Context, Cursilería, and Sorrow: Beatriz González

From Art Journal 79, no. 3 (Fall 2020)

Ana María Reyes. The Politics of Taste: Beatriz González and Cold War Aesthetics. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2019. 328 pp; 105 color ills. $104.99, $27.95 paper

Beatriz González: A Retrospective. Exhibition organized by Tobias Ostrander and Mari Carmen Ramírez. Pérez Art Museum Miami, April 19–September 2, 2019; Museum of Fine Arts Houston, October 27, 2019–January 20, 2020

Tobias Ostrander and Mari Carmen Ramírez. Beatriz González: A Retrospective. Exh. cat. New York: Prestel, 2019. 280 pp.; 200 color ills., 50 b/w ills. $45

Posed the question “What should be done first: approach the context or the particularities of the artistic practice?” by the Museum of Modern Art’s C-Map initiative, art historian Ana María Reyes responded, “A historian needs to understand the cultural, historical, social specificity of a moment of artistic creation and reception. . . . It would be irresponsible history to completely decontextualize art from its history.”1 Rich, multivalent context as means to weighing Colombian Beatriz González’s early artistic production (1964–70) is exactly what this assistant professor of Latin American art at Boston University offers readers with her monograph The Politics of Taste: Beatriz González and Cold War Aesthetics.

The author’s analysis is buttressed by field research including access to the artist’s personal archive, twelve hours of personal interviews with her, and archival work in Medellín, Colombia, all benefiting from institutional support including an award from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and a Santander fellowship at the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies at Harvard University. Reyes’s skillfully crafted text is the first single-author monograph on the artist in English.

Making the difficult task of measuring reception appear easy, Reyes methodically organizes her study into five chapters, each considering art critical response to a particular exhibition in the chronological trajectory of the career of Beatriz González (b. 1938, Bucaramanga, Colombia). Through her reception narrative Reyes reveals aspects of Colombia’s social anxieties, class distinctions, and political frustrations and fumbling, all the while elucidating the motivation behind the artist’s “recycling aesthetic,” which employs jarring color, combined elite and lowbrow culture, and irony to quietly deploy social criticism.

To open “Dis-cursis,” the book’s introduction, Reyes places González at the Pasaje Rivas in Bogotá, the flea market that the artist regularly scoured for furniture that she used in her assemblages as supports for her imagery; comprising that imagery were figurative translations of cursi (tacky) mass-produced, popular items, from religious and secular chromolithographs, to advertisements, to sensational or patriotic news clippings.2 Immediately Reyes alerts readers to the importance of González’s purposeful titles, wordplays imbued with wit and multilayered meaning engaging a discourse of high/low and good/bad taste. She states her thesis outright: “González’s works serve as effective critical tools that interrogate the politics of taste, the boundaries of representation within cultural circuits, and art’s relation to symbolic violence” (5). From the start, Reyes convincingly reads González’s art as one that resists an international aesthetic (i.e., post–World War II abstraction), arguing that through appropriation and “calculated regionalism” (11) the artist attacked conventions of good taste to spotlight the great divide between the Colombian elite and popular classes.

Reyes stages her analysis against the backdrop of Colombian political history; the bloody internecine war of the 1950s known as La Violencia gave way to a return to democratic rule by the National Front coalition government (1958–74) under Alberto Lleras Camargo. The era was a “time of disillusionment” (3) marked by “limited democracy, intense modernization programs, and Cold War tensions” (27) that González’s early artistic production responded to. Throughout, Reyes examines reactions to González’s art, especially those of a key supporter, cultural powerhouse Marta Traba (1930–1983).

Reyes’s tracking of González’s artistic development and the responses to her work in the critical press begins with the first solo show, Encajeras (Lacemakers), presented at the Bogotá Museum of Modern Art (MAMBO) in 1964. While the press praised the internationalist style evident in her series of thirteen abstract paintings that referenced at once Johannes Vermeer’s The Lacemaker and Colombian Pielroja cigarette pinup calendars (56), Reyes underscores the artist’s subversive approach in “developing a counternarrative to the hegemonic discourses of artistic autonomy and internationalism” (34) as she begins to undermine elite cultural expectations with satire, even while appearing to meet those expectations stylistically through increasing abstraction in this series based in representation. González’s approach to her study of The Lacemaker recalls Mexican Alberto Gironella’s earlier initiation of a two-decade-long dissection and reassembly, in a committed neofigurative mode, of canonical works by Francisco Goya, Diego Velázquez, and Jan van Eyck. For example, Gironella in Metamorphosis of a Queen of 1958 appropriates Queen Maria Luisa’s portrait from Goya’s The Family of Charles IV, abstracting its naturalism while cuttingly morphing her face into a furry owl’s. Reyes briefly acknowledges precedents such as Gironella to González’s old masters appropriations and recontextualizations in this first chapter. She will show that as González begins to turn to mechanical reproductions as source material, critical response to her engagement with lowbrow culture will reflect deep class divisions and the elite’s perception and fear of the masses as communist.

Scholars, following the artist’s lead, have acknowledged The Sisga Suicides of 1965 as González’s formal and conceptual breakthrough, marking the beginnings of her turn to poorly reproduced newspaper photographs illustrating violent and tragic stories as source material for her oil-on-canvas paintings and her later enamel painting on found objects.3 In chapter 2, Reyes conducts an extended analysis of The Sisga Suicides, which in 1965 won González a second prize for painting at the Seventeenth National Salon of Colombian Artists; Reyes expands her reading of González’s unmodulated, loud, poster-like portraits beyond Pop appropriation of a sensational, yellow news item (the tragic narrative of a working-class couple’s suicide pact, carried out to preserve the woman’s moral reputation) to a broader contextual discussion of contemporaneous class prejudice, attitudes toward women’s sexuality and reproductive rights, and anxieties around rural-to-urban migration, population growth, and the perceived threat of communism. A comparison yet to be explored is González’s stylistic relationship to that of a contemporary, Cuban painter and graphic artist Raúl Martínez (1927–1995).

Taking 1886 as her starting point, Reyes also outlines the history of Colombia’s National Salon, noting that 1965 signified the “passing of the baton to a new generation and a changed course concerning aesthetic criteria, this time privileging assaults on aesthetic conventions . . . [and signaling a move] away from universal participation toward counterculture impulses that hinted at political engagement” (85). It was in this Seventeenth Salon that González earned her career-long label of “painter of cursilería” (74). Continuing her inquiry into reception, Reyes records the heated debate between Traba and other critics over the acceptability of awarding prizes to artworks, such as González’s The Sisga Suicides, that reflect “new positions” in Colombian art, reject consecrated abstraction, and contest “notions of refinement and good taste” (109). Appreciated here is the biographical insight Reyes offers as she reveals how early González-Aranda family lessons in taste informed the artist’s choice of lo cursi as a strategy for social criticism.

In chapter 3, provocatively titled “‘Cut It Out’: Impropriety at the MAMBO,” Reyes examines González’s short-lived second solo exhibition at MAMBO comprising fourteen oil paintings evincing a faux collage and scrapbook aesthetic. She positions González—a “painter of the tacky, the lowbrow, and that which is ours (‘lo nuestro’)” (29)—against the background of the 1967 student protests at the National University, where the exhibition took place (briefly, before being closed by military crackdown). González appropriates and recycles the devotional and popular imagery of chromolithographs mass produced in Cali by printer Gráficas Molinari to address neocolonial questions of race, gender expectations, and “third world” status in her oil painting, a strategy subsequently taken up by some Chicanx and neo-Mexicanista artists.4 Reyes persistently ties González’s artwork to the political, economic, and social context of the time of its initial presentation, while highlighting the artist’s success in “collapsing categories of the modern and traditional and high and low” (151).

Chapter 4, “Notes for an Exclusive History of Colombia,” considers González’s strategic approach to national patrimony in her award-winning diptych Apuntes para la historia extensa I y II, submitted to the Nineteenth National Salon of Colombian Artists in 1967. The oval portraits of rival political heroes, Colombia’s founding fathers Simón Bolívar and Francisco de Paula Santander, painted in a flat, reductive, “unrefined” manner, which González based on newspaper reproductions of nineteenth-century paintings of the independence leaders, both challenged notions of official culture and questioned the performance of the bipartisan National Front coalition regime (164). Apuntes represents González’s first application of commercial enamel to metal plates, a technique that she would later incorporate in her furniture assemblages. Once again Reyes shows the subversive intent behind González’s insistence that reminders of popular culture and “lower” class life gain entrance to elite institutions. As the author recounts, the critical reception of González’s heroes ranged from accusations of plagiarism by journalist Arturo Abella to applause from critic Germán Rubiano Caballero, who lauded the artist’s “deliberately clumsy technique” and “loud and dirty colors” (165), or colores chillones, as González would call her palette (69).

In chapter 5 Reyes arrives at González’s furniture assemblages, or mobilario, for which she is famously known, studying the reception of Naturaleza casi muerta, the artist’s submission to the Second International Coltejer Biennial in Medellín in 1970, where she inserted her chromolithograph-inspired painting Our Fallen Lord of Monserrate into a faux-wood metal bedframe that she purchased at a local marketplace known as Los Mártires. For a competition whose European jury favored geometric abstraction, González deliberately intended her work to challenge biennial audiences and parody “modernizing” aesthetic expectations; those jurors dismissed this first of many mobilario produced in the 1970s as “a derivative and belated example of U.S. pop art” (181). Defending González, Traba insisted that the artist’s expression was one of resistance against US cultural imperialism (215). Whereas in their time González’s furniture pieces were transgressive in content, medium, and motivation, by the 1980s such strategies were accepted elsewhere. For example, a Neo-Expressionism emerged in Mexico (neo-Mexicanismo) that freely combined high and low, sacred and profane, and a parodic national iconography, as was evident in the 1987 exhibition El Mueble at the Galería OMR, Mexico City, for which eight artists paired with local artisans to produce mobilario; included were Rocio Maldonado’s Tocador (Dresser) and Javier de la Garza’s Biombo (Screen).5

Reyes concludes her close study of González’s early career by alerting readers to a subsequent shift in the artwork, marked by the 1985 tragedy at Bogotá’s Palacio de Justicia, where hundreds of victims, including Supreme Court justices, were killed in a battle between the military and M-19 guerrillas. From that moment, González abandoned humor for grief in her approach to social criticism. Reyes explains, “To date, González continues to paint images of pain, loss, and suffering inspired by images that she collects from the mass media in her genre of critical history” (222), all in response to Colombia’s culture of violence and human-rights violations that has resulted from the escalating civil war and narco-traffic.

Now in her early eighties, the working artist has of late been receiving renewed and wider attention. In addition to Reyes’s The Politics of Taste, which offers broad contextual analysis within a focused time frame and selection of artworks, Beatriz González: A Retrospective, at the Pérez Art Museum Miami and Museum of Fine Arts Houston (MFAH), presented the artist’s first career retrospective in the United States. Mari Carmen Ramírez, the Wortham Curator of Latin American Art and director of the International Center for the Arts of the Americas (ICAA) at MFAH, co-organized the exhibition in tandem with Tobias Ostrander, independent curator and former chief curator of the Pérez Art Museum Miami. This survey followed on the heels of a 2018 retrospective at the Centre d’arts plastiques contemporains (CAPC) in Bordeaux, France, the “most extensive monographic exhibition ever organized in Europe about this internationally renowned Colombian artist.”6 Equally impactful in breadth, Beatriz González: A Retrospective comprised more than one hundred artworks produced between 1962 and 2018 in a range of media, installed chronologically at MFAH in the galleries on the upper deck of the Caroline Wiess Law Building. Permeating the viewers’ experience of González’s trajectory was the audio for artist Shaun Gladwell’s slow-motion video BMX Channel, projected on a loop in the lower gallery; spilling over the guardrails into the open floor, the driving, electronic-ambient soundtrack with its rhythmic, haunting music seemed fitting as one took in González’s loud, dissonant palette, surprising supports, and art of parody and sorrow.7

An array of fauve color greeted viewers as they looked from the lower-level lobby to the open galleries above. Secured to the railings were nine of González’s revised street signposts, Pictografias particulares, of 2014; bearing silhouettes of burden carriers, they alerted viewers to political content addressing Colombians’ precarious existence. Beyond them, Telón de la móvil y cambiante naturaleza hung from floor to ceiling; at an impressive twenty-three by thirty-nine feet, the artist’s “curtain,” first seen at the Venice Biennale of 1978, presents a monumental revision of Édouard Manet’s The Luncheon on the Grass of 1863. Finally, the introductory wall confronted the viewer with a larger-than-life, black-and-white portrait of the artist from 1965, a commanding presence at twenty-seven years of age. Framed by The Sisga Suicides behind her, this photographic record signaled the exhibition’s archival approach, where in nearly every room display cases held a variety of documents—from source material such as newspaper clippings, postcards, and chromolithographs to rare exhibition catalogs, testaments to the artist’s long career. Each of the many galleries revealed González’s radical experimentation through examples of her altered objects, in addition to her paintings, prints, and drawings. Her supports ran the gamut from shower curtains and wallpaper, to examples of her mobilario, to a drum, breadbasket, television, coatrack, ceramic candy dish, and more.

Accompanying Beatriz González: A Retrospective is a handsome, weighty, beautifully illustrated publication of the same title, with full-page color images of all works in the exhibition. Selected by the New York Times as one of the best art books of 2019, the catalog is authored by curators Ostrander and Ramírez, with contributions by Carolina Ponce de León, pioneering scholar of González’s work, and historian Gonzalo Sánchez G., as well as a text by the artist in which she reviews her oeuvre in relation to her major installation Auras anónimas of 2007–9.8 A twenty-nine-page chronology compiled by José Ruiz Diaz and Natalia Gutiérrez offers a year-by-year progression of the artist’s life, with biographical snippets, exhibition history, context from Colombian political and cultural history, and archival images. And there is a scholars’ treasure trove of additional back material: several historical, critical texts about and interviews with the artist published between 1964 and 2005 in Colombian newspapers, journals, and catalogs, reproduced from the ICAA digital archive.

Ostrander, in his exhibition essay “An Art of Contradiction,” walks readers through González’s production from the 1960s to the 1980s, focusing, like Reyes, on the artist’s engagement with popular taste. “The Pigments of Sorrow,” Ramirez’s close analysis of González’s post-1985 production, contends that ultimately “it is the depth and intensity of Beatriz González’s approach to individual and collective grief that perhaps represents her most outstanding contribution to contemporary art.”9 As these recent studies of González’s life production make clear, her formally and thematically layered artwork continues to provide a springboard from which to consider complex, unequal power relationships: the disparities between genders, the elite and popular classes, and the “first” and “third” worlds.

Teresa Eckmann is associate professor of modern and contemporary Latin American art history at the University of Texas at San Antonio. She is the author of Neo-Mexicanism: Mexican Figurative Painting and Patronage in the 1980s (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2010) and curator of Alberto Mijangos, 159: A Retrospective of His Art and Life (Centro de Artes, Department of Arts and Culture, City of San Antonio, Texas, 2018–19).

Editor’s Note: Ana María Reyes began her term as a member of the Art Journal Editorial Board after the commissioning of this review. She was not involved in its editorial process.

  1. Ana María Reyes, “5 Questions with Ana María Reyes,” Challenging the Global: C-Map Experts Respond to 5 Questions, Post: Notes on Modern and Contemporary Art around the Globe, April 20, 2017.
  2. Reyes expands the definition of cursi beyond “bad aesthetic taste” (24) to mean “a word saturated not only with class condescension but also with anxiety about a threat emanating from the popular classes, revolutionary fervor, and social changes engendered by modernity” (26).
  3. See, for example, Tobias Ostrander, “The Art of Contradiction,” in Beatriz González: A Retrospective, 16–17; Hans Ulrich Obrist, “Beatriz González,” in Conversations in Colombia, ed. Karen Marta (Bogotá, Colombia: La Oficina del Doctor, 2015), 26–30; and Gina McDaniel Tarver, “Art for a New Reality,” in The New Iconoclasts: From Art of a New Reality to Conceptual Art in Colombia, 1961–1975 (Bogotá, Colombia: Universidad de los Andes, 2016), 44–51.
  4. See, for example, Tere Romo, “The Chicanization of Mexican Calendar Art,” Smithsonian Center for Latino Initiative; and Teresa Eckmann, “Javier de la Garza and Alejandro Arango: Reevaluating Signs of Identity,” in Neo-Mexicanism: Mexican Figurative Painting and Patronage in the 1980s (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2010), 169–90.
  5. See “El Mueble 8 Artistas,” a trifold published by the Galería OMR (Mexico City) for the exhibition of the same title opening November 24, 1987, featuring artwork by Gilberto Aceves Navarro, Alejandro Arango, Aristides Coen, Javier de la Garza, Rocío Maldonado, Georgina Quintana, and Pablo Rulfo.
  6. Vincent Berjot, in Beatriz González: 1965–2017 (Bordeaux, France: CAPC musée d’art contemporain de Bordeaux; Madrid: Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía; Berlin: KW Institute for Contemporary Art, 2017), 202.
  7. The soundtrack is by Kazumichi Grime; the artwork is dated 2013.
  8. See Holland Cotter, Roberta Smith, Jason Farago, and Martha Schwendener, “Best Art Books of 2019,” New York Times, December 5, 2019.
  9. Mari Carmen Ramírez, introductory wall text to the exhibition Beatriz González: A Retrospective at MFAH.