Americas Society

Edification value  3/5
Entertainment value  2/5
Should you go?  3/5
Time spent 25 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned
Leonilson at Americas Society
Leonilson, “Leo não consegue mudar o mundo,” [Leo Can’t Change the World”] paint on unstretched canvas, 1989
“Leo Can’t Change the World” stood out to me. The color, the way the canvas hangs like a flag on the wall, and of course the heart in the middle of it, flanked by the words “solitary” and “nonconformist.”

Americas SocietyThe Americas Society occupies a handsome neocolonial brick mansion on Park Avenue, designed in 1909 by McKim, Mead, & White.  It was a private residence through the 1940s, then the home of the Soviet Mission to the UN from 1946 until 1965. Which is an interesting claim to fame; I wonder if they still find CIA bugs in the walls from time to time.

You don’t see much of the house when you visit the museum, which is unfortunate as it sounds pretty spectacular. The America Society’s small gallery space fills three windowless rooms on the ground floor, currently accented in rich shades of blue and green, and preserving some classy travertine framing on the doorways.

Americas Society Gallery

Rockefeller Was Here

The Americas Society is, perhaps unsurprisingly, yet another Rockefeller-backed midcentury institution dedicated to furthering international dialog and understanding.  David Rockefeller spearheaded its foundation, making it a cousin to the Japan Society and the Asia Society, which were founded by his brother John D. Rockefeller the Third. The Cloisters, meanwhile, owes its existence to John and David’s father, John D. Rockefeller Jr.  There is an Africa Society in New York, too, but it doesn’t have a museum, or a Rockefeller as benefactor.

Americas Versus Asia

I took the Asia Society to task for claiming (a) that “Asia” was a term with real meaning outside of a sweeping Western catch-all for “not here/not us,” and (b) that they could hope to do justice to a vast sweep of cultures and people and histories in a mid-sized museum space. I visited the Americas Society wondering if I’d end up writing something similar–at least the second part, if not the first.  For sure it shares the problem of a really big mandate in a really small space.

And yet, the Americas Society’s very small gallery space naturally tempers expectations. The Americas Society website states that its program focuses on “exhibiting and promoting art from Latin America, the Caribbean, and Canada.” However, the emphasis seems clearly on Central and South America.  So despite the breadth of the name, the America’s Society’s programming and mission in practice feel fairly specific. The question is whether the gallery space suffices to support that mission.

José Leonilson:  Empty Man

Americas Society GalleryThe exhibit when I visited surveyed the later work of José Leonilson, a Brazilian artist who was hitting his prime in the 1980s only to die of AIDS in 1993. He started out as a painter, but late in his career started making art that involved embroidery. Or, maybe that’s too fancy a word for what he did. But stitching on fabric, anyway.

Leonilson at Americas Society Gallery
Leonilson, “34 com scars,” [34 With Scars] thread with acrylic on voile, 1991
It’s an interesting little show, poignant as you’d expect. The curators installed it in reverse chronologically, quoting T.S. Eliot, “in the beginning is my end. In my end is my beginning.”  Visitors therefore start with the stitched works, and proceed backwards to some examples of Leonilson’s paintings.

I found his work sad and funny — wry might be a good word.

Should You Visit the Americas Society?

This is another venue where the answer is going to depend very much on what’s on and how much you’re interested in a program generally focused on modern and contemporary Latin American art.

But it’s certainly worth keeping an eye on, as a place with significant resources and a good sense of the art and artists of the Americas. And given its location, convenient to the Asia Society, the Met Breuer, the Park Avenue Armory, and Museum Mile, it is fairly easy to add the Americas Society Gallery to a cultural afternoon on the Upper East Side.

Americas Society Gallery

For Reference:

Address 680 Park Avenue (at East 68th Street), Manhattan
Cost  General Admission:  Free