Museo Jumex

Is Mexico City's new Museo Jumex a south-of-the-border Vanity Fair or the best new museum in the Americas? from the January & February 2014 issue

By Christian Viveros-Fauné

Exterior view of Museo Jumex, photo: Rene Castelan Foglia, courtesy Fundación Jumex Arte Contemporáneo, Mexico City Gabriel Orozco, Oval Billiard Table, 1996. Courtesy Fundación Jumex Arte Contemporáneo, Mexico City James Lee Byars, ½ an Autobiography Courtesy Fundación Jumex Arte Contemporáneo, Mexico City

It was bound to happen. Set inside a giant tent on the grounds of a Mexican Army compound, amid sweaty Lanvin suits, wilting gowns, tequila-flushed faces and unbuttoned egos (not to mention the celebrity photo wall, a semi-grand classical orchestra in whiteface and copious refreshment), what the New York Post later pumped as a titanic ‘clash’ took place between two Amex Black Card-carrying members of the global superrich. 

The Page Six kerfuffle pitted oil heir Brandon ‘Greasy Bear’ Davis against the hired muscle of an unnamed local millionaire: a tempest in a juice bottle if ever there was one. To quote William Makepeace Thackeray, the lapel-creasing showdown – if not the entire Gatsbyesque experience that was the over-the-top opening of Mexico City’s Museo Jumex – epitomised today’s gilded global artworld as ‘a very vain, wicked, foolish place, full of all sorts of humbugs and falsenesses and pretensions’.

Thankfully, the official blowout for the museum – a David Chipperfield-designed, travertine-filled, deluxe gem that cost a reported $50 million – was not the final word on Mexico City’s newest art institution. That came hours later, in the form of an electronic query during a Sunday midday conversation held at the museum: ‘Why does contemporary art choose to privilege kitsch, frivolousness, and the banal during a time that demands profound answers with respect to interiority, spirituality, and poesis?’ 

The panellists, who included novelist Juan Villoro, artist Abraham Cruzvillegas, art critic María Minera, Colección Jumex director Patrick Charpenel and moderator Gabriel Orozco, appeared momentarily flummoxed. Perhaps it was a matter of clearing the previous night’s cobwebs. Far more than glittery parties, boldface names or even a fabulous signature building, answering that prickly question will prove key in choosing a direction from within Museo Jumex’s split personality.

Started 15 years ago by Eugenio López Alonso, sole heir to the privately owned Mexican juice giant Grupo Jumex, the Fundación Jumex has amassed what is reputed to be the largest collection of contemporary art in Latin America. Made up of 2,700 pieces valued at some $80 million, the foundation’s uneven holdings range from Dan Flavin light fixtures and Donald Judd stacks to the messy outpourings of West Coast artists Paul McCarthy and Mike Kelley. 

Also included are storehouses full of second-rate stuff by artists like Richard Prince, Rudolf Stingel, Maurizio Cattelan and Urs Fischer (these pieces are best described as checklist art). To date, the stronger contributions of contemporary Mexican and Latin American artists play a largely underappreciated role in the collection. Purchased often with great care thanks to López’s devoted local patronage, it’s largely these works that truly demonstrate Jumex’s sustainable aspirations as an important international collection.

Proof that a disconnect exists between the foundation’s actual strengths and its in-crowd anxieties is visible immediately in several of the museum’s five inaugural exhibitions (a sixth show, a terrific survey of the Danish collective Superflex, is on view at Fundación Jumex’s original space, located inside the company’s juice factory in suburban Ecatepec de Morelos). Most prominent among these is A Space in Two Dimensions, a selection of 50 mostly mismatched pieces from the collection that also includes a group of seven architecture-enhancing string sculptures by the late Fred Sandback (organised with help from New York powerhouse David Zwirner). 

Curated by Charpenel (who also organised the Superflex display) and arrayed inside the museum’s top floor, the exhibition features a who’s who of important art-market names (Damien Hirst, Carol Bove, Thomas Ruff), alongside a mere handful of bona fide auction-house jewels (Robert Gober’s Flying Sink, 1985, Jeff Koons’s Three Ball Total Equilibrium Tank, 1985, and Andy Warhol’s blue Jackie Smiling, 1964). More misses than hits, the collection highlights function as an all-too-familiar grouping of trophy art. Despite the effort to turn Sandback’s sculptures into an exhibition through-line, it’s hard to shake the idea that this kind of flashy loot can easily be picked up in a day of conspicuous shopping at Frieze, the Armory Show or Art Basel Miami Beach.

A Space in Two Dimensions, in fact, does not so much ‘weave two separate exhibitions into a single space’ as make plain a rather unseemly MoMA-lite agenda. In a phrase, Jumex does not have the discriminating goods to convincingly represent contemporary art history. Tellingly, the collection’s high points emerge in direct contrast to this cheeky ambition. 

This is mainly thanks to genuine surprises, courtesy of works by artists like Minerva Cuevas (Drunker, 1995), a video of the artist downing an entire bottle of tequila), Francis Alÿs (a painted diptych of a man in a blonde wig), Teresa Margolles (a gold reliquary containing a splinter from a home destroyed by the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan) and, of course, Orozco – the Johnny Appleseed of contemporary Mexican art. That his 1996 Oval Billiard Table is the collection’s most emblematic piece makes a pair of treasure-house truths supremely evident. First, a museum is only as good as its collection. And second, Jumex, like all leading institutions, is best served by highlighting its unique holdings and relationships.

Mention of Orozco, in fact, also begs the question as to why Mexico’s most happening museum would choose to devote its marquee inaugural solo exhibition to a notable but marginal artist like James Lee Byars rather than celebrate a far more prominent homegrown talent (Orozco is hardly the only artist who fits the bill here). The answer, alas, may lie in the wall text’s fine print. Organised in conjunction with MoMA PS1 (the exhibition curators are Jumex’s Magalí Arriola and PS1’s Peter Eleey), the Byars show – pegged as ‘the most comprehensive survey’ of the artist’s work in North America since his death in 1997 – is due to travel to Queens in autumn 2014. This is the kind of museum deal that afflicts rookie institutions with bouts of temporary nearsightedness. Seen from the vantage point of Jumex’s junior project, PS1 today looks not like a poorly renovated schoolhouse, but more like MoMA’s Yoshio Taniguchi-renovated 53rd Street building.

Which is not to say that the Museo Jumex, in its proper context, is not what one judicious attendee of that now famous lost weekend would rightly call ‘an institution without rivals in its own country’. Set inside a jewel of a building that negotiates international-style white cube requirements with a local embrace of inexpensive marble and copious sunlight, the museum has instantaneously acquired a global cachet most international institutions would envy. 

But something of a mystery remains about what role it will cultivate in the one Latin city that boasts numerous contemporary museos (there’s the Museo Tamayo, the Museo Universitario Arte Contemporáneo, the Museo de Arte Moderno, the Museo Experi­mental El Eco and the Sala de Arte Público Siqueiros). A collection long identified with social and financial clout as well as its fundamental role in seeding a generation of celebrated Mexican artists, the Fundación Jumex and its new museum will henceforth have to choose a credible, sustained and coherent direction for its future. From now on, it can either follow in the wake of today’s ephemeral art values, or continue to lead Mexico and the world in shaping the art of tomorrow.

This article was first published in the January & February 2014 issue.