Back on Track

Siqueiros and new director Patty Ortiz get the rejuvenated Museo off to a good start.

The Museo de las Américas has had a bumpy ride over the past few years, and surely many in the art community thought the small but significant institution was headed for the trash heap of Denver history. Luckily, that hasn't happened, and the Museo looks as though it's on the way up again. I base this on two salient facts: First, the board of trustees selected Patty Ortiz to take over as director, a post that has been mostly unoccupied for the past two years; and second, the current exhibit, Siqueiros: Spirit of a Revolutionary, is one of the best shows this season.

Before I heap praise on Ortiz and rave about Siqueiros, I'd like to take a moment to remember the role that founder and former director José Aguayo played in creating this valuable cultural asset. From 1991, when he first put into practice his idea of having a Denver museum devoted to the art of the Americas, Aguayo has worked tirelessly to make that dream a reality. Though he gave up the director post in 2003, he is still on the Museo's board of trustees.

Around 2000, it looked like the sky was the limit for the Museo under Aguayo's guidance. Not only was the gallery doing one great show after another, but it was also building a real-estate empire. The institution owned its own building on Santa Fe Drive (it still does), as well as the property immediately to the north and a row of houses across the alley to the west, facing Kalamath Street. The package of properties had been assembled under Aguayo's leadership, with the idea of constructing a new facility for the Museo that would also include rental studios and condominiums. Internationally famous California architect Michael Rotondi was brought in to design the place, and he actually got as far as producing drawings and models. It would have been a wonderful complex, sort of like a postmodern Mexican village -- with a tip of the hat to Broadway's Mayan Theater. But when the proposal for the new facility was unveiled in 2001, there was no money to build it. Not only that, but the purchased properties were mortgaged to the hilt.

"El Pueblo a la Universidad, la Universidad al Pueblo," 
by David Alfaro Siqueiros, acrylic-on-canvas study for 
the mosaic mural.
"El Pueblo a la Universidad, la Universidad al Pueblo," by David Alfaro Siqueiros, acrylic-on-canvas study for the mosaic mural.

In 2003, the chickens came home to roost, and the Museo was on the verge of defaulting on its loans for the Kalamath property. Any hope that financial negotiations could remain secret was dashed when the situation was leaked to the press. Aguayo had stepped down as director and was running for a seat on the Denver City Council, and the financial plight of the Museo was raised in the campaign as a way to discredit him. The Museo eventually sold the houses on Kalamath, as well as the other Santa Fe property, the sale of which closed on the same day that Siqueirosopened.

Some blamed Aguayo for the failure, but not me. I think he's a visionary, and I feel that we all owe him a big debt of gratitude for thinking up the Museo. I blame the lack of community support for all the problems -- especially the lack of interest on the part of wealthy Hispanics in sports, business and other professions, the majority of whom have not made substantial donations to the Museo. Cultivating that interest is the problem at hand for the new director: Ortiz has got to get rich people on board to help underwrite the costs of running and maintaining a museum.

Ortiz is well known in the art community and has worked as an artist and art administrator for more than twenty years. Born in 1955 in San Antonio, Texas, she earned a BFA at the University of Texas at Austin in 1977 and an MFA at UT's San Antonio campus; in both cases, her concentration was in printmaking. In 1980 she moved to Brighton with her first husband and later joined the Spark co-operative. In the mid-'80s, she was represented by Carson Sapiro Gallery, a forerunner of the Sandy Carson Gallery. She taught art classes at Metropolitan State College and the University of Colorado at Denver.

By the late '80s, Ortiz's art career was taking off, and one of her pieces was included in a fundraising auction at the Denver Art Museum. Oddly, events on the night of the auction forced her to change career paths. "That night, I decided to stop doing paintings and drawings and to just do community work," Ortiz recalls. "I was sitting there at a table with a dentist -- he had dropped about thirty or forty thousand dollars that night -- and then I walked out of the museum, and there was a car full of Mexican kids looking up at the building, going, 'Wow.' And I thought, 'What am I doing in the building? I should be out there with those kids.' In just that instant, I made up my mind to get out of the art scene and into the community."

From 1989 to 1999, she did just that, working as the director of Artists-in-Residence, an art-outreach program aimed at public-school kids. Truth be told, Ortiz did not give up completely on making art, and during this same time, she completed a number of high-profile public-art projects -- most notably, the gates on the Speer Boulevard viaduct at Elitch's and the metal airplanes hanging over the escalators at Denver International Airport.

For several reasons -- one being the Columbine High School tragedy -- Ortiz wound up wanting to come back to the art scene, and she took a position at Denver's Museum of Contemporary Art, where she worked from 1999 to late 2004. The Museo job was a great opportunity, but leaving the MCA was hard. "I could easily have spent the rest of my life at MCA, and the whole last week I was there, I would start to cry whenever I realized that I was actually leaving," Ortiz says.

Ortiz applied for the Museo job after members of the board approached her and requested that she do so. She was reluctant at first, because she's not fluent in Spanish and thought that might be a deal-breaker. Fortunately, it wasn't.

Siqueiros has been in the works for years, so it was just a coincidence that it came on line right as Ortiz was coming on board. "It was like the sky opened up," Ortiz says with a laugh.

Curator Alfonso Miranda Marquez organized Siqueiros, with the pieces on loan from the Museo Soumaya in Mexico City. The show unfolds in chronological order, with more than two dozen paintings, drawings and mural studies surveying David Alfaro Siqueiros's artistic development from the 1910s to the 1960s.

Siqueiros, born in Mexico in 1896, was one of los tres grandes -- the three great ones -- of modern art in Mexico (the other two being Diego Rivera and José Clemente Orozco). The three were known for their politically charged murals depicting events in Mexican history, and for their more than passing interest in communism.

Arguably the most politically active of the three, Siqueiros was repeatedly exiled for his activities and was even arrested and imprisoned at various times. He fought in the Mexican Revolution and in the Spanish Civil War, rising to the rank of colonel. He was involved in a plot to kill Leon Trotsky, a Russian Marxist who opposed Stalin.

Under Ortiz's direction, the interior of the Museo has been reconfigured, with the center of the space opened up. The walls have been painted a deep, rich charcoal gray with red accents, allowing the often vividly colored works to stand out strikingly against the dark walls.

The first piece in Siqueirosis one of the few that was installed out of date order, but I understand why the decision was made to do that, because it is a self-portrait. Done in charcoal on paper in 1946, "Autorretrato" is marvelous; stylistically, it suggests Picasso's realism, an important source for the Mexican muralists. The relationship of Siqueiros to European vanguard art is evident throughout the show, though he was chauvinistically Mexican and denied foreign influences.

Another piece that demonstrates Siqueiros's connection to the avant-garde in Europe is "El Pueblo a la Universidad, la Universidad al Pueblo," from 1952 to 1956, a perspective study for a mosaic mural that was ultimately installed on the exterior of the administration building of the Universidad Nacional Autónoma in Mexico City. There are a lot of great things in this show, but this mural study is without a doubt the finest painting included.

Despite his left-wing political activity and his membership in the Mexican Communist Party, Siqueiros repeatedly came to the United States. In the 1930s, he lived and taught in Los Angeles and then in New York, where he opened his Experimental Workshop in 1936. At the workshop, he encouraged students, including Jackson Pollock, to use industrial paints that were sprayed, dripped and poured onto canvases tacked to the floor. These techniques fully anticipated Pollock's "action paintings." The Museo show includes only one example of Siqueiros's work of this type: "Accidente Controlado," which is undated but definitely was not done in the '30s; it's in acrylic and is more likely from the 1960s.

Siqueiros spent most of that decade in prison, where he continued to paint even though art supplies were hard to come by. The show includes a number of paintings he did in his jail cell; though representational, they also feature the drips, smears and runs of "Accidente Controlado." These pieces were done as studies for "The March of Humanity," the most ambitious project Siqueiros ever undertook. It is a multi-part mural on both the exterior and interior wall of a cultural center in Mexico City called the Polyforum Cultural Siqueiros that was specially built to accommodate it. He worked on "March" until his death, in 1974.

In addition to the gorgeous Siqueiros, Ortiz quickly put together an adjunct show of Colorado artists who have carried the Mexican mural tradition to the area. In a small gallery, Ortiz hung mural studies by Bob Luna, Emanuel Martinez, Leo Tanguma and Carlos Frésquez. Ortiz plans to complement future traveling shows in the same way.

It's great to see the Museo running at full steam again, and trust me on this one: You do not want to miss Siqueiros: Spirit of a Revolutionary. It's absolutely sensational.

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