Antonio Martorell in “Nueva York (1613-1945)”

The major exhibition Nueva York (1613-1945)  is a collaboration between the New York Historical Society and El Museo del Barrio—the first exhibition to explore how New York’s long and deep involvement with Spain and Latin America has affected virtually every aspect of the city’s development, from commerce, manufacturing and transportation to communications, entertainment and the arts [see EXHIBITION REVIEW: Looking South, Not East, Into New York’s Past.]”

Organized by the two institutions, Nueva York has been on view from September 17, 2010, and will run through January 9, 2011, at El Museo del Barrio, 1230 Fifth Avenue (at 104th Street), while the New-York Historical Society’s landmark building on Central Park West undergoes a $60 million architectural renovation. The Chief Historian for the exhibition is Mike Wallace, Distinguished Professor of History at the City University of New York and Pulitzer Prize-winning co-author of Gotham. As Carlos Rodríguez Martorell (no relation) writes in “Antonio Martorell: De Aquí P’allá,” Antonio Martorell is the first Puerto Rican artist whose work will be part of the New York Historical Society’s permanent collection in January.

Rodríguez recently interviewed the author at the Museo del Barrio where the artist spoke about his artistic endeavors through the years and his current installation in the Nueva York exhibition, which he calls “De aquí p’allá” [From Here to There], a tribute to Luis Rafael Sánchez’s “La guagua aérea” [The Air Bus] and to the many waves of migration between Puerto Rico en the United States and beyond. Here are excerpts from Rodríguez’s article and interview in translation with a link to the full piece below:

The artist gives the impression of being tireless: “I enjoy working more than anything else. Including what you are thinking,” he says. Born in 1939 in the neighborhood of Santurce in San Juan, Antonio Martorell is probably the most important living visual artist in Puerto Rico, with a career marked by its commitment to the nationalist movements of the island, a commonwealth of the United States. “I am pro-independence, in case I had to say it,” he points out. Apart from his exhibitions, he has a radio program, a monthly column, and he directs the Ramón Frade Museum at the University of Puerto Rico-Cayey, where he also serves as a resident artist. He recently presented his third book in Spain. The artist exclaims, “I think that now [at this age] I can really address the big issues [. . .] I believe I am dyslexic when it comes to age; sometimes I think I am not 71, but rather 17.”

The dynamic Martorell sits in a chair covered with costumes representing immigrants, inside what appears to be a life size model of an airplane, decorated with photos, fabrics, and Mexican votive offerings. “They are really soft,” he says with his mischievous sense of humor.  I installed them so that the spectator occupies the position of the passenger and identifies with much berated and maligned immigrant.” Martorell did not hesitate to transfer the rights of intellectual ownership of the work: “The final destiny of many exhibitions is storage and destruction. There is no better place than the New York Historical Society to allow this [work] to remain indefinitely on view to the world.”

Showing me the “travelogue” notebooks where visitors enter their impressions, he opens a window to reveal a series of photos of boricuas [Puerto Ricans] such as Raúl Juliá and other celebrities as well as other immigrants loading luggage on aircraft and airports. “Look! This is my grandmother,” he says. He also points out the carpet, where you can read, in calligraphy, the names of Puerto Rico’s towns on one side and New York neighborhoods on the other: Manhattan/Maricao; Lares/Longwood; Jamaica/Jurutungo; Isabela/Ithaca; Ciales/Canal Street. . . This is one of the many references to the relationship between the city and the island, inspired by the famous Puerto Rican writer Luis Rafael Sánchez’s essay “La guagua aérea” [The Air Bus].

Why a tribute to “La guagua aérea?”  I call this work “De aquí p’allá” without specifying the “here” or “there,” because that is so particular about our migration, which Luis Rafael Sánchez, in his wonderful imagination, baptized as “air bus,” is that it is a round-trip journey. The Puerto Rican migration was the first massive air migration in our times, and today everybody refers to the “air bus” when flying from Puerto Rico to New York.

What has been your personal relationship with New York?:  My translocations were always privileged: as a student, as a visiting artist; I have never suffered the rigors of immigration, but I do have family and friends who have suffered. Migration was [established as] a government program in the 1950s, to relieve the populational excess of a country that was destitute. We—the Puerto Ricans that stayed on the island—are hugely indebted to the Diaspora, because they left, conscious of this fact or not, so that we could survive.

Your first training was to be a diplomat? How did this happen?:  As a child, I always drew and I was encouraged to take art classes. But later, as I reached adolescence and started the romantic idea of being an artist, my teachers, neighbors, and family members told me that I was going to die of hunger, and I believed it. I studied International Relations at Georgetown University in Washington, DC. They taught me so very well that I decided I was going to be a diplomat.

Then you studied with Julio Martín Caro in Madrid and with Lorenzo Homar and Rafael Tufiño in Puerto Rico. ¿When did you realize that you could make a living through art and that you would not die of hunger?:   I’ve done it all.  My teachers Homar and Tufiño taught me to do commissioned work, posters, book covers, record covers, stages, portraits, public art… Many artists believe that to do this is to negate one’s own inspiration, but I love it. There is no other way to learn than to do what you do not know how to do. That is why I have done television, theater, cinema, I have danced professionally. I have done all this out of a need to communicate.

At your age, many people feel that they are ready to rest,  but you keep creating and showing your work; doing radio; you write a monthly column for Primera Hora; and recently you also presented in Spain, your new book El velorio (no-vela), based on Francisco Oller’s El velorio. . .:  As soon as I began in the arts, I noticed that the great geniuses of painting—and I am not comparing myself, but one must look up not down—Picasso, Tiziano, Rembrandt, Goya. . . they all did their greatest  work well into their 80s.  So I live with the eternal illusion that the best is yet to come.  

For full article and interview see

Also see “Looking South, Not East” at

Photo from

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