Foreign Exchange

William Pym on Artur Barrio


Left: Artur Barrio's photographer Christina Motta with Artur Barrio and a fan. Right: Philadelphia Museum of Art curator Carlos Basualdo, Museu de Arte Contemporanea curator Cristina Freire, Palais de Tokyo's chief curator Akiko Miki, Villa Arson director Éric Mangion, and Fabienne Clérin of Fonds Régional d'Art Contemporain Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur. (All photos: Amanda Mott)

“Actions After Actions,” the first major American survey of the puckish Brazilian artist Artur Barrio, opened Wednesday night at Moore College of Art and Design, the small all-women’s school across from the Rodin Museum on the boulevard that local romantics call the “Philadelphia Champs-Elysées.” I dashed through rush-hour traffic, grateful for how busy the civic schedule is getting in this town. The evening’s event commemorated the first local exhibition that involved curator Carlos Basualdo since his recent hire at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Basualdo consulted with the Centre Pompidou’s Christine Macel and ICA Philadelphia’s Ingrid Schaffner for this show, part of Moore’s “International Discovery Series”; assembling so noteworthy a team in Philly is itself cause for celebration.

Moore Galleries’ Executive Director Molly Dougherty greeted me on arrival, pressing a drink ticket into my hand and advising a cocktail before entering the exhibition. One gallery housed a massive array of Barrio’s notebooks, sketches, proposals, snapshots, and other documentation of work produced since 1967; the other an installation, adapted from a version originally shown at Documenta 11, of a barely lit cave whose walls were smeared with coffee and scrawled with rantings. Hundreds of pounds of ground beans dusted the floor. A busted couch slumped nearby. “It would help if we could read Portuguese” was often heard as visitors stepped back into the light, tamping coffee off their pumps.

They were marginally right, for the thrust of all but the most straightforward works (such as Mona Lisa’s Ass, 1977, a hairy, latex orifice stuck to a piece of cardboard) will be somewhat opaque to the non-Portuguese speaker. The at-press “scholarly” catalogue will make good with vital translations and a full spectrum of essays, but for now there’s a short wall text at the entrance, then you’re on your own. In accounting for the reticence of the exhibition, curator Brian Wallace—visibly relieved that the yearlong rollercoaster ride of exhibition planning was over—explained: “Barrio is intense and selfish—these are not not compliments. He’s just too well read and too self-conscious for us to regress to the Euro-American view of ‘the Brazilian,’” meaning the Black Orpheus stereotype. “At the same time, anxiety about the resilience of this old characterization means Latin America can be defined in a way that leaves little room for discussion about the primitive or the primal. It would be great if this pocket retrospective could flip off this whole deadlocked approach.”

Left: Visitors enjoy the show. Right: Artur Barrio with Carlos Basualdo.

Courage is brewing in the city of brotherly love, certainly spurred by Basualdo’s assignment (along with Robert Storr) to beef up the PMA’s contemporary collection, a mandate that has so far led to the purchase of a large-scale Thomas Hirschhorn sculpture in December. On the back of this and the now-touring “Tropicália,” it’s clear that his strategies for international assimilation are flitting through the city. “This is not festivalism,” said Philadelphia Exhibitions Initiative Director Paula Marincola, anticipating the “It’s a Small World”–style globalism now attached to the term. “Institutional critique is softening and poetry is allowed to enter, and that is the pace with which we must consider this material.” Sounds perfect, but this is no mean feat when sliding around on a slick-as-ice bed of java.

Later, diners snaked around every corridor of the tall, narrow, South Philadelphia row house where the dinner for fifty was held. Basualdo perched with his plate on his lap on the top step of the front stairs, while local lights like Schaffner, the Inquirer’s newly appointed art critic, Edith Newhall, and collectors Peter and Mari Shaw made the rounds around the artist below. The big Barrio entourage included the artist, his wife, curator Cristina Freire from the Museu de Arte Contemporanea in São Paolo, Palais de Tokyo chief curator Akiko Miki, and Leo Teixeira and Marcos Bonisson, two young artists from Rio who served as assistants, bodyguards, and translators. The mob stuck out: “Who’s Nosferatu?” a somewhat intoxicated codger asked from a corner, pointing at the rake-thin, bald-headed Teixeira, who was clad in a turtleneck and fur coat. Barrio himself ate cannolis, drank wine, and began a fitful exchange with me when I told him I was a writer. “Ah, Mallarmé!” he boomed. “Apollinaire!” “Prévert?” I ventured, having not quite figured out the game. During the course of the evening it became apparent that one could best communicate with him in French. Once we’d eased into the tongue foreign to us both, he continued: “Do you know Greenberg? I don’t like him, but I admire him. He knew what courage was. Brazil is a beautiful, sensorial, violent, difficult country, and I know you need courage to find beauty there.”