Mexican Heritage

Paintings of colonial Mexico are showcased in the DAM's current blockbuster.

There's an important exhibit at the Denver Art Museum that's being given the royal treatment, which makes sense, because it's filled with regal pieces. The blockbuster is Painting a New World: Mexican Art and Life, 1521-1821, a mammoth endeavor that includes more than fifty paintings, many of them monumental in size. The works are ensconced in first-class accommodations in the Hamilton Galleries, one of the most important sets of rooms on the premises.

I think it's risky to put on a blockbuster without including any famous artists -- and there are none in this one. I mention it because these shows apparently are all about bringing people in the door, cranking up not only ticket revenues but attendance numbers, which are used for all kinds of funding purposes. In recent years it has become increasingly obvious that having well-known names in a show guarantees a box-office bonanza. Recall the museum's smash hit, El Greco to Picasso, and there you have it: The success formula is right in the title.

But risky or not, Painting a New World is a good idea for the DAM, and for Denver, on at least two scores. First, it's relevant to our community, which has a large Mexican-American population, and second, there's the ready availability of appropriate material: Nearly half the paintings in the show are from Denver.

"Mass of St. Gregory," by an unknown artist, feather 
"Mass of St. Gregory," by an unknown artist, feather painting.
"From Mestizo and Indian, Coyote," by Miguel Cabrera, 
oil on canvas.
"From Mestizo and Indian, Coyote," by Miguel Cabrera, oil on canvas.


Through July 25, Denver Art Museum, 100 West 14th Avenue Parkway, 720-865-5000

And there is such an abundance of important paintings from Mexico in Denver thanks to collectors and donors Fred and Jan Mayer. The largesse of the Mayers is legendary; they have donated many of the pieces in the show, loaned many others, and, most important, they've established an endowment for the New World department at the DAM. This endowment pays for everything, including the salaries for two curators, one in pre-Columbian art and another in Spanish Colonial art. It was Donna Pierce, the Spanish Colonial curator, who organized Painting a New World, a project she started in 1999 when she was first hired by the DAM.

The Mayers were pioneer collectors of Mexican art; they became interested in the genre in the 1970s, when such work elicited little interest in the market. There were bargains to be had, and the Mayers snapped up significant items at a breathtaking pace. They were guided by the late Robert Stroessner, a visionary curator in the New World department at the DAM from the late '60s until his death from AIDS in the early '90s. Pierce credits Stroessner's efforts and the support, in so many ways, of the Mayers for making Painting a New World a reality. The Mayers are also why, despite the limited popular appeal of the show, it was feasible to do; their financial support means that the cost of the exhibit really doesn't need to be offset by ticket revenues.

Painting a New World is accompanied by a scholarly catalogue written by Pierce, along with Rogelio Ruiz Gomar and Clara Bargellini, both from the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México. The catalogue is a valuable resource for such a little-known branch of art history. The story of New Spain is laid out, with the authors starting at the beginning and ending at the end. That sounds sensible, doesn't it? It's a shame the show doesn't follow that same format. Instead, as usual for the DAM, the pieces in Painting a New World are not arranged chronologically, but according to themes.

I've said it before, but I need to say it again: When a show is hung in a thematic, free-form way, as Painting a New World is, the historical message is hidden and therefore missing in action. What makes this so very irksome to me is that I don't think it helps attract viewers, which is ostensibly why these blockbusters are done. Art history is seen as a turnoff by focus groups. But you know what? I don't think they represent the people who actually see shows like this. I think those who do see them want to know their history and therefore their meaning. It's perverse, but the DAM persists in pitching shows to the people who don't go to see them while ignoring the ones who do. One thing I'm sure of is that this was out of Pierce's control.

The paintings displayed up front are not the oldest but are those that got the highest scores with focus groups or that make a point. So the strong suit of the thematic displays is the visual appeal and narrative content. And that's what we see in the first of many galleries devoted to Painting a New World: beautiful objects that convey a message.

Straight ahead is a true show-stopping moment, an oil-painted screen by an unknown artist titled "Garden Party on the Terrace of a Country Home" done somewhere between 1730 and 1750. Notice the anonymous attribution and vague date. Many items are so identified because there was little interest in this material until lately, and so much of the information about the artworks had scattered to the four winds. Now that there's increasing interest in the topic, many of these historical art mysteries may be solved by future scholars.

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