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date: 24 September 2017

Digital Resources: Documents of 20th-century Latin American and Latino Art

Summary and Keywords

Documents of 20th-century Latin American and Latino Art: A Digital Archive and Publications Project is a multiyear initiative at the International Center for the Arts of the Americas (ICAA) of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston that seeks to consolidate Latin American and Latino art as a field of study and to place it on equal footing with other established aesthetic traditions. It encompasses the recovery, translation into English, and publication of primary texts by Latin American and Latino artists, critics, and curators who have played a fundamental role in the development of modern and contemporary art in countries or communities throughout the Americas. The ICAA makes these essential bibliographic materials available free of charge through a digital archive and a series of fully annotated book anthologies published in English. It is facilitating new historical scholarship on 20th-century Latin American and Latino art through a framework of thirteen open-ended editorial categories that center on thematic rather than more traditional chronological guidelines. This approach broadens the discourse on the modern and contemporary art produced along this cultural axis. A discussion and contextualization of a selection of recovered documents that relate to the editorial category of “Resisting Categories: Latin American and/or Latino?” supports this central argument. These and other little-known or previously inaccessible primary source and critical materials will ultimately encourage interdisciplinary and transnational (re)readings of how aesthetics, social issues, and artistic tendencies have been contested and developed in the region.

Keywords: Latin American Art, archival resource, digital archive, intellectual infrastructure, Latino art, Latina art, primary sources

Since the beginning of the 21st century, the field of modern and contemporary Latin American and Latino art has undergone significant systemic transformations both in the United States and abroad. The vortex trap of fabricating fixed (or, at a minimum, stable) categorizations for these spheres of artistic production are apparently over.1 In their place, an activated network of exchange for Latin American and Latino art has emerged where the archive and research-driven scholarship is privileged. The International Center for the Art of the Americas (ICAA) at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (MFAH), has been at the forefront of this effort through the hemispheric project Documents of 20th-century Latin American and Latino Art (hereafter “Documents Project”). Operating from within a network of sixteen multinational teams and over 150 researchers, since its establishment in 2004 the project has been instrumental in recovering and granting free access to key critical and primary documents that now serve as the intellectual foundation for new scholarship in the field.2

The Documents Project encompasses the recovery, translation into English, and publication of primary and critical texts by Latin American and Latino artists, critics, and curators who have played a fundamental role in the development of modern and contemporary art in their countries or communities. In the context of the project, primary documents have been defined as texts that preserve the voice of key thinkers from Latin America and Latino United States. Materials include published and unpublished manifestos, articles, lectures, manuscripts, correspondence, sketches and journals, and other written texts (including newspaper articles or, in some cases, books) by leading artists, critics, and curators. These are nonmediated texts that have not been revised, touched, or interpreted by others. At the same time, the project collects relevant critical sources but only to the extent that they introduce key aspects for the interpretation of another’s artistic or critical work.

Since its public launch in 2012, the Documents Project has made essential bibliographic materials available through a digital archive (Figure 1) and also through a companion book series, the Critical Documents of 20th-Century Latin American and Latino Art, published in English by the MFAH and distributed by Yale University Press (Figure 2).3 At present, the digital archive provides completely free access to an expanding corpus of documents that will reach 13,500 by the completion of the processing phase. Documents are accessible in full-text, facsimile form through a robust digital platform from which users can perform a variety of search and browse operations. Unlike many archival resources, all cataloguing has been performed at the item level utilizing international cataloguing standards, among them the relevant Getty Vocabularies [namely, the Art & Architecture Thesaurus (AAT), the Union List of Artists Names (ULAN), and the Thesaurus of Geographic Names (TGN)], for an enhanced retrieval experience and greater accessibility. Detailed cataloguing information, a summary, and a lengthy critical commentary are provided for each record, and users can download, save, print, and create collections of full-text sources at no cost upon registration. The ICAA’s double mandate to grant free digital access and to publish in a traditional format cuts across geographic, national, and cultural boundaries and sheds light on the creative forces at play in the production of key works of art as well as the constitution of artistic movements across the United States and Latin America.4

Digital Resources: Documents of 20th-century Latin American and Latino ArtClick to view larger

Figure 1. Screen shot of homepage for Documents of 20th-century Latin American and Latino Art: A Digital Archive and Publications Project.

Digital Resources: Documents of 20th-century Latin American and Latino ArtClick to view larger

Figure 2. Cover for Critical Documents of 20th-Century Latin American and Latino Art, Vol. I: Resisting Categories: Latin American and/or Latino?, The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston/International Center for the Arts of the Americas, 2012. Design by Henk van Assen.

But, perhaps most importantly, the Documents Project has been fundamental to the consolidation of Latin American and Latino art as a single, unified field of knowledge. At times intersecting, the two areas of study were often understood as the mutually exclusive sides of the same Janus-faced (artificial) construct since their constitution in the 1940s and in the 1970s respectively, within North American academia.5 Of course, their contours had touched and significantly overlapped historically as the result of inevitable global processes of migration and transnational circulation. But the emergence of platforms such as the Documents Project’s digital archive has exponentially and irrevocably expanded the cartography of Latin American art into a much more porous alter-ego: Latino-America, a transnational notion that more resolutely embraces common constitutive elements, notions, and conditions.6

Conceptual Framework

The Documents Project is facilitating new historical scholarship on 20th-century Latino-American art through its open-ended editorial framework, which centers on thematic rather than more traditional chronological clusters. Organized into thirteen editorial categories, with topics as varied as “Recycling and Hybridity in the Art of Latino-America,” “Art, Activism and Social Change,” or “National Imaginaries/Cosmopolitan Identities,” the Documents Project’s conceptual framework reflects an organic structure akin to the constellation model that Mari Carmen Ramírez and Héctor Olea applied to Latin America’s artistic practice in the landmark exhibition Inverted Utopias: Avant-Garde Art in Latin America.7 Borrowed from Walter Benjamin’s conceptualization of divinatory truth as a constellation and the related theories of Theodor W. Adorno, the constellation embodies a system composed of theories (or language or praxis) gravitating around a supreme principle (or concept) that is either indefinable or definable in multiple non-exclusionary ways.8 Unlocking a notion—indeed, a Pandora’s Box of infinite possibilities—can imply multiple attempts, multiple entry points, since there can be myriad postures in the disorderly constellation in which it gravitates. Flexible and eccentric, alternate frameworks for interpreting Latin America’s cultural complexities such as the constellation allow for the retracing of paradigms in a nonlinear and nonhierarchical artistic history of the region.9

A sample of documents that have been recovered under the axis of one of the Documents Project’s editorial categories—Resisting Categories: Latin American or Latino?—delves into the ways through which the project expands the points of contact between Latin American and Latino art, convergences that are graphically evident in the mail art of the Latino precursor Jerry Dreva (Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 1945–1997) (Figure 3) and Latin American artists such as Alberto Heredia (Argentina, 1924–2000), whose work was included in the 1974 exhibition Art Systems in Latin America—organized by Buenos Aires’ Centro de Arte y Comunicación (CAyC) (Figure 4).10 Produced within three years of each other, Dreva and Heredia’s contemporaneous conceptual works foreshadow the contentious work of many other Latino-American artists. At the same time, their visual commentaries on life in the American Midwest and the Southern Cone, respectively, also suggest the permeability of this production.

Digital Resources: Documents of 20th-century Latin American and Latino ArtClick to view larger

Figure 3. Jerry Dreva (United States, 1945–1997), Untitled [Dreva 1977], mail art, 1977.

Digital Resources: Documents of 20th-century Latin American and Latino ArtClick to view larger

Figure 4. Alberto Heredia (Argentina, 1924–2000), submission for catalogue of the exhibition Art Systems in Latin America, 1974. Organized by Buenos Aires’ Centro de Arte y Comunicación; also shown at the Institute of Contemporary Art, London, and Espace Pierre Cardin, Paris. Photo courtesy of César Sondereguer.

Resisting Categories: Latin American and/or Latino?

“Resisting Categories: Latin American and/or Latino?” follows the persistent waves of the debates that have brought attention to the complete inadequacy of terms such as “Latin American” or “Latino” throughout much of the 20th century.11 Indeed, these terms are nothing but reductive constructs aimed at homogenizing the complex identities of Latin Americans and Latinos into easily marketable or consumable commodities. These groups are not circumscribed to single, homogeneous entities contained within national, community, or regional borders. Instead, they embody a discontinuous, fragmented ensemble of more than twenty countries, as well as a multiplicity of races, indigenous groups, and migrant communities displaced often even within Latin America. Despite the tendency to conflate them, the marked differences between these populations resist almost any form of categorization. Documents that have been added to the ICAA digital archive under this category—which is also the focus of the first volume in the Critical Documents of 20th-Century Latin American and Latino Art book series—lay the groundwork to formal investigations of Latino-American art by gathering in one place writings by writers, artists, and critics since the Age of Discovery that critically address issues of what it means to be “Latin American” or “Latino.”

The selected documents bring to the fore the complexities of these very issues. A certain order reveals itself from within their apparent randomness: a response to a survey by an artist from the Cuban avant-garde of the 1920s (Eduardo Abela), a critical essay by an influential regional art critic at mid-century (Marta Traba), a series of debates on the notion of “Latino-America” that spanned most of the 1960s and 1970s (with contributions by multiple participants), and the 1969 precursory repositioning of Mexican-American culture by a noted anthropologist (Octavio Romano). This ordering enables researchers to trace both the diachronic development of a concept—broadly speaking, “Latino-American art”—and the varying degrees to which it has been espoused or rejected over time.

Yearning for a Continental Attitude: Eduardo Abela

On September 15, 1928, Havana’s seminal revista de avance probed its readership to respond to four visceral questions at the very heart of the matter of what atin American art should be.12 Responses came from Cuba and all corners of Latin America and were published for most of the 1928 to 1929 period. The Cuban painter Eduardo Abela (1889–1965) wrote, “Latin American art is an emerging expression, compared to [European art, which is] one that has already had its day.”13 Writing from Paris in September 1928, Abela echoed the general discussion:

I sincerely believe that Latin America has what it will take to inspire the art of the twentieth century. The spiritual reservoirs of Europe are virtually depleted, and her civilization’s salvation will require a transfusion of vitality from virgin races that are teeming with the essence of humanity. If the current renewal of art has demonstrated that the goal of all artistic endeavor is to inspire, then it is clear that the true Latin American artist must feel the concern, or rather the need, to express his own vision of his milieu and his spirit.14

Like many of the respondents to the survey, the painter saw Latin American art as the renovatory agent of Western art, in the sense that it should reflect not just an individual perspective but a societal one as well. In Abela’s opinion, this was the main goal of the quest and was in fact the greatest contribution that could be made by the art of Latin America.

Abela was not, however, suggesting that Latin American art should be homogenous. Despite recognizing the regional similarities of Latin American countries, the painter argued that even when similar forms of expression or the same content were found in works produced by more than one group or country, there was a predominance of characters that were “profoundly dissimilar among them.” Without going into detail about the reasons for these nuances or indeed about the nuances themselves, the artist continues:

Mexico, Peru, and Cuba are outstanding examples, because very few countries in this continent express such a level of originality. Regarding Cuba I think that, in spite of the total lack of [the] indigenous contribution, (such as can be found in almost all other nations in Latin America) the works produced here are distinguished to an extraordinary degree by their own distinctive features, brimming with spiritual forces, which in time will mature into Cuba’s own distinctive art.15

For Abela then, a new art was evolving in Latin America and developing its own transformative qualities in each country. Alongside the rest of the responses to revista de avance’s survey, the artist’s reflections on the matter is part of one of the earliest attempts to arrive at a definition of a Latin America aesthetic, an issue at the root of this editorial category. At the same time, the Cuban survey was one of the first times that concerted questions about Latin American art were asked from Latin America.

Questioning the Concept: Marta Traba

Some thirty years after the avant-garde of the 1920s debated the possibility and context for a Latin American art, their mid-century counterparts continued to grapple with some of the very same issues. Marta Traba (1923–1983)—the Bogotá-based Argentinean art critic—wrote the essay “¿Qué quiere decir ‘Un Arte Americano’?” two years after relocating to Bogotá in 1954 with her husband, the Colombian writer Alberto Zalamea. Returning to South America after years in Paris, her initial critiques of the capital city’s artistic milieu had valued the individuality of the artist, the mastery of the formal aspects of painting, and abstraction. Her texts reflected the aesthetic values and critical discourse that she had acquired during her early years at the Sorbonne (1949–1950). “¿Qué quiere decir ‘Un Arte Americano’?,” however, is notable because it constitutes the beginning of what would become a corpus of documents that signaled a shift in the influential critic’s gaze away from Europe to, at a minimum, a willingness to consider Latin American art in its own light.16 It illustrates Traba’s initial struggles and hesitancy with an idea that she had warmed up to by 1960 once she embarked on her first extensive regional investigation of modern Latin American art and ultimately published years later as La pintura nueva en Latinoamerica (Bogotá: Ediciones Librería Central, 1961).

“¿Qué quiere decir ‘Un Arte Americano’?,” establishes the pointlessness of a naïve desire among Latin American intellectuals to speak of a homogenizing continental style in the visual arts. For Traba, the discernment of a unique Latin American spirit in the arts had to go beyond a mere aspiration for a regional aesthetic. In her opinion, it was first imperative to investigate the meaning and characteristics of the Latin American man from whom this unique artistic expression had to derive: “We will not be able to ascertain what aesthetic reasons can rest on a continental art until we know what the Latin American man, his ambitions and tendencies, [and] his capacity are.”17 That is, the attainment of specific knowledge on national and regional characteristics preceded the intellectual or artistic ethos of the nation or region.

And, along the same lines, Traba warns against the erred use of folklore, national symbols, essentialist racial categorizations, or an excessive nationalist rhetoric to arrive at formulaic national or regional expressions. “It is unquestionable that America has a natural geography that is absolutely distinct and extraordinary,” she writes,

just as it is also evident that this rich and unexploited continent is in a terrible state of misery . . . and [it very well may be] that the Latin American artists’ resistance to this unjust and terrible fact may lead to something that is very different from the purely aesthetic speculations of European artists.18

However, it was also possible that the continent’s devastating realities could elicit highly individualized responses in the visual arts, since the “economic, geographic and cultural conditions are very different from one American country to the next.” In what seems to be a declaration of her position on the futility of national expression, Traba concludes by praising the work of those she considers to be the “five or six truly great American artists”—Cândido Portinari in Brazil, Emilio Petorutti in Argentina, Pedro Figari and Joaquín Torres García in Uruguay, Oswaldo Guayasimín in Ecuador, Roberto Obregón in Colombia, and Cuba’s Wifredo Lam—for their ability to transform elements of their respective national folklores into the disassociated components of individual aesthetic vocabularies.19

The Debates of the 1960s and 1970s

As Traba hinted at in her essay, the 1960s and 1970s saw major changes in the way that Latin American art producers and critics assimilated international tendencies and approached what the Argentinean Damián Bayón has rightfully recognized as perpetually mutating societies.20 The development of the cities, the coming of age of a large middle class, the U.S. driven Alliance for Progress, an increase in communication between the countries of Latin America, the greater importance of mass media, the rise of technology, and a greater attention to Latin America from Europe and the United States—particularly following the explosion of popular music and the Boom in Latin American literature—all contributed to this change. On the political front, military authoritarian regimes ruled in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay, and Peru, among other countries, throughout much of the period. Indeed, throughout the continent, the protracted violent struggle of the urban guerrillas, brutally repressed in Argentina and Uruguay, and the unending violence in Colombia also affected writers, artists, and intellectuals as they generated positions on Latin American art and identity in the 1960s and 1970s.


Many period debates reflect how these socioeconomic and political factors influenced the preeminent Latin American art critics and artists at this pivotal period, particularly as they fleshed out their understanding of the idea of “Latin American” art. The issue was a frequent bone of contention on the agenda at gatherings such as the colloquium Is There a Latin American Art? at the New School of Social Research in New York City (1966); Speak out! Charla! Bate-Papo!: Contemporary Art and Literature in Latin America, a symposium organized by Damián Bayón at the University of Texas, Austin, in October 1975 as part of the programming for the exhibition 12 Latin American Artists Today/12 artistas latino americanos de hoy (Archer M. Huntington Art Museum, September 28–November 2, 1975); and the Encuentro Iberoamericano de Críticos de Arte y Artistas Plásticos (Caracas, Museo de Bellas Artes, 1978).

For the American art historian Jacqueline Barnitz, the style of Latin American art was not radically different from European models, but the content definitely was. She argued that for the Latin American “man-in-between,” the chief concern should be to speak directly to the audience about themselves and about humanity and their problems.21 This concern for human values, however, was a rather simplistic way of framing the difference since Barnitz ignored how mankind was also an important referent for European and North American artists including Francis Bacon, Jean Dubuffet, and Willem de Kooning. Also from the optic of the United States, Yale University Art Gallery’s Stanton L. Catlin suggested that Latin American art reflected European modernism while simultaneously adhering to colonial and 19th-century traditions. This dominant concept of Latin American art negated the diversity of contexts and trajectories among the distinct national traditions, unifying these under the aegis of the Mexican School of the 1920s and 1930s.22 In Catlin’s view, regional artists that had developed more directly under international influences simultaneously explored world developments and Latin American realities. Their practice suggested “an active relationship with European, North American and Latin American phases of contemporary culture.”23 That is to say, Catlin located this Latin American production as a continuum of modern Western culture resonating with the positions of contemporary critics including Ariel Jiménez, Ivo Mesquita, Guy Brett, and Luis Pérez-Oramas.

The Mexican historian and art critic Jorge Alberto Manrique shared Barnitz’s and Catlin’s avowal of a distinctly Latin American expression. However, he argued that its material manifestation was irrelevant so long as an artist felt Latin American. In his final analysis, Manrique offered a dissenting viewpoint to Marta Traba’s radical disdain of provincialism in the arts, by qualifying the two extreme positions of localism versus universalism as equally valid responses to the need for Latin American self-definition.24 The issue of the existence of a Latin American art was also implicit in the writings of the Argentinean artist and theoretician Luis Felipe Noé. In “La nostalgia de historia en el proceso de imaginación plástica en América Latina” (1982), the artist writes about a longing for history that, he contended, distinguished Latin American art from its European equivalent. In opposition to Europe where, according to Noé, art had become the hollow antithesis of the self-referential work he perceived as characteristically Latin American, art in the region continued to engage collectivism in order to craft a distinct cultural identity.25

There were, of course, opposing viewpoints in the debate. In the context of the 1966 Is There a Latin American Art? symposium at New York City’s New School, Noé’s colleagues Ernesto Deira and Marcelo Bonevardi answered bluntly that no, there was no distinct Latin American expression. Their position is recorded in Deira’s proclamation that

there are no nationalities; there are only good artists. Latin America does not exist as such. There are twenty different countries . . . If Latin America does not exist as a concept, how could one ask for something characteristic of its art?26

Similarly, Traba argues, in her intervention at the Austin symposium of 1975 (“Question: Does present-day Latin American art exist as a distinct expression?”), that there was no room for a distinct Latin American expression at a time when the culture of resistance was dead or marginal at best and the bulk of regional artists “[sought] to coincide mimetically” with the project of internationalism.27 For the Peruvian critic Juan Acha, too, the answer was simply stated: Latin America had not yet found its own expression. In his view, the region needed to embrace its Third World condition. His position is evident in numerous texts from the 1970s, including his own lecture at Austin—where he contends that Latin American identity is a slippery, diverse, and often ambitious slope and what best defines its “uniqueness” is an attitude of “becoming and wishing to become” rather than a definable aesthetic—as well as later texts such as “Por una nueva problemática artística en Latinoamerica.”28


An important topic that got in the way of defining the origins and characteristics of a regional art during the 1960s and 1970s was the postwar notion of crisis in Latin American art. Traba considered that the root of the supposed crisis lay in the United States’ pervasive influence over the region.29 As the United States replaced Europe as the dominant influence in the arts, her hallmark concept of the “culture of resistance” waned amid the internationalist limelight.30 Acha—who along with Traba and Bayón was one of the first professional Latin American art critics to offer an ambitious, if often ambiguous, continental perspective—offered an integrative viewpoint that contrasts with her pessimism regarding the assimilation or adoption of foreign models. Framing his arguments from this period in the context of a Third Worldism that resonated with the writings of contemporaneous intellectuals including Roberto Schwarz, the Peruvian-born art critic theorized that Third World artists were unable to respond to advanced social situations—including the bombardment of mass media and North American consumerism—artificially transplanted from “sophisticated industrialization, economic prosperity, and the mass media.”31 In “Vanguardismo y subdesarrollo” (1970), for example, Acha offered a solution for the apparent incompatibility between (international) artistic avant-gardism and socioeconomic underdevelopment in Latin America. He argued that the neuralgic issue was not to conserve the supposedly unadulterated aspects of national culture (folklore, for example) but rather to assimilate importations and thereby modernize and activate the different cultural activities at the national level.32

Lack of Cultural Structures

Another aspect of the perceived crisis at mid-century entailed the inadequate system of support for the arts and intellectual endeavors. For Luis Felipe Noé, who in 1966 grappled with the conflict in light of his departure for New York City, the question had to be not whether to remain in Argentina, but rather how to address the fundamental problem of a lack of functioning cultural system in Latin America.33 Frederico de Morais framed the problem of the crisis in the Brazilian art system of the late 1960s and early part of the 1970s in the context of increased pressure from mass media and industrial society to encourage a digestive and alienating mass consumption that marginalized artistic creation in its relationship with the public. And, tied to this, a lack of critical discourse as a result of a repressive politics, generalized pessimism, and instability—particularly in the period following the passing of Ato Institucional Número Cinco (AI-5, Institutional Act Number Five, December 13, 1968). In this climate of cultural dissatisfaction—where to “not be able to speak is censure [and] to not want to talk is self-censure” or where censure became a pretext for not creating work—the Brazilian avant-garde assumed a marginal position in relation to the dominant cultural system that the military government championed.34

The articulation of a methodology through which to attain a unique Latin American aesthetic was another topic of discussion that muddled the debate. In Juan Acha’s view, for example, artists engaged in cultural revolution by denouncing massive consumption and underdevelopment and signaling, through their pronouncements, certain corrections of the modern methods of oppression and defense that the dominant class imposed. Novelty and radical change become the main aesthetic values. Moreover, the destruction of all artistic hierarchies, the dilution of art onto everyday life, and increased spectator participation become the tenets of artistic practice.35 For Marta Traba, in contrast, the struggle resided in her notion of the aesthetic of resistance. Framed within the larger context of Latin American dependency from which it was only possible to escape via challenging the structures of powers, she argued that Latin American artists escaped dependency by assuming a revolutionary consciousness that tacitly broke from European and North American aesthetic models as well as, internally, from the complacency with their bourgeois backgrounds.36 In her estimation, a truly Latin American artistic expression eschewed nihilistic content, evaded folklore, and exaggerated nationalism in favor of values that exalted the region’s “geography of hunger,” misery, underdevelopment, and permanent crisis and fright.37 Indeed, for these critics, Latin America was unitarily underdeveloped and its cultural output generated an anti- or (dis)ordered aesthetic whose sole support was violence or internal contradictions.

Destabilizing Meaning: Octavio I. Romano

Just as a generation of mid-century Latin American critics including Marta Traba, Juan Acha, and Frederico de Morais questioned the validity of a homogenizing regional aesthetic model for Latin America, the Mexico-born, California-reared anthropologist and writer Octavio Ignacio Romano (1923–2005) disavowed the widely held notion of Mexican-Americans as a homogeneous monolith in his 1969 essay “The Historical and Intellectual Presence of Mexican-Americans.” Romano’s landmark essay draws on Mexican history as well as such pervasive ideologies in Mexican-American society as Zapatian Indianism, confrontation and its multiple manifestations, and mestizo-based cultural nationalism. Along with the immigrant condition, these threefold lived experiences helped to shape “the historical development of thought and not the rigid, unbending, and unchanging Traditional Culture so commonly and uncritically accepted in current sociological treatises that deal with the people of Mexican descent.”38 “At the same time,” Romano continues, “these three alternatives also made it possible for individual people, even families, to be living in three histories at once.”39 For the author, the possibility of multiple and anachronistic identities among those people of Mexican heritage living in the United States further complicates the equation. Case in point: the Pachucos—that is, the Mexican-American zoot suiters of the late 1930s through early 1950s—who took the notion of confrontation into the everyday, extending their identity “to a perpetual and daily activity with [their] own uniform and language.”40 Indeed, they converted their deliberate personal iconography and distinct language into the weapons of their resistance, a strategy that continues to inform and influence many contemporary Chicano artists including César A. Martínez (b. 1944, Laredo), whose work deals with the duality of life along the Texas-Mexico border and the hybrid culture that has evolved there.41

Often discredited by Mexicans south of the border, and indeed by mainstream populations in the United States, the Berkeley-trained Romano claims that the peoples who have been labeled (or self-labeled) Mexicanos, Cholos, Pochos, Chicanos, or Mexican-Americans “represent a continuation of the pluralism that existed in Mexico during the Revolution.”42 Ultimately, in this text, he underscores the demands of living between the United States and Mexico and highlights the Mexican-American invention of new, plural (and often subversive) forms of culture.43


The response to a 1920s survey by the Cuban artist Eduardo Abela, a 1950s essay by the Argentinean art critic Marta Traba, the testimonies of the most relevant participants in a number of hallmark debates in the 1960s and 1970s, and the critical contestation by the Mexican-American thinker Octavio I. Romano written at the height of the Chicano movement of the late 1960s all put into question the entrenched definitions of Latin American and Latino art and culture. By no means exclusionary or exhaustive, these examples represent an unveiling of the sorts of ligatures that are now possible wholly by accessing the Document Project’s digital archive. As Mari Carmen Ramírez wrote in the context of Adorno’s constellation model at the root of Inverted Utopias, at stake are “randomly connected luminous points that have no intrinsic relationship to one another.” Within the context of this project, the primary function of our collaborative work—that is to say, the signposting of these luminous points—“lies in [its] potential to orient travelers in the exploration of vast territories.”44 Very much a work in progress, it is hoped that the Document Project will establish endless roadmaps for traversing the largely-uncharted terrain of Latino-American art.

Primary Sources

International Center for the Arts of the Americas/Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

In 2001, the MFAH established the Latin American Art Department and its research arm, the International Center for the Arts of the Americas (ICAA). Since its founding, the mission of the ICAA has been to collect, exhibit, research, and educate audiences about the diverse artistic production of Latin Americans and Latinos, which includes artists from Mexico, Central and South America, and the Caribbean, as well as artists of Latin American descent living and working in the United States. By establishing the center, the museum sought to bring about a long-term transformation in the appreciation and understanding of Latin American and Latino visual arts in the United States and abroad. In the last decade, the ICAA has organized research-based exhibitions, pursued a dynamic publications program, and developed research and education projects that complement the MFAH’s renowned collection of Latin American art. The ICAA has organized three international symposia, published its proceedings in bilingual format, and developed widely acclaimed exhibitions, such as Inverted Utopias: Avant-Garde Art in Latin America (2004), Hélio Oiticica: The Body of Color (2006), and Carlos Cruz Diez: Color in Space and Time (2011), among others. The ICAA was initiated by the late Peter C. Marzio, director of the MFAH from 1982 to 2010. It is headed by Mari Carmen Ramírez, Wortham Curator of Latin American Art at the MFAH and founding director of the ICAA. María C. Gaztambide is the associate director of the ICAA.

Other important repositories of documents on Latin American and Latin Art include: Archives of American Art

Founded in Detroit in 1954 by Edgar P. Richardson, then director of the Detroit Institute of Arts, and Lawrence A. Fleischman, a Detroit executive and active young collector, the initial goal of the Archives was to serve as microfilm repository of papers housed in other institutions. This mission expanded quickly to collecting and preserving original material and, in 1970, the Archives joined the Smithsonian Institution, sharing the Institution’s mandate—the increase and diffusion of knowledge. The Archives of American Art today is the world’s preeminent and most widely used research center dedicated to collecting, preserving, and providing access to primary sources that document the history of the visual arts in America.

Survey of Archives of Latino and Latin American Art, Museum of Modern Art, New York

In July 2003 the Metropolitan New York Library Council (METRO) subcontracted The Museum of Modern Art Library to survey archives documenting Latino art in greater New York as part of METRO’s Documentary Heritage Project. Conducted from September 2003 to June 2006 by The Museum of Modern Art Library, this project aimed to identify and inventory the archives of New York institutions that have supported and showcased Latino and Latin American artists, and to establish a network of repositories.

Fundacion Espigas, Buenos Aires

Fundación Espigas and its Document Center on the History of the Visual Arts in Argentina were created in October 1993. The Foundation is a nonprofit private organization whose archives can be publicly consulted. With the permanent collaboration of Members, Donors and Friends, Fundación Espigas has organized an important bibliographic and documental list of titles and database. Both are effective tools for national and international research into Argentinean art in Argentina and the rest of the world as well as international art related to Argentina.

ICAA Digital Archive

Eduardo Abela. “Indagación: ¿Qué debe ser el arte americano?1928. revista de avance 3.29 (December 15, 1928): 361.Find this resource:

Marta Traba. “¿Qué quiere decir ‘Un Arte Americano’?Revista Mito (Bogotá) 1.6 (March 1956): 475.Find this resource:

Jacqueline Barnitz. “The Question of Latin American Art: Does It Exist?”Arts Magazine 47.3 (December–January 1966–1967).Find this resource:

Juan Acha. “Does Present-Day Latin American Art Exist as a Distinct Expression? If It Does, on What Terms?,” Paper read at Speak out! Charla! Bate-Papo!: Contemporary Art and Literature in Latin America. Symposium organized by Damián Bayón in The University of Texas at Austin, October 1975.Find this resource:

Octavio Ignacio Romano. “The Historical and Intellectual Presence of Mexican-Americans.” El Grito 2.2 (Winter 1969): 32–45, 36.Find this resource:


(1.) Issues of categorization and meaning have been addressed from various historical, social, and cultural perspectives in the first edited volume of the Critical Documents of 20th-century Latin American and Latino Art book series Resisting Categories: Latin American and/or Latino?, eds. Héctor Olea, Mari Carmen Ramírez, and Tomás Ybarra-Frausto (Houston: International Center for the Arts of the Americas/Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; distributed by Yale University Press, 2012).

(2.) Through its sheer size, depth of focus, transnational approach, and digital platform, the Documents Project has significantly expanded the reach of earlier attempts to consolidate archival materials. Chief among them were the Archives of American Arts/Smithsonian Institution’s several Latino Field Surveys of the 1990s coordinated by Kaira Cabañas (Miami) and María C. Gaztambide (New York and Puerto Rico). The AAA has recently re-energized these effort with the hiring of Josh T. Franco as Latino Collections Specialist.

(4.) The ICAA organized a central administration team in Houston that is comprised of art historians, librarians, and technical specialists. It also funded teams in sixteen cities across the United States and Latin America that operated under the umbrella of partner institutions including universities, museums, cultural foundations, and independent research centers which housed and managed the teams at the local level. Partner teams include Fundação de Amparo a Pesquisa do Estado de São Paulo (FAPESP), São Paulo, Brazil; the Chicano Studies Research Center (CSRC) at UCLA; Fundación Espigas, Buenos Aires, Argentina; CURARE, Espacio crítico para las artes, Mexico City; Seminario de Investigación de Historia del Arte, Universidad de Playa Ancha, Valparaíso, Chile; Fundación Mercantil and Fundación Gego, Caracas, Venezuela; Universidad de los Andes, Bogotá, Colombia; Museo de Arte de Lima, Peru; Museo de Bellas Artes Juan Manuel Blanes, Montevideo, Uruguay; and the Institute of Latino Studies at the University of Notre Dame, Indiana.

(5.) The first courses on modern art of Latin America were offered in 1943 by Grace McCann Morley, director of the San Francisco Museum of Art, using Lincoln Kirstein’s 1943 catalog of the Museum of Modern Art’s Latin American Collection. Patricia Rodriguez, a member of the Chicana/Latina collective Mujeres Muralistas in San Francisco, is on record as the first to teach a course on Chicano art history at the University of California-Berkeley in the 1970s.

(6.) For more on how Academia in the United States is recasting its attention to the needs of a critical and comparative art historical research and scholarship on Latino-America. See Olga U. Herrera and María C. Gaztambide, “En Diálogo: Contemporary Latin American and Latino Art,” Diálogo 20.1 (Spring 2017): 3–8.

(7.) The constellation concept was previously explored by Mari Carmen Ramírez and Héctor Olea in Heterotopías (2000), the precursory exhibition to Inverted Utopias. See Olea and Ramírez, eds., Inverted Utopias: Avant-Garde Art in Latin America (New Haven, CT and London and Houston: Yale University Press, 2004); Mari Carmen Ramírez and Héctor Olea, Heterotopías. Medio siglo sin lugar: 1918–1968 (Madrid: Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, 2000); and Mari Carmen Ramírez, “Constellations: Towards a Radical Questioning of Dominant Curatorial Models,” in Valerie Cassel, France Morin, et al., “Beyond Boundaries: Rethinking Contemporary Art Exhibitions,” Art Journal 59.1 (Spring 2000). Prior to that, in 1996, Olea employed Adorno’s constellation framework when he proposes a “Siquerian constellation” to understand the contradictory aspects of David Alfaro Siqueiros’s early work. See “El preestrindentismo: Siqueiros un antihéroe en el cierne del antisistema manifestario,” in Otras rutas hacia Siqueiros, org. Olivier Debroise (Mexico: Museo Nacional de Arte, 1996), 91–124.

(8.) See Walter Benjamin, The Origin of German Tragic Drama, trans. John Osborne (London and New York: Verso, 1998). Reprint of Ursprung des deutschen Trauerspiels (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1963). See also Walter Benjamin, “On Astrology,” in Selected Writings, vol. 2: 1927–1934, eds. Michael W. Jennings, Howard Eiland, and Gary Smith, trans. Rodney Livingstone and others (Cambridge, MA, and London: Harvard University Press, 1999), 684–685, 684. For Adorno, see “Constellation,” Negative Dialectics, trans. E. B. Ashton (New York: Continuum, 1973), 162–165, 162.

(9.) “Eccentric” here is used in the sense of a system comprising units that do not have a common center. A full description of each of the categories in the Documents Project’s conceptual framework can be found on the website.

(10.) For a discussion of the Midwestern Latino culture in which Jerry Dreva emerged, see Olga U. Herrera, “Raza Art and Media Collective: A Latino Art Group in the Midwestern United States,” ICAA Documents Project Working Papers 1 (September 2007): 31–37. For a retracing of the CAyC’s actions in Argentina, as documented by its publications, see Natalia Pineau, “El CAyC: la reconstruccción de un programa institucional,” ICAA Documents Project Working Papers 1 (September 2007): 25–30. Both are available for download.

(11.) Broadly speaking, some of these periods of activity and chief participants include: a first group of early twentieth century artists and critics (such as José Martí, José Vasconcelos, Alfonso Reyes, David Alfaro Siqueiros, the Cuban Minorista group, Alejo Carpentier, Joaquín Torres-García, Jorge Luis Borges, and José Carlos Mariátegui) who contested notions of pan-Latin Americanism in their writings; critics from the post-World War II generation such as Marta Traba, Damián Bayón, Juan Acha, or Frederico de Morais, whose work centered on “Latin American art” as a resistant and utopian category; and, finally, the multiculturalist critique of Latin American/Latino essentialism as embodied in the writings of curators, critics, and cultural theorists of the late 1980s and 1990s, including Tomás Ybarra-Frausto, George Yúdice, Juan Flores, Coco Fusco, Guillermo Gómez-Peña, Luis Camnitzer, Shifra Goldman, and Gerardo Mosquera, among others.

(12.) The questions were the following: Do you believe that a Latin American artist’s work should express a strictly Latin American concern? Do you believe that Americanisms are a matter of perspective or of content, or are they a vehicle? Do you believe that there are common characteristics to the art of all countries in our America? See Los Cinco (Francisco Ichaso, Félix Lizaso, José Z. Tallet, Jorge Mañach and Juan Marinello), “Directrices: Una encuesta,” 1928. revista de avance 3.26 (September 15, 1928): 235.

(13.) Eduardo Abela, “Indagación: ¿Qué debe ser el arte americano?,” 1928. revista de avance. 3.29 (December 15, 1928): 361.

(14.) Abela, “Indagación: ¿Qué debe ser el arte americano?”

(15.) Abela, “Indagación: ¿Qué debe ser el arte americano?”

(16.) See also the related document by Traba: “Problemas del arte en Latinoamérica,” Revista Mito (Bogotá) 3.18 (February–March 1958).

(17.) Marta Traba, “¿Qué quiere decir ‘Un Arte Americano’?,” Revista Mito (Bogotá) 1.6 (March 1956): 475.

(20.) Damián Bayón, Aventura Plástica de Hispanoamérica. Pintura, cinetismo, artes de la acción [1940–1972] (Mexico City: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1974). His Brazilian counterpart Frederico de Morais also called attention to the conditions of a parallel universal mutation of the values of art in the essay “Mundo em crise, homen em crise, arte em crise” (1967). Morais called attention to such determinant factors as the will toward globalization, the pervasiveness of mass-media, the primacy of visual communication over the written word, and an increasing distance from the natural world. See Frederico de Morais, “II. A crise da vanguardia no Brasil,” Artes plasticas: a crise da hora atual (Rio de Janeiro: Editorial Paz e Terra, 1975), 69–117, 91–92.

(21.) Jacqueline Barnitz, “The Question of Latin American Art: Does It Exist?Arts Magazine 47.3 (December–January 1966–1967).

(22.) Stanton L. Catlin, “New Vistas in Latin American Art,” Art in America 47.3 (Fall 1959): 24–31, 24.

(23.) Catlin, “New Vistas,” 25.

(24.) Jorge Alberto Manrique, “Invención del arte latinoamericano,” Primer encuentro iberoamericano de críticos de arte y artistas plásticos, typescript, (Caracas: Museo de Bellas Artes, 1978).

(25.) Luis Felipe Noé, “La nostalgia de historia en el proceso de imaginación plástica en América Latina,” Artes visuales e identidad en América Latina (Mexico City: Foro de arte contemporáneo, 1982), 46–51.

(26.) Barnitz, “The Question,” 14.

(27.) See, for example, Traba’s discussion of the imposition of geometric abstraction in Venezuela in texts including Dos décadas vulnerables en las artes plásticas latinoamericanas, 1950–1970 (Buenos Aires: Siglo XXI Editores Argentina, 2005), and “Venezuela. Cómo se forma una plástica hegemónica,” RE-VISTA (del arte y la arquitectura en Colombia) 1.1 (April–June 1978): 4–13.

(28.) Juan Acha, “Does Present-Day Latin American Art Exist as a Distinct Expression? If It Does, on What Terms?,” paper read at Speak out! Charla! Bate-Papo!: Contemporary Art and Literature in Latin America, symposium organized by Damián Bayón at the University of Texas, Austin, October 1975. Benson Latin American Collection, Rare Books, University of Texas, Austin. ICAA Digital Archive no. 1065080. See also, Juan Acha, “Por una nueva problemática artística en Latinoamérica,” Ensayos y ponencias latinoamericanistas (Caracas: Galería de Arte Nacional, 1984), 37–43.

(29.) For example, in Arte latinoamericano actual (1972) and Dos décadas vulnerables en las artes plásticas latinoamericanas, 1950–1970 (1973). See also Nelly Richard’s work on what she terms the “Third World critique” of the 1960s. In “Descentramientos postmodernos y periferias culturales. Los desalineamientos y realinamientos del poder cultural,” the Chile-based French critic situates the denunciation among the Latin American Left in the context of the “North Americanization” of consumption under the “grammar of the world economy of the capitalist market” and the related crisis of capitalist alienation. In Richard’s view, the paradigm led to the exacerbation of a Third World “identity” (resistance to the international market in defense of the integrity of “one’s own”). In the cultural realm, it found meaning in a mythical quest for a “Latin American” identity—a “vernacular recovery of continental purity” (the originality, the autochthonous)—of which marginality is just one aspect. Richard, “Descentramientos postmodernos y periferias culturales. Los desalineamientos y realinamientos del poder cultural,” Art from Latin America. La Cita Transcultural (Sydney: Museum of Contemporary Art, 1993), 95–126, 97–98.

(30.) Traba fleshed out her notion of a “culture of resistance,” a chapter from Dos décadas vulnerables, and the essay “La cultura de la resistencia” (1974). See Marta Traba, Dos décadas vulnerables, reprinted in Emma Araújo de Vallejo, Marta Traba (Bogotá: Planeta Colombiana Editorial, 1984), 322–331; and “La cultura de la resistencia,” lecture delivered in May 1973 at the University of Bonn, Germany, in Fernando Alegría, ed., Literatura y Praxis en América Latina (Caracas: Monte Ávila Editores, 1974).

(31.) Juan Acha, “Por una nueva problemática artística en Latinoamérica,” Revista Artes Visuales (Winter 1973). Reprinted in Juan Acha, Ensayos y ponencias latinoamericanistas (Caracas: Ediciones Galería de Arte Nacional, 1984), 37–44. See also Roberto Schwarz, “Is There a Third World Aesthetic?,” Misplaced Ideas: Essays on Brazilian Culture (London: Verso, 1992), 173–174.

(32.) Juan Acha, “Vanguardismo y subdesarrollo,” Revista Nuevo Mundo/Revista de América latina (Paris) 51–52 (September–October 1970). Reprinted in Juan Acha, Ensayos y ponencias latinoamericanistas (Caracas: Ediciones GAN/Galería de Arte Nacional, 1984), 11–26.

(33.) See Luis Felipe Noé, “La responsabilidad del artista que se va de América Latina y la del que se queda,” Mirador 1.7 (1966). The region’s deficient structures were also very much on Marta Traba’s mind. See Marta Traba, “Latinoamérica 1946–1965,” typescript, Inter-American Symposium on Intellectual Backgrounds of Latin American Art Since Independence (New Haven, CT: Yale University Council on Latin American Studies/Yale University Art Gallery, 1966), presented the same year as Noé’s essay. Traba seemed to revel in the very vacuous environment that could not provide her or her contemporaries with the institutions or infrastructure to supported art criticism. Excepting possibly Argentina, Mexico, and Cuba, where revolutions and modernizing programs had created relatively autonomous and self-sustaining artistic spaces since the 1920s, in the rest of Latin America, emerging critics had no other choice but to generate both the space and the material conditions for their own professional activity. It is not surprising then that in the early years of her arrival in Bogotá, Traba helped to establish the Museo de Arte Moderno and became its first executive director.

(34.) Morais, “A crise da vanguardia no Brasil,” 101, 114.

(35.) Juan Acha, “Vanguardismo y subdesarrollo.”

(36.) See Traba, Dos décadas vulnerables en las artes plásticas latinoamericanas, 1950–1970, and “La cultura de la resistencia.”

(37.) These ideas echo the landmark 1965 manifesto “An Esthetic of Hunger” by Glauber Rocha, the Brazilian filmmaker, which denounces Brazil’s neocolonial situation. Rocha called on Brazilians to take both their political and cinematic destiny in their own hands. Reacting against what he called “digestive cinema” (“films about rich people with pretty houses riding in luxurious automobiles; cheerful, fast-paced, empty films with purely industrial objectives”), Rocha proposed Cinema Novo as a style that better reflected the conditions of the majority of Brazilians. Glauber Rocha, “An Esthetic of Hunger,” in Brazilian Cinema, eds. Randal Johnson and Robert Stam (New York: Columbia University Press, 1995), 68–71. Traba had already outlined some of these ideas in earlier texts including “¿Qué quiere decir un arte americano?”

(38.) Octavio Ignacio Romano, “The Historical and Intellectual Presence of Mexican-Americans,” El Grito 2.2 (Winter 1969): 32–45, 36.

(39.) Romano, “The Historical and Intellectual Presence of Mexican-Americans.” Emphasis Romano’s.

(40.) Romano, “The Historical and Intellectual Presence of Mexican-Americans,” 39.

(41.) Martínez’s best known series included his Batos and Pachucos paintings of the late 1970s and 1980s that, far from being faithful representations of living individuals, are the objectification of quintessential barrio types from his youth in Laredo. See María C. Gaztambide, “Bato con Sunglasses,” in American Art & Philanthropy: Twenty Years of Collecting at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, ed. Peter C. Marzio (Houston: The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 2010), 329.

(42.) Romano, “The Historical and Intellectual Presence of Mexican-Americans,” 39.

(43.) For a transposition of Romano’s ideas on the plurality of Mexican-American and Chicano culture into the purely aesthetic realm see Jacinto Quirarte’s “Origins of the Hispanic American Aesthetic in the Southwest and the Great Lakes Region,” Research Center for the Arts and Humanities Review 6.4 (October 1983).

(44.) Ramírez, “The Displacement of Utopias,” Versions and Inversions: Perspectives on Avant-Garde Art in Latin America, vol. 3, eds. Héctor Olea and Mari Carmen Ramírez (Houston: The Museum of Fine Arts, 2006), 121–130, 127.