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THE NEW YORK TIMES
In Uptown Galleries And Museums, Heat And Light Aplenty: 'Puerto Rican Light'
By HOLLAND COTTER
May 30, 2003
JUST before and after World War II, 57th Street in Manhattan was the Gold Coast of modern art. Bright lights, big pictures, names like Pollock, de Kooning and Kline, not to mention indoor smoking.
When the action started moving downtown in the 1960's, the Midtown luster dimmed a bit. But it never went out, and today the area has a mellow, steady glow. Its prewar galleries look shapely and civilized next to Chelsea barns. Some of the city's best noncommercial spaces are in the area. So are some of this spring's more interesting shows.
Organizing a tour by medium or style doesn't do the trick. There's too much and too little of everything. So how about a theme? Light. Basically, light is what art is made of. Color is light rays bent a certain way. Sculpture is shaped by light. Photography? Light plus chemicals. Film: projected light. That's the physical part. Then there are ideas. Some of us, sometimes, find art to be illuminating: it fires the emotions, throws history into relief, brightens the day.
Art-and-light talk can get out of hand. Unless you are careful, you find yourself veering toward the Sublime, or some such place, and there the population changes. Suddenly spirits, space cadets and visionaries are walking around like so many turned-on light bulbs. Well, Pollock was one of those, so that's not so bad. So was Kline, which is better. And it turns out there are more where they came from on 57th Street and its environs this spring, as you'll see.
`Puerto Rican Light'
Traveling light is the idea behind "Puerto Rican Light: Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla" at the Americas Society, a show that presents the work of two conceptual artist-collaborators who divide their time between Puerto Rico and New York. At first, the show seems barely there. The main gallery appears completely empty, except that its walls are bathed in changing red, green and yellow light. Certain artists have taught us to think of light as sculpture. Dan Flavin was one, and, sure enough, a 1965 Flavin piece, made of three vertical lighted tubes red, pink, yellow is installed in a smaller gallery. It is titled "Puerto Rican Light (to Jeanie Blake)."
Usually a Flavin piece just plugs in to the wall. This one, though, is powered by solar energy stored in batteries sitting in a shipping crate in the middle of the room. The energy, enough to keep the Flavin lighted for the duration of the show, was gathered in San Juan. So, it turns out, was the light in the larger gallery. Indeed, the rhythmic change of color is timed to correspond to a set of traffic lights on a San Juan street corner.
The show, organized by Sofía Hernández Chong Cuy, associate curator at the gallery, is rounded out by a panoramic photograph of a man standing on a shoreline and facing out toward a distant city San Juan again, though it could easily be part of New Jersey seen from Manhattan as a column of platinum sunlight falls across the water to his feet. The light appears substantial enough for him to walk across it to the distant town, or, in yet another play on the idea of transport in a magical show, into the clouds above.
Then, once you're touched by Caribbean light and a traveling mood, I recommend a visit to El Museo del Barrio in East Harlem, where "Painter of the People," a retrospective of work by the Puerto Rican artist Rafael Tufiño, is on view. Mr. Tufiño, 73, was actually born in Brooklyn and moved to Puerto Rico as a child. He has been back and forth countless times, and in the 1970's helped create the workshop called El Taller Boricua, still vital and located a few blocks east of El Museo.
With such links, it makes perfect sense that the survey organized by Dr. Teresa Tío for the Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico in San Juan should be in New York, where this artist's history began. His career covers six decades; the show documents much of it. From the outset Mr. Tufiño was a figurative artist, and Puerto Rico its people, cities and landscapes was his subject, in paintings, prints and posters that joined Fauvist colors and Expressionist forms.
Piece by piece, there is much to savor in the show. But sometimes an artist's career can be a radiant thing in itself, a source of shared energy, and this is true of Mr. Tufiño's. His cosmopolitan presence in Puerto Rico and New York has encouraged generations of artists prone to view themselves as confined to a backwater to feel part of a larger world, and to feel that the world they live in is larger than they know. Even the crop of very young Puerto Rico-based artists, who are just beginning to cause ripples internationally, owe him a debt of gratitude.
Their work is, of course, nothing like his. Even in the 1950's, his was a traditionalist version of Modernism, one that avoided the abstraction that still hung on as the progressive house style of 57th Street. Instead, he painted his life, more or less as he saw it. A tough, realist portrait of his mother from 1953 is well known, though my own favorites are his seductive architectural interiors. One is of a cool, dim theater, its curtains draped like sheets hung up to dry; another is of a San Juan bar as solemn as a church off hours. Best of all is a recent painting set in a dark room but looking out toward a sun-flooded balcony, and beyond that a wall with a fantastic floating patchwork of squares, bright yellow and red: the colors of Albers's homages, and of "Puerto Rican Light."