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Collecting Guide: Cuban Modern and Contemporary art

Latin American Art specialist Diana Bramham offers her insights into a previously overlooked category that is today witnessing a sharp rise in interest — illustrated with works from our Latin American Art sale in New York in May 2017

For a collector who is just starting out, where are the best places to see Modern and Contemporary Cuban art?

Since the 1940s, New York has been a great place to see Cuban art. During that decade collectors had the opportunity to buy first-rate examples of Cuban Modernism at important galleries such as Perls and Pierre Matisse, while MoMA’s groundbreaking Modern Cuban Painters exhibition in 1944 showcased the full breadth of the island’s artistic talents.

You might say that in recent years we’ve seen a return to the 1940s, since one can find great exhibitions of Cuban art at an array of the city’s important museums and galleries, from the Whitney to David Zwirner and many others.

Miami, with its close ties to the island, has also long been a hotspot for Cuban art. There is a tradition there of dealers supporting the island’s new emerging talent, together with well-established artists.

Wifredo Lam (1902-1982), Untitled, circa 1937. Gouache on paper laid down on canvas. 38½ x 29½ in (98 x 74.9 cm). Estimate $250,000-350,000. This work is offered in Latin American Art on 24-25 May at Christie’s in New York

Wifredo Lam (1902-1982), Untitled, circa 1937. Gouache on paper laid down on canvas. 38½ x 29½ in (98 x 74.9 cm). Estimate: $250,000-350,000. This work is offered in Latin American Art on 24-25 May at Christie’s in New York

Wifredo Lam (1902-1982), Untitled, 1970. Oil on canvas. 18 x 14⅞ in (45.7 x 37.7 cm). Estimate $60,000-80,000.  This work is offered in Latin American Art on 24-25 May at Christie’s in New York

Wifredo Lam (1902-1982), Untitled, 1970. Oil on canvas. 18 x 14⅞ in (45.7 x 37.7 cm). Estimate: $60,000-80,000. This work is offered in Latin American Art on 24-25 May at Christie’s in New York

European cities such as Paris, London and Madrid have also been a great place to see Cuban art from the early to mid-20th century. An array of artists from the island settled in Europe to develop their careers, Wifredo Lam being a good example. The outstanding retrospective of his work that opened at the Centre Pompidou in 2015 and travelled to the Reina Sofía in Madrid was at Tate Modern until January 2017.

Carlos Enríquez (1900-1957), Tetas de Madruga, 1943. Oil on canvas. 35 x 24¼ in (89 x 62 cm). Estimate $300,000-400,000. This work is offered in Latin American Art on 24-25 May at Christie’s in New York

Carlos Enríquez (1900-1957), Tetas de Madruga, 1943. Oil on canvas. 35 x 24¼ in (89 x 62 cm). Estimate: $300,000-400,000. This work is offered in Latin American Art on 24-25 May at Christie’s in New York

Of course, it goes without saying that Havana is one of the best places to see Cuban art, whether in an artist’s studio or at the city’s prominent Biennial, which has been going strong since 1984.

Who are the important modern artists to look out for?

New collectors may hear people refer to groups of artists — La Vanguardía, for example, refers to artists from the first half of the 20th century who are credited with introducing Modernism to Cuba. Key figures include Victor Manuel, Amelia Peláez, Cundo Bermúdez and Mario Carreño among others. 

Mario Carreño (1913-1999), El caballo en el pueblo, 1946. Oil on canvas. 29¾ x 36 in (76 x 91.4 cm). Estimate $200,000-300,000. This work is offered in Latin American Art on 24-25 May at Christie’s in New York

Mario Carreño (1913-1999), El caballo en el pueblo, 1946. Oil on canvas. 29¾ x 36 in (76 x 91.4 cm). Estimate: $200,000-300,000. This work is offered in Latin American Art on 24-25 May at Christie’s in New York

Later influential groups were Los Once and Diez Pintores Concretos — two radical groups of the 1950s and early 1960s who delved into geometric abstraction, hard-edged painting and kinetic sculptures. Artists like Sandu Darie and Loló Soldevilla are thankfully becoming more familiar household names as new scholarship and gallery exhibitions make their work more public. 

Manuel Mendive (b. 1944), Energías para el amor y la bondad, 2015. Installation in 21 parts acrylic on canvas with canvas collage and cowrie shells with 20 metal-framed birds (acrylic on canvas with cowrie shells). Painting 110¾ x 78 in (281.3 x 198.1 cm); each bird 18½ x 17 x 11 in (47 x 43.2 x 7.9 cm) approximately. Overall dimensions of installation variable.

Manuel Mendive (b. 1944), Energías para el amor y la bondad, 2015. Installation in 21 parts: acrylic on canvas with canvas collage and cowrie shells with 20 metal-framed birds (acrylic on canvas with cowrie shells). Painting: 110¾ x 78 in (281.3 x 198.1 cm); each bird: 18½ x 17 x 11 in (47 x 43.2 x 7.9 cm) approximately. Overall dimensions of installation variable. Estimate: $40,000-60,000. This work is offered in Latin American Art on 24-25 May at Christie’s in New York

Not aligned with any particular group, but sharing affinities with Surrealism, Wifredo Lam is perhaps the best known of the Cuban modernists. Lam is considered by many to be the Picasso of Cuban art — indeed, the two artists were friends.

Who are the important contemporary artists to follow?

A few of the key artists whose works are well represented internationally in museums, galleries and at auction include the artist’s collective Los Carpinteros, Alexandre Arrechea, Yoan Capote, Kcho, Carlos Garaicoa, Roberto Fabelo and Manuel Mendive

Carmen Herrera (b. 1915), Verticals, painted in Paris in 1952. Acrylic on canvas. 28⅛ x 47 in (71.4 x 119.4 cm). Estimate $350,000-450,000. This work is offered in Latin American Art on 24-25 May at Christie’s in New York

Carmen Herrera (b. 1915), Verticals, painted in Paris in 1952. Acrylic on canvas. 28⅛ x 47 in (71.4 x 119.4 cm). Estimate: $350,000-450,000. This work is offered in Latin American Art on 24-25 May at Christie’s in New York

At 101 years of age, the geometric abstractionist Carmen Herrera is finally having a moment. Having worked in virtual obscurity from the 1940s up until the present day, Herrera sold her first painting in 2004, and had a retrospective at the Whitney Museum from September 2016 to January 2017.

Another contemporary artist, or ‘artivist’, who has received a lot of press but is rarely found at auction or in galleries is Tania Bruguera, who recently threw her hat into the ring to become the president of Cuba. Primarily a performance artist, she is unafraid to delve into such fraught topics as political propaganda and immigration.       

What should a collector consider when seeking to acquire Cuban art?

While important for any collector, good provenance is particularly significant when it comes to acquiring Cuban Modernism. We’ve seen a lot of works that have come to the market recently with little to no provenance. With limited literature and few institutions or experts who will confirm authenticity, the need for research is imperative. One notable exception is the Madrid-based Fundación Arte Cubano, which authenticates the work of many, but not all, Vanguardía artists.

There are also restitution issues that are beginning to come to light with the loosening of the Castro government. After Fidel Castro came to power in 1959, many works in private collections were seized by the government. Slowly, demand is building for these works to be returned. Again, buyers should do their homework on provenance in order to avoid having to deal with a restitution claim years from now. 

How has the market grown, and what has driven this?

London auction records for Cuban Modernists date back to the 1950s and 1960s, a clear sign that these artists had already been ‘discovered’ by international collectors. Indeed MoMA had bought Wifredo Lam’s magnum opus The Jungle in 1945, and Mario Carreño had been enjoying solo exhibitions at such prestigious venues as the San Francisco Museum of Fine Art even before then. 

Ana Mendieta (1948-1985), Untitled, circa 1982. Black and white photograph mounted on board. 53½ x 36⅕ in (135.9 x 92.7 cm). This work is a lifetime print. Estimate $80,000-120,000. This work is offered in Latin American Art on 24-25 May at Christie’s in New York

Ana Mendieta (1948-1985), Untitled, circa 1982. Black and white photograph mounted on board. 53½ x 36⅕ in (135.9 x 92.7 cm). This work is a lifetime print. Estimate: $80,000-120,000. This work is offered in Latin American Art on 24-25 May at Christie’s in New York

This shows that there has been strong international demand for Cuban art for a very long time. We continue to see steady demand from our traditional Latin American buyers, but we’ve also noticed an increase in demand from new buyers. In the US this is no doubt due in part to the resurgence of interest in Cuba that has resulted from the new improved relations between the two countries.   

Are there any Cuban artists the market has yet to discover, or who are undervalued?

We’ve seen a rise in prices for modern and contemporary Cuban art, but nothing near the prices achieved by European or US artists. Unfortunately, it is common for female artists to sell for significantly less than their male equivalents, and Cuban female artists are no exception. Works by well-known artists of great merit such as Zilia Sánchez, Loló Soldevilla and Ana Mendieta, for example, can typically be acquired for a fraction of what works by their male equivalents in the US and Europe might sell for. New collectors should educate themselves about these artists’ work, and enlist the help of a knowledgeable advisor to help them make financially prudent and art-historically significant purchases.