A Tale of Two Museums: Mexico City

by Richard Neill

Soumaya Museum, Mexico City, photograph by Richard Neill

On a recent end of year art pilgrimage to Mexico City, we set our sights on a visit to the Museo Soumaya in the city’s Nuevo Polanco neighborhood. The museum, which opened in 2011, houses the private collection of one of the world’s richest men, billionaire Carlos Slim, who built his fortune in telecommunications and now controls Mexico’s largest conglomerate. Slim has described the collection as a gift to his country and a tribute to his deceased wife, Soumaya Domit; some critics have dismissed it as a monument to the billionaire. It’s an eclectic collection to be sure, but also a diverse and immense one, holding some 66,000 works from 30 centuries. Most noteworthy are the collections of sculptures from Pre-Hispanic Mesoamerica, modern Mexican art, and European old masters and modern masters such as Rodin and Salvador Dali.

Diego Rivera mural, photograph by Richard Neill

The design of the new building to house the collection was a family affair too: it’s architect, Fernando Romero is Slim’s son-in-law. Some critics complain of it’s attention getting design; it’s certainly nothing if not ambitious. Many first time visitors to the Soumaya are duly impressed. After all, the museum is one big shiny object. Reflections off it’s silver skin (made of 14,000 hexagonal mirrored steel tiles) flashed through the window of our Uber as we rolled along the broad avenue to the entrance. Up close the building, a rotated rhomboid design resembling an hourglass, towered high above me. As I climbed dozens of broad terraced steps to arrive at the plaza entrance, the building suddenly took on a more human scale. Hundreds of people came and went inside a soaring atrium lobby, featuring numerous murals, including the final one by Mexican modernist Diego Rivera, as well as a bronze cast of Rodin’s The Thinker. Together they offered visitors a taste of the smorgasbord of art filling the six gallery floors above.

Soumaya Lobby, photograph by Richard Neill

 

 

 

Making my way up the grand marble staircase off the lobby felt like the beginning of a long journey, and it was, not only through space (impressive galleries) but also time (centuries of art-making). One entire gallery is devoted to Impressionism, highlighting works by Monet and Renoir; another displays  religious art and is filled with endless artworks and historical relics depicting saints and virgins. The collections unfold from floor to floor, all superbly displayed and organized, but becoming a bit predictable. There were also a few nice surprises along the way though, such as a temporary exhibit about the city of  Venice, as portrayed by artists over the centuries. It was an interesting palate cleanser of a show: a deep dive into one of the most artistic cities in the old world here in the largest metropolis in the new world.

Hours later I emerged on the top floor, where Slim’s collection of Rodin and Dali is on display in an immense rotunda softly lit by skylights from above.

To wander among so many works by Rodin (the largest collection in the world) and his contemporaries in such a setting was the highlight of my art experience at the Soumaya, but as I made my way back down to the ground floor, I realized that the building is really the star of the show. It’s a spectacular architectural statement by any measure, a point made clear to me as I crossed the plaza, craning my head upwards trying to take it all in from different vantage points.

Museo Jumex, photograph by Richard Neill

It turned out the best view was just a short walk away, from the neighboring Museo Jumex (built in 2013), which houses the collection of another wealthy Mexican collector, Eugenio López Alonso, heir to the the Grupo Jumex fruit juice fortune. It’s a perfect counterpoint to the encyclopedic nature of the Soumaya: an institution clearly focused on bringing contemporary art from around the world to Mexican audiences. With more than 2700 artworks, the Jumex has the largest contemporary art collection in Latin American, featuring international artists like Andy Warhol, Alexander Calder, Dan Flavin, Louise Bourgeois, Cy Twombly, and Gabriel Orozco.

The architecture of the Jumex is strikingly different from the nearby Soumaya as well. The David Chipperfield-designed building appears highly symmetrical, with a jagged skylight roof. But below it features a rich textured exterior and gallery spaces designed to house exhibitions by major contemporary artists.

Sculpture by Canadian artist collective General Idea, photograph by Richard Neill

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On the day I visited, large, multi-colored, pill-shaped balloon sculptures floated above the massive entrance to the Jumex–the work of Canadian artist collective General Idea. Their super-sized pills blowing in the light breeze gave just a hint at the irreverent, multi-media quality of their retrospective which filled one entire floor of the museum.

Retrospective exhibit by General Idea, photo by Richard Neill

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Even more striking was the large exhibition by Walid Raad, the Lebanese born, New York-based media artist, with installations and artwork focus on historical conflicts and the civil wars in Lebanon.

Work by Wallid Raad, photograph by Richard Neill

Although I’d seen this impressive show last year at New York’s MOMA, the installation at the Jumex was even better: the high ceiling galleries gave his architecture-scale work the context they need.

Gallery at Jumex, photograph by Richard Neill

Other details set the building apart: the modest bookstore with it’s inlaid marble floors; even the ground floor cafe has a striking up to the moment design of wood and glass. A final bonus of my visit to the Jumex appeared as I stepped outside onto one of the exterior balconies. There, directly across the plaza was a perfectly framed view of the Soumaya at just the right distance, revealing it’s contorted monolithic architecture in all of it’s shining glory. Point-counterpoint.

 

 

 

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