The subject of a major retrospective opening Saturday at the High Museum of Art, Wifredo Lam was multicultural before it was cool.
And now that multiculturalism is au courant, so, increasingly, is the work of this surrealist, whose place in the art-world firmament slipped to the margins after his 1982 death.
Organized by Boston College’s McMullen Museum of Art, “Wifredo Lam: Imagining New Worlds” draws more than 40 paintings, as well as a selection of drawings, prints and ephemera, from public and private collections across Europe, Latin America and the U.S.
It’s a deep dive into the multifaceted career of an artist who cut a singular path across the globe (calling Cuba, Spain, France and Italy home, sometimes more than once, with important encampments in Martinique and Haiti).
With a similar spirit of wanderlust, Lam moved through many of the 20th century’s art movements and engaged with some of the leading lights of his time, including Pablo Picasso, Andre Breton and Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
Born in Cuba to a Chinese father and a mother of African and Spanish descent, Lam seemed to take to internationalism as a birthright. But, because he’s not a household name on these shores, the exhibit presents a challenging “sell” to a largely unknowing public by the High.
Still, while Lam may not have the instant name recognition of, say, Cézanne, Degas and other modernist masters showcased in “Masterpieces of European Art from the Pearlman Collection,” the exhibit he replaced on the second floor of the museum’s Wieland Pavilion, his work is quickly gaining cachet.
Lam’s career also will be surveyed in a major European exhibition tour kicking off this fall at Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, before stops at Madrid’s Reina Sofia Museum and the Tate Modern in London.
This is a stirring turn of events for an artist whose accomplished resume of exhibits, collaborations and other associations is chronicled in a graphic timeline that fills two walls of one of the High’s wedge galleries, but tails off notably after his death.
So, why is Lam’s legacy now receiving what High director Michael Shapiro termed a belated “recalibration” when he introduced the exhibit at a preview for media and hospitality industry leaders this week?
Eskil Lam, the artist’s son, who is responsible for managing his estate, puzzles over that.
“I wish I knew the answer,” he said, “because my father passed away in 1982. … (He) was quite well known in the ’40s and ’50s, and then, all of the sudden, there’s been this kind of lull.”
But the 53-year-old Parisian did offer a theory: “In the ’70s, there was this divide and he was classified purely as a Latin American and he kind of faded to the periphery.”
“It’s like the world is ready for it again.”
Certainly, the American museum world is becoming more attuned to cultivating relationships with diverse communities and reflecting that diversity in its programming.
The High has reached out to Latino audiences through initiatives such as making 2013’s “Frida & Diego: Passion, Politics, and Painting” its first completely bilingual exhibit. And the interactive outdoor art installation it commissioned from Ignacio Cadena and Héctor Esrawe last year, “Mi Casa, Your Casa,” has led to a sequel by the Mexican designers opening in April, “Los Trompos” (“The Spinning Tops”).
High promotional materials bill Lam as “a pre-eminent artist of Latin American origin and one of the surrealist movement’s most influential figures.”
That’s accurate, but perhaps oversimplified.
“Imagining New Worlds,” curated by former Atlantan Elizabeth T. Goizueta, reveals an artist in constant evolution. His expression ultimately becomes a picante gumbo of surrealism, magic realism, modernism and postmodernism, and boasts influences that include Afro-Cuban symbolism and imagery from the Santería religion of the Caribbean.
Extending its diversity outreach and trying to connect Lam with a new generation, the High is presenting concurrent solo exhibitions by Atlanta artist Fahamu Pecou and Brooklyn-based José Parlá. The artists were challenged to, in their own ways, respond to Lam’s work.
Pecou, whose art frequently forms a commentary on the materialism and machismo of hip-hop culture, acknowledged that he didn’t know Lam’s oeuvre well initially. But he quickly discovered that they shared an embrace of Yoruba spirituality, and that made the challenge of responding to pieces completed decades ago “refreshing.”
Standing in his gallery, between Parla’s and one given over to a collaboration the two undertook with Latino middle-schoolers from Peachtree Presbyterian Church’s LaAmistad program, the Atlanta artist said he’s not surprised that there is a reflowering of interest in Lam.
“Maybe it’s the perfect storm,” Pecou said. “There’s a great deal of interest in exploring art that goes beyond what we’ve typically looked at in terms of Eurocentric perspective. …
“I think that’s really important, that we expand our own views and perspectives.”
“Wifredo Lam: Imagining New Worlds” and “Imagining New Worlds: José Parlá and Fahamu Pecou”
Preview party, 5-10 p.m. Friday, with talk by Parlá and Pecou at 7 p.m. in Memorial Art Building’s Rich Theatre. Party, talk are free with High Museum admission, which is half price after 4 p.m. on Fridays.
Exhibits officially open Saturday. Through May 24. 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays (until 9 p.m. Fridays), noon-5 p.m. Sundays. $19.50; $16.50 ages 65 and older and students (ID required); $12 ages 6-17. 1280 Peachtree St. N.E., Atlanta. More on the exhibits and extensive related programs: 404-733-4444, high.org.