Tarsila do Amaral, the reigning monarch of Brazilian Modernism, has come to New York. This long awaited exhibition of her early body of work is her first US retrospective. Having travelled from the Art Institute of Chicago, where I saw it in the fall, it is now at the Museum of Modern Art until June 3. Though MoMA gave it a worthier installation, I was left wishing the exhibit were double in size and scope.
What is difficult to communicate, and therefore most clearly absent, in this show is just how important Tarsila is to the culture of her home country, though the subtitle, Inventing Modern Art in Brazil, tries to communicate her lasting influence. (She is indeed so thoroughly knitted into Brazil’s cultural consciousness that her work appeared in mammoth scale at the Rio Olympics opening ceremony, as iconic to her countrymen as Christ the Redeemer presiding nearby.)
Born in 1886 to a wealthy land owning family outside São Paulo, Tarsila (I refer to her here in the way she is affectionately known in Brazil) was moved to become an artist in 1922 on the occasion of La Semana de Arte Moderna (Brazil’s version of the Armory Show, and just as much of a touchstone for the history Modernism in that country as the Armory Show is in ours). Like many other Brazilian Modernists, the Modern Art Week inspired the artist to take up the brush, and the next year found her moving to Paris. Schooled by those in the center of the Modernist project there (think Fernand Léger and Albert Gleizes), Tarsila was well positioned to make an impression on the Brazilian art scene when she returned home.
And yet, here we are almost a century on, and only just now seeing her work in the spotlight. It comes as no surprise that when MoMA ventures outside Alfred Barr’s flowchart of Modernism it faces mixed reviews, while staying within the canon it thrives. This leaves the Museum with quite a quandary—to innovate or not to innovate? Sometimes what looks like innovation from the inside of the institution looks like catch up from the outside, especially when you have institutions like the New Museum forging ahead in this regard. So what could be better than a show that so clearly is an offshoot of what MoMA knows so well—Modernism—but coming from a different part of the world—Brazil—from a different type of artist—a woman? On paper, a “Cubist from the Colonies” is exactly the type of show MoMA should be staging right now.
Despite a great setup I wish MoMA had staged this show on the sixth floor in MoMA’s blockbuster exhibition space (reserved for wildly popular shows like the Matisse cutouts or Picasso sculptures), as the chosen exhibition space lacked enough room to explore the nuance of this great artist's ouevre. In fact, after the third wall text on Anthropophagy, a Brazilian cultural movement that advocated for the ingestion of Western culture to create a unique Brazilian position, I started to sense a theme. According to four separate texts throughout the show, Anthropophagy was, “the most important movement in Brazilian modern art” (1), the “most significant Brazilian avant-garde project of the 20th century” (2), a “banner for Brazil’s cultural emancipation” (3), which “came to define Brazil’s modern identity” (4). Though I was reminded of the importance of the movement, I was never sure why it was as significant as the exhibition claimed. (It turns out it reached its full significance in the 1960s, when artists like Lygia Pape, Lygia Clark, and others were moved by Tarsila’s advocacy of an independent Brazilian art movement.)
I also wondered at the glossing over of themes of primitivism (possibly to avoid uncomfortable echoes of MoMA’s hugely controversial 1984 “Primitivism” in 20th Century Art exhibition), but which were well discussed in the catalogue. To harken back to the criticism of that infamous show, let’s revisit Hilton Kramer’s disappointment, published in the New Criterion in 1984. In order to understand the museum’s intention, he wrote:
What Stephanie D’Alessandro and Luis Pérez-Oromas, the co-curators of the exhibition, write is of equal importance, and I must wonder why their thoughts have not been included in the show's wall labels. After all, how many people even pick up the catalogue?
For this show to be appreciated in its entirety the museum-goer must commit herself to a substantial amount of reading. (At the very least do read the opening essay of the catalogue, “Devouring Modernist Narratives” by D’Alessandro and Pérez-Oromas, available in the book’s preview on Amazon.) Within the dreariness of midtown in March, it is in the catalogue that Tarsila’s vividly colored canvases shine at their brightest.
The way the curators write of the duty they feel to upend the deeply seated, too-neat Modernist narrative would have you assume this show was staged on the sixth floor. But this show can only be characterized as modest, and if indeed the museum set out to present “Modernism again, and still again, from a less comfortable yet more intellectually potent point of view,” as its curators suggest, I wish they had challenged their audience with these questions in a more direct way. Great art complicates, and it is the job of the institution not to wash away those complications, but to present them in a way that has us grapple with them, productively. At Tarsila do Amaral: Inventing Modern Art in Brazil I was increasingly at sea and found myself casting about for answers among the bright colors of Brazil– with the catalogue to hold on to as life raft.
All this is to say, however, is that this is an important show for MoMA. A sign, I hope, of the ushering in of a moment which values new voices, which seeks to set the Modernist story on a new path. And the fact that Adrian Piper is currently being exhibited on the sixth floor (the first living artist to receive such an honor) is evidence that I may be right.