• In a Cloud, in a Wall, in a Chair: Six Modernists in Mexico at Midcentury
    Anni Albers, Ruth Asawa, Lola Alvarez Bravo, Sheila Hicks, Clara Porset, and Cynthia Sargent
    Zoë Ryan
    Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago
    Sep 06, 2019 to Jan 12, 2020
    Art Institute of Chicago

Clara Porset, Butaque, ca.1955–56. Walnut and woven rattan, 73 × 54.5 × 59 cm. (28 3/4 × 21 7/16 × 23 1/4 in.). Gálvez Guzzy Family/Casa Gálvez Collection. Photo: Rodrigo Chapa.

In a Cloud, in a Wall, in a Chair: Six Modernists in Mexico at Midcentury unites the work of six designers and artists—Clara Porset, Lola Alvarez Bravo, Anni Albers, Ruth Asawa, Cynthia Sargent, and Sheila Hicks—who, inspired by local traditions and modern methods, as well as handcraft techniques and industrial processes, made work that reflected and contributed to Mexico’s rich artistic landscape at the height of the modern period. This constellation of like-minded practitioners shared a similar outlook and affinity for Mexico, a country all six lived in or visited between the 1940s and 1970s. Each believed in the universal quality of art and design and in the importance of artistic practice as a way to respond to and instigate social and political change. Their work was rooted in modernism and grounded in abstraction; it was at once informed by Mexico’s cosmopolitan internationalism and increasing industrialization and indebted to local concerns and creative traditions.

Clara Porset (Cuban, 1895–1981) passionately pursued what she called the design “of our own kind of furniture.” She took advantage of local materials and manufacturing methods and realized designed for objects, furniture, and interiors in response to Mexico’s specific climate, lifestyles, aesthetic preferences, and cultural traditions. Widely published, she was a longtime professor of industrial design at the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico.

Lola Alvarez Bravo (Mexican, 1903–1993) was a photographer and Porset’s valued collaborator, producing significant records of her designs. Alvarez Bravo’s work captured Mexico’s rural communities, documenting craftspeople at work, as well as depicting the country’s artistic elite and burgeoning industry. She created unsettling photomontages by juxtaposing such images, bringing to light contemporary Mexico’s complex and often contradictory social and economic landscape.

Anni Albers (German, 1899–1994) gravitated to pre-Columbian art and Mexico’s textile traditions, which inspired many of her abstract ideas. Albers’s curiosity was largely spurred by Porset, who had studied with her husband, Josef, at Black Mountain College. Albers traveled to Mexico fourteen times between the 1930s and 1960s, and pyramids inspired by Monte Alban in Oaxaca became visible motifs in her work for the rest of her career.

Ruth Asawa (American, 1926–2013) spent the summer of 1945 in Mexico City, where she met Porset, who recommended that she enroll in Black Mountain College. She returned to Mexico in 1947 and learned of the loop-wire hand-weaving technique that Tolucan craftspeople employed to construct wire baskets. This became her primary working method for the rest of her career, producing sculptures that transcend boundaries between artistic traditions.

Cynthia Sargent (American, 1922–2006) relocated to Mexico City in 1951 to pursue an interest in craft and established a workshop there with her husband, Wendell Riggs. In 1960, they founded the Bazaar Sabado, a market for artists and craftspeople to promote and sell their work. That project—which continues to this day—attracted not only Mexico’s artistic and social elite, but also tourists, fostering an appreciation for traditional craft in Mexico and beyond.

Sheila Hicks (American, b. 1934) founded a textile workshop in Guerrero and lived there from 1959 to 1963. Her interest in Latin American textiles shaped her entire career and allowed her to move beyond strict disciplinary boundaries. Through her cross-cultural work, she developed her own innovative and influential approach to abstraction and the integration of form and color.

Zoë Ryan is the John H. Bryan Chair and Curator of Architecture and Design at the Art Institute of Chicago and is curator for In a Cloud. A curator and author, her projects focus on exploring the impact of architecture and design on society.

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