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In this introduction to the catalogue of the 1959 exhibition The United States Collects Pan-American Art held at the Art Institute of Chicago, curator Joseph Randall Shapiro addresses the issue of the inadequacy of the term “Latin American art” to denote contemporary art produced by artists in the many countries that are part of the Western Hemisphere. To him, the term imposes a single, homogenizing identity onto the artists for American audiences, and does not convey the diversity at stake of countries’ cultures, histories, art forms, and styles. This particular exhibition featured many artists working in a non-figurative style in the 1950s.
Shown at the Art Institute of Chicago, the exhibition was organized as part of the City of Chicago’s Festival of the Americas to coincide with the Third Pan American Games in the summer of 1959. The exhibition was one of the first in the 1950s, and the first ever held in Chicago, to feature a collection of artworks by contemporary artists of the continent drawn from mostly private collections in the United States. By bringing together artworks of established artists with those of young and emerging ones, the exhibition offered a survey of modern and late-1950s art trends marked by what curator Joseph Randall Shapiro characterized as “international style.” This exhibition is remarkable in that it was organized and installed by Shapiro, a prominent Chicago lawyer and businessman. Shapiro, as chairman of the Visual Arts Program of the Games, traveled for four months around the U.S. at his own expense, visiting galleries, museums, and art dealers to gather the most representative sample of Latin American art in styles that ranged from abstraction and surrealism to expressionism and realism. Shapiro (1904–1996), along with his wife Jory, began their extensive collection of modern and contemporary art in 1942. By the late 1950s it included artworks by Latin American artists [Roberto] Matta, [Wifredo] Lam, Hurtado, [José Luis] Cuevas, Villegas, Vigas, and others. Shapiro eventually bequeathed his art collection to the Art Institute of Chicago and the Museum of Contemporary Art, of which he was a founding member and president.