Few philanthropists have done more to raise the profile of Latin American art in New York than Estrellita Brodsky, the collector, patron, and art historian whose parents immigrated to the city from Venezuela and Uruguay. With her husband, real-estate developer and Metropolitan Museum chairman Daniel Brodsky, she has endowed Latin American curator positions at the Museum of Modern Art and Tate London, all the while earning a doctorate in art history and assembling some 500 works for her personal collection.
Brodsky spoke to Artspace about how the visibility of Latin American art in the U.S. has changed in recent years, where there's still room for improvement, and which destinations she'll be traveling to next to scout for new talent.
What was the first artwork you purchased and what drew you to it?
What attracts me to the work I still continue to collect is its ambiguity of subject, approach, and political or social references. One of the first important works I collected was a small Picasso oil-on-canvas, a 1945 work entitled Tête. The artist clearly outlined discernible female features of pronounced eyelashes nestled in the form of a sensuous mandolin that evokes the senses of hearing and touch, beyond the merely visual. Painted in a nearly monochromatic grisaille of gray and black, the work's sensuality is contrasted against the severe ascetic use of color that recalls the ravages of war.
You've been working for years to raise the visibility of Latin American art in New York. What are some of the main areas of progress you have seen at the city's institutions?
Awareness of and the attitude toward Latin American art and culture has changed dramatically over the last decade. At major international museums such as the Museum of Modern Art or the Metropolitan Museum, work by Latin American artists has been seen increasingly as part of an international context rather than pushed to the periphery. Through the leadership of a dedicated curator for Latin American art at MoMA, such as Luis Perez Oramas, as well as through active sponsorship by enthusiastic collectors from Latin America, the museum has engaged in a broader dialogue and shifted the lens onto work from the region. The result has been a synergistic exchange of cultural perspectives.
How has the market landscape changed for Latin American art in recent years?
Art fairs such as Pinta have offered the art-collecting public greater access to work being created by Latin American artists and to Latin American galleries. With access comes demand as collectors no longer have to travel long distances to see art first hand.
Where are some of your favorite places to travel and find new art in Latin America?
I enjoy going to the fairs and traveling through Latin America because both offer a level playing field on which to evaluate the work. But I always try to approach the art from a scholarly perspective by looking at the artist's work in depth. Whenever possible I do studio and local museum visits. As well, I have enjoyed the São Paulo Biennials, ArteBa, visits to the galleries and museums in Rio, São Paulo, Buenos Aires, and Caracas. In the near future, I look forward to visiting Zona Maco, ArtBo, and the next Merco Sud Biennial, all of which I hear excellent things about. And, of course, the contemporary art scene is increasingly active in Central America, where countries like Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica have produced some of the leading figures in contemporary art. I plan a trip in the fall to Guatemala which will include a weekend symposium on collecting and institutional support for cutting edge art coming out of Guatemala and the rest of Central America.
What are some of your favorite places to see Latin American art in New York?
I have huge respect for the quality and rigor of major art museums such as the Metropolitan and MoMA. In New York, their exhibitions are finding new ways of engaging international audiences, while being complemented by smaller institutions such as El Museo del Barrio that are seeking more local approaches to the contemporary art scene. Otherwise, downtown galleries from Chelsea to SoHo to the Lower East Side show a wide array of interesting Latin American artists living in the New York area as well as abroad.
Are you visiting Venice and Basel this year? Are there any artists you'll be looking for in particular?
Yes, I plan to attend both. I am delighted that many of the artists I know will be represented in Venice, such as within the group show at the Encyclopedic Palace: the contemporary Brazilian artist Paulo Nazareth, the historic figure Xul Solar from Argentina. As well, Alfredo Jaar will be representing Chile, and Priscilla Monge will be representing Costa Rica.
When possible, do you like to meet the artists you collect?
Absolutely. I think it is important to understand as much as possible about the artist's intent and development of ideas. Otherwise, you may be attracted to one particular work and not take in to account the full context within which the artist is working or the direction in which he or she is taking his or her work.
What made you decide to go back to school to study art and what drew you to your thesis topic on Latin American artists in Paris in particular?
It is part of my overall approach to understand art works more comprehensively rather than superficially. I think that has been a particularly difficult issue for Latin American artists who have been understood (or, rather, misunderstood) outside of their local or international context. After receiving my master's degree in Impressionist art, I decided to concentrate on the study of the art of Latin America through the then newly established Latin American doctorate program at New York University's graduate art-history school, the Institute of Fine Arts (IFA). My dissertation, "Latin American Artists in Postwar Paris: Jesus Rafael Soto and Julio Le Parc, 1950-1970" was the culmination of my studies at the IFA under the mentoring of professor Edward Sullivan. I was particularly drawn to the subject because Soto and Le Parc, while highly indebted to the political and artistic milieu of their home countries, also reflected the important role Latin American artists played in the postwar international Paris art scene. In my dissertation, I sought to interpret and understand the work of these two major Latin American artists by deploying an alternative model to the prevalent U.S. or Euro-centric generalized context.