‘Beyond the Trees’: The Tamayo Museum celebrates its 40 years with a trip to the past

One of the most iconic museums in Mexico City, the Tamayo Museum, celebrates 40 years since its founding and decided to celebrate its four decades of artistic life with an exhibition on the moment of its birth, entitled Beyond the Trees. Camouflaged among the plants of the Chapultepec Forest, with a brick and stairs that evoke the Aztec pyramids, the museum is a few steps from two other important museums in the city – the Museum of Anthropology and the Museum of Modern Art – but it was born in a more bumpy in the early eighties.

“We decided to focus on two dates, 1979, the year in which the first stone for the construction was laid, and 1981, which is when the inaugural event takes place,” says the museum’s director, Magalí Arriola, co-curator of the exhibition with four others. people, about this exhibition that opens to the public on Saturday and takes a trip back in time to celebrate the birthday. “TO [Rufino] Tamayo was widely accused of building his own mausoleum, ”says Arriola. “And he was accused of promoting international art when what had predominated until then was this extreme nationalism promoted by the three great muralists.”

“It’s not narcissism,” the Mexican artist Rufino Tamayo defended himself in 1981 for opening a museum with his name at the age of 81. Tamayo, the son of a humble family in the State of Oaxaca, had managed to become internationally recognized for sculptures and paintings —inspired by currents such as expressionism and modernism but also considerably by popular and pre-Hispanic art—, despite having been in opposition to the glorious Mexican muralists. “I do not agree on anything that Siqueiros, Orozco and Rivera did in art,” Tamayo said about the nationalist focus on others. “They sacrificed aesthetic values ​​to teach the people the power of the revolution.”

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Despite national artistic opposition, his glory outside of Mexico was an unstoppable hurricane. In the summer of 79 the Guggenheim museum dedicated a huge retrospective in its corridors in the shape of a snail just for Tamayo’s work, and in 1981 Christie’s auction house in New York sold one of his paintings with watermelons for $ 200,000, the price highest for a Latin American artist up to that point.

View of the work 'Payment of the Argentine foreign debt to Andy Warhol' (1985), by the artist Marta Minujín, at the Tamayo Museum.
View of the work ‘Payment of the Argentine foreign debt to Andy Warhol’ (1985), by the artist Marta Minujín, at the Tamayo Museum. Gladys serrano

“Mrs. Olga [su esposa] He said that Tamayo brought the world to Mexico, with the museum’s collection, and brought Mexico to the world ”, recalls the deputy director of Tamayo collections, Juan Carlos Pereda, one of the curators. “Tamayo has been the best ambassador that Mexico has had in all countries, he is represented in the most important art collections in the world.”

The museum generated controversy in 1981, in part, because it was the first to be financed with private resources and not the financial support of the State. Although he initially requested the support of PRI presidents, the Government only granted him a space in the Chapultepec Forests, but for the construction he was financially supported by a group of businessmen from Monterrey (the Alfa group), and the powerful television network Televisa. Tamayo can be satisfied. Muralism has now gone down to the grave. And the museum is his tombstone ”, read a very critical review against him at that time.

The unfair thing about telling Tamayo that his was just a narcissistic museum, 40 years later, is that few works in the museum’s collection are his own. In 1981, the painter and sculptor delivered almost 300 works from his personal collection to the museum —by artists such as Picasso, Miro, Magritte or Dalí—, but very few made by him. “The museum did not have a space for Tamayo in its initial project, even in the museum’s collection we only have nine pieces by Tamayo that are integrated into the collection,” says Pereda, the deputy director of collections.

The exhibition Beyond the Trees it has more than nine pieces. It has 416 pieces in total, and in a first room (of five in total), within which are 60 paintings and sculptures by Tamayo, the majority from private collections that agreed to share the works for the anniversary (paintings that could be exhibited in the office of some businessman and had never been seen in the artist’s museum).

There they are, for example, a 1931 self-portrait made in New York, in which the Oaxacan artist exaggerates the brown of his brush to exacerbate the indigenous features of his face. Also darker ones portraying the bombings of the Second World War with a line that appeals to Picasso’s cubism. But among the most dazzling are Tribute to the Indian race, from 1952, an old mural with an indigenous woman drawn in geometric shapes, or The Sleeping Music, from 1950, an oil painting with two women reclining under a pastel blue sky and sleeping next to a guitar.

Painting 'El rockanrolero' (1989), by Rufino Tamayo.
Painting ‘El rockanrolero’ (1989), by Rufino Tamayo.Gladys serrano

One of the most surprising works towards the end of the first room is The Rockanrolero, from 1989, Tamayo’s penultimate work before he died in 1991, and a strange portrait of the king of pop, Michael Jackson. “Indeed, it is one of the last paintings by Tamayo, a 90-year-old man still full of vitality, reflection, and sees with irony, but also with empathy, the phenomenology of what is happening,” says Pereda. Jackson, explains the curator, caught Tamayo’s attention because “for many generations he was an icon, a translation of everything that happened as part of civilization, as part of culture, but also as part of the market and consumption.”

The Tamayo Museum, accused of being a narcissist, lost the Alpha group in 1982, shortly after its inauguration, due to the economic crisis of the 1980s. Then, in 1986, the giant Televisa also abandoned the project in the middle of the soccer world cup that was held in Mexico. “There is a break between Emilio Azcárraga and Tamayo for various reasons,” says Arriola, the museum’s director, referring to the mythical ‘Tigre’ Azcárraga, the businessman who dominated the television network for many years. The two disagreed over which temporary exhibits to bring to the museum, one of them by Diego Rivera. “For obvious reasons, Tamayo starts to get hives that his museum has an exhibition of Rivera,” says Arriola. “Obviously, all the cameras are turned towards Mexico [en 1986, por el mundial], and the cameras were mostly from Televisa, and at that moment Tamayo said ‘if they don’t give me my museum back, I’m going to go on a hunger strike.’

Azcárraga then left (he set up his own museum, the Contemporary Art Cultural Center), and the Government took control of the museum (now it is part of the National Institute of Fine Arts), but one of the rooms of the new exhibition brought works from different artists on the power of television and its relationship with the arts. There they are Eye of the Tiger by the Mexican Jonathan Hernández, who collects what Televisa’s ‘tiger’ could see with archive photos. There is also Antony Montada, a Spanish artist who puts a chair in front of two screens in his surveillance installation: one showing the news and the other showing the viewer who sits down to watch it. Not far from there is a huge montage of photographs in which the great pop culture artist, Andy Warhol, appears in a work by Argentine artist Marta Minujín entitled Payment of the external debt with corn, from 1985. In it, the artist offers corn from the Americas to the American, in exchange for ending the debt that led to the financial collapse of Latin America in the eighties.

The exhibition celebrating Tamayo’s 40 years, in short, is not very narcissistic. In addition to those mentioned are the Englishman Francis Bacon, the German Joseph Beuys, the Italian Andrea Di Castro, or the Mexican Vicente Rojo, among two dozen other artists. The most recent work is from 2021, by the Mexican Erick Meyenberg, with the same title of the exhibition, Beyond the trees, and commissioned by the museum for the birthday.

Installation 'Beyond the trees' (2021), by the artist Erick Meyenberg.
Installation ‘Beyond the trees’ (2021), by the artist Erick Meyenberg.Gladys serrano

“My work has a lot to do with the ghosts of history, with the icebergs of history,” says Meyenberg. His video-installation, made up of four huge screens and eight speakers in a dark room, shows panoramic images of the museum in the middle of the Chapultepec forest while the music of various Mexican composers plays — Juan Sebastian Lach, Aquiles Morales, and the Madrigalistas choir. -. Also crossed in the video are historical images of the museum recovered after Meyenberg was merged for months in the museum’s archive. “The museum knew the storm before it was born”, is heard in a moment of the video that lasts approximately half an hour. Even so, the Tamayo Museum was born, despite the storm.

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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