MARGARITA NIETO

THE LEWIN COLLECTION
AND WHY IT MATTERS

 Dr. Margarita Nieto is a professor of Art History at CSU Northridge who has long contributed to art's public discourse via ArtScene and numerous other publications. She was engaged last year by Getty Conservation Institute's Director Miguel Angel Corzo to examine and provide her recommendations on the Lewin collection of Mexican modern art as an independent curatorial consultant. Nieto's analysis provided the foundation for what ultimately became a much-publicized Los Angeles County Museum acquisition. To quote Dr. Corzo, "Her understanding of the meaning of the collection and the special rapport she promptly established with the Lewins were major advantages in securing this donation." The Lewins collection, conservatively valued at $25 million, goes to LACMA in return only for an annual annuity for the couple (the exact figure is not public knowledge). The Museum, by virtue of this one major donation, has added a previously absent cornerstone to its collection. We are priviledged to share with you some of Nieto's perspective on it's significance.--Ed.

The October 3rd press conference at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art announcing the acquisition of some 2,000 works of twentieth century modernist art from Mexico, a gift from collectors and gallery owners Bernard and Edith Lewin, and the current exhibition, Mexican Masterpieces from the Bernard and Edith Lewin Collection of ninty selected works drawn from the donation, marked a turning point for the arts community of Los Angeles. First of all, in a history of lost collections, a narrative all too familiar to specialists and scholars of the art of California, LACMA acquired a large and important collection. Second, in one grand gesture the museum became the repository of one of the largest and most important holdings of these artists in the United States. In so doing, the museum responded actively, silently and powerfully to a tiresome (often unvoiced) but prevailing question as to the inclusion, exclusion, deference to, omission of the art of the "others." The acquisition simultaneously raised new questions as to the incorporation of this collection into the holdings and infrastructure of the museum itself. Yet, before entering the turbulent waters raised by these issues, an introduction to the collectors and the collection itself reveals much about the nature of collecting as reflected in the personalities of these quiet, retiring and generous benefactors.

Natives of Germany and long-time residents of Los Angeles and Palm Springs, Bernard and Edith Lewin represent an endangered species among collectors today in their desire to give this collection, which represents forty years of passionate commitment, to a major institution in toto instead of auctioning it off and dividing the spoils among their heirs. And this act alone reveals who they are. The Lewins arrived in this country having barely escaped the Holocaust. As was the case with so many others, they left everything behind. Through hard work they became quietly prosperous and, finally, successful. In their tradition, in the tradition of their forebears, their gratitude for the opportunity of a new beginning could best be expressed by giving something back to the city, to the country, and, symbolically, to the people who had received them.

Initially the Lewins became dealers in European and, later, American art, exemplified by several oils by George Luks and William Merritt Chase which are included are included in the donation. But an encounter in 1954 with the works of Rufino Tamayo became an obsession with Bernard, an obsession which led him to Mexico and to the studio of Diego Rivera, who had died six months earlier. Like all true collectors, he possesses an eye and a fierce tenacity to obtain what he wants. On that first visit, he acquired several of Rivera's sketchbooks dating from the thirties and became a friend of Ruth Rivera, Diego's daughter. In time that connection would lead to a friendship with Rafael Coronel, Rivera's son-in-law, and with Juan Colonel Rivera, Rafael's son (and Rivera's grandson). He also bought his first Tamayo, a very early work from 1921.

Lewin finally met Tamayo in 1963 upon the artist's return from France, where he had lived for several years. This meeting marked the real beginning of the Tamayo holdings, which include some eighty works comprised of oil on canvas, drawings, gouaches and sketches. This constitutes the largest collection of the works of Rufino Tamayo anywhere. And of course, it eventually marked the beginning of the collection as it exists today, comprised of some 2,000 works of art stored away in scattered storage areas, vaults and warehouses. At times the collectors themselves have forgotten that they owned this or that particular work. It comprises a magically real chronicle of art collecting in this region. All of which afforded those of us fortunate enough to be involved, to pry, examine, touch, study, and find one painting underneath another, or discover a portrait of a famous film star executed in Los Angeles around 1938.

 

Rufino Tamayo, "Messenger in
the Wind," o/c, 31 x 34", 1931.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Diego Rivera, "Nude,"
gouache on paper,
15 x 10 1/2", 1939.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

David Alfaro Siqueiros, "Study for Metallic and Polychrome Door," o/c, 1970.

 

Frida Kahlo, "Weeping
Coconuts," o/c, 1951.

Carlos Merida, "Structural Study
for Mural," a/c, 1921.

What is extraordinary about both the Tamayo collection, as well as the collection of works by Carlos Merida (there are about 65 of these), is that they represent the entire chronological and stylistic spectrum of each artist. In Tamayo's case, the entire stylistic development from his early post-Impressionist essays through his increasing experimentation with figurative abstraction is evident, as is his preoccupation with surface, volume, color and texture. From woodcuts of the early twenties (published in a portfolio in 1931), to the colorful magical landscapes of the early thirties (Messenger in the Wind), through the monochromatic abstractions of the mid-forties that preceded the advent of Abstract Expressionism (Child Playing [1945]), to the elegant painterly solutions which he evolves in Red Torso (1981), the Tamayo collection offers an opportunity to study the genesis of one the international masters of twentieth century painting.

If Tamayo has been little seen, Carlos Merida is practically unknown in Los Angeles. Probably his last full dress show locally was organized by Howard Putzel in May, 1935 at the Stanley Rose Gallery in Hollywood. More recently, Latin American Masters in Beverly Hills has quietly exhibited work by Merida. To pigeon-hole this artist without understanding his training, orientation and point of view is equivalent to dismissing Picasso's Saltimbanque suite because it reiterates a purity of line evocative of a formalism out of favor at the time.


In Rivera's case the sketchbooks and accompanying works, most of which date from the decade of the thirties, reveal his powerful draftsmanship as well as a Modernist painterly language. La Gorda, for example, a gouache on paper, simply interposes an indigenous female on a European archetype. There is a striking similarity between this nude and works by Picasso. What changes is the color and unfortunately, for many viewers, that brings about a shift in comprehension. Thus the prevailing tenet of "if it's brown, it must be Mexican." A different prejudgement colors another major work in the collection, the portrait of Frida Kahlo. By returning to encaustic, Rivera is emphasizing the art historical elements with which he envisions Kahlo. Her image in this work reiterates the tradition of Egyptian mummy painting and Byzantine portraiture. There is, moreover, an unusual and startling hesitancy in the rendering of the image which reveals Rivera's relationship to his wife at this particular moment, when Kahlo had finally gained some semblance of independence from him and the marriage was in crisis. There is, in fact, some accompanying documentation in Lewin's possession about this work in which Rivera writes with longing about his love for her and his sense of loss.

Visitors to the current exhibition can only just begin to understand what the Lewins were drawn to--that the stylistic relationships between modernity in Mexico and the language of Modernism in Europe involved important crosscurrents. They wished to compare the Mexican artists they were drawn to with masters of the European movement, most particularly Pablo Picasso.

What seems inconceivable is that this introductory exhibition marks the first time since before World War II that works by most of these artists have been formally exhibited in L.A. Even Rivera has been generally neglected, one important exception being a pristine show presented by Long Beach's Museum of Latin American Art last year. Up to now this effort and a series of commendable shows organized by Diana Du Pont at the Santa Barbara Museum --"Point Counter Point," David Alfaro Siquerios, and the current excellent display of the works of Maria Izquierdo--have provided the among the best of too few points of orientation towards Latin American art in Southern California museums.

So if the works alone are new territory, what can be said about the artists' biographies, their careers, and of course, the scholarship surrounding their works? Almost non-existent. And then we have the language problem. How many scholars here are fluent enough in Spanish to read, debate and undertake serious research in this area?

To that end, plans revealed by LACMA directors Andrea Rich and Graham Beal to develop and establish a study collection of Mexican Modernism based on the Lewin collection is very welcome. This represents a contribution to most of Los Angeles' institutions of high learning. When they offer any course material on Latin American art history, it is typically limited to the pre-Colombian eras. This intention is of an importance that ranks only behind the possibilities for future exhibitons.

This is not merely for the sake of the Latino community either. That we be interested only in those artists which reflect our specific culture or ethnicity is not the point. The fact that Paul Klee was a major influence on Tamayo, or that Merida hung out with Modigliani in Paris are anecdotal examples of the irrelevance of such thinking. No, the importance of the Lewin aquisition is that it will afford an opportunity for anyone and everyone to embark on the worthy adventure of expansion, development, and growth. And not one limited to those artists who are already most familiar to us. Mark also the names and works of Roberto Montenegro, Jean Charlot, Dr. Atl, Joaquin Clausell, Miguel Covarrubias, Federico Cantú, Jesús Guerrero Galovan, José Chávez Morado, Guillermo Meza, Francisco Goitia, Fernando Leal, and Chucho Reyes.

Perhaps with time and effort we will also gain opportunities to delve into the marvelous eras of the 16th to 19th centuries in Mexico. Hermenegildo Bustos. The Caste paintings of Miguel Cabrera. Cristobal de Villalpando, currently featured in a retrospective in Mexico City. Or an exhibition on the Italian and Flemish artists workshops in sixteenth century Mexico City. We may now dare to hope to see expanded interest in Latin American art beyond Mexico as well. Joaquin Torres Garcia, Pedro Figari, Roberto Matta, Amelia Pelaez, Wifredo Lam. . .there is a feeling that we are now poised for new discoveries, new possibilities.

So thank you, Bernard and Edith Lewin. Thank you for your inquisitiveness, your acquisitiveness, and for this gift.