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by Walter Robinson
Chicharrones de pollo with yellow rice and red beans helped draw the gringos to the Lower East Side some 30 years ago, and empanadas and tamales are part of the plan at the newly renovated and expanded El Museo del Barrio, at least according to museum director Julián Zugazagoitia, who boasted that no visit would be complete without sampling the "pan-Latino flavors" of his museum’s new cafe.

Maybe so, but a casual afternoon visitor to El Museo’s grand "Super Sábado!" opening ceremony on Oct. 17, 2009, found the lobby thronged with people, queuing up not for the grub but to get into the exhibitions, notably "Nexus New York: Latin/American Artists in the Modern Metropolis," Oct. 17, 2009-Feb. 28, 2010. El Museo curator Deborah Cullen has put together an impressive scholarly exhibition, mapping out some of the North-South exchanges (so to speak) in notably personal terms: e.g., Alice Neel and Carlos Enríquez, who met at art school in 1924, married, had a couple of kids in Enríquez’ hometown of Havana and then later in New York before finally splitting up (throwing Neel into a deep depression). 

The marriage was the beginning of Neel’s remarkable bohemian journey. Both artists painted portraits of their daughter Isabetta (as a toddler by Neel, and as a gamine five-year-old by Enríquez), seen here side-by-side for the first time, as well as several other images of their life together, notably Neel’s warm 1927 watercolor of La familia, with Carlos, the baby and a topless Alice playing on the floor. This peek into a lost time makes you glad they were figurative rather than abstract painters.

The show also links Alfred Stieglitz and Marius de Zayas, the celebrated caricaturist, gallery operator and magazine publisher, and traces the brief workshop activities in New York of David Alfaro Siqueiros before he left to fight in the Spanish Civil War in 1937. It even revisits the brief, late-life romance between Marcel Duchamp and his married Brazilian muse, Maria Martins Pereria e Souza

El Museo del Barrio was founded 40 years ago by the artist Raphael Montañez Ortiz and a group of neighborhood activists, and took residence way back in 1977 in its current city-owned building "at the top of Museum Mile," as Zugazagoitia is given to saying. The ground floor of a school-like building at 104th Street and Fifth Avenue, it was always a pretty humble space for a museum, and it still is -- it’s "the neighborhood museum," after all -- though the year-long, $28-million overhaul has opened the lobby up to the street and reconfigured and enlarged the galleries to good effect.

The museum boasts a "Super Sabado" each month on every third Saturday, sponsored by Target, when admission is free -- but just between us, as a city-owned institution, it’s "pay what you wish" all the time, so feel free to go see "Nexus New York" (and curator Elvis Fuentes’ survey of the museum collection, "Voces y Visiones") on any off hour.


WALTER ROBINSON is editor of Artnet Magazine.