The New Art From Mexico: It's The Color Of Money

She's the high priestess of Mexican art, an icon gazing with penetrating black eyes from scores of self-portraits. Although dead since 1954, Frida Kahlo lives on as a cover girl for glitzy European magazines and New York auction catalogues. Her bohemian life, tumultuous marriage with Diego Rivera, and alleged fling with Leon Trotsky all give her star status. Her paintings, which sold for $6,000 a decade ago, fetch as much as $1.5 million now. And Fridamania is bound to spread if Madonna, who collects Kahlo, sticks with her plan to portray her idol in a movie.

Mexico's biggest international art phenomenon is hardly the country's only star these days. In the past two years, "Mexico: Splendors of Thirty Centuries" has drawn more than a million museum-goers in New York, San Antonio, and Los Angeles. This huge, dazzling display has boosted the appeal north of the Rio Grande of a broad range of Mexican artists. Add in the wealthy arriviste collectors created by Mexico's thriving economy, and it's no wonder that Mexican art prices are booming--even while European and American art prices have plunged. Several Mexican paintings have topped the $1 million mark. Last fall, Rivera's Vendedora de Flores sold at Christie's for nearly $3 million, a record for a Latin American painting.

Whetted by the success of their dead masters, Mexican collectors are embarked on a risky new mission: trying to drive up the prices of the new generation of Mexican artists, thus boosting the value and prestige of their own collections. To this end, they're doing much of their shopping in New York and Los Angeles--even though that means paying an average of 30% more for Mexican works than they would at home.

HOT CACTUS. Leading the way is a slew of Monterrey-based industrialists who helped fund that northern city's new $11 million contemporary art museum. Mexican galleries are pitching in, too: They've staged exhibits in New York featuring works by dozens of young artists, mainly "neo-Mexicanists" who paint in a Kahlo-inspired naif style replete with bleeding hearts, cactuses, and other popular Mexican images.

Right behind them is Televisa, the TV empire that has long been an important patron of Mexican artists and that runs Mexico City's most important private museum, El Centro Cultural de Arte Contemporaneo. Televisa is headed by Emilio Azcarraga, whose trove of works by Mexican masters, neo-Mexicanists, and international contemporary artists ranks him among the world's top 200 collectors, according to ARTnews.

These giants, along with hundreds of small collectors, believe that a little extravagance now will be rewarded later, once U.S. collectors follow their lead. "They want to inflate prices because they collect the art back home," says art dealer Sandra Azcarraga, the daughter of Televisa's chairman. Adds Kurt Hollander, an art critic who also edits a new Mexican art magazine: "It's the most sophisticated manipulation of art that Mexico's ever had."

Carlos Salinas de Gortari's government is also playing a role. As Mexico negotiates a free-trade pact with the U.S. and Canada, Salinas wants to shift attention from Mexico as a source of illegal immigrants and drugs, accenting instead its rich culture, derived from North America's greatest ancient civilization. Mexico's President has traveled to the U.S. three times to cut the ribbon for the Thirty Centuries exhibit. He has also dispatched Mexican artists to the U.S. to gauge the response to the exhibit and related gallery shows.

WINNING WALLS. Promoting art is nothing new for Mexican officials. In the '30s and '40s, the government commissioned artists from the Muralist Movement, led by Rivera, Jose Clemente Orozco, and David Siqueiros, to cover the walls of public buildings. Their massive, colorful paintings spread the Mexican Revolution's nationalist message. And they left a stunning aesthetic legacy that influenced such American artists as Jackson Pollock.

Now, reflecting Mexico's move toward privatization, the government is leaving most of the patronage to private interests. Among those taking up the cause is Monterrey museum board president Diego Sada, whose interests include real estate and restaurants. Says Sada, who is spending big on neo-Mexicanists: "This is one of the best generations of artists that Mexico has ever produced." Experts also expect Banco Nacional de Mexico (Banamex) and other newly reprivatized banks, which own major collections but had virtually stopped buying during a decade of state ownership, to become big buyers again soon.

Televisa is probably the biggest single promoter of art. It shelled out some $4 million to help bankroll the Thirty Centuries exhibit. Besides owning the five-year-old El Centro Cultural, which specializes in Western art of the past 20 years, the TV giant boasts a collection that includes important pre-Hispanic as well as modern works. Televisa has contracted with several artists for the right of first refusal on their work. It pushes Mexican art via its three networks in ads, spots on news programs, and TV specials. It's also backing a new magazine, Saber Ver (Learn to See). And expect Televisa to promote art north of the border if it lands the 12% chunk of Univision Holdings Inc., the big U.S. Spanish-language network, that it's trying to buy from Hallmark Cards Inc.

CORN BEEF. Not everyone is pleased with these machinations, particularly the promotion of the neo-Mexicanists such as Rocio Maldonado, German Venegas, and Alejandro Arango. Artists and critics in Mexico City's bustling, young art community complain that the market-boosters promote only art that is easily identifiable as Mexican--at the expense of abstract and representational artists. "Artists in the U.S. don't have to produce the same old symbols . . . to be sold," says Fernando Leal, a prominent young Mexican painter whose style owes more to Cezanne than to Kahlo. Even gallery owner Patricia Ortiz Monasterio, who took neo-Mexican works to New York, says she's tiring of the well-worn symbols: "If I see another little ear of corn, I'll die."

Meanwhile, success abroad threatens to price the neo-Mexicanists out of their home market--even though Mexico's boisterous economy has produced thousands of yuppies eager to buy art. A Maldonado selling for $6,000 in 1990, for example, fetches $20,000 today. "Prices have risen too quickly," warns dealer Azcarraga. Instead of competing with big collectors for neo-Mexican works, young buyers are spending $5,000 to $10,000 for a Leal or a Teresa Velazquez. Their buying patterns--as well as the international status of many young Mexican artists--may now depend on whether American taste for Mexican art turns out to be lasting, or just fashion.

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