An Argentine Artist Up Close

An Argentine Artist Up Close

As the Advanced Spanish V students hopped aboard a small yellow bus, their teacher, Laura de Toledo, could hardly contain her excitement about the exhibit they were about to see, a retrospective of the prolific artist Marta Minujín. Not only is Ms. Minujín from Sra. de Toledo’s home country of Argentina, the 81-year-old trailblazer has never enjoyed a solo show in the United States – until now.

The bus came to a stop on Museum Mile at 92 Street. After posing for a quick photograph outside the stately Jewish Museum, the students ventured inside to begin their exploration of the genre-defying Ms. Minujín, whom they had read about in advance of the afternoon field trip.

The Jewish Museum’s first-ever bilingual show, “Marta Minujín: Arte! Arte! Arte!” filled up most of the first floor and for good reason: the artist has been creating experimental and conceptual art for six decades, and more than 100 of her beautiful, provocative pieces were on display, including her soft sculptures, fluorescent paintings, vivid drawings, multimedia installations and photographs.

A warm docent, who spoke exclusively en español, explained that Ms. Minujín was born in 1943 in Buenos Aires to a prominent Russian-Jewish family and that she remains a vital force in the Latin American art world, although she had been largely overlooked in the U.S. and elsewhere.

Jotting down observations in their notebooks, the students wandered purposefully through the chapters of Ms. Minujín’s extraordinary career, which propelled her to Paris, New York, Washington, DC, and back to Argentina.

They took in her incredible archive of wide-ranging works, anchored by an array of brightly striped creations made from repurposed mattresses, which became her signature style. The students learned that the psychedelic colors she chose reflected the 1970s zeitgeist. They also discovered that she collaborated with pop-art legend Andy Warhol on a series of photographs in which they held ears of corn to symbolize trade relations between the U.S. and Latin America.

Ms. Minujín gained recognition for her large-scale architectural installations that raised awareness around the political, social and cultural issues of the day. For example, her 1983 “Deconstructed Parthenon” in Buenos Aires, a replica of the famed Athens temple, was adorned top to bottom with 20,000 banned books.

In the exhibit, a video screen showing volunteers building Ms. Minujín’s “Parthenon” was surrounded by an arresting display of dozens of challenged U.S. books selected by the curators. This timely issue no doubt resonated with our students, who lingered the longest in this section, noting the titles suspended in plastic sleeves.

Ms. Minujín’s most recent paintings, “Pandemia/Endemia,” also sparked nods of recognition from the students and Sra. de Toledo. Crafted from thousands of minute fabric strips adhered to canvases, this stunning trio illustrated the different stages of Covid and was made when Ms. Minujín, along with much of the world, was living and working in isolation.

After they had seen the majority of “Arte! Arte! Art!,” the group thanked their knowledgeable guide and re-boarded the bus for the quick trip back to Chapin. During their two hours at the Jewish Museum, the students had learned much about Marta Minujín whose magnificent imagination and attention-grabbing contributions to contemporary art won’t soon be forgotten.

Expanding on this enriching experience, Sra. de Toledo asked her class to select two pieces that stood out to them, thoughtfully research each one and give presentations en español, an exercise that further strengthened their Spanish language and comprehension skills. Not surprisingly, her students were inspired most by the pandemic paintings and the banned books display.

“We picked books we wanted to include in Marta Minujín’s Parthenon installation,” one student explained, adding “then we checked those books out of the Chapin library!”

Among the books the students chose to highlight in their eloquently delivered presentations included “To Kill a Mockingbird” (Matar a un ruiseñor) by Harper Lee, “The Hate You Give” (El odio que das) by Angie Thomas, “The Handmaid’s Tale” (El cuento de la criada) by Margaret Atwood, “And Tango Makes Three” (Tres con Tango) by Justin Richardson, Peter Parnell and Henry Cole, and “Chik Chak Shabbat” (Chik Chak Shabat) by Mara Rockliff and Kyrsten Brooker.

As an added bonus, Sra. de Toledo’s Advanced Spanish V students were able to present their impressive projects to other Upper School Spanish classes, which meet at the same time.