Born in Mexico City, Ilona Katzew came to L.A. 13 years ago to assume a role at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art as an associate curator of Latin American art. At the time, Latin American art was a component of a larger museum department that also included Modern and Contemporary Art.
While training at New York University's Fine Arts Institute, she bolstered her academic pursuits with curatorial work that focused on a broad swath of art history, and Latin American art history in particular. According to her, Pre-colombian societies and their highly developed art forms did not end with the Spanish conquest. The general notion that Aztec and Inca civilizations were dead or over didn't really reflect the truth, she says. An exhibition entitled “New World Orders: Casta Painting and Colonial Latin America,” which she curated at the Americas Art Society Gallery in 1996 got her noticed by the New York Times. Her book on the subject of “casta” or “race heirarchy” paintings was later published by the University of Texas.
In her rather well-informed opinion–as a native of one of this hemisphere's preeminent pre-Colombian capitols and as a widely published art historian — the onset of a Spanish preeminence precipitated a process of negotiation, accommodation and subtle, subversive resistance. The older cultures blended with the new both physically and in the art that was produced, while adopting and adapting the techniques and forms imposed by European standards.
L.A.'s formidable status as a nexus for Chicano art is simply one manifestation, she says, of that still on-going blurring of identity and a process that is part of a living, breathing culture that surrounds us. Religious art and religious iconography are further examples of this artistic marriage. It is no secret that many Catholic icons have origins in Pre-Colombian symbols, beginning with the Virgen of Guadalupe.
A significant part of her work, now as curator and co-department head of LACMA's Latin American Art department, a department established formally in 2006, has been to “tease out” those underlying connections across the ages with exhibitions and acquisitions. This month, LACMA celebrates the soft opening, or “re-installation” of its Latin American art galleries as a way to quietly introduce Angelinos to a vision that has, at its root, a dynamic understanding of the city's demographic shift.
“LACMA's commitment to Latin American Art is ferocious,” says Katzew. “And it didn't happen overnight. We are doing it as part of a larger effort to educate people across the board about the remarkable achievements in this hemisphere.”
This commitment, she says, is reflected in the re-installation, which allows LACMA to showcase significant additions to its collection. Among the additions are almost 50 colonial era works, and a collection of silver jewelry from Taxco that showcases modern Mexican design.
As Katzew explains of the latter, the American architect William Spratling, an architect from New Orleans, was so moved by the artistry of local silversmiths when he visited the Mexican state of Taxco in 1931 that he set up a studio there and employed hundreds of artisans. The result was that from the '20s to the '60s, the region drew a host of other artists, studios, writers, politicians and Hollywood celebrities, among them figures such as John Huston, Mae West, Bette Davis and Marilyn Monroe.
Katzew is also pleased to point out the acquisition of numerous works by 20th century post-war artists from Brazil, Venezuela, Argentina and Uruguay whose work best reflects the influence of geometric abstraction, a school of art that rejected figurative painting and searched for meaning through the use geometric forms, shapes and color. The school includes “concrete art,” a term used first by Theo van Doesburg in 1930. His heir was Max Bill, who exhibited in the Sao Paulo Bienal in 1951. As South American countries experienced political turmoil and the arrival of modern technology, many artists there opted for a break with traditional forms and techniques.
The new galleries were redesigned and repainted with new cases built to accommodate the artworks, says Katzew. The color scheme was simplified, the lobby was revamped, the carpet was removed. The concrete flooring, she adds, enhances the cases designed by artist Jorge Pardo.
“One of the advantages of the reinstallation is that it allowed us to create a more cohesive sequence,” she says. “Viewers now enter through the ancient galleries designed by Pardo (just as before), and move across time to the Spanish colonial or viceregal galleries, the modern ones, and finally the gallery devoted to postwar art abstraction.
In addition, she adds, the installation lets them “bring out many of our new acquisitions –not previously on view–which demonstrate our ongoing efforts to build and enhance the collection of Latin American art from all periods.”