Mexican Art and Objects
As appraisers and valuers, it is important for us to know about current trends and developing markets, and to know how to recognize items that may be currently spotlighted for their day in the sun, value-wise. After watching the market for Mexican art and antiques for more than a decade, there appears to have been an interesting very slight surge in certain sectors being more chic among southern California high-end dealers, art dealers in population centers, and mid-20th century design dealers. A few benchmarks were reached in the last years that show the relative strength of Mexican art and antiques.
Last year, very high-end Los Angeles dealers Blackman Cruz curated an auction for Wright that highlighted Mexican items alongside their goth take on Western style, and included some very esoteric items like a wide variety of folk art, custom- and artist-made items, leather-clad midcentury chairs from around the globe (including examples by Mexican silversmith/jack-of-all-trades William Spratling) and outlandish decorative items like heavy-framed mirrors and statement lamps, yet it appears that a percentage failed to meet healthy reserves. How interesting to see items like Santos (carved saint figures made throughout the Americas, the Phillipines, Goa, etc.), metates (grinding stones used for millennia) and sculpture fragments from mesoamerica alongside incomparably exotic furniture by mid-20th century master Paul Laszlo and 19th c. Italian Orientalist Carlo Bugatti! Black Cruz’s commitment to skull-form decorative items is a testament to these dealers’ love for that most Mexican of motifs, the calavera.
Of course, there are famous artists that immediately spring to mind when thinking of Mexico, and many of them have had exhibits and record sales recently. The auction of a major Frida Kahlo painting in New York earlier this year resulted in a record price for the artist, a real feat considering the painting was a more challenging and mystical image. Exhibits in 2015 focusing on Kahlo from unusual angles, (notably as a visitor to Detroit with her husband Diego Rivera for his work on the spectacular mural there and as a cultivator of her private garden at her residence in Mexico, as recreated at the New York Botanical Garden).
Mexican photography and prints by acknowledged masters like Rivera and photographer Manuel Alvarez-Bravo have been in the mainstream for decades (ie. Bravo’s 1997 exhibition at MoMA). Yet attention in the museum field and open market can re-focus easily on forgotten masters like Alvarez Bravo’s wife Lola , whose own work was forgotten for decades until her entire life’s work was discovered in her former residence. Since then, prints have come up at auction. Her profile is bolstered by her photographic portraits of Frida Kahlo, which have realized between $2000-$4000 at auction and in galleries. Respectable, but nowhere near the five-figure results garnered for photos of Kahlo by her husband, who has a more robustly developed market. Both are important not just in the canon of Mexican artists, but in the wider history of art photography.
And there are artists who definitely loomed large in the history of Mexican art that are unknown in America due to their being political/mural artists (Rivera, Siquieros, and Rufino Tamayo, the artists with the highest auction prices of all Mexican artists, were all muralists but saw fit to execute at least part of their oeuvre as easel paintings due to collectors clamoring for portable during their lifetimes). Arguably the most important Mexican artist most have never heard of is an artist named Leopoldo Mendez, the anchor artist of a cooperative of printmakers called the TGP (Taller Graphica Popular – or Popular Graphics Workshop). The TGP felt that art should have a definable sensibility and also depict the sociopolitical realities of what was going on around them. The prints made at the workshop were, democratically enough, multiples on paper – media that could be afforded by many.
A small number of Mendez’s works come up at auction each year, and many sell for low prices or are passed without meeting their reserves, even post-2014, after a major TGP retrospective at the Art Institute of Chicago. The centerpiece print of the show (entitled “What May Come” – also translates to “What Must Not Be”) is an unflinching look at a country torn apart by WWII-era fascism and undeniably discomfiting to behold, with the eagle of Mexico being attacked by the snake – a reference to the coat of arms of Mexico – and war being waged in Mexico City in the background. Since it is a linchpin image by an artist who specialized in political art, it will always be important historically and is technically valuable (I own a copy of this print and sent an inquiry about sale to a large auction house, who stated they would not have a market for it), but the print’s historical significance may always supersede its nominal value.