This Puerto Rican artist—a long-time New York resident—proclaims himself faithful to his roots. He has become a key figure and an influential presence on a long journey to define and value the art of Latin America in the current cultural milieu of the United States. As president of the board of El Museum del Barrio, his work as a promoter is widely recognized. His commitment to accepting minority cultures as veritable contributions to the social fiber of our nation—being a creator with such solid career—reveals a supreme philanthropic spirit. His achievements and values make Tony Bechara the ideal person to establish an open discussion with our readers.
JESÚS ROSADO [J.R.] / You found art after studying other disciplines. When did you discover your artistic vocation, and what was the starting point of your artistic career?
TONY BECHARA [T.B.] / I studied philosophy, economics, and law, but since childhood I always had a penchant for the visual arts. I lived some time in Paris, between 1968 and 1970. For a brief time, I studied art at the Sorbonne and then I settled in New York because I considered it the Mecca of contemporary art. I studied at NYU and obtained a Masters in International Relations. I also took several courses at the School of Visual Arts, at a time when it was the most influential and avant-garde teaching post of visual arts in the Big Apple.
J.R. / Your work is distinguished by its laborious abstract discourse but was it always so? Did you have a figurative stage before that?
T.B. / At some point, I had a great interest in figurative art. The culmination of this phase was a series in black and white I created between 1970 and 1971, strongly influenced by the New Wave cinema and the work of Buñuel and the Italian filmmakers of the 1950s and 60s. At that point, I was wondering if I should venture into film and photography. But the truth is that my passion was painting, and the dynamics of color. During an extensive tour of Italy, I arrived in Ravenna and was very impressed by the Byzantine mosaics I discovered there. I also felt a great curiosity for the pointillism of Seurat and Signac, and for the impressionists. I saw it as a style that was already forecasting “pixelation”. That is the origin of my interest in abstract art and the pictorial language I still cultivate in my work.
J.R. / Is there a statement that could define your esthetic search?
T.B. / This I could answer with cliché phrases… so let’s leave because what interests me is the authenticity … What I do is translate my visions.
J.R. / Are you an artist that focuses on the market? Do you create pieces commissioned by collectors?
T.B. / No and no. If I accept a commission, it is without any obligation to buy and no monetary advance.
J.R. / How did you become linked to El Museo del Barrio, and when did you become president of its board of directors?
T.B. / In 1985, I had a big exhibition at the Museum. It was very successful, with an outstanding review in The New York Times, and I even had the incentive of several sales. After that, I became interested in the institution. By that time, the Latino demographics began to change and were becoming an influential factor in the city. I realized that–paradoxically–a museum of Latin American culture could exist, flourish and be relevant in an American city … and no less than in New York, which I consider the art capital of the world. I was nominated for the presidency with a precondition: the mission of El Museo was to be expanded to include all Latinos without losing ties to our immediate community.
J.R. / Do you think El Museo del Barrio has impacted the perception of Latino art and culture in New York?
T.B. / Sure it has. The Museum is already well known not only locally but across the nation and internationally. It has had significant recognition from critics, and in its headquarters, we have presented crucial exhibitions featuring Latin American art and culture, including that of Brazil, the Caribbean, and Mexico. As we speak, there is an exhibit of the work of Gabriel Figueroa, an icon of the golden age of Mexican cinema, an era when—for the first time—the art of a Latin American country had transnational influences and was shown in the United States. Luis Buñuel, Jorge Negrete, and María Félix were known from Patagonia to New York. And this was happening as early as the 1940s and 50s.
J.R. / From what you say, El Museo del Barrio has managed to exceed the restrictions of the ghetto. How effective was the support of the community, city officials and patronage to maintain the institution?
T.B. / The result has been a substantial increase in support from the city, corporate entities, foundations, membership, and patronage. There will always be someone who will be against the openness and inclusion of all … c’est la vie or c’est la guerre.
J.R. / From artists and critic’s opinions, I know of your unselfish efforts to help El Museo del Barrio. However, for someone who doesn’t know about them, the simultaneity of your role as chairman and artist could involve a conflict of interest. How do you handle that?
T.B. / Never again have I exhibited at the Museum, have never received a penny for anything and have contributed directly from my personal account with hundreds of thousands of dollars.
J.R. / People say you have been decisive in promoting outstanding Latino artists living in the United States whose work has been neglected. One example is the case of the Cuban artist Carmen Herrera, an essential exponent of contemporary abstract art. Is there any truth in that?
T.B. / As collectors keep running after the must-haves from young artists still lacking in experience, my aim is to rescue the careers of masters who devoted their entire lives to art and who have been marginalized by time, luck or trends. In the case of my dear friend Carmen Herrera, who in a few weeks will celebrate her 100th birthday and still continues to paint, The New York Times has announced that her work will be on permanent display in the new Whitney Museum, which is planning a major exhibition of her work for next year.
J.R. / Your technique and expressive resources involve many hours of concentration and patience. How do you manage to reconcile your work as an artist with the management, promotion and dissemination of culture?
T.B. / Working tirelessly every day. I’m just passionate about art … the rest of my life can be a little less organized. But my commitments to cultural institutions like El Museo del Barrio and BAM (Brooklyn Academy of Music) — and I could cite others— are for me artistic projects. They are an extension of my commitment to art, like unfinished murals in which I work during the night … I literally go out to do that almost every night. I do not know who said that artists are betes noires unable to participate in social and community projects. On the contrary, the history of art is full of artists who have participated in social causes and enterprises.
J.R. / Looking ahead, what are your plans and projects as an artist?
T.B. / As I create my work, I am obsessively driven to the search for the divine accident … what we call a Eureka moment … that unknown path that, as poetry or song says, is only found as you walk through it.
J.R. / And as a promoter, is there any special way you would like to be remembered in the history of that bastion of Latin culture in USA, which is El Museum of El Barrio?
T.B. / I tried to make a difference…I did the best I could… ■