How UT Became Home to One of the Nation’s Largest Collections of Latin American Art

A new exhibition at the Blanton explores the intersection of Latin American art and language—and celebrates a field that The University of Texas helped bring to the forefront of the international art world.

By Sofia Sokolove

The envelope of artist Claudia del Rio’s “A Edward D. Wood, Jr.” addressed to the country’s first-ever curator of Latin American Art. [Blanton Museum of Art, The University of Texas at Austin, Gift of the Artist, 2005.]

Last summer, Florencia Bazzano found herself standing on the first floor of UT’s Blanton Museum of Art, cracking up. Tucked away in a box on a shelf inside a storage room, the assistant curator of Latin American art had just “found” a new piece of art without leaving the museum — something Bazzano has made such a habit of that a running joke among her colleagues is that all you need to do to own a valuable piece of art is invite Bazzano over. She’ll find one hidden in your own home.

In the Blanton’s database, not all of the museum’s 18,000 permanent pieces are listed with accompanying images. Meaning if you’re not familiar with a particular piece, your only option is to look at it in person, which is exactly what Bazzano was doing when she discovered Argentinian artist Claudia del Rio’s “A Edward D. Wood, Jr.,” a series of 11 photo collages she found so perfectly kitschy, she couldn’t help but laugh.

Each of the collages features a brightly lit photograph of a bar of Argentinian laundry soap with words like “rebel” and “radical” molded into the top. Glossy images, like a toy soldier or a woman in a bikini, are glued on top to suggest a tongue-in-cheek connection with the name, giving the soap a sort of silly, Honey I Shrunk the Kids aesthetic. “It’s rich, it’s suggestive, it’s funny,” Bazzano says. “I loved it.”

Claudia del Rio, “A Edward D. Wood Jr.,” 1995. [Blanton Museum of Art, The University of Texas at Austin, Gift of the Artist, 2005.]

Her discovery was not only “a fantastic, Christmas-y kind of surprise,” but a perfect fit for Words/Matter: Latin American Art and Language at the Blanton, co-curated by Bazzano, BA ’86, MA ’89, and the Blanton’s curator of Latin American art, Beverly Adams, BA ’87, MA ’92, PhD ’00, who are their own kind of perfect fit — colleagues reunited after meeting as students at UT years ago. Running now through May 26, the exhibition features nearly 150 pieces of Latin American art that all employ written language, in one way or another, to make personal, political, and poetic statements.

Leandro Katz, “Ñ,” 1972. [Blanton Museum of Art, The University of Texas at Austin, Gift of Jacqueline Barnitz, 2017.]

The convergence of art and language can impart powerful messages, and Words/Matter is an attempt to examine that. Some of the works explore the often untranslatable-ness of language. There is Argentinian artist Leandro Katz’s 1972 work “Ñ,” a graphic depiction of a letter used almost exclusively in Spanish. Other pieces remind us of the ways visuals can transcend language barriers, like artist Luis Camnitzer’s 1983 “Uruguayan Torture Series,” which pairs 35 photo etchings with one-line statements based on witness testimonies and media reports of torture by the Uruguayan dictatorship that ruled from 1973 to 1985. Closer inspection of a massive tree on ledger paper by Colombian artist Johanna Calle reveals that it’s drawn using typewritten text from Colombia’s 2011 Victims and Land Restitution Law, which outlines the rights of victims of displacement. Much of it is political — but it’s not all so serious. A neon sign toward the exit of the exhibition from contemporary artist Alejandro Diaz, BFA ’87, has a simple ask: “Make tacos not war.”

Besides language, another theme unifies these works: nearly 95 percent of them are from the Blanton’s permanent Latin American art collection, a vast body of modern and contemporary paintings, prints, drawings, conceptual art, installations, videos, and sculptures that total more than 2,500 individual pieces. Words/Matter is a celebration of the Blanton’s continued focus on the region, an effort that began in the early 1960s, when the museum’s first director, Donald Goodall, a Los Angeles native who spoke Spanish and Portuguese and traveled extensively throughout Central and South America, made collecting contemporary art from both North and South America a priority.

Luis Camnitzer, “He Practiced Everyday,” plate 2 from his “Uruguayan Torture Series,” 1983. [Blanton Museum of Art, The University of Texas at Austin, Archer M. Huntington Fund, 1992.]

In the decades since, Latin American art has gone from being nearly invisible to the forefront of the international art scene. Works that have long been part of the Blanton’s permanent collection are now widely exhibited and coveted by collectors. (In fact, concurrently with Words/Matter, pieces from the Blanton are in Spain at the world-famous Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía as part of The Avant-garde Networks of Amauta: Argentina, Mexico, and Peru in the 1920s, an exhibition co-curated by Adams. After stops in Peru and Mexico City, the pieces will head home for Austinites to enjoy when the exhibition concludes at the Blanton in 2020.)

As the art world has shifted toward creating a global narrative that is more inclusive, most major contemporary art museums have established a Latin American collection. And nearly every important university has a program in Latin American art history — a recent study found that between 2002 and 2012, there was a 400 percent growth in the number of doctoral dissertations focused on Latin American art.

“There was a point not that long ago when people didn’t think Latin American artists were worthy of showing in a museum. Period,” says Michael Wellen, curator of international art at the Tate Modern in London. “Really, the official history of art of Latin America being constructed with an English-speaking audience in mind is a 21st century phenomenon.” And that phenomenon began, at least partly, on the Forty Acres.

In 1988, well before most major museums were focused on acquiring Latin American art — let alone dedicated to organizing it in any kind of systemized way — the Blanton (then the Archer M. Huntington Art Gallery) hired Mari Carmen Ramírez as the country’s first-ever curator of Latin American art in the United States. Meanwhile, across campus, a professor named Jacqueline Barnitz was regaling her classes with tales of the Latin American artists she knew, making their work come alive in a way that felt wholly different, and to a new generation of students, more exciting, than the North American and European art living in the textbooks of the time. “We had an alliance,” says Ramírez, who now serves as Latin American curator and director of the International Center for the Arts at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. “She on the art history side, and I on the curatorial side. And that made Austin a very important center for Latin American art — because you had both.”

Words/Matter is a testament to those origins of the Blanton’s focus on the region. But it is also a declaration of its future. The two women currently at the helm of the collection — Adams and Bazzano — both spent their formative years studying under the very two women who helped shape what it is today: one of the oldest, largest, and most comprehensive collections of Latin American art in the country.

Antonio Caro, “Colombia Coca-Cola,” 2010. [Blanton Museum of Art, The University of Texas at Austin, Susman Collection, 2014.]

If Adams had heeded her mother’s advice, the now-esteemed curator might instead be an air conditioning and heating expert. A first-generation college student, Adams says she had no idea what she was doing when she arrived at UT from Dallas in 1983. While paying for school completely on her own, Adams ended up on scholastic probation for two years and was nearly flunking out when her artist friends made a suggestion that would change the trajectory of her life: Take an art history class, because you are not doing well with whatever it is that you’re doing right now.

And just like that, for the first time in her college career Adams felt like she was in the right place: Barnitz’s Modern South American Art class, where learning rarely meant looking at images in a textbook. Partly because there wasn’t one. It wasn’t until 2001 that Barnitz would publish her fundamental textbook, Twentieth-Century Art of Latin America, which continues to be the gold standard for survey courses in modern Latin American art history.

Barnitz — who died in 2017 at the age of 93 — grew up in Switzerland and Italy, but became a New Yorker at 17, when her family fled Europe during World War II. A trained portrait painter, in New York Barnitz turned toward abstract expressionism, and eventually, art criticism, and surrounded herself with visual artists, sculptors, poets, and writers who were pushing boundaries in their own fields. After a trip to Buenos Aires left her enthralled by the country’s thriving art scene, she spent much of the ’60s and ’70s traveling through South America and Mexico. Between trips, she would host salons in her Manhattan apartment for Latin American artists, many of whom, like Barnitz, had landed in New York after fleeing turmoil in their home countries. Years later, when Adams began working in the field, she would often meet established artists who told her, “Oh, yeah, the first person I met when I went to New York was Jacqueline Barnitz.”

Paulo Bruscky, “Returned to Sender,” circa 1986. [Blanton Museum of Art, The University of Texas at Austin, Gift of Jacqueline Barnitz, 2017.]

But back in the late ’80s, those artists were barely being exhibited anywhere outside of Barnitz’s classroom, where students were treated to her own personal and wide-ranging collection of images, gathered through her years of research and travel in Latin America. “There was no information about this stuff in the U.S.,” Adams says. “You had to get out there and go.” When Wellen, MA ’05, PhD ’12, was deciding where to attend graduate school, he sat in on a lecture from Barnitz on Mexican art. “I was mesmerized,” he remembers. “She was showing slides of experimental work from the ’50s and ’60s I’d never seen before. It felt like something of a secret that I knew I couldn’t see anywhere else.”

The art history that Barnitz imparted to her students was living and breathing. She seemed to have met everybody and traveled everywhere. And she would talk about it all. An image wasn’t just accompanied with a lesson on its formal innovation, but on its political and social context, peppered with anecdotes of her own adventures seeing the work or meeting the artists. And Barnitz was funny — she would often offhandedly comment about the personality of an artist, whether they were pompous or incredibly kind. “She knew these artists personally,” Wellen says, “Instead of it being some sacred textbook of history.”

Among those under the spell of Barnitz, there was a shared sense of belonging and camaraderie; her students rallied around their charismatic professor as if she were an underdog candidate for office, running a grassroots campaign against the traditional art world. “I didn’t know we were on the forefront,” Adams says. “What it felt more like was that we were fighting to make this stuff known. She made the fight fun, she made it fun to be working toward this goal of making this art matter to a bunch of people.”

Ricardo Duffy, “The New Order,” circa 1996. [Blanton Museum of Art, The University of Texas at Austin, Gift of Gilberto Cardenas, 2017.]

Barnitz’s reputation often preceded her, which is how Bazzano ended up as her student. When Bazzano’s then-husband told her you should take her class, Bazzano — who had moved to Texas from Argentina only two years before — took a year of intensive English and enrolled with Barnitz. Although she had been an art history student back home, she had never studied contemporary Argentinian art. “The military considered art too political,” Bazzano says. “So my first exposure to Latin American art was through Jacqueline. When I realized that I understood the works, I realized I had something to say. She opened a whole horizon to me.”

Bazzano went on to work as a curatorial assistant for Ramírez, and in 1992, Adams joined them as a volunteer. They were pioneers in a field that, aside from an incipient market, had “basically no museum and academic infrastructure,” Ramírez says. As the first person in the country to ever hold a curator of Latin American art position, Ramírez felt a deep sense of responsibility to shape who came after her. “Part of the issues that we tried to address during my tenure at the Blanton was precisely how to train a new generation of curators who would be equipped both theoretically and practically to address the demands of the field,” she says.

Together, Bazzano and Adams helped Ramírez plan her first major show, El Taller Torres-Garcia, which explored not only the work of artist Torres-Garcia, but his much lesser-known students and followers in Uruguay and Argentina. The show is still used today as a reference point in the field, and it established her reputation as a curator with academic acuity — and a passion for studying underrepresented artists. “It was completely different from the type of Latin American exhibitions that were happening in the United States. They were general blockbusters, they misunderstood the culture, some of them were actually quite offensive,” Bazzano says. “So to be able to learn from a strong professional, to be able to understand that you were doing something that nobody else was doing … that was very valuable.”

Wellen didn’t overlap with Ramírez in Austin, but trained under her in Houston as her assistant curator of Latin American and Latino art at MFAH until leaving in 2016 for his role at the Tate. “She shifted the thinking of what a museum could do, and should do,” Wellen says. “She revised art history, and put together compelling exhibitions that addressed something bigger: how we appreciate cultures and understand people from other places.”

Simultaneously, Barnitz was bringing a stream of artists to campus, encouraging her students to engage with them and to be curious. “It showed us that these were real people and that we could ask questions, we could interview, we could research,” Bazzano says. Adams agrees: “It was all right here. I felt like I was in this magical place.”

When Bazzano left to earn her PhD in New Mexico, Adams became assistant curator of Latin American art, and their paths diverged from there. After working on the Forty Acres for six years, Adams left in 1995 to work as curator of contemporary art at the San Antonio Museum of Art, before returning to the Blanton in 2014. Meanwhile, Bazzano graduated from the University of New Mexico and took roles all over, in Atlanta and New Orleans, even briefly working at the Smithsonian. In 2015, she was working at Stanford, in a transitional role between professor and curator, when she saw an opening for assistant curator of Latin American art at the Blanton and thought, “Oh, this is great.” Adams, of course, knew Bazzano well, but they had lost track of each other over the years. When Bazzano applied, she called her immediately. “Is it you? Really? You really applied?”

Beverly Adams and Florencia Bazzano. [Matt Wright-Steel]

This past November, Adams and Bazzano walk me through a maquette of the upcoming Words/Matter exhibition. Hanging on the “walls” of a small, foam core model of the Blanton are miniature replicas of each piece they have chosen for the show. Propped inside for scale sit tiny 3-D benches; faceless cardboard figures stare at the walls. The co-curators are still tinkering, and they take me through each room like two siblings showing a new babysitter their dollhouse: with pride, mild bickering over what belongs where, and a deep, shared imagination. It occurs to me that what I am seeing is the curator as artist. The construction of an exhibit as a work of inspiration. Where I see three-inch pieces of cardboard tacked inside a box, Adams and Bazzano are able to envision an entire world; how the colors and the sight-lines will work (or not) once the pieces are hanging on the gallery walls, but also, the more esoteric parts of the experience — how a piece might make a visitor feel, and what they might learn.

“You never know what’s going to inspire somebody to dig deeper and to learn more about something. I think that’s what art does. It takes your sensibility, your mindset and just tilts it and shifts it a teeny bit this way and opens up the world a little bit more for you to consider someone else’s perspective,” Adams says. “The creation of knowledge is a big part of what the goals of the Latin American collection have been from the very beginning. And so, we want people to come to the exhibition to learn something new, or think about something, or fall in love with something.”

At one point, I wander off toward the actual, life-sized works that are scattered around the print room — there’s one piece in particular I can’t stop thinking about. Earlier, Adams opened up a page of one of Brazilian artist Paolo Bruscky’s Xeroxed art-books to reveal a tangled mess of thin red string taped to the page. “‘Linea Poetica,’ or ‘Poetic Line,’” Adams says, explaining that Bruscky is also a performance artist, poet, filmmaker, and more; an avant-garde artist who, despite living through his country’s 1964 military coup and two decades of dictatorship, continues to use his art to create social change.

“This is a beautiful book that he made,” Adams says. “Titled altoRetrato — instead of autoretrato like self-portrait — it’s tall portrait, which is kind of funny of him.”

“Is he tall?” I ask.

“Maybe he wanted to be tall,” Bazzano laughs.

Since there’s no way for the taped string to fall in exactly the same way, each one of Bruscky’s books is unique. It feels like something sacred, and I want more time to study it, to trace the looping bright red line up and down the page with my eyes. When Adams catches me lingering over the closed book, she flashes me a puckish smile and asks, as if reading my mind, “You want to see the ‘Linea Poetica’ again, don’t you?”