Raúl Martínez, Yo he visto (I Have Seen)
Courtesy Magnan Metz Gallery

Corina Matamoros, curator of contemporary Cuban art at the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes in Havana, was in New York recently as part of a Rubin Foundation fellowship. Cuban Art News caught up with her for a wide-ranging conversation about Cuban art, New York City, and why she wishes art were more like baseball.

This is your third visit to the United States, and to New York City. What brings you here this time?

I came to the States to do an exhibition of Carlos Garaicoa at the University of South Florida in Tampa, La enmienda que hay en mí (Making Amends). They have a beautiful contemporary art museum there, and we have a very good relationship with this museum. It’s the third exhibition we’ve done together. They’re wonderful for Cuban people to work with. The Garaicoa exhibition in Tampa is almost the same one I had done the year before in the National Museum in Havana. It’s on view now, through December 11.

After that, I had a fellowship from Rubin Foundation at the Vermont Studio Center, to finish writing a book about the Cuban painter Raúl Martínez. I love Vermont—New England. It’s beautiful, an amazing landscape.

You’re spending this week in New York City as part of your fellowship. Have you had time to see a few exhibitions? Which museums are you visiting? 

I visited the Met. I love that museum, it’s a great museum. I loved the Jan Gossart exhibition. And I went to the roof [to see Doug + Mike Starn on the Roof: Big Bambú].

And the John Baldessari. I love conceptual art, so it’s very good to see it.

And I went to MoMA, to see Abstract Expressionist New York. For me, it’s wonderful to visit MoMA to see how every year they change the permanent collection installation. It’s a good lesson for curators, because we don’t have the money to [do new temporary shows] every year. But I have a lot of artworks in storage, and I can change the installation in the galleries. So it’s good for me to see that.

The day that I arrived, I spent five hours walking around visiting galleries. I saw the Yoan Capote exhibition—a very good exhibition. I think it was one year ago, I wrote an essay about Capote’s artwork. I understand very well his poetics. I love his work.

What’s your impression of the contemporary art you saw in the galleries?

It’s difficult to say—I saw so many galleries. Sometimes I feel that Cuban art is so strong, so powerful, so full of ideas, that many times when I see other kinds of art, it’s—I don’t know… un poco mas vacillo, un poco mas decorativo. Un poco mas formal. [… a little more empty, a little more decorative. A little more formal.] But Cuban art always has something powerful to say. And maybe in this it is a little different.

Anyway, there were two galleries that had abstract expressionist shows—wonderful pieces. And I loved the Roxy Paine exhibition [Roxy Paine: Distillation at James Cohan Gallery].

What trends do you see emerging in contemporary Cuban art?

There are many artists working in the digital medium, video and multimedia. At the museum, we are buying some short videos. That’s new, something different for us. I’ve been working with collecting contemporary Cuban art since the beginning of the 1990s, and have bought many works for the national collection. Behind every good artist is a good intelligence, and the very young artists today are very good. I love the kind of art that makes us think. This is a wonderful thing about Cuban art—it makes us always think about society.

From your perspective, what sort of impact has the global art market had on contemporary Cuban art?

I don’t know too much about the market (laughs). I am a curator, hiding in my office or the library and talking with artists. I have to say that I have been working at the museum for 32 years. So the museum is my home.

But I think there are many good [Cuban] artists, well positioned in the art market. Garaicoa, Los Carpinteros, Tania Bruguera—they are universal artists, not only local. Artists of the world. Like the Vietnamese artist in MoMA now [Dinh Q. Lê in Projects 93: Dinh Q. Lê]. I love these pieces. I saw that video, and that aircraft in the gallery, and I thought: It’s the same for Cuban art.

How would you describe the state of art criticism in Cuba these days?

Well, we have many magazines, many ways that people writing about art can publish their texts. There are people who know a lot and write very well. But I miss a certain kind of museological criticism. I want to know how the exhibitions we make are appreciated by the audience. But in general, it’s like anywhere else—there are a few very good art critics, and others not very good.

In Cuba, the best criticism is about baseball. It’s the best. Wonderful criticism. The writers are amazing, wonderful, intelligent. I would like very much for art criticism [in Cuba] to be like baseball criticism. (laughs) It’s my hope.

Tell us more about the types of contemporary Cuban art you’re acquiring for the museum.

We have a little, little budget. And in the 1990s, the beginning of the 1990s, I bought a lot of work for the same budget as today. At the beginning and the middle of the 1990s—’94, ’96, ’97—I sometimes bought 20 or 25 works of contemporary art [a year]. But now, with the same budget, I only can buy four or five pieces. And this makes it very difficult to add new works to the national collection. For the internationally known artists, the price is high, high—very big for us.

At the beginning of the ’90s, I thought it was better to buy from students—artists who were very young, because the price was low. It was what I called ‘addición preventiva’ [preventive addition/acquisition]. So I did that for many years, and I have a very good collection (laughs). But now, it’s very difficult.

Video is cheaper. So I’ve started to buy some videos by very good artists, like Garaicoa, José Toirac, Fernando Rodríguez, and some much younger artists, like Luis Garciga and Novo.

I really like Luis Garciga’s work a lot.

You like him? (claps hands) I discovered him. I was the first person to write about Luis Garciga.

Last month, The Art Newspaper had an article about the increased interest in Latin American art on the part of museums and galleries in the U.K. and Europe. Are you seeing increased interest in contemporary Cuban art from Europe?

It’s difficult for me to tell. But I can tell you that the interest of foreign curators in Cuban art started at the beginning of the ’90s, after the Kuba OK exhibition in Germany made by Jürgen Harten, a very good German curator. And since that time, many curators go to Havana to buy, to see, and to organize many Cuban shows in Europe—and the States, too.

But there are not too many Cuban exhibitions [intended for showing abroad] made in Cuba from the perspective of Cuban curators. So I am trying to do a big exhibition, with [my fellow museum curator] Abelardo Mena, of Cuban art here in New York. I am talking with people at museums—I don’t want to do an exhibition in a gallery, with art to sell. This would be an historical exhibition of contemporary Cuban art.

Tell us about the book on Raúl Martínez. When do you hope to have it finished and published?

Finished, maybe the beginning of next year. But published, I don’t know—we are raising money for publishing. We’re trying to make it bilingual. We have wonderful support from from the Rubin Foundation, but we have to find other support, because our books are very expensive. We’re talking with editors at several publishing houses, and we will see.

There was a show of Martínez’s work here recently, at Magnan Metz Gallery, that got very positive reviews. The critical response was along the lines of, ‘This is someone important, we need to see more of him, and in context.’

I made this exhibition! Yes, I was surprised with the criticism about it. I was very happy.

They could see how Martínez fit into international trends in Pop Art. 

Yes, of course. It’s very interesting, because Martínez changed the point of view of Pop Art, yes? It’s the same, but reversed.

How, specifically?

Because it’s not about the image of consumerism or mass media. It’s the same shape, but it’s about the Cuban Revolution. So it’s something contrary to Pop Art. In the same plane, but a different direction. So it’s very interesting.

Thanks so much for spending this time with us.

My pleasure. This is my first interview in English, so I apologize for my lack of fluency.

On the contrary, your English is very good.

(laughs) I can assure you, I am more intelligent in Spanish.