Game-Changing Art Exhibit Unpacks the Latino History of Pop Art

nasher pop martinez elvaquero
Raúl Martinez 1968

Latin pop is finally getting its due, after years of being boxed out of the mainstream. For once, we’re actually not talking about Ozuna here: Today, we’re referring to Latin Pop art, a movement that took its cues from the dominant Pop art movement that originated in the U.S. and Britain in the middle of the 20th century. Pop América, a truly comprehensive Pop art exhibit that includes work from across the Americas and spans decades — not just the work that was embraced by the arbiters of Western-centered art history — is now in the middle of it’s U.S. tour at the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, where it is the museum’s first fully bilingual exhibit ever. The show first was exhibited in San Antonio at the McNay Art Museum before being installed at the Nasher earlier this year. 

Pop América was curated by Esther Gabara, a professor of art and literature at Duke. Over 100 pieces of work in the show are created by Latinx artists from across the Americas, including work that hails from Argentina, Chile, Peru, Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, Cuba, Puerto Rico, as well as the U.S. (Hyperallergic pointed out that the show lacks work from most of Central America, as much of the art produced in that region has reflected folk traditions of art rather than more global trends.)

Antonio Caro, Colombia Coca-Cola, 1976. Enamel on sheet metal, Image courtesy of the artist and Casas Riegner, Bogota, Colombia. © Antonio Caro.

To accompany what is the Nasher’s first fully bilingual show, the museum put out a bilingual exhibition catalogue. The Nasher’s emphasis on inclusivity is no doubt inspired by the international reach of the Pop art movement, something that Pop América hopes to impress upon an audience that is more apt to associate the movement with well-known American artists like Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein. Putting on a fully bilingual show isn’t necessarily something that wouldn’t surprise anyone familiar with the Nasher’s mission: The museum’s calendar is penciled in with broadly inclusive programming throughout the year with events like Spanish-English “Bilingual Story Time” and “Reflections,” a tour that caters to visitors who live with neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s. 

Rewriting the Pop Art Canon

Prior to opening its show at the McNay, Pop América earned the first ever Sotheby’s Prize in 2017. The award is a sizable grant — a quarter of a million dollars — that is given to museums and curators that “explore overlooked or under-represented areas of art history.” (P.S. Last year, the Sotheby’s Prize was awarded to the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures for its exhibition Regeneration: Black Cinema 1900-1970, opening in late 2020.) Taking a second — or even first! — look at work produced by individuals and groups who were (and sometimes are still) excluded from the canon is a way to flesh out these narratives; museums that purport to meaningfully reflect art historical and contemporary narratives are all but obligated to reorient themselves, to reconsider what it means for artists and their work to be part of canon. Notably, the MoMA in New York City is doing reevaluating their contribution to art historical narratives by reopening in the fall with a complete rehang of their permanent collection, as well as kicking off their new era with a special exhibit Sur Moderno, a survey of South American abstract and concrete art from around the same period as the greater Pop art movement. 

Richard Aste, the director of the McNay Museum explained to Art and Object that Pop América expands “the canon of modern art history by making room for those voices (here, Latin American voices) who were always there but consistently overlooked by U.S.-focused scholars and museum professionals.” Being the first space to host the show was of particular resonance considering the McNay’s connections to Latinx culture and community. “San Antonio is a thriving Hispanic-majority city located two hours from the U.S.- Mexico border,” he continued, “and the exhibition Pop América is a true reflection of our community’s greatest strength, its diversity.”

This aspect of it — the rewriting of the canon — is what earned the Nasher the Pop América Allan Schwartzman, a co-creator of the Sotheby’s Prize, said in a statement that Pop América received the award because of the way that it rewrites our understanding of the movement. “It shows how it was [utilized] in Latin America in a way that was more precise and intentional than in some other parts of the world,” he said. Schwartzman was referring to the general impression that Pop art is apolitical. 

When considering Latin American Pop art, though, it becomes clearer that the broader movement was not simply a stylistic reaction to the Abstract Expressionism that preceded it. Instead, it was a way for Latin American artists who were working under politically repressive regimes to convey radical political statements to the public through seemingly innocuous visual language. “As the first exhibition to present a vision of Pop on the American continent as a whole, Pop América makes a critical contribution to understanding this artistic period and Latin America’s rich artistic heritage,” Sarah Schroth, the director of the Nasher, explained in an announcement of the show. “At the same time, this will also be the first exhibition to consider Pop art throughout the Americas as an intentional strategy for communicating sensitive, politically challenging content.”

Video Nasher Museum Pop América, 1965–1975
Video ~ Pop América, 1965–1975

Gabara shared with Sotheby’s an example of how artwork from one of the show’s Latinx artists embraced the bold, egalitarian aesthetics of the Pop art movement and charged it with political fire. She referenced the blue and grey 1968 painting Unfinished Man by California-born Rupert García. At first glance, the painting is just the lower part of a face, an open mouth, composed with bold geometries and clean divisions of color. But context is key. “The man’s partial face [in the painting] embodies the anxieties – artistic, political, and emotional – that haunted the artist around 1968, when students and black and Chicano civil rights activists protested across the country.” She considers García — who at the age of 78 is still making work — to be one of the most important American artists of the 20th century. His 1973 poster ¡Cesen Deportación! featuring rows of barbed wire rendered against a backdrop of stark colors made as potent a statement as ever when it was exhibited in 2017 at Los Angeles’s Craft and Folk Art Museum, shortly after Trump made the announcement that he would be phasing out DACA. 

Pop América runs through July 21st at the Nasher, and will be installed for its final leg at Northwestern University’s Block Museum between September 21st and December 8th.