El Museo del Barrio is the country’s oldest museum dedicated to presenting and preserving the art of Puerto Ricans and Latin Americans across the United States. Born out of the efforts of local African American and Puerto Rican families to see their heritage reflected in educational curricula, this year, the museum celebrates its 50th anniversary with an ambitious, two-part exhibition, ‘Culture and The People: El Museo del Barrio, 1969–2019’. At Frieze New York, the museum’s Executive Director, Patrick Charpenel, and Curator, Susanna V. Temkin, have curated Diálogos, a section of solo presentations by artists whose work speaks to the history and future of the institution and its communities.
Patrick Charpenel I’ve known you for many years and I have witnessed your commitment and discipline in following artistic activities from various contexts. What was your first engagement with contemporary art?
César Reyes Growing up in Puerto Rico in the 1960s and ’70s, there were few institutions to see art. Nevertheless, for some reason I had an intense curiosity about understanding art, especially modern and contemporary. In 1980, while studying medicine in Philadelphia, I visited the stunning Picasso retrospective at MoMA and got hooked. I often visited the incredible collections in the Philadelphia Museum of Art and was always mesmerized by the Duchamp wing, which had works like The Large Glass and Etant Donné. On weekends I would visit the Barnes Foundation in the town of Merion, with its stunning Cézannes and Matisses. I frequented openings in NYC in the 1980s as the neo-expresionist movement was beginning with names like Basquiat, Schnabel, Kiefer and Clemente. Through an artist I befriended in Philadelphia, Rafael Ferrer, I got to meet Alex Katz, Malcolm Morley, Richard Serra, and others.
PC And when did you begin actually acquiring artworks?
CR My first acquisition was a Picasso lithograph. I became obsessed with the School of London, acquiring what I could afford: works on paper by Auerbach, Freud, Kitaj. In 1985, I chose to go to London for a semester as part of my training in psychiatry, a few years before the YBA explosion of 1988. I would spend my free time at the Tate and other art institutions. At some point, I made the decision to collect emerging artists closer to my generation. (Most of the contemporary galleries at the time were focused on installation art and identity politics; I was mainly interested in young painting.) In the fall of 1994, I went to Gavin Brown’s hole-in-the-wall gallery in Broome Street, which was showing a Scottish painter named Peter Doig. Meeting Gavin opened a door to an international network of emerging artists showing in a small group of young galleries in Berlin, London, L.A. and New York. Gradually I experienced the different elements that made up the art world engine: museums, galleries, curators, critics and art fairs.
PC How does context figure in this story? I think we are in the midst of a structural change, and that we should break with the ideas of the principles of culture, of the identities that supposedly forge our personality. Instead, we should try to work in a more complex manner, with the notion of ‘cultural contexts’: experience and spaces that encompass the social, the political and the economic.
CR Developing my collection from outside the mainstream art capitals gave me a different perspective. If I had been living in a city like Berlin, I definitely would have been influenced by its cultural milieu. Living in San Juan, I felt like an art world outsider. This gave me a freedom. I never succumbed to trends or the next big thing. I looked for art that would resonate with other works in my home and that would enhance an existing dialogue. I actually never considered myself a collector until institutions started to borrow works for exhibitions and would ask how my collection should be credited.
PC Your personal relationships with artists are well-known; you are always participating in the developments of the projects that interest you. How important is this in giving direction and personality to your legacy?
CR I have always enjoyed the company of artists, understanding their creative processes and their personal visions of the world. Throughout the years, I have developed great and lasting friendships. I can say that their intellect, tastes, and opinions have influenced the collection in a big way. Yet, the most satisfying thing has been to witness artists finding inspiration in the idiosyncrasies of this complicated tropical island. Doig, Chris Ofili, Laura Owens, Jorge Pardo and Rirkrit Tiravanija, among others, have all made remarkable works based on their visits to Puerto Rico.
PC Society is every day more intercommunicated, and the ecosystem of art is increasingly constructed around a diverse and pluralistic base. Do you agree that this is creating more equitable platforms of representation?
CR I try to acquire a work based on how it impacts me and how it’s going to ‘land’ in the context of the collection, regardless of the artist’s background. But I don’t ignore geography entirely. I have to admit that I have a soft spot for local artists. I am curious about how their art is understood and interpreted globally. Artists from Puerto Rico occupy a parallel space, which reflects our unique status as a US colony and as US citizens. This is complicated by our constant travel between the mainland and the island. The US, which is obsessed with categorizing and pigeonholing everything, has a difficult time figuring us out. Are Puerto Rican artists considered Latin American, American, or Latinx? How does this affect their place in the art market and in institutions? This is an interesting and complex question, which is constantly evolving.
PC It seems to me that art fairs are one of the few platforms with a cross section of arts professionals: artists, museum directors, curators and gallerists. In what way do you benefit from art fairs as a collector and patron?
CR I’ve always considered art fairs an essential measure, maybe a necessary evil. I don’t always visit them, mostly because I find the experience of museums and galleries more contemplative. On the other hand, there’s a social component, where you have access to artists, dealers, and other collectors in an informal way. Art fairs are a very efficient and practical way to see all sorts of art, old and new, good and bad, all in one venue.
Diálogos, curated by Patrick Charpenel and Susanna V. Temkin, is on view at Frieze New York from May 2 through 5, 2019.
César Reyes is a psychiatrist and art collector based in Naguabo, Puerto Rico
Main image: Anni Powers, Patrick Charpenel, 2019.