On ViewArt Institute Of Chicago
In a Cloud, in a Wall, in a Chair
September 6, 2019 – January 12, 2020
Curated by Zoë Ryan, the exhibition In a Cloud, in a Wall, in a Chair draws together six artists working in Mexico between 1940 and 1970: Anni Albers, Lola Álvarez Bravo, Ruth Asawa, Sheila Hicks, Clara Porset, and Cynthia Sargent. It is the first exhibition to make an argument for the impact of post-revolutionary Mexico on these artists, deeply connected yet never shown together before. Their work—furniture, jewelry, photography, photomurals, prints, sculpture, and textiles—demonstrates Mexico’s significance as a site critical to their investigations of form, abstraction, and image making. It’s a complicated story of modern diaspora, of artists in political exile, persecuted and nomadic, working in the shadows of husbands and other men, converging in a community off the modern grid, bringing with them modernist ideals that they would marry with indigenous forms. And yet, while such marriages often track along the lines of extractive relations with the non-European, the work on exhibit emerges from sustained living connections to the culture of Mexico, from a political commitment to a radical localism.
Clara Porset, a Cuban émigré to Mexico City, is the central figure in the Art Institute’s exhibition. There are extensive references to an important exhibition she curated in 1952, Art in Daily Life: Well-Designed Objects Made in Mexico, which included more than one hundred objects and exhibited plastic chairs manufactured by Domus next to indigenous cooking pots and other crafts. It sets the historical context for In a Cloud, in a Wall, in a Chair—its title a quotation from Porset—and continues her insistence that good design is everywhere, and that the line between art and design, between modern and traditional, is porous. Like Porset’s, this exhibition also situates midcentury designed objects next to indigenous sculptures and regional craft objects.
Porset’s own designs and her global friendships embody a political commitment to this porousness. She synthesizes function and regional forms, a sort of Bauhaus modernist universalism meets Mesoamerican craft traditions. Her study of the traditional Mexican butaque, a low, sinuous lounge chair with a complicated history, indicates her desire to adapt indigenous forms and materials to a modernist aesthetic. One might compare her chair to Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona Chair, also a modernist take on a chair with a complex history. In the production of Porset’s butaque, however, she retains local artisanal references and materials like mahogany, oak, wicker, and leather.
This attentiveness to and deep respect for Mexican artisanal traditions threads its way through the work of Anni Albers, the Bauhaus trained textile designer who fled Nazi Germany with her husband, painter Josef Albers, for the experimental Black Mountain College in North Carolina. The triangular shapes on the surface of the Mexican pyramids she visited at Monte Albán figure in much of her textile work, including her study for a large wall hanging for the Hotel Real Camino in Mexico City, completed in 1968, and only rediscovered last year in the basement of the hotel.
Ruth Asawa, a Japanese-American artist whose family was interned during World War II, visited Mexico in 1945 and 1947. She studied Mexican crafts and housing with Porset, and the forms of her signature metal wire sculptures are indebted to a looped weaving technique she learned during her visits. Importantly, Asawa became connected to a community of émigrés working in Mexico who helped her see her work in a transnational context.
Cynthia Sargent and Sheila Hicks, two American artists, also establish deep connections to local Mexican textile practices. Porset included Sargent’s early printed textiles in Art in Daily Life. The hot colors of Sargent’s vibrant weavings speak to the power of the local sun-drenched landscape of Mexico, while at the same time hewing to a modernist commitment to abstract forms. For Hicks, the move toward sculptural forms in her weaving owes much to her study of Mexican traditions in Taxco, where she learned many indigenous techniques.
The catalogue for Porset’s 1952 exhibition included Lola Álvarez Bravo’s photography of everyday scenes in Mexico City; in this exhibition she is the only Mexican artist featured. Her photomontage murals add edgy, urban imagery and demonstrate that influences were not a one-way street, but that 20th-century European techniques had an impact on contemporary Mexican art. At this exciting post-revolutionary moment, other global intersections brought artists and their work together in Mexico, such as Austrian surrealist Wolfgang Paalen’s magazine Dyn, founded in 1942, which juxtaposed indigenous Mexican artifacts alongside surrealist works and scientific material. Surrealists such as Remedios Varo, Leonora Carrington, and Kati Horna flourished in Mexico at midcentury, taking in the influences of a matriarchal culture, alongside Mexican contemporaries like Frida Kahlo, a close friend of Álvarez Bravo.
The global mix of identities presented in this exhibition works to bring artists—without signaling gender in its title—to our attention, while at the same time proposing Mexico, not New York or Paris, as a ground for critical, modernist practice. In writing about the exhibition, Ryan refers to the current political rhetoric against immigration, Mexico, and transnational exchange. The exhibition positions itself in opposition to this rhetoric. It attests to the power of committed connections across cultures and, as Ryan puts it, “for a continued evaluation of Mexico’s creative landscape.” The exhibition feels like the beginning of an important conversation, opening up more expansive views of modernism now underway in many museums across the country.