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Vanity Fare

Mirror, mirror on the wall, who's the fairest of them all? Apparently, it's high-profile art collectors Jacques and Natasha Gelman, judging from all the glitzy portraits commissioned from famous Mexican artists that now grace the walls of the Phoenix Art Museum as part of "Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera and Twentieth-Century...
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Mirror, mirror on the wall, who's the fairest of them all?

Apparently, it's high-profile art collectors Jacques and Natasha Gelman, judging from all the glitzy portraits commissioned from famous Mexican artists that now grace the walls of the Phoenix Art Museum as part of "Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera and Twentieth-Century Mexican Art: The Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection."

PAM's Mexican exhibit is actually two very distinct exhibitions stuffed into one poorly packed piñata. The first is composed of modernist work (including those commissioned portraits of the couple) collected by the Gelmans up to the mid-20th century; the second embraces more recent contemporary Mexican art from the 1970s to the present, collected by Natasha Gelman after the death of her husband, Jacques, in 1986.

Contemporary acquisitions -- which are, overall, of better quality and more engaging than the work of the older Mexican art legends -- have been expertly guided by longtime Gelman friend Robert Littman, ex-director of Mexico City's now-defunct Centro Cultural/Arte Contemporaneo (referred to popularly as the Centro Cultural). As president of the Vergel Foundation, which is responsible for carrying on the Gelman legacy, Littman seems to possess an infallible eye, which cannot be said for the Gelmans' original aesthetic vision. In fact, the Gelmans' personal history is much more riveting than most of the Mexican work they collected together over the years.

Major players in the glamorous Mexico City film scene of the 1940s, the Gelmans amassed work by artists considered to be a part of the country's national and artistic renaissance, which bloomed full flower following the Mexican Revolution (1910-1917). Aristocratically educated in St. Petersburg, Russia, Jacques Gelman had been sent packing to Europe by his land-owning parents following the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, his pockets stuffed with several Fabergé eggs he luckily was never forced to sell. Jacques ended up in Mexico as a film distributor in 1938 after starting a highly successful film-distribution company in Paris. Much of his fortune, however, came from discovering and producing the films of Mexican comedian Cantinflas.

Gelman was bitten by the European and Mexican art-collecting bug early on -- not to mention the love bug, as well. After meeting Natalia "Natasha" Zahalka Krawak, a fetching platinum blonde Czechoslovakian on vacation in Mexico City with her mother, the couple, both of whom were Jewish, married in 1941 and remained in Mexico because of the Second World War. Jacques and Natasha ultimately became Mexican citizens. An integral part of the glittery Mexican societal whirl of that golden era, they rubbed elbows with art figures and film actors alike, including the now almost sanctified muralista Diego Rivera and his equally enshrined artist wife, Frida Kahlo (Salma Hayek recently beat Madonna and Jennifer Lopez to the punch and will soon appear as Frida Kahlo in a Hollywood-produced biopic of the much-mythologized, unibrowed artist).

Strangely enough, to gain entree into PAM's Gelman exhibit, the viewer is required to run a gauntlet of three gigantic, out-of-place vintage tire-advertising posters, two of which are in French, hung in the main lobby (and what do they have to do with the price of posole in Puebla?). That done, one is rewarded with introductory black-and-white press photographs of the Gelmans in their heyday, hobnobbing with silver-screen stars Maurice Chevalier, Edward G. Robinson and Jimmy Durante, as well as Mexican cinema greats Delores del Rio and Maria Felix.

Actually, these photos are, unwittingly, one of the more appealing aspects of the Gelman exhibition. Always nattily attired and fur-coat-swathed, Jacques and Natasha were the stereotypical film producer and glamorous socialite spouse. To cement their status in Mexican high society, in 1943, Jacques commissioned Diego Rivera to paint Natasha's portrait, which appears in the exhibition. Though the most famous of the Mexican mural painters at the time, Rivera often paid the rent by doing portraits of wealthy socialites.

Probably one of his best in this lukewarm genre (and Natasha Gelman's proclaimed favorite portrait), Natasha's rendering by the notoriously womanizing Rivera depicts her bejeweled and stretched out in a slithery white dress, open at the bottom like the phallic/vaginal calla lilies with which he fills the painting's background. History has it that Natasha started sitting for Rivera decked out in jewelry lavished upon her by past boyfriends; Jacques made her remove the offending trinkets, then went out and bought her all the jewelry that finally appears in the painting.

In contrast, Frida Kahlo's Natasha portrait of 1943 captures the woman, crowned with sausage curls al modo and draped in a fur stole, with a strangely flat effect, while artist Rufino Tamayo has painted her with ambiguously closed eyes (or perhaps no eyes at all), and David Alfaro Siqueiros has presented her as a rather frumpy, unsmiling matron.

While the lure of this purported "blockbuster" (and justification enough to see this somewhat spotty show) is several iconic Diego Rivera paintings, including Vendedora de alcatraces (Calla Lily Vendor) (1943), as well as five very well-known self-portraits of Kahlo, the Gelman exhibition stands as a perfect example of the old adage that money doesn't necessarily buy good taste. In this case, the core of the original Gelman collection is more like a Mexican art snack pack than a fulsome fiesta feast.

To anyone familiar with Mexican art history, the Gelman exhibition is not a well-balanced overview of Mexican art at mid-century, continued to the present in the same judiciously chosen vein. Rather, it's a classically status-driven, gotta-be-better-than-the-Gomezes compilation reflecting one type of art collector's psychic preoccupation with memorializing himself and notable public figures with which he has socialized. Frankly, it's one more befitting a newly moneyed, 18th-century Dutch burgher than a discerning, visionary collector seeking emerging and mid-career artists' best and most enduring work.

With some exceptions, work (usually relegated to portraiture or figurative work) by Rivera, as well as muralists David Alfaro Siqueiros and José Clemente Orozco, are second-rate pickings compared to these artists' overall oeuvres. Representation in the Gelman collection seems to be shaped by how close one was to the collectors and/or how important one was in the existing social and artistic schema.

For example, Orozco is poorly represented because the Gelmans and the testy, socially conscious artist did not get along, while the collection is conspicuously top-heavy with mediocre cuboid abstracts by Gunther Gerzo, a personal friend who worked for Jacques as a set designer on his Cantinflas pictures and who gave a number of pieces to the Gelmans. The collection's sole painting by Roberto Montenegro, a very competent portraitist, is one of the most hackneyed landscapes he's ever executed. Caricaturist and painter Miguel Covarrubias is relegated to one drawing of a rather rotund Diego Rivera. Gerardo Murillo (Dr. Atl) lacks any representation whatsoever, probably because he eschewed the excitement of the flashy Mexico City art scene in favor of painting erupting volcanoes in Michoacan and collecting folk art in the countryside.

The real marrow of the Gelman collection is its second half, which, among other strong work by contemporary Mexican artists, includes several exquisite pieces with internal references to Mexican folklore and iconography by Oaxacan artist Francisco Toledo, as well as rice paper huipiles (indigenous Mexican women's blouses), embroidered with human hair and decorated with blood, by Paula Santiago. The most entertaining and acerbic work, however, has been served up by Miguel Calderón and Cisco Jiménez, two rather irreverent newcomers who take to task Mexican popular culture and mores.

Calderón's guerrilla forays at night into Mexico City's Museum of Natural History dioramas for photographic backdrops and his imaginative use of hairy testicles in several photo montages have an especially contemporary bite to them (I won't give away the punch lines). And one of the best pieces by Jiménez, Códice Chafamex, is a cross between obsessional R. Crumb comic doodlings and William Wylie visual puns. It's chock full of hilarious sayings written in Mexican guttersnipe slang and creative obscenities. Unfortunately, this piece can't be truly appreciated unless the viewer understands Spanish (as it was by two very refined, older female art patrons who were giggling uncontrollably as they stood and read the entire piece out loud while I watched). Whatever happened to in-depth, bilingual wall texts, highly appropriate to an exhibition that features Mexican art, to help translate for the unilingual among us museumgoers?

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