Cold War in the White Cube: U.S. Exhibitions of Latin American Art, 1959–1968
Penn State University Press, University Park, PA, 2023
244 pp., illus., 32 col./45 b&w. Trade, $114.95
The “white cube” model is the museal translation of Clement Greenberg’s ideas on modernism and/as medium-specificity. It refers to a visually neutral space completely enclosed in itself, where the world outside is kept at a safe distance, if not totally ignored, and everything can be seen and read at the mere surface of the objects on display. In such a space visitors do not interact with anything else than the works, all exemplifying what a medium is expected to eventually disclose, namely the basic properties of its medium.
The white cube is thus a machine that radically decontextualizes, dehistoricizes, and depoliciticzes art, both in the making and the experiencing of art. It has been fiercely criticized for all these reasons since many decades, actually since the start of the so-called “institutional critique” that emerged from Minimalism, but the analysis of its own history and meaning still presents a lot of voids. The remarkable book by Delia Solomons fills in such a gap, focusing on a forgotten page of US museum history. However, this study is important for other reasons as well, including the very contemporary debates on globalization in art and the art world. Although the author, who does never explicitly mentions this question, one could – one should – read Solomons’s study as an invitation to critically grasp today’s stereotypes on “one world” culture and the end of national, linguistic, and other boundaries in the supposedly transnational sphere of art with a capital A and its delocalized celeb culture.
The book’s subtitle perfectly summarizes its object of analysis: U.S. Exhibitions of Latin American Art, 1959–1968. After a first boom in the 1920s and 30, with the discovery as well as active promotion of Mexican muralism and politicized art, the 1959-1968 decade witnessed an astonishing return of the interest in Latin American art, with a special focus on Brazil and Argentina. Solomons proposes to reread this movement of renewed cultural exchanges between North and South, initiated and supported by major players in the field like Carnegie, Guggenheim, Yale, or MoMA, at two strongly interrelated levels. First, the aesthetic level: how did US institutions understand the notion of “Latin American”? As a continent? a set of countries? a form of periphery? Second, the political level: how could one explain the very interest in Latin American, and through which filters is it offered to the public? Is it only an expression of Cold War ideology, that is an attempt to create cultural goodwill in order to win over these countries to the Western camp – and protecting US capital invested in Latin America, or does a reflect more than these crude “soft power” political concerns? The answer to the latter question is simpler than that to the former one: yes, the Cold War ideology was clearly the primary driving force behind these exhibitions, but how to define Latin American art (art or folklore? Latin American or international?) proved much more difficult.
The connection between the two levels of art and politics was the white cube. On the one hand, the white cube turns all things Latin American into Western art. On the other hand, it helps put between brackets everything that does not fit this model. In other words, the Latin American art that was selected for display in the white cube years was the art that matched the Western and still very Euro-centric ideas materialized by this form of museal presentation. In the white cube Latin American art was also “whitewashed”, that is modified in such a way that it lost all features that did not directly illustrate this ideology, sometimes by very simple and elementary means, such as purely technical captions omitting to identify and name anti-US motives or figures.
The white cube is less a neutral container than a performative institutional agent. The lesson is not new, but Solomons applies this interpretive grid it to a very specific historical era, that of the Cold War, when art is much more than just of one the many domains of soft power used to fight communist influence in countries and regions more or less tempted to leave the Western alliance in order to align with Moscow (in Cuba the Batista regime was overthrown on January 1st 1959). It was with the help of white cube initiatives that US cultural agents and of course the commercial and political stakeholders on the boards of their respective institutions, have tried to show the friendly yet fundamental unity of US and non-US (in this case Latin American) traditions, first by making room for non-US art and artists in US institutions, second by carefully stressing the fundamental unity of all those working in the twin spirit of “freedom” and “diversity” (here in the sense of the possibility given to each individual to freely express his or her personal style), on the one hand, and “newness” and “innovation”, on the other hand (hence the efforts made to stress abstraction, as opposed to old-fashioned folkloric art as well as politicized social realist muralism –but Solomons rightfully emphasizes the problematic status of this tendency, given the already and rapidly waning prestige of abstract expressionism in these years).
Via the analysis of various types of exhibitions (the shows on Latin America as an undivided whole, the “internationals” that claim to supersede the differences between nations and continents, the exhibitions highlighting national traditions, yet always with a very open eye to internal differences and shifts over time in all of these types), Solomons unpacks the hidden agency of their Cold War ideology. Once again, this does not come as a surprise. The CIA support for the international promotion of abstract expressionism is well known, as is, more in general, the key role of art in all soft power wars. Yet Solomons does much more than just applying this general analytical grid to these now overlooked aspects of the white cube years. Thanks to her careful reading of the rich more written and visual archives of these exhibitions, the author discloses in great detail the mechanisms of inclusion and exclusion before, during, and after the shows: first, the research leading to the exhibition (often by curators who did not speak neither Spanish nor Brazilian and who only spent just a couple days in one or two Latin American cities); second, the display techniques; third, the catalogs. But she also insists on the great complexity of most events and the countless difficulties and contradictions that appeared from the very beginning: tensions between US curators and institutions and their local counterparts, criticism and even boycott of non-US artists and stakeholders, conflicting attitudes within US institutions where not everybody followed the same depoliticizing line, the aesthetic flaws of most exhibitions that created more confusion than interest and goodwill, the suspicion of hidden commercial interests, the growing criticism of exhibition formats, such as the biennial (and the differences between US biennials controlled by single museums and the Venice of Sao Paolo events), the increasing importance of the spectator’s active eye, and the rapid politicization of US citizens with the Vietnam war – all these elements made that the Latin American shows were met with distrust and skepticism from the very beginning, leading to the abrupt end of this form of cultural interest and exchanges after 1968.
Cold War in the White Cube, let me repeat it, is a vital contribution to these debates. It is also a book that is efficiently illustrated, elegantly printed, and very well written. Since the author also mentions the Latin American boom in literature, starting more or less in the same years but much more lasting and probably less easy to “domesticate” than visual art, always in need of an external spokesman of woman, one can only hope that literary scholars and art historians will soon team up to make a comparative and interdisciplinary analysis of these two streams in the encounter between Nort and South in the Americas and elsewhere.