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Honoring Latinx art, personal and political
Adrián Garcia, Exposición Taller Boricua. Linoleum cut. Image: 15-1/2 x 21-1/2 in. (39.37 x 54.61 cm) | Sheet: 18 x 24 in. (45.7 x 61 cm) Taller Boricua Puerto Rican Workshop Inc. Wall 12 19-1/2 x 25-1/2 in. Photo: Martin Seck.

by Holland Cotter

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- The marketing of modern and contemporary art from Latin America is one of the cultural success stories of the globalist decades. What was once a niche interest has gradually been gaining a solid, if still limited, presence in some of our big North American museums.

Exactly the opposite is true of Latino art, now often referred to by the gender-neutral name Latinx in the cultural world and loosely defined as work made by artists of Latin American birth or descent but who live primarily in the United States. Apart from the work of a few stars — notably Jean-Michel Basquiat — Latinx art has scant institutional support or auction clout.

Such lack of attention is dictated by the politics of class, economics and race. And resistance to this reality is always percolating somewhere, which is the basic story told at El Museo del Barrio by the impassioned archival exhibition, “Taller Boricua: A Political Print Shop in New York.”

El Taller Boricua, which also officially called itself the Puerto Rican Workshop, opened in the barrio of East Harlem 50 years ago, in 1970, a year after El Museo debuted in the same neighborhood. Both were artist-run, community-serving initiatives housed in low-rent quarters. With overlapping membership, and inspired by the example of the Black Power movement, both were responses to the experiences faced by brown-skinned, working-class immigrants to the United States.

The workshop’s original members — Marcos Dimas, Adrián García, Manuel “Neco” Otero, Martín Rubio and Armando Soto — were art-school-trained Puerto Rican artists living in New York City.

Their goals in organizing the workshop were both idealistic and pragmatic. They wanted to establish a collectively run center for art production and teaching in a city that excluded artists of color from its elite institutions. And they wanted to make art shaped by the cultural traditions — including African, Hispanic, Indigenous Caribbean — that contributed to Latinx identities.

In short, they approached art as politically instrumental and found ways to put it into popular circulation. They took the role of artist and activist to be inseparable. Although the range of subjects Taller artists tackled was broad, revolution was the common theme.

That theme is detailed, loud and clear, at the start of the show in a 1973 painting by Carlos Osorio that embeds the word “Revolución” in a visual conflagration of red and yellow pigment. Osorio (1927-84) was one of the earliest and oldest artists to join Taller Boricua and El Museo in their startup years; Rafael Tufiño (1922-2008) was another.

Born in Brooklyn, he grew up in Puerto Rico and studied art in Mexico, returning to New York in the 1960s. Like Osorio, he was a painter, but it was his fine-grained, socialist realist-style prints of laborers and peasants that became influential within the East Harlem art community.

Prints were an ideal communicative tool. Cheap to produce in unlimited numbers, easy to distribute and available to everyone in the form of posters, flyers and newsletters, they were adaptable to a wide range of ideological persuasion and promotion, as the show suggests.

Heroes are commemorated, as in Tufiño’s 1970 linocut portrait of Pedro Albizu Campos (1891-1965), the visionary president of the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party, who served repeated prison terms battling U.S. control of the island. Dimas contributes a striking quadruple image of another independence fighter, Lolita Lebrón, who spent 25 years in a federal prison after participating in a 1954 armed attack on the Capitol building in Washington.

And from Fernando Salicrup (1946-2015) — an early Taller Boricua artist and eventually, with Dimas, the workshop’s director — comes a tender, luminous lithographic image of Julia de Burgos, a Puerto Rican-born poet and activist who died an alcoholic in an East Harlem hospital in 1953. (El Taller continues to maintain an exhibition gallery in Barrio art center named for her.)

If these prints package politics in a language of praise, others give a voice to protest. When, in 1970, Julio Roldan, a member of the militant Young Lords — the Latino equivalent of the Black Panthers — was found hanged in his cell in the Tombs, described by police as a suicide, the Puerto Rican community hit the streets, and artists papered the city with accusatory broadsides. They would do so again four years later when a Taller Boricua artist, Martín Pérez, known as Tito, died in police custody, also allegedly by his own hand.

Prints were a way to call a community together for militant action, but also for festivities. And it is promised pleasures we find in a group of event posters designed by New York-born artist Manuel Vega, known as Manny. Rich in color, rococo in detail, they advertise outdoor spectacles like the Three Kings Day parade, still presented annually by El Museo, and smaller, semipublic ones like the rooftop “under the stars” dances organized to benefit El Taller.

Interaction between the two institutions in the early years, though not without conflicts, was close, and this made practical sense. Few members of Taller Boricua were exclusively printmakers; most were primarily painters and sculptors. Even if they weren’t gearing their nonprint work to display in conventional museums, a museum was the logical place for it. The exhibition’s final gallery, with its installation of large-scale objects by three originating Taller members — Nitza Tufiño, Jorge Soto Sánchez, and Dimas — makes this clear.

Nitza Tufiño, the daughter of Rafael Tufiño, extends traditional printmaking in a beautiful 1979 series of abstract silk-screens sewn with panels of colored thread. She is also a painter and muralist who makes imaginative use of themes from ancient Indigenous Caribbean culture, as in a large 1972 picture done in acrylic and charcoal called “Pareja Taina” (“Taino Couple”).

This painting, like much of the work in the show, is now in El Museo’s permanent collection. So are several large-scale assemblage reliefs by Dimas and Soto Sánchez (1947-87), objects that more or less reverse the trajectory of popular prints. Where prints were often made for display in the street, the reliefs brought the street — barrio street refuse, that is — into the studio, where the artists attached it to canvases. In both cases, in different ways, the divide between art and life was breached.

It was smart of the show’s organizers — Rodrigo Moura, El Museo’s chief curator, and Noel Valentin, its permanent collection manager — to have added these highly personal mix-media objects — Soto Sánchez calls one of his reliefs “Self-Portrait” — and take the show beyond its “political print shop” title.

No doubt one reason Latinx art remains, as a category, unalluring to the market is that it is perceived as being both too narrow and too broad. On the one hand it is identified with a specific politics, defined by “the street,” “the people,” in which the mainstream art world has little sustained interest.

But at the same time, Latinx art is hard to pin down. It crosses national borders, mixes social histories and spans the color range, encompassing Black, brown, red, yellow, white and mixtures of all of those. (A 2020 book, “Latinx Art: Artists, Markets, Politics” by cultural anthropologist Arlene Dávila lays out all these contradictions.) To an art world reliant on pitch-ready hooks and slots, it feels unexotically diffuse and ignorable.

This dismissive perspective is racist and classist, and just plain wrong. It is the necessary job of El Museo del Barrio, a formative Latinx institution, to correct it. The museum has announced that the present show will be the first in a series of three, spread over as many years, to explore its own early history. That history is, of course, a quintessentially Latinx history, and the subject is immense. If El Museo did nothing more, from this time forward, than focus its attention on Latinx art and its complex past and electric present, it would have its hands, and its galleries, more than full.

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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