Mexico City

Juan Acha: Por una Nueva Problemática Artística at Museo de Arte Moderno

Juan Acha is finally getting some recognition. Try searching for his texts in English and you will find a handful of articles about his importance, but little directly from the man who remains one of Latin America’s most relevant contemporary art critics and theoreticians twenty-two years after his death in 1995. As a remedy, Juan Acha: Por una Nueva Problemática Artística (Toward a New Artistic Problematic), at Mexico City’s Museo de Arte Moderno, highlights the work and ideas Acha developed in the museum from 1972, when he left his natal Peru to find refuge in Mexico, until 1976.

Exhibition View with Héctor Pérez Frutos (as installed by Daniel Aguilar Ruvalcaba). Las Dos Fridas, 1997; Oil paint; 5 ft. 8 in. x 5 ft. 8 in. Courtesy of Museo de Arte Moderno. Photo: Ramiro Chaves. 

Héctor Pérez Frutos (as installed by Daniel Aguilar Ruvalcaba). Las Dos Fridas, 1997; oil paint; 5 ft. 8 in. x 5 ft. 8 in.; exhibition view. Courtesy of Museo de Arte Moderno. Photo: Ramiro Chaves.

Acha was a Marxist who believed that Latin American artists shouldn’t impulsively follow the trends set by international conceptual art, but instead develop their own practices in line with their continent’s issues. He inspired and accompanied a generation of artists who, like him, witnessed and in different ways suffered the consequences of the continent’s political turbulences. Some of Acha’s ideas about art are laid out in the essay “Por una Nueva Problemática Artística en Latinoamérica (Toward a New Artistic Problematic in Latin America)”[1], published in 1973 in the magazine Artes Visuales.[2] In the essay, the critic states: “The need to give our countries a new social and cultural turn brings with it the need to ask up to what point we can and should give art a new course.” It wasn’t Acha’s role to define what this new course was, but as the exhibition hints, some artists dared to imagine it and put it into practice, aided by his presence and the context they all shared.

Exhibition View with David Alfaro Siqueiros. The Partisan. Courtesy of Museo de Arte Moderno. Photo: Ramiro Chaves

David Alfaro Siqueiros. The Partisan; exhibition view. Courtesy of Museo de Arte Moderno. Photo: Ramiro Chaves

The first room of the exhibition exemplifies some of the critic’s most recurrent ideas, such as the distinctions between art, design, and craft from their methods of production, distribution, and consumption. Daniel Aguilar Ruvalcaba uses a reproduction of Frida Kahlo’s Las Dos Fridas (The Two Fridas, 1939)[3] as the center of an installation triptych. Frida Artística (Artistic Frida, 2016) is composed by the famous painting (a 1997 copy of Héctor Pérez Frutos from Kahlo’s 1938 original, both owned by the museum) and a scheme printed on the wall and taken from Acha’s writings in which the artist identifies the specific ways in which these artworks were produced, distributed, and consumed as art. For instance, a skilled and academically formed artist was the producer; the product is formalist and “pure,” yet a fetishized commodity; and its distribution is mediated by the art market. At its right, in Frida Artesanal (Handcrafted Frida), the artist placed a few dozen colorful souvenirs depicting the original painting bought with 4,000 pesos (around 185 USD) in a local market over a frame the exact same size of the original but turned backward to symbolize legal marginality; next to it one can read the same scheme applied to the depiction of the work as handcraft. A similar exercise is displayed in the opposing wall, with licensed items bought from the Frida Kahlo Museum characterized as design.

Despite the artist’s obvious digestion of Acha’s theoretical frames, the overall work feels unnecessarily illustrative, falling short of delivering a more potent commentary on the way the stated characteristics not only exist but indeed define and greatly limit production in all three systems of creative endeavor today. However, this difficulty indicates a larger problem of the exhibition: the need to assess Acha’s theoretical body critically and place it in context with other models (such as the very similar but more developed political economy theory that not only recognizes the structures of power, ownership, and distribution in effect in art and popular culture, but that enunciates their long-term consequences).

Exhibition View, Juan Acha: Por una nueva problemática artística. Courtesy of Museo de Arte Moderno. Photo: Ramiro Chaves.

Juan Acha. Por una Nueva Problemática Artística; exhibition view. Courtesy of Museo de Arte Moderno. Photo: Ramiro Chaves.

In the following room the legacy of Muralism and ideological art, a leitmotif in Acha’s writings, is explored in an archival display that includes a facsimile of Felipe Ehrenberg’s powerful essay “El Nuevo Mural Mexicano Es Tamaño Doble Carta (The New Mexican Mural Is Tabloid in Size),” published in May 1976, and other positions from the same debate by the critic Raquel Tibol and the artist Arnold Belkin. Acha, very much like Ehrenberg, campaigned for a political and social art free from the nationalist and ideological baggage that overpowered Muralism; in Ehrenberg’s words, for a turn towards public art, not art for the public.[4] Next to these fascinating documents stands David Alfaro Siqueiros’ The Partisan (1968), a grand-scale painting of a figure pulling the reins of an imposing horse as if preventing an imminent crash. The contrast in size and intensity between this painting and the adjacent documents illustrates the tensions lived by thinkers and artists who at the time struggled to either monumentalize their views, methods, and politics—Siqueiros famously declared “There is no route but ours”—or to bring into the mainstream a new idea of what art should stand for (in other words, the cyclic struggle between the hegemonic, the residual, and the emergent as theorized by Acha).

Hersúa. Model of Sculptoric Space (Maqueta del Espacio Escultórico) 1979. Photo: Ramiro Chaves.

Hersúa. Model of Sculptoric Space (Maqueta del Espacio Escultórico), 1979. Photo: Ramiro Chaves.

The exhibition continues to explore other strands of Juan Acha’s thought by reviewing in passing the art and artists that interested him, culminating in the stunning models and images of the still standing Espacio Escultórico (Sculptural Space)[5]—a landmark of public art inaugurated in 1979 and a brilliant response to Acha’s challenge to artists to create unique, fundamentally contextual works—authored by Hersúa, Federico Silva, Helen Escobedo, Manuel Felguerez, Mathías Goeritz, and Sebastián.

This exhibition is part of the commemorations of Acha’s 100th birthday, an unprecedented celebration for a theoretician whose writings are just beginning to be widely disseminated. As a relevant inventory of Acha’s most public interests, the exhibition succeeds. But as becomes obvious throughout the show, Acha’s combative ideas remain locked inside his writings in interesting—but monotonously displayed—documents that are unappealing to the uninformed viewer. Simplicity, approachability, and a clever sense of humor were characteristics of Juan Acha’s pen; perhaps curators and artists shouldn’t forget this in the hopefully many future critical approaches to his ideas.

Juan Acha: Por una Nueva Problemática Artística is on view through January 22, 2017.

[1] You can read the text in English here: http://post.at.moma.org/sources/29/publications/281.

[2] A copy of Artes Visuales is part of the archival display in the exhibition.

[3] Perhaps the museum’s most famous and visited work, currently on view in Paris.

[4] Felipe Ehrenberg, “El Nuevo Mural Mexicano Es Tamaño Doble Carta,” Revista Plural 12, September 1977.

[5] You can see it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bBNyitdospc, and you can read (in English) about a recent fight to save it here: https://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/02/arts/design/in-mexico-city-a-battle-over-a-building-and-the-art-in-its-shadow.html.

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