Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
September 21, 2016
Ilan Stavans and Jorge J. E. Gracia Thirteen Ways of Looking at Latino Art Durham: Duke University Press Books, 2014. 240 pp.; 13 color ills. Paper $22.95 (9780822356349)
E. Carmen Ramos Our America: The Latino Presence in American Art Exh. cat. London: D Giles Limited, 2014. 365 pp.; 265 color ills. Cloth $65.00 (9781907804441)
Exhibition schedule: Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC, October 25, 2013–March 2, 2014; Patricia and Phillip Frost Art Museum at Florida International University, Miami, March 28–June 22, 2014; Crocker Art Museum, Sacramento, September 21, 2014–January 11, 2015; Utah Museum of Fine Arts, Salt Lake City, February 6–Mary 17, 2015; Arkansas Art Center, Little Rock, October 16, 2015–January 17, 2016; Delaware Art Museum, Wilmington, March 5–Mary 29, 2016

There are two questions that must be considered before a review of these two books is presented: What is a Latino and what is Latino art? The term Latino, as used by the authors of these very interesting and different perspectives on the subject of Latino art in particular, refers to the descendants of people of Latin America, the Spanish-speaking Caribbean, and the Iberian Peninsula who were either born in or moved to the United States. Today, the Latino community’s numbers are growing rapidly. Latinos already outnumber non-Hispanic whites in New Mexico and California, and by 2050 the U.S. Census estimates that roughly one in three Americans will be Latino. Beyond their ties to Latin America, by birth or heritage, the fifty-three million Latinos in the United States are a geographically disaggregated, often bilingual group of over two dozen nationalities and different levels of acculturation, with regional characteristics giving definition to hyphenated existence—Mexican-Americans, Cuban-Americans, Dominican-Americans, etc.—alongside the recognition of other groups, including Puerto Ricans, who have made an impact on the cultural map of the United States.

How to collect these diverse demographics together under one term is as problematic as trying to generalize about the vast heterogeneity of the forms and content of art produced by an equally diverse group of artists. Nor should one separate their presence from that of other “American” artists by isolating them, thus destroying the very premise in these two books that Latino art has been ignored, left out of the art history books, and undervalued. Yet by maintaining these discussions under the title “Latino art,” do they run the risk of reinforcing the stereotypes? And who describes themselves as “Latino?” Should it be a general term for all descendants of Latin Americans? Do Cuban-Americans call themselves Latinos? For example, in Miami, the term is not generally used, whereas in California and the Southwest, it is associated with Mexicans, often as Chicanos. How do Puerto Ricans, who are Americans by another political definition, respond to being identified or categorized as Latinos? Are all the new arrivals, with new citizenship, or descendants from Latin America and the Caribbean, automatically entered into the Latino group or do they remain hyphenated—Colombians, Venezuelans, Peruvians, Salvadorans, etc.? Considering that within the century at least one third of Americans will be “Latinos,” should this category even exist—shouldn’t we all just be Americans and the art of Latinos be American as well? This is a question for the reader that I will not attempt to answer, nor comment on, in an effort to present an objective review of the books, one of which is an exhibition catalogue, while the other offers a more philosophical approach to the terminology. From both, it is evident that the entire Latino issue is complicated and imperfect.

E. Carmen Ramos, curator of Latino art at the Smithsonian American Art Museum and of the exhibition Our America: The Latino Presence in American Art, as well as the author of its accompanying catalogue’s main essay, addresses the issues surrounding the definition of “Latino art.” She proposes that it emerged within the context of the Civil Rights movements of the 1960s, as artists of Latino descent became a recognizable force that marked their own culture and history, perhaps for the first time in great numbers, and called attention to their presence. Her essay is preceded by an introduction by Tomás Ybarra-Frausto, recognized for his many years of scholarship on U.S./Latino cultural issues. In “Primeros Pasos: First Steps Toward an Operative Construct of Latino Art,” Ybarra-Frausto states that while Latinos are now the largest ethnic group in the country, they remain “shadowy ciphers, notably absent from narratives of American Art” (13), beginning in the colonial period. He brings attention to the rich variety of Latino art that fuses Anglo-American and Latin American art forms and traditions for amalgams of indigenous, European, African, and Asian sources—intercultural fusions that make Latino art unique. His approach to the subject expands beyond the somewhat limited definition used by Ramos who sees the 1960s as a particular turning point for Latino recognition, as he imagines an “operative construct to historicize, interpret, and valorize the production of visual artists from the heterogeneous US-Latino communities” (15), placing the artists within the global present and, most significantly, American art. Ybarra-Frausto’s brief historical introduction begins in the colonial world, introduces the key immigrant groups, and culminates in the tumultuous 1960s, where Ramos locates the premise of her exhibition.

Ramos’s essay, “What Is Latino About American Art?” begins with quotations from two major American art historians that suggest there is no single trait that unifies or defines the art of the United States. Both invoke the idea of pluralism (33). In this sense, both the exhibition and its catalogue seek to “recalibrate” accepted concepts about American national culture by exploring how the seventy-two artists in the exhibition—most of whom are frequently not incorporated in canonical histories of the field—express their relationship to American art, history, and culture. Their ninety-two works, drawn from the pioneering collection of Latino art at the Smithsonian Institution’s American Art Museum, represent all categories of American modern art, and a variety of media, from the mid-twentieth century on, including political commentary, portraiture, figuration, abstraction, sculpture, photography, and installations. The catalogue uses case studies as a way to further investigate the artists and their intentions, many of which defy categorization, and as a “point of departure to position Latino artists as participants and contributors to multiple (post)modernisms” (57). Because of their numerous points of entry into the major artistic movements of the twentieth century, Latino artists had as much experience and involvement as American artists included in the literature of the century. Often, it was a matter of difference due to the reality of their lives as “other” that their subjects reflected new cultural and social norms, and there is no reason for them to be disregarded and not included in the American picture.

Thirteen Ways of Looking at Latino Art by Ilan Stavans and Jorge J. E. Gracia also addresses the definition of Latino, uses case studies as points of departure for their discussions, and makes the argument for pluralism within the definition of American art. Stavans and Gracia come from different methodological disciplines and are not art historians. However, they both share an interest in the intersection of art and ideas, contributing quite a different perspective on the subject of Latino art than the catalogue for Our America, which was designed as a straightforward art-historical guide to an exhibition. Stavans is a professor in Latin American and Latino culture at Amherst College and Gracia is a professor of Philosophy and Comparative Literature at the State University of New York at Buffalo. The cultural commentator and the analytic philosopher have structured the book as conversations about each of the thirteen works they have chosen as points of departure for thematic discussions about the meaning of Latino and whether there is justification for such a description. Interestingly, the thirteen works are not all from the most recognizable Latino artists, and it is this unexpected selection that provides the two authors, and the reader, with the opportunity to delve beneath formal analyses into literature, history, ethics, politics, religion, and visual culture and their interrelationships. The discussion takes off from the very first chapter, “The Labyrinth of History,” with the work La Reconquista (2010) by Einar and Jamex de la Torre. The artists are Chicano (Mexican born) brothers from San Diego, and the work consists of three photographs based on the Last Judgment (1466–73) by Hans Memling. The de la Torre brothers appropriate the image to depict the colonization of the Americas as an act of devastation (17), beginning with the title, La Reconquista, which sets the tone with references to the Spanish conquest of the Moors and into the New World, reconfiguring that conquest in terms of demographics, as America is forging a new race, a new ethnicity, and a new nationality, or perhaps multiples of these (19). This palimpsest captures the superimposed character of the conquest as much as it comes to describe the superimposed character of the Americas, the mestizaje of people and cultures (of course not all of Hispanic heritage), and opens the door to the most interesting conversation of the book. The work is followed by twelve others, some occasionally too esoteric or tangential, but for the most part each provides an opportunity for a lively discussion with personal interpretations that are not always in agreement. It is this aspect of the book that makes it more engaging than if it was written as a more purely philosophical study.

Other artists include Andres Serrano, Martín Ramírez, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons, José Bedia, and Carmen Lomas Garza, all well-known to readers who are familiar with the art of the United States, Latin America, and the Caribbean. Less recognizable are the artists Mariana Yampolsky, BEAR_TCK, and Adál. Perhaps the one whose very biography poses new questions about the meaning of Latino is Mariana Yampolsky, the daughter of Jewish immigrants who was born in the United States, went to Mexico to study, and became a Mexican citizen in 1958. Is this American-Mexican Latino? Can you reverse “Latino?” Is the street artist BEAR_TCK, who paints Chicano graffiti but is not Chicano (he is from Uruguay and lives in Madrid), not permitted to address Chicano subjects because he is neither Latino nor Chicano? This is another example of how Stavans and Gracia expand the notion of who is and who is not, and why the very term Latino is troublesome on so many levels. What are the common traits shared by these artists and their works? They all deal with subjects that are Latino/Hispanic/Mexican, from their own perspectives and personal histories. Yampolsky’s photograph of Elva, shot in Huejotzingo, Puebla, Mexico in 1962, is a portrait of innocence, and not just Mexican innocence, and the chapter on her work focuses on interpretation, not the photographer’s heritage, and invites another stimulating conversation about the nature of photography itself, authorship, originality, and technique. BEAR_TCK’s Chicano mural, which he calls Chicano Graffiti (painted on a wall in California in 2010), is defiantly related to a particular ethnic culture, not his. “Does an artist need to come from the ethnic experience to represent it? Here we enter into the muddy terrain of essentialism . . . [is] culture . . . a ticket to authenticity?” (119) The fact that both authors come from a unique “Latino” heritage (Stavans is a Jewish-Mexican-American living in the United States and Gracia is a Cuban-born American) adds to the conversation as they interpret and analyze the thirteen works from not only their academic expertise, but from the perspective of their cultural heritage as well. They state that their task is to make the reader think about the ideas that each work proposes, and agree or not with their analyses, the result is successful. Readers are made to consider art and what it represents through the eyes of thirteen artists whose work may be mismatched as an entire set, but the discussion is always provocative and the book moves at a rapid pace, propelled by the authors’ banter.

The subject of these two books is “Latino,” and after reading the authors’ multi-layered interpretations, definitions, and opinions, there is no doubt that more questions will continue to arise as not only time changes the immigrant face of the United States, but as artists move in and out of a category that should become part of history as it is reinvented through an awareness that is more inclusive and less confining. Both books make valuable contributions to this ongoing discussion and in their own ways complement and enhance previous literature on the subject.

Carol Damian
Professor, Department of Art and Art History, Florida International University, Miami