NEW YORK — `LATIN American Artists of the Twentieth Century" at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) is a show that needed to happen. The exhibition, which contains 300 works from 1914 to the present by 90 artists, is like walking through a history of modern art. Major movements like Cubism, Expressionism, and Social Realism, appear. What's new is how these paintings, sculptures, and installations give unfamiliar twists to familiar styles.
Latin American artists absorbed avant-garde trends originating in Europe, but they added elements from their own cultures to create a hybrid modernism. This art blends innovative 20th-century techniques with pre-Columbian traditions and New World political concerns.
A key painting that illustrates how Latin American artists both used and transformed lessons from foreign culture is Tarsila do Amaral's "Anthropophagy." The title, which means cannibalism, refers to the need to devour Old World conventions and refashion them into a distinctively Brazilian art. Her solid nudes and simplified tropical landscape are reminiscent of the tubular shapes of Leger, with whom Amaral studied in Paris. Yet the painting's setting and distorted figures announce an aesthetic rooted in
another continent, which - while hardly Edenic - is lush, raw, and vigorous.
Diego Rivera, too, began as a clone of the Parisian avant-garde, with early work re-imagining Cubism. (He once said, "I do not believe in God, yet I believe in Picasso.") "Zapatista Landscape" might be a generic Cubist still life, complete with trompe l'oeil wood-grain effects, except that his subject is the Mexican revolution and includes elements such as a rifle and serape.
Rivera's mature art, like his Social Realist frescos, broke with Europe to glorify Mexican peasants and their cultural heritage. In his quest for nationalistic purity, he even experimented with indigenous cactus juice as a painting medium and consciously based his style on ancient pre-Hispanic art. In his stylized paintings of peasants, figures have the cylindrical monumentality of Mayan carved gods.
Besides Rivera, the other Mexican muralists of the 1930s, known collectively as Los Tres Grandes - the three great ones - are also here: David Alfaro Siqueiros and Jose Clemente Orozco. Their art was revolutionary in more than just aesthetics. They used murals to stir the populace to support land reform. The epic scale of Orozco's fresco, "Divebomber and Tank," and the aggressive style of Siqueiros's "Echo of a Scream" greatly influenced Abstract Expressionists like Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning.
A common thread in this chronological exhibition, crossing boundaries of time, geography, and style, is political commentary. From the glorification of peasant laborers in Candido Portinari's "Coffee" (1935) to Rafael Ortiz's powerful denunciation of the holocaust in "Children of Treblinka" (1962) and Frida Baranek's exuberant assemblage of discarded United States Defense Department weapons, "Unclassified" (1992), Latin American artists criticized tyranny in many forms.
Alberto Heredia's "Gaggings" reminds us why protest is a recurring theme. In this work, five plaster casts of teeth form mouths distorted in a futile attempt to cry out while muzzled by bandages. Victor Grippo's potatoes implanted with electrodes similarly allude to repression and torture under authoritarian regimes.
Fernando Botero's "The Presidential Family" is a spoof of Goya's sendup of Spanish royalty. His trademark bloated figures - inflated like balloons in the Macy's parade - are comic in their piggishness but sinister in their dictatorial power.
Feminist concerns are expressed in the mudworks of Ana Mendieta and the self-portraits of Frida Kahlo. Kahlo's largest work "The Two Fridas," is a double portrait of two aspects of her persona: the formal lady in a high-necked white gown and the colorful artist in peasant dress. The two figures are linked through arteries connecting their hearts. "A ribbon around a bomb," is how Surrealist poet Andre Breton described Kahlo's work.
Surrealism is represented by the Chilean painter Matta's fantasy landscapes of biomorphic shapes and swirling paint like runny eggs. Wilfredo Lam's "Jungle" goes beyond Surrealism as practiced in Paris, adding mystical elements from tribal art. What Lam did for Surrealism, Joaquin Torres-Garcia did for geometric abstraction. He took the formal grid devised by Mondrian and added hieroglyphs from ancient cultures.
One gallery that runs out of steam is devoted to the Constructivist followers of Torres-Garcia. We learn that Latin American artists like Carmelo Arden-Quin pioneered shaped canvases 20 years before they became popular in the United States and Europe, but the monotonous array of geometric abstractions as well as Op and kinetic art (with all the charm of a lava lamp) is a low-energy segment of this otherwise highly-charged survey. Their virtue is a cool cerebral quality, but this bland neutrality conveys no hint of native soil.
Several installations have a magical beauty that is self-justifying. In "Glove Trotter," Clido Meireles covers balls of all sizes and colors, like volleyballs, soccer and tennis balls, with silvery chain mail fabric to create a bumpy lunar landscape.
Another discovery is the Uruguayan Pedro Figari (1861-1938). His energetic brushwork, dynamic as Van Gogh's, converts a cobalt blue sky, animals, and trees to a maelstrom of impasto.
This survey - diverse as a seven-course meal - not only reveals what happened south of the border in 20th-century art, it also proves the abiding truth of Rivera's statement: "Art is like ham. It nourishes people."
* "Latin American Artists of the Twentieth Century" continues through Sept. 7.