America’s Most Expensive Artist Is Latinx—but No One Knows It

  • Jean-Michel Basquiat, Untitled, 1982. Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

Last month, Jean-Michel Basquiat set the record for a work sold by any American artist (next in line is Andy Warhol), and left the art world buzzing when his dynamic painting from 1982 sold for $110.5 million at Sotheby’s.

Basquiat is almost exclusively referred to as a black American artist, although his father, Gérard Basquiat, was born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and his mother, Matilda Andrades, was born of Puerto Rican parents. The positioning of Basquiat’s identity as exclusively black highlights the ongoing invisibility of Latinx artists in the U.S. art market, a result of a historic lack of private patronage, underexposure, and widespread confusion about what constitutes Latinx art, as opposed to Latin American art.

The term “Latinx” (pronounced /la-teen-ex/) is the gender-neutral alternative to Latino, Latina, and Latin@, and refers to numerous intersecting identities of Latin American and Caribbean descendants born or long living in the U.S.

In an art context, Latinx art refers to work produced by Latin American descendants born or long living in the U.S. and is generally not included in what is classified as “American art,” even though these artists may be second- or third-generation Americans, says Deborah Cullen, director and chief curator of the Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Art Gallery at Columbia University. Latin American art defines work by artists across Mexico, Central and South America, and the Spanish-speaking Caribbean, as well as by artists who were born elsewhere and later established their careers in these regions.

Latinx art typically dates back to the middle of the 20th century, born out of a tumultuous time when Latinx communities organized and demanded equal rights, better healthcare, and inclusion in an educational curriculum that left Latinxs out of history books. Artists like Raphael Montañez Ortiz, Carlos Irizarry, Olga Albizu, Myrna Báez, and Roberto Chavez were foundational in the Chicanx and Nuyorican art movements of the late ’60s and ’70s, which were based largely in major cities like New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago. Latinx studies (which included Latinx art) as an area of inquiry and scholarship began in the 1960s with the Chicanx courses at the University of California on the West Coast and in 1973 on the East Coast with the Centro de Estudios Puertorriqueños at the City University of New York. It is important to note, however, that the first comprehensive anthology dissecting the Latinx and Latin American dichotomy as it relates to art and cultural production, “Resisting Categories: Latin American and/or Latino?” was not published until 2012.  

Where Was the Market?

Latinx artists have historically been supported by culturally-specific non-profit institutions such as New York’s El Museo del Barrio and El Taller Boricua, which showcased their work (and would later on produce publications as well as preserve a visual archive of Latinx art). But these aforementioned artists had few private patrons at the time, largely due to the relative lack of financial means within Latinx communities, says Arlene Dávila, a professor at New York University who has researched Latinx art. In addition, the market was (and still is) limited for art born of community engagement and social movements. Racism in the art world—as in other sectors of society and the labor market—also kept Latinx artists out of the permanent collections and exhibitions of mainstream institutions, Dávila adds.

By contrast, institutional attention to Mexico’s vibrant art movement dates back to the 1930s and 1940s, exemplified by shows such as “Mexican Arts” in 1930–32 at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and “Modern Mexican Painters” in 1941 at what is now the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston. This history of museum support also helped give other Latin American artists credibility. Furthermore, the Latin American art market has a long and rich history of private collecting in countries like Mexico and Brazil. From its inception, Latin American art was tied to the continent’s elite, and continues to be supported by wealthy patrons and Latin American collectors.

That history of private collecting has helped lay the foundation for a more energetic secondary market (when works are resold or sold at auction), and allowed for the accrual of price and market data that can serve to assure collectors of a work’s value. By 1979, auction house Sotheby’s had a Latin American Department founded by Mary-Anne Martin after a trip to Mexico City a few years prior; other auction houses followed suit. The creation of Latin American art as a distinct category, along with additional early institutional support from the Museum of Modern Art and the Rockefeller family, encouraged and legitimized the collection and exhibiting of Latin American Art.


Where Is the Market?

Today, the distinction between Latinx and Latin American art is often lost on curators, dealers, and auction houses. On occasion, it is even deliberately blurred.

For example, when the auction house Phillips was offered a Carmen Herrera piece from 1965 for its fall 2016 sales, the painting was placed in the contemporary evening sale alongside works by American artists, in an attempt to expose the work to a broader audience of art collectors who might not normally attend Latin American art sales. The artist, who was born in Cuba but has lived and worked in New York City since 1954, was dubbed “American,” with an emphasis on her being Cuban-born. But her works have also appeared in Latin American sales at auction houses over the years.

That decision came on the heels of a 2015 then-record of $437,000, says Kaeli Deane, Head of Sale and Associate Vice President for Latin American Art at Phillips, told the audience during a “Young Collectors” panel at the Americas Society featuring prominent Latin American collectors. An audience member noted she had been exhibited as a Latinx artist at the Americas Society.

Because Herrera is Cuban-born, but has been living for most of her life in New York, she crosses back and forth between contemporary and Latin American sectors. However, neither category speaks to her intersectional American experience as a Latinx artist, and suggests that a Latinx artist must “rise above” their cultural context to find a space in the U.S. art market. This, in turn, makes it harder to establish a specific market for Latinx art.

  • Installation view of “Carmen Herrera: Lines of Sight.” Courtesy of the Whitney Museum of American Art.

Separating Latinx art from Latin American art is the first step towards creating value for Latinx art, said Dr. Mari Carmen Ramirez, curator of Latin American art and founding Director of the International Center for the Arts at Museum of Fine Arts in Houston.

The next step is ensuring Latinx artists can enter the market. Currently, few have access through the gallery system. Of the artists represented by high-level commercial galleries in New York City, only 1.2% of American artists are Latinx, according to a study by CUNY Guttman College, and over 88% are white. The city overall is 28% Latinx, according to census data.


Institutional Progress

But galleries can only do so much, says Patricia Hanna, personal curator for Latin American collector Jorge Pérez and art director of The Related Group. Institutions, and in particular major museums, also have a responsibility to highlight these artists, in order to generate the scholarship, research, and critical engagement that underpins a market.  

“Curators also need to take a leading role,” she says. “It’s so important that curators do their part in getting to know these artists.”  

There are signs institutions are making progress. Hanna notes that the 2017 Whitney Biennial included seven Latinx artists, out of a total of 63. This summer’s “Uptown” exhibition at the Wallach Art Gallery, curated by Cullen, featured a survey of 25 mid-career and emerging artists, six of whom are Latinx. The show places them in dialogue with other American artists, further complicating notions of what constitutes the American experience.

The Smithsonian American Art Museum has made a point in recent years to strengthen its Latinx art collection. Beginning in 2011, the museum acquired 63 works by Latinx artists, which made up more than two-thirds of the works ultimately exhibited in “Our America: The Latino Presence in American Art,” which opened in 2013. This exhibition was a crucial, if lonely, example of Latinx artists being shown outside of a comparative context with Latin American artists, and affirmed the specificity of their experience and cultural contribution.

More recently, private patrons have begun to play a role in building this market and educating art audiences. Chicanx art collector Cheech Marin is partnering with the city of Riverside and the Riverside Art Museum to create a Chicanx art center to house his collection of more than 700 works. And lastly, the Pérez Art Museum’s summer 2017–18 exhibition “On the Horizon: Contemporary Cuban Art from the Jorge M. Pérez Collection” depicts over 170 works of art from artists of the Cuban diaspora.

In 2016, Latin American collector Patricia Phelps de Cisneros gifted 102 works by 37 Latin American artists to the Museum of Modern Art, establishing the Patricia Phelps de Cisneros Research Institute for the Study of Art from Latin America. The works include artists working in Brazil, Venezuela, the southeastern coastal region of Río de la Plata in Argentina, and Uruguay. This gift will also encourage scholarship in the field, although that could potentially further overshadow Latinx art through renewed attention to Latin American art.  


Building the Scholarly Field

There is a grassroots response rising up from the academy. The U.S. Latinx Arts Forum was formed in 2015 by scholars of Latinx art in response to the underrepresentation of Latinxs within the academy, museums, and galleries. It strives to establish and support a growing community of artists, university and college faculty, museum staff, and graduate students committed to increasing visibility of Latinx artists within exhibition spaces, academia, and private and public collections.

One of its first initiatives was applying for societal affiliation within the College Art Association (CAA), to increase the number of presentations on the topics of Latinx art at its Annual Conference, the largest yearly meeting for visual art scholarship. In 2015, there were only six dissertations in progress on Latinx art in the field of art history compared to 75 in progress on Latin American art, according to Adriana Zavala, USLAF Director and Associate Professor of Art History at Tufts University.


Seeing Latinx Art Everywhere and Nowhere

The art market and art world of the future will have no choice but to challenge itself and make a true commitment to be more inclusive of Latinx artists, such as William Villalongo, M. Tony Peralta, Lucia Hierro, Joiri Minaya, Melanie Gonzalez, Mary Valverde, Adrian ‘Viajero’ Roman, and Lisa C. Soto, all at different stages in their careers, forging their own paths despite the challenges.

At the same time, we must ensure Latin American and Latinx art are not conflated, whether out of ignorance or for the convenience of the market. That conflation erases rich differences across populations. Few scholars or curators would put African-American artists and African artists in the same category, given their different historical and cultural experiences.

Artists, too, should have a voice in this matter. Some artists resist any of these categories to avoid being limited by them, or seeing their work devalued by the stigma, and low price points, these categories portend. Identifying as Latinx can place an artist into its historical context of identity politics and socially engaged art, yet not all Latinx artists make work that speaks to struggles of decolonization, race, class, and the status of perpetual exile.

For the past year, I’ve attended panels, symposiums, and interviewed professionals in the art world about the current state of Latinx art in the United States. This exploration was initially triggered by my inability to name living contemporary Latinx artists, even though I majored in contemporary art history in college and worked in the contemporary art world in New York City. I knew there was a formidable Latinx presence here because I was part of it and grew up in it, but for reasons I did not yet know, Latinx artists were largely invisible in the art market and the art world at large.

I’d like to see more Latinx artists alongside other American artists in major exhibitions at mainstream institutions, not as symbolic notions of diversity but included on the merits of their work. We cannot afford to shy away from the complexity that is shared culture, and must do our part to ensure Latinx artists are conceptualized as both powerful protagonists and producers of U.S. culture.

—Naiomy Guerrero

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