first rate Cerra paintings of Havana cityscapes. Today, there are a good number of paintings by this undervalued artist, but mostly of her peasant children. Then there was Ponce. He owns one of his not too many naturalistic portraits and dozens of his drawings covering an entire wall. Ponce’s drawings show swift, effortless lines slowly revealing all kind of figurative subjects. At times the drawings are accompanied by nervous handwriting of titles or thoughts.
A collector I met at the beginning of his quest and saw his collection grow into one of the finest anywhere is Sergio Delgado. He is an independent commercial realtor, who prior to beginning collecting in the 1990s had no knowledge or interest in art. Once he began collecting, he assiduously sought advice from multiple sources and read what he could on the subject, however, neither explained his sharp eyes for first rate works, or his wide range of taste.
The last time I saw his collection, he lived with his wife and young daughter in a spacious house off Old Cutler Road, nested under large oak trees. In the foyer, you are greeted by an intensely ornamented Portocarrero Catedral, 1968. Curiously, as the Cuban government pushed hard to create an atheist society in the 1960s, Portocarrero painted an ongoing series of Cathedrals. This one has an angel between the towers. This work is followed by a large Lam of his white period, 1940s, mysterious in its myriad of suggestive forms and ambiguous space. It is a cousin of the one owned by Cernuda and both have been extensively exhibited. The wall ends with Mariano’s Mujer y pescado 1940s, this time the woman is holding a fish, rather than a rooster or bird.
The foyer leads to a living room, which opens into a dining room. In the center of the main wall of the living room is Carreño’s spectacular La danza afrocubana 1943, a five feet plus duco with collage elements on wood. It represents an Afro-Cuban ritual dance in nature, i.e. the countryside. Carreño picked up the duco technique from David Alfaro Siqueiros, who was visiting Havana in that year. “If Siqueiros' work in Duco realized the medium's power and muscle, Carreño was the first to understand its potential for coloristic lyricism,” read the May 1984 Sotheby’s auction catalogue, about another duco painting by Carreño. La danza afrocubana is both muscular and coloristic, a unique Carreño synthesis.
To the left is Peláez Untitled 1950 a mid sized still life painted in red, yellow and dark green. The motif in the center is rather abstract, fruits if I had to guess, on a fancy table cloth, and crowned by a stained glass area. The composition is dominated by a strong inverted triangle softened by curvilinear flowing lines. Everything about it exudes elegance. Sergio had four more excellent Pelaez, each worth at least a brief description. Across from the aforementioned one, in the dining room, was a large Naturaleza muerta en interior 1948, in its original frame. The still life is of fish placed on a plate on an embroidered table cloth. These elements are framed by two columns, which elaborate capitals themselves frame a stained glass window. The glowing colors are red, yellow and spring green. In the fish and other forms, she drew by scratching the paint. The composition is rather elaborate, typical of the 1940s work, yet it is easily legible.
In the hallway leading from the dining room to the kitchen are two more. One, Naturaleza muerta 1949, resembles a stained glass window itself in the fragmentation of the color areas and their thick black outlines. The color shapes are varied and their compositions dense. To give an idea of current prices on a first rate medium size Peláez painting, this one sold for $348,000 at Christie’s in 2017. Further down the wall, in the Florida room, there is Peces 1955, a precious abstract still life in sky blue, bright red, olive green, and light grey on a white background. In this one she even ornamented the black outlined color areas with fine black arabesque. It’s central motif of fish is barely recognizable. These four Peláez paintings attest not only to the mastery of her color and composition, but also to her expressive nuance. She took a basic still life arrangement of fruits or fish, placed on an embroidered tablecloth, put it in front of a neo-colonial window, and did endless fresh variations. In these cases, she expressed elegance, strength, over abundance, and cheerfulness respectively.
The last Peláez that I saw in Sergio’s collection is Naturaleza muerta con frutas 1935, a minimalist still life composition, which reminded me why her art was met with silence when she returned from Paris in 1934. It is about four by three feet, showing a plain vase with unidentifiable fruits place on a round mantelpiece. The flat background consists of rectangular color shapes. As in most of her work, the centerpiece in seen frontal and the tablecloth from above, in Cubist fashion. The understated colors are various shades of light brown, dark green, white, and light blue. It is severe and refined. Too abstract and simple for Havana at that time, when narrative and sensuality reigned in Cuban art.
Back to the living room, to the right of the Carreño is Ponce’s Retrato de Rosie c. 1935. Like the aforementioned one by Víctor Manuel in Cernuda’s collection, this one was probably commissioned by her husband Carlos Girón Cerna; unlike it, it shows her standing in a relaxed pose. Sergio owns a second portrait of Rosie, similar in intimacy and impasto brush strokes. He also owns Retrato de Girón Cerna c. 1935 by Ponce, who portrays him seated at work in his desk, pensive. Sergio bought a number of excellent Ponce’s paintings from the former Girón Cerna Collection, which among other sources confirm the close relationship the Guatemalan poet and the Cuban painter enjoyed in the 1930s, when the former was a cultural attaché in Havana.
One of the take aways from this collection is Sergio’s love for the work of Ponce and his keen eye for recognizing the best. He owns at least eight. Facing the dining room table the relatively large Bañistas, c. 1935, showing two nude women walking out of the water, a subject matter he did not repeat. The figures are painted in dashing brush strokes and the sea barely suggested. The usual sensuality associated with such a subject is only found in the paint itself. In the Florida room is one of Ponce’s most moving versions of En el camino a Emaus 193?, which he signed and titled on the lower right side of the canvas. He painted the figures in deep ochre and the desolate landscape in pearl white. He chose the moment when Christ appeared to two of his disciples on the way to Emmaus. Although they supposedly did not recognize him until later, there are strong emotions shown in their faces. In that area of the house, there is also a head of Christ by Ponce, Cristo 1930s. It is conceived in terms of light and less so shade.
The last two Ponce’s I saw that day I liked best. Next to each other opposite the entrance to the master bedroom are a Naturaleza muerta c. 1934, originally from the Girón Cerna collection, and Novicia 1938. They brought to mind the title of the Procol Harum’s song A Whiter Shade of Pale. They are predominantly painted in shades of white. The still life shows a one legged round table holding two glass containers. Out of the smallest one, a single thin dark stem rises to end in an unidentifiable white flower. Its companion is an empty long neck bottle. The still life sits against a white wall and it is frame by white curtains with some streaks of baby blue. The overall impression is of pathetic beauty; it suggests the thin line between life and death, the spiritual and the material.
In the other painting, the nun or pious woman’s body is covered with a white cape. She also wears a white head cap with a wreath. The only visible flesh is her expressionless almond shape face painted in ochre. She seems frozen in time and space. In front of her are two books, one with a cross on the cover, and a glass with a long stem; the background is empty and of a different shade of white. Here is a world of total silence and stillness, a separate reality.
To continue my tour of this collection, the last painting that caught my attention in the living room is an Aristides Fernández’s Descanso c. 1930, a rare find in Miami, where there are few paintings by this artist, who died young and left a very limited quantity of work. The dark image shows two women, one carrying a child, and resting as the title indicates. They reclined in a rather desolated landscape with leafless trees and two skinny animals. His expressionist style merely suggests figures and landscape. Like the one seen in Cernuda’s collection, it is mostly painted in different shades of blue, giving it a melancholic mood. Opposite this painting, between living and dining room, is a large Lam, Studio para La Jungla 1943. It depicts a hybrid figure with a three quarter moon head, emerging from a background of stalks and leaves. It seems like a study for The Jungle 1943, thus its title. A close relative of this painting is in permanent display at the Museum of the Art Institute of Chicago.
Back in the hallway to the kitchen, there is a colorful neo-baroque still life by Bermúdez, Naturaleza muerta con Peces 1948. In contrast to the quiet 1930s still life by Peláez across the way, it feels like a shout. While on Bermúdez, Sergio was excited that day because he had just acquired the aforementioned Romeo and Julieta 1943 from Lodovico Blanc. One of Bermúdez most reproduced paintings, it recently resold for half a million dollars. Bermúdez 1940s paintings are his most sought after.
In the Florida room there is a wall with seven paintings in close proximity. On the left of the mentioned Pelaez 1955 abstract fishes, there is Víctor Manuel’s Carnaval 1940s. This is a large version of a theme he repeated in the 1940s, a lively Havana carnival scene. To the right of the Peláez, there is an expressionistic Portocarrero’s Valle de Viñales 1940s. It is one of the largest I have seen of the Valle de Viñales landscape series, about that unique valley in the province of Pinar Del Río. Above the Peláez is Acosta León’s Untitled c. 1962-63. It shows an abstract representation of the springs of an old bed without a mattress, a recurring subject in his mature work. It is painted in brown and shades of white. Across the room there is another Acosta León, in this case, small, uncharacteristically colorful, and playful. The work of Acosta León, its strange animals, objects, and machines on wheels and in pain, and its pretty-free forms are interestingly widely collected in Miami. The paintings that I have seen mostly predate 1959 or are from the last years of his life, when he lived in Europe (1963-64) on a scholarship.
As for the rest of the collection, two more pieces stayed with me. One is Arche’s Retrato de Angel Gaztelu 1937, a portrait of the then priest, later Monsignor, and poet, who befriended many of the modernist artists. Arche used his streamline naturalism, a modernist version of Early Renaissance painting, to express Franciscan simplicity. Most surprising was to turn a corner and find an Alberto Peña painting, Cuba en marcha 1936. Peñita, as he was called, painted images of social commentary and is not as well known or appreciated as his contemporaries of the 1930s. This painting is about four by three feet and represents workers, white and black, rural and urban, surrounding a large female figure with a machete. Is this his Cuban version of the famous Eugene Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People? In any case, it is a call to arms at a time of political turbulence in Cuba
Sergio, like others collectors of Cuban modern art, also has at least one painting by Esteban Chartrand, Victor Patricio Landaluze, and Leopoldo Romañach. They are not only considered masters, but also thought to be pioneers in the expression of an authentic Cuban identity.
This magnificent collection, carefully and enthusiastically put together over a ten-year period, is no longer. Sergio has sold most of the paintings, turning his attention to contemporary art.
A friend of Mr. Delgado, who began to collect about the same time, is Felipe Del Valle MD. His collection is not as extensive, but it is unique in that he collects modern and academic or traditional art in equal amount. Besides having important paintings by most Cuban modernists of the first and second generation, he also owns fine paintings by Miguel Melero, Leopoldo Romañach, Domingo Ramos, Armando Menocal, and Antonio Rodríguez Morey, among others. In passing, his large Rodríguez Morey landscape at sunset is a magnificent example of Romanticism Cuban art.
An aside, the collector and gallery owner Roberto Ramos is, to the best of my knowledge, the first to bring and promote traditional, usually call academic, Cuban art in Miami. He owns a large collection of such art and lots of documents about it. His collection is documented in Great Masters of Cuban Art, Ramos Collections, Museum of Arts and Sciences, Daytona Beach, 2009.
I remember only a few paintings from my visit to Dr. Del Valle’s home many years ago. One is Peláez Pianista. 194? , showing two women playing piano in a neo-colonial interior. The multitude of lit-up colors and black outlines resemble a glowing stained glass window. The artist did two or more variations of this painting with subtle changes. I know of two versions in Miami collections. Peláez figurative paintings often represent not only her family, but an entire sector of Cuban society at that time: white, upper middle class, educated, domestic women. I also remember Ponce’s Soldado ruso c. 1940, a half-length figure, which does not look like a soldier and much less Russian, seen against an empty background. The figure’s elegant shirt and the background are in white, while the face is in ochre, achieving a dramatic contrast of light and dark. The expressionist effect is enhanced by the loaded brush strokes. Nearby was Enríquez’s Caballo rojo 1954, a fine example of his “late style.” The horse is seen from the side and rear, turning his long neck and head to look back out of curiosity or fear. Its red color boldly contrasts with the green vegetation of the landscape. One last painting I remember on that intimate living room is Víctor Manuel’s Paisaje con flamboyanes rojo y azul 1940s, one of his typical river landscapes of the 1940s, yet with its own personality. The not so sunny day and the blue flower Poincianas suggest a certain downcast.
One painting that stayed with me from that visit was Enrique García Cabrera’s Mujeres recogiendo frutas, 1948. He was a traditional artist, who mastered illustration and painting, including murals. The eight by six feet painting greeted the visitor upon walking into the house. In a crisp linear style, he depicted two women impeccably dressed in white gowns, definitely not peasants, picking mangoes from a robust tree. One is carrying a basket half full, while the other is shown grabbing fruits, thus the title. In front of them rests another basket with mangoes and anones, behind them is a landscape with a modern cement bridge. In this work, García Cabrera created a tropical paradise with a slight flavor of ancient Athens or Rome.
Dr. Del Valle and Mr. Delgado teamed up their collections and published a book to show and document them: Remembering Cuba Through its Art. Private Collection in Exile, 2004. The words “remembering Cuba” and “exile” are key to understanding the collection of pre-1959 Cuban art in Miami. As mentioned earlier, there is a significant emotional element, tied to nostalgia and national identity, in the collection of the art in question. It would be ideal to have more collections published to disseminate basic information on specific works and help to map their circulation.
Isaac Rudman is a businessman, who ArtNews included in its 2013 list of the 200 most important collectors in the United States. One of his interests is modern Cuban art. I saw part of his collection in a highly secured storage and in his home and that of his wife in North East Miami. In storage, he had first-rate paintings by just about every Cuban modernist. Two that stand out are Carreño’s Fuego en el batey 1943, the companion piece to La danza Afro-Cubana and Lam’s Malembo, Dios de la encrucijada 1943, one of his first full fledge paintings based on Afro-Cuban religious culture. It also marks the beginning of his life-long fascination with the Orisha Eleggua, the messenger of the Gods in the Lucumí religion. Given their key place in each of these artist’s careers, these works are highly valuable and priced in millions of dollars. There, he also kept Mariano’s early masterpiece, La hebra 1939, representing a robust working class seamstress, and a beautiful ornate interior of Portocarrero’s acclaimed series, Interior del Cerro 1943. It went on and on. One artist who stood out because of the quantity of works was Abela. Mr. Rudman explained that he had a special liking for him and wanted one day to sponsor an Abela exhibition.
From there, we drove to his condominium. At the entrance was a reclining nude in bronze by Botero. I smiled and thought I was going to see a mix of modern art from Latin America. Actually, most o the works on the walls were by Cuban artists. Above the sofa was Peláez’s Mujer 1941-44, a large representation of a single woman, seating on a chair, holding a pair of scissors, and surrounded by an intricate embroidered piece of cloth. Behind her, the decoration of the wall and ceiling gives her a kind of halo. It is a monumental and elegant representation of a seamstress, a recurrent figure in Cuban art and literature, and offers quite a contrast to Mariano’s La hebra in the same collection. On the main wall of the dining room is another Peláez. This one is one of her minimal still lifes of the 1930s. Its horizontal composition shows a small vase with unidentifiable fruits, around which is a difficult to define form of white semicircles. The background is made up of two flat bands of orange, brown and gold. In these very different paintings, one can see Peláez unique combination of cubism and pattern.
Turning a corner, I encountered Bermúdez’s Niña en rosado 1943. This is a vertical painting of a standing girl elegantly dressed in pink, daydreaming and waiting. Candy for the eyes. Turning again, I saw the medium size Ponce’s Dos mujeres 1940s, of two half-length females in profile, looking into space. It is a soft, meditative image. In Santo Domingo, where Mr. Rudman has his permanent residency, he has Ponce’s Los Niños c. 1938. This large painting in ochre and white impasto shows three children and a dog in a barren landscape, seemingly wandering and possibly lost. Not the expected happy or innocent representation of children. The painting is a close relative of an award winning painting by Ponce of the same title and date in the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes in Havana. Isaac took me last to a small sitting room and there, among Taino sculptures, was Lam’s renowned Cuatro Elementos 1945. It was smaller than I had imagined. The image represents, symbolically, the four essential elements in the Afro-Cuban religion of Lucumí: water, plants, rocks and shells.
Mr. Rudman’s remarkable collection of modern Cuban art is always in flux, with new paintings arriving and others leaving. He strongly believes in Sigmund Freud’s adage that a collection, which does not change is dead.
There are many more private collections of modern Cuban art in south Florida, of which I am barely aware, or not at all. I imagine that the majority of them are of moderate size. As I may have suggested, most of the collectors also have Colonial and/or Contemporary Cuban art, including that of Cuban-Americans. In some cases, they have in their collections art from other countries. Although not part of this testimony, there are a few institutional collections worth mentioning. The Lowe Art Museum of the University of Miami has numerous paintings and drawings by modern Cuban artists, including rare pieces. The majority of them were inherited from the former Cuban Museum of Arts and Culture. The Pérez Art Museum of Miami has paintings of the art in question donated by Jorge Pérez. He also donated an eclectic collection of Cuban paintings, including modest modernist works, to the Frost Art Museum of Florida International University. The Cintas Foundation collection includes a large group of fine paintings by modernist artists, who left Cuba after the Revolution. There is a long trajectory of Cuban artists working outside the island since the late 19th century, with the largest concentration after 1959. Finally, the Bacardi Company has a valuable collection of modern Cuban art in its headquarters in Coral Gables, including a Gattorno 1938 mural.
The collecting of modern Cuban art in South Florida has affected the history of this art in various ways. Its quantity and quality has made Miami, unthinkable to its creators, a major center for its economic circulation, study, and conservation. Art galleries and independent art dealers have provided a steady and quality supply. Quality is more difficult to prove than quantity, but I believe that if there were a cannon of Cuban art, the majority of the paintings I have described in this narrative would be part of it. Related to the marketing success of this art is the problem of forgeries, which is an issue in today’s study of modern Cuban art.
In the last ten years, the first three generations of modern Cuban artists have received more attention than ever, certainly if measured by publications. During this time, books, book chapters, articles, and essayed exhibition catalogues have proliferated. Most consequentially, from the point of view of in depth information about individual artists, are the monographs and catalogue raisonné. Practically every modernist artist has one: Lam (various), Bermúdez (2000), Consuegra (2001), Gattorno (2004), Abela (2010), Víctor Manuel (2010), Enríquez (2010), Pogolotti (20??), Rodríguez (n/d), Raúl Martínez (2012), Agustín Fernández (2012), and Portocarrero (2014). Peláez and Ponce’s monographs are forthcoming. Lam and Rodriguez have catalogues raisonné as well. A look at the plates in all of these publications, with the exception of Pogolotti, reveals that a sizable number of the artworks are in Miami private collections. The fact that local collectors helped finance many of the publications does not detract from the importance of the included artworks.
An important aspect of the collecting in question that is often taken for granted is preservation. Motivated to protect their investment and out of a sense of responsibility to safeguard their material heritage, collectors have seen to it that the art is protected and if needed restored. In Cuba, the lack of controlled temperature in most houses and the lack of money for restoration mean that many of the works that have arrived here need intervention. Works that were bought back in the 1940s and 1950s and have come to Miami from Latin America, the Caribbean, and even this country have often also need restoration, or at least cleaning. All of the pieces that I have seen in collections and galleries are well preserved, many having been restored since their arrival. Not all restorers are competent, but the majority of them are professional and have saved quite a few pieces from the ravages of time. The process has assured that the pieces are in good condition for present and future exhibition and study.
I believe that being a major repository of Cuban art brings a certain responsibility to Miami art institutions and collectors. That responsibility is to share it with the community, a large percentage of which is Cuban or of Cuban descent, through exhibitions. Unfortunately, local museums, mostly dedicated to contemporary art, have shown very little interest in curating monographic or collective exhibitions of modern Cuban art. Two recent exceptions are the retrospective exhibition of Amelia Peláez at the Perez Art Museum of Miami, when it reopened in 2013, and the 2018 retrospective of Rafael Soriano at the Frost Art Museum. The Lowe Art Museum and the Frost Art Museum would be ideal venues for a comprehensive exhibition of this period of Cuban art because both have academic centers dedicated to the study of Cuban culture. I challenge these museums to use the resources in their institutions and in this city to curate a major exhibition on the subject at hand. I also challenge the collectors to finance it.
El Rey de los Campos de Cuba
Juan A. Martínez
Entrando en el cuarto cargando un caballete, mirando alrededor y pensando: ‘Que incómodo es este cuarto para pintar. Los de Paris y Madrid eran más pequeños, pero me gustaban más. Coño, La Habana está peor que cuando me fui. Cuatro años pasaron rápido. Pensar que tuve que salir corriendo porque la porra me tenía en la mirilla. Le dijeron a mi padre que sería bueno para mi salud salir del país lo antes posible. De que le sirvió ser el médico del presidente. En si Machado era un cabrón dictator más que un presidente. Cuando lo tumbaron los estudiantes se desato tremenda violencia y mamá, creyendo que iban a venir por mi padre, murió de un ataque al corazón. No la pude ver, me tomó cuatro meses antes que pudiera entrar en un barco de polizonte. Y ahora la revolución se va abajo, no duró más que cien días. Como siempre, los Yankees se están metiendo y esta vez usando nuestro ejército para hacer de las suyas. Tenemos un nuevo dictador, el ñame Fulgencio Batista. Fue de sargento a coronel, increíble, y ahora dirige el país manipulando a presidentes títeres. Este país no mejora. Dictadores, corrupción, la fúria por el dinero y la ética hipócrita de la burguesía me asfixian.
Coño, que le pasó al machismo de las guerras de independencia. Esos fueron nuestros tiempos heroiocos, del 68 al 98. Son muchos los eslabones perdidos de ese tiempo, pero por suerte conservamos las ideas y palabras de nuestra trinidad cultural: el Cucalambé, Manuel García y José Martí. Me siento más cerca del Rey de los Campos de Cuba. De este nada más conservamos la memoria. Lo voy a pintar y agrandar su recuerdo.’
‘Bueno, a comprar pigmento. Creo que El Arte todavía existe. ¡¿Dinero?!’ Pasando a través de la Plaza de Armas, pensaba: ‘Se me había olvidado los gorriones tiritando desde sus nidos en los laureles. Que será de la vida de Alice? Como nos gustaba a Marcelo, Alice y yo venir a las plazas de La Habana vieja a deambular y dibujar. Después nos íbamos a casa de mis padres a comentar sobre lo que dibujamos. Alice le gustaba dibujar los pobres sentados en la Plaza de las Armas, hambrientos y con las musarañas en los ojos. Ella le sacó más provecho a esas aventuras que Marcelo y yo. Sus pinturas de esos pobres llamaron la atención de los críticos en la exposición del 28. Mi pintura del Castillo de Atarés y Retrato de Marcelo también llamaron atención, pero aún más mi Desnudo en rojo. Decían los críticos que nuestras pinturas eran como tirar dardos al buen gusto. Me gusta esa frase. Me sigue gustando pintar desnudos, menos los retratos, un poco el paisaje, también los negros, aunque ese tema no me lleva lejos. No he encontrado mi sujeto.
Saliendo de El Arte ve a un hombre pequeño, mal vestido, con un sombrero sucio y un cuadro debajo del brazo.
—“Carajo! Tu has de ser Fidelio Ponce. Me dijeron que tu escupes y dices más malas palabras que yo.”
—“No te olvides, de León. Fidelio Ponce de León. Y tú quien eres?”
—“Ah! El que le suspendieron la exposición en el Lyceum por los dibujos pornograficos. Que mierda es esta sociedad!”
—“Ahora me van a dar otra para exhibir lo que pinte en Europa.”
—“Cuidado no te la cancelen de nuevo. Vienes de Paris?”
—“No, me pasé el último año en Madrid...”
—“Yo estuve por allá el año pasado. Aparte Del Prado y las pinturas de El Greco’s en Toledo, me gustó más el ambiente de Paris.”
—(le pasó rápido por el pensamiento el rumor que a Ponce le gustaba mentir sobre viajes al extranjero, cuando no había ido más allá de Matanzas).
“Si, ir a Europa viene bien. Vamos a ver el regreso”
—“Seguro que mal. En esta isla maldita el gobierno y los ricos creen que los artistas viven del aire y sus ideas.”
—“Mas ganas me da de pintar. Muéstrame la pintura que llevas ahí.” Un momento de silencio... “Un Cristo alucinado sin halo... Me gusta el blanco. De Donde viene esa intensa luz que no es de sol ni luna.”
—“De mi interior.”
De nuevo en el cuarto, mira el vaso con run y se lo lleva a la boca, coge el palette y lo embarra con pigmentos verde, amarillo, rojo, azul y blanco, agarra una brocha pequeña y se pone a pensar de nuevo sobre las guerras de independencia: ‘Cuando vivía en los Estados Unidos, como me jodía oír que le llamaran Spanish-American War. ¡Carajo! Ésa fue nuestra guerra, que a lo último llegaron los Yankees y se la cojieron para ellos, junto con la isla. Tengo que pintar el tiempo heroico, quizás la muerte de Martí en su caballo... No, mejor pintar a Manuel García, héroe bandolero y patriota.’
‘Que será del héroe sin caballo. Martí decía que el caballo honra al hombre, o algo parecido. Voy a empezar con la bestia. Le pintaré la cabeza como si fuera una calavera. Quiero que tenga algo de sueño. Mejor, va a ser una visión de Manuel García. Le doy mi fisionomía. No tengo modelo y quien mejor que yo... Le falta algo. Ah, un pañuelo para esconder la cara como hacen los bandoleros. Pero la cara es importante... Hago el pañuelo transparente. Tapa y no tapa como los pintores del Renacimiento y el Barroco con sus velos... Tiene que haber confrontación. Mejor, la pelea está por empezar, así es más dramático... Se encuentra con dos guardias rurales y lleva la mano a coger su machete. El revólver también, con la misma mano... El resto se lo dejo a la imaginación. (ver ilustración al final)
Se hecha para atrás y mira la pintura. Sigue pensando: ‘Bueno, ahora viene el campo. ¿Que es lo esencial de nuestro campo? Lomas redondas y suaves como tetas de hembra y palmas flacas al viento... Todo en verde de palmiche, ese es el color de nuestro paisaje... Ahí van unos toques de rojo para recordar la sangre de los tiempos heroicos! Por eso dicen: más se perdió en la guerra.’
Se echa atrás y mira la pintura de nuevo y sigue pensando: ‘encontré mi sujeto: el criollismo. Voy a pintar los guajiros, sus deseos, su pobreza, los mambises, los bandoleros... y todo dentro del paisaje cubano. Tengo que ir con cuidado porque ya hasta los cañaverales hablan inglés. No me interesa La Habana, lugar híbrido de influencias extranjeras. Seré el Rey de los Campos de Cuba en la pintura.’
Carlos Enríquez (1900-1957) es uno de los artistas más destacados de la generación de los 30, la cual introdujo las ideas y formas del Arte Moderno Europeo en Cuba. Su pintura Rey de los Campos de Cuba 1934 ganó un premio de compra en la Primera Exposición Nacional de Pintura y Escultura en 1935 y desde entonces ha estado en exhibición en el Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes. Otras pinturas importantes de este artista son Horno de carbón 1936, Campesinos felices 1938, Rapto de las mulatas 1938, Dos Rios 1939, y Héroe criollo 1943, entre otras. Sus sujetos fueron desnudos, retratos, algunas pinturas sobre el tema Afrocubano y sobretodo el campo de Cuba.
Alice Neel (1900-1983) fue una artista norteamericana conocida internacionalmente por sus retratos expresionistas de un amplio segmento de la sociedad neoyorquina. Neel fue la primera esposa de Enríquez, se conocieron en la Philadelphia Academy of Art, y vivieron en Cuba dos años- 1926-1927.
Marcelo Pogolotti (1902-1988) es un pintor y escritor cubano, conocido por sus pinturas de corte social y escritos sobre arte cubano y global. El fue amigo de Enríquez desde la escuela secundaria y corpartieron su iniciación al arte en la segunda mitad de la década del 20. Pogolotti fue amigo de Neel, como de Enríquez, por vida.
Fidelio Ponce de León (1895-1949) fue otro artista destacado de la generación del 30, y el mas excéntrico por su vida errática y su arte diferente al resto de sus colegas. El es conocido por su estilo expresionista en el cual predomina el tono blanco y figuras religiosas. Ponce se llevaba bien con Enríquez, quien lo bautizó apropiadamente con el nombre “El caballo de la tristeza.”
Carlos Enríquez, El Rey de los Campos Cubanos (King of the Cuban Countryside), 1934
Oil on board, 39 1/2” x 32”
Collection: Museo Nacional de Cuba, Havana
Juan A. Martínez
Image: Ivan A. Martínez
We would like to thank:
Alejandro Anreus for conceiving the project and guiding us;
Patricia Wiesen and Ivan A. Martínez for their assistance;
and everyone who participated in writing their thoughtful essays.