Tropical Ambition

A new review of Caribbean: Crossroads of the World by Tom L. Freudenheim for The Wall Street Journal.

A wholly different, and very rewarding, view of the Caribbean awaits those energetic art troopers willing to tackle “Caribbean: Crossroads of the World,” the ambitious and sprawling trio of exhibitions on view at El Museo del Barrio, the Queens Museum of Art and the Studio Museum in Harlem. As a compelling reminder that New York may be the world’s most populous and diverse “Caribbean” city, the exhibitions also provide fascinating geopolitical lessons. But despite each museum’s focus on two of the six themes that serve as general organizing principles, this valiant attempt at arranging works by 379 artists, borrowed from an impressive range of lenders and spanning more than two centuries, is most satisfying as an opportunity to see a great many first-rate yet unfamiliar or seldom-displayed artists.

Caribbean: Crossroads of the World

The Studio Museum in Harlem 
Through Oct. 21

El Museo del Barrio 
Through Jan. 6

Queens Museum of Art 
Through Jan. 6

That’s partly because the geographic areas covered aren’t simply the venues for your winter holidays or the destinations for your offshore banking. Sure, we’re looking at art from the islands, but there’s also plenty from all the other countries in Central and South America that touch the Caribbean Sea. And aside from various political histories—the Haitian Revolution (1791-1804) is the starting point—we’re confronted with the reality of racial and ethnic mixes of great variety. Indigenous populations were supplemented and sometimes supplanted by African slaves, as well as by Europeans and Asians from many countries. So the linguistic and cultural mélange is evident here.

We are also exposed to the lure of tropical places for outsiders, such as Paul Gauguin, who visited Martinique, and a different kind of outsider, Camille Pissarro, who was born of Jewish heritage on the island of St. Thomas but spent most of his life in France. While such famous artists make their appearance in these shows, they really seem incidental to the general sense of what’s on view. It’s also fascinating to see work by American artists we don’t automatically associate with the Caribbean, from an example of Haitian-born John James Audubon’s gorgeous “Birds of America” (1840-44), to works by Walker Evans, Robert Gwathmey, Rockwell Kent and Jacob Lawrence. Artists such as the Cuban Wifredo Lam and the Venezuelan Jesús Rafael Soto are more familiar to us from the world of modern art, but not necessarily in this context.

The tendency to view artists in relation to their countries of origin makes this Caribbean regional approach frustrating at times. Perhaps such viewer reorientation is one of the goals of this ambitious project, 10 years in development, which also includes several months of interdisciplinary programs across the New York area. Both El Museo and the Studio Museum trace their origins to serving a specific ethnic audience, while the Queens Museum resides in one of the most ethnically diverse counties in the U.S. Yet these exhibitions wisely don’t pander to viewers’ pride of birthplace.

At the Queens Museum, where the significance of water is one of the themes, several competent, if mundane, marine paintings compete with Winslow Homer’s superb 1888 etching, “Perils of the Sea,” whose presence here is puzzling, since it was inspired by the artist’s stay at an English fishing village. On the other hand, a delicate linocut, “The Flood” (undated) by Barbadian Golde White, easily surpasses larger and more ambitious sea canvases. The carnival theme is especially strong here, and perhaps the most emblematic and powerful of these works is “Spirit of the Carnival (The British forces of law and order in confrontation with an ancient African Spirit)” (1982) by Tam Joseph, an artist from the tiny island of Dominica. The Cuban artist René Portocarrero is represented here by an exuberant, Klee-inspired gouache, “Cuban Carnival” (1953). The QMA’s installations are inevitably interrupted by the spectacular and immense Panorama model of New York City that upstages almost everything shown there; nevertheless, it’s always well worth the detour.

The Studio Museum provides the most interesting historical fare, including a wonderful pair of 1816 portraits of Haitian princes by the British painter Richard Evans. A fine black-chalk drawing (c. 1797) of Jean-Baptiste Belley, attributed to the French artist Anne-Louis Girodet de Roussy-Trioson, depicts the Senegalese former slave and Haitian freedom fighter as an elegant member of the post-Revolutionary French National Convention. For contrast, several ironic contemporary comments play off these traditionally rendered heroic figures. Among the most interesting are “Le General Toussaint enfumé (General Toussaint Wreathed in Smoke), or Pretty in Pink” (2000), a mixed-media work by Edouard Duval-Carrié, and “Redcoat” (2004), a large photograph from Renée Cox’s series “Queen Nanny of the Maroons.”

While issues of race are inherent to all three exhibitions, they seem to play a greater role at the Studio Museum—but generally in ways that are engaging rather than politically strident. “The Assault, or Fencing Match, which took place at Carlton House on the 9th of April 1787” is an engraving (c. 1787) by the Frenchman Victor Marie Picot (after Charles Jean Robineau) that depicts a confrontation between the Chevalier d’Eon (dressed as a woman) and one of his African slaves.

El Museo has an exceptionally polished installation that emphasizes a sense of place and issues of colonialism, including problematic questions of exoticism and otherness. And yet here, too, the thrust is not especially political. A number of beautifully rendered lush tropical scenes suggest that simply being enchanted by the tropics doesn’t necessarily constitute voyeurism. That’s especially evident in the work by Agostino Brunias, an Italian artist who painted in the West Indies; his “A Leeward Islands Carib Family outside a Hut” (c. 1780) is an especially sympathetic recording of native people.

The noted Puerto Rican artist Myrna Báez is represented here by two fine works. These include the silk-screen print “Georgia O’Keeffe in Puerto Rico” (1980), hinting at the ties between and among artists. That’s also engagingly reflected in “Prayer at the Museum” (2008) an assemblage by the Colombian Alvaro Barrios that is an homage to Marcel Duchamp.

This immense Caribbean project suggests that just because an enterprise is too ambitious it doesn’t mean that it’s not worth the risk. This is such a rich potpourri of serious artworks—from many eras and places, in many media and styles—enabling us to compare and contrast such a range of issues, that it takes a bit of effort to plow through its many treasures. But there’s a huge payoff in pleasure and new perspectives. Project Director Elvis Fuentes worked with a large team of colleagues to assist us in celebrating these shared histories, thus moving us toward a better understanding of the Caribbean as having its own significant and complex identity.

Mr. Freudenheim, a former art-museum director, served as the assistant secretary for museums at the Smithsonian.

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