Roving Eye: Juan Downey Returns to New York


Last week, pioneering video artist Juan Downey’s work finally arrived at the Bronx Museum from Tempe, where it had been on view at the Arizona State University Art Museum. It’s the first museum survey in America of the Chilean-born artist (1940–1993). It took over two years of planning for the 100 works in his exhibition “The Invisible Architect” to make it here [where they are on view through May 20], after Arizona and the MIT List Art Center in Cambridge, Mass. A 27-foot trailer rolled up in front of our museum and parked there for two days, with some 11 wooden crates and pallets, 17 pedestals and four vitrines, and 30 monitors and DVD players, all taking over two hours to unload. The crates sat for 48 hours, acclimatizing to the galleries, a natural part of the process when art travels. Now that it’s all unpacked several days later, we are installing the exhibition.

Two and a half years ago, on a joint study grant in China with my good friend Jane Farver, former List Center director, we laid the groundwork for collaboration between our respective institutions, planning exhibitions and programming. Curator Valerie Smith had already included Downey’s work in a 2011 exhibition at Berlin’s Haus der Kulturen der Welt, and she wanted to organize a larger project.

We all visited his widow, Marylis Belt de Downey, at her New York loft, reviewing files and documentation of the work while taking a closer look at his art. Many trips to the loft helped make the final selection for the exhibition, and it became clearer we wanted a personal approach for the accompanying publication. Commissioning more than 15 interviews by individuals who worked with, studied with and remember Downey, Smith was able to provide a broader perspective on his art.

Both MIT and the Bronx Museum have a history of exhibiting Downey’s work. MIT invited him to Boston as a fellow in 1973 and 1975; there, he created a work documenting the Charles River, Monument to a River. In 1988, he participated in the Bronx Museum’s exhibition “The Latin American Spirit: Art and Artists in the United States 1920-1970” with a sculpture, and additionally for this showing we are exhibiting two etchings from the museum’s permanent collection, as well as About Cages (1987), an important political video installation that will incorporate live birds.

Digging through the Bronx Museum’s archives before visiting Marilys Belt de Downey’s loft, we found black-and-white photographs of him installing previous exhibitions from the 1970s and 1980s. I’ve been thinking a lot about him while in the galleries, overseeing the installation, waiting for everything to be turned on, all the videos.

Born in Chile and trained as an architect, Downey began experimenting with different art forms when he moved from Paris to Washington, D.C., in 1965 and later teaching architecture at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn in 1969. He developed a strong interest in the concept of “invisible energy” and shifted from object-based artistic practice to an experiential approach, seeking to combine interactive performance with sculpture and video, a transition the exhibition explores.

One of my favorite video works is Video Trans Americas (1976), which he started in the 1960s using a documentary style (combined with obvious expertise in art making and installation). It’s a comprehensive work about his experiences in the Amazon. Another, The Thinking Eye (1974–89), demonstrates his 1970s preoccupation with political discourse. Both works evidence Downey’s fascination with identity—his own as well as that of the various indigenous cultures he encountered – and his attempt to understand his identity within the context of Western culture. Years later, interview styles and reality television have borrowed these similar techniques, challenging documentary filmmaking and video art of today.

Downey described himself as a “cultural communicant” and an “activating anthropologist,” combining various ways of working. Based on the interviews and his photographic archives, he was also a downtown art world figure. The Downeys hosted many evenings where art and politics were heartily debated over food and wine.

“The Invisible Architect” demands viewers’ time. You are encouraged to seek out and view the drawings, videos and even the live birds, making this experience to The Bronx an expanded journey into Downey’s world.

Holly Block was appointed executive director of the Bronx Museum of the Arts in 2006. Block authored Art Cuba: The New Generation (Harry N. Abrams, 2001) and has organized many exhibitions with artists internationally, including from Cuba. Currently, Ms. Block and the Bronx Museum of the Arts are managing smARTpower, a new fellowship program made possible by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, in which U.S. artists work with local artists and young people in sites around the world, creating community-based art projects.

Image: Map of America, 1975; Colored pencil, graphite, and acrylic on Bainbridge board; Juan Downey Estate, courtesy of Marilys B. Downey