Life of a Salesman

I have a weakness for quixotic figures. In literature and in life, I've always been a sucker for the wisecracking cynic, the jaded guy (or gal) whose hard-boiled façade hides a marshmallow heart. Call me a hopeless romantic, call me unrealistic, call me what you will, just call me when you run across a tale involving a lone moral man struggling against a corrupt universe, endeavoring to right some wrong, going unafraid down mean streets and leaving the world an ever-so-slightly more hospitable place.

And so I was bound to like Jacob Kupersztoch, Kupersztoch being the closest thing to a quixotic figure one encounters in the art world. Kupersztoch is the owner and proprietor of the Adani Gallery, a Mexican national and a retired professor of microbiology at the University of Texas' Southwestern Medical Center who decided to open an art gallery. More to the point, he's a guy who has done everything wrong.

For starters, he's peddling the wrong kind of art in the wrong space in the wrong part of town. Kupersztoch's cheesy-modern letterhead advertises Contemporary and Latin American Art, a somewhat deceptive description. We aren't talking about slick conceptual and installation-based stuff, the kind of Latin-American art that is featured in the international art 'zines, the oversized Kodachrome and video-based pieces that comment on global consumer culture, the kind of work that tours in shows like last year's UltraBaroque. Kupersztoch deals instead in very minor pieces by Mexican masters. He has all the national heroes: lithographs by Gunther Gerzso, iguana-headed and scorpion-pincered nude women by Francisco Toledo, straightforward nude studies of peasants by Francisco Zuniga, late mixografia by Rufino Tamayo. He has the occasional late Siquieros oil and the odd Rivera pastel, as well as major pieces by minor contemporary Mexican painters such as Sergio Rodríguez and Berta Kolteniuk.

We're talking conservative, even antiquated stuff, which Kupersztoch hawks from a space in a two-story, red brick office building off Alpha Road around the corner from the Galleria, a tiny place with a dentist's office out front and Roche-Bubois two doors down. And then there's his approach. Kupersztoch favors the hard sell tempered with considerable charm; he doesn't feign disinterest, and he's about as hip as your average telemarketer. For just one example, Kupersztoch, a resourceful fellow, somehow came up with my cell phone number, and worse yet, dialed it. He wouldn't take no for an answer. He flattered. He cajoled. He hounded me for a year, until finally I came by his place.

Kupersztoch is, in short, a man with a mission: to introduce Norte Americanos to the classic art of Mexico. It is a struggle at once noble and doomed. He's battling art-world trends, the economic clime, first-world arrogance and apathy. Although many major U.S. museums have mounted shows featuring the work of the artists Kupersztoch sells, most Americans, even those of Hispanic heritage, remain clueless about the historical and political context of Mexican art. And while the doors to major U.S. museums--what one Latina critic has termed "the master's house"--may have been opened, Mexican artists have yet to be integrated into the dominant narrative of art history. Frida Kahlo may be a cult figure and the subject of an upcoming movie; the Mexican muralists--Rivera, Siquieros and Orozco, known in Mexico as "Los Tres Grandes"--may be national heroes. But outside their country they remain just a footnote to the canon.

There are many reasons for this state of affairs: art history's first-world myopia, Mexico's demographics, its absence from the major conflicts of the last century. Although the Museum of Modern Art contains fine examples of work by artists from south of the Rio Grande, the major auction houses still ghettoize Latin American art, consigning it to special "Latin American" sales rather than lumping it in with their major sales of modern and contemporary work. From the first world's vantage point, Mexico is still a side-stage, best known as the place where Lev Davidovich Bronstein, a.k.a. Trotsky, ended up with a mountaineer's ice ax in his skull.

For most of the 20th century, Mexico was preoccupied with inequities between its cosmopolitan ruling elite and its huge, impoverished peasant population. Mexico has more Indians than any other Latin American country, most of them impoverished, and upward of 60 percent of its population is mestizo. Mexico's intellectuals, especially its artists, have long identified with Mexico's Indian past, inventing an art of noble peasants and laborers, employing bright colors and pre-Columbian forms.

The work currently hanging in Kupersztoch's gallery, a show featuring a cross section of gallery artists, is preoccupied with these traditional struggles. The quality of the work itself, which ranges from a 1930 Rivera pastel to 2001 acrylics by Sergio Rodriguez, is wildly uneven. Some of the pieces, particularly two spellbinding Zuniga sketches from the mid-'70s, are real treasures. Others, particularly the Gerzso graphics, are warmed-over midcentury Modernism with the barest Mexican flavoring, work that is not particularly rare in this part of the world and was tired when first trotted out.

The central struggle in Mexican art has always been between indigenous, national forms and international ones. During most of the 20th century, the former reigned supreme. The pendulum has since swung. The character of Mexico's artistic production has changed radically over the past 25 years, and international forms and concerns now loom large. Thanks in large part to the Hispanic diaspora into the United States, contemporary Hispanic artists are receiving more attention than they ever have. Questions of cultural conflict and dual identity preoccupy many young Hispanic artists, and thanks to the vogue for multi-culti and issue art, a surfeit of homeboys, lowriders and car art appear at major shows of contemporary art.

Thus many of the works in Kupersztoch's show, even those produced in the '90s, seem extremely dated. Neither the colorful, mostly abstract canvases of Sergio Rodríguez nor the quiet, geometric paintings of Berta Kolteniuk, a young Mexican ex-pat, seem to accurately represent the concerns reflected in much of Mexico's current artistic output. Kupersztoch is a man struggling against his time. Too bad there aren't more like him; the art world would be a richer, more interesting place.