Clara Diament Sujo: A Life Devoted to Art
16 April 2018
by Edward J. Sullivan; Professor of Modern Latin American and Iberian Art History, NYU
The following is a personal homage to a long-standing friend, colleague and an intellectual who has contributed immeasurably to the art worlds of several cities on two continents and whose impact will be lasting in the realm of promoting and analyzing art of a wide variety of tendencies: Clara Diament Sujo.
Clara Sujo in her Garden at Quinta Jacaranda, Caracas, 1972
Clara’s sensibility has been unique among art dealers who specialize in the art of their own region. Both in her original gallery in Caracas, Estudio Actual (which was, in fact, much more than a gallery, being simultaneously also a bookstore and literary-artistic salon), as well as in the New York venue, she assiduously avoided organizing a roster of shows of only Latin American artists. Clara was among the first to refer to the ‘Art of the Americas’, preferring this over the commonly used term ‘Latin American Art’ since this erased the usual North-South divide, a distinction she felt had for too long marginalized the art of the continent. The list of the dozens of shows she did in Caracas is fascinating as it includes not only the best known names from the late 1960s to the early 1980s from Venezuela, Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil, Nicaragua, and many other nations, but also artists such as Henry Moore, Piet Mondrian and Joseph Albers. Likewise, CDS Gallery, opened in 1981, presented groundbreaking shows of famous (and not so famous) Latin Americans as well as European and American artists including the British visionary painter Stanley Spencer and two of the most well respected (although now less well known) New York Abstract Expressionists, Adja Yunkers and Hedda Sterne.
Concerning the New York School, Clara was responsible for a highly acclaimed exhibition at CDS in 1988 that paid homage to “The Irascibles.” This nickname for the New York Ab Ex artists was derived from a famous photograph of many of them published in Life Magazine to commemorate the 1950 exhibition American Painting Today – 1950 at the Metropolitan Museum. For her 1988 show she contracted renowned art historian Irving Sandler as curator and obtained loans from many major museums in New York and beyond. I refer to this show as simply one instance among many in which her efforts were directed to a wide variety of artistic movements and experiments. Clara has been both prescient and brave in the wide reach of the projects she chose. Of course, Clara Sujo is best known for her path-breaking shows of Latin American artists. Her solo exhibitions at CDS as well as her group projects helped introduce such essential Latin American masters as Rodolfo Abularach, Jacobo Borges, Luis Benedit, Jorge Michel, Armando Morales, Antonio Seguí and many others to American audiences.
Clara’s international contacts throughout her long career have been legendary. While still in Caracas, she collaborated with museum curators and directors from the US, Europe and throughout South America on initiatives that were crucial for the advancement of knowledge of modern and contemporary art in Venezuela. The breadth of her interests and activities reflects her own background and training. Clara Diament Sujo has always been what we would now call a Renaissance Woman.
Her early training in her native Argentina as well as in France awoke in her a dedication to art, literature and philosophy. A student of such eminent intellectual personalities as Jorge Romero Brest in Buenos Aires, Pierre Francastel and the influential philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty in Paris, Clara exercised her versatility in her writing, producing books and dozens of articles in numerous journals in which she offered astute critiques on many of the most revolutionary artistic trends of the 1960s and beyond. She participated in documentary film series, spearheading many other initiatives that brought artists and their publics closer together in both Caracas and New York.
Clara Diament Sujo was also dynamic in her own art collecting practices. For her gallery she acquired many examples of major works by modern masters from South America, North America and Europe. For her own collection she attempted to establish a cross section of those styles of painting, sculpture and graphic art that reflected the eclectic nature of her constantly curious temperament. Her collecting passions took her down many different roads. Clara’s Latin American collection spanned the stylistic spectrum. One of the principal categories is that of the human form in motion – often in distress. Paintings by the Cuban Luis Martínez-Pedro, the Venezuelans Jacobo Borges, Manuel Espinoza, Alirio Rodríguez and many others are aligned with the international trends of New Figuration or, as it is know in some countries, Neo Humanism.
Another category, reflected in the title of the second in the series of three sales, is Lyrical Abstraction. Clara’s interest in gestural non-objectivity is one of the most outstanding elements of her aesthetic. It is striking how carefully Clara chose the artists to represent this strain of mid-twentieth century art. The catalogue for a major exhibition of her collection at the National Gallery of Caracas (1995) remains an excellent source for understanding her attraction to Lyrical Abstraction, especially within a Venezuelan context. In that exhibition works of this manner by artists like Elsa Gramcko, early Alejandro Otero and Francisco Hung (among others) stood for some of the best instances of the incursion of lyricism and painterliness within a Venezuelan context that had previously been so deeply immersed in geometric abstraction.
In fact, it was geometric art that represented the third wave of Clara’s interest in the art of her adopted country, as well as that of other Latin American nations that, after about 1940, had become the bastion of a tradition that had started in Europe at the birth of the twentieth century with the constructivism of the Russians, the Neo-Plasticism of De Stijl and the concrete art of the Bauhaus painters, sculptors and architects. Ending this brief reminiscence I must reiterate the care, curiosity and intelligence with which Clara has carried out all aspects of her artistic and intellectual career. Hers has been a life devoted not only to art, but to its study and the absorption of its pleasures and its messages. Clara Sujo’s example as an individual of exquisite taste and refinement is amply demonstrated by the distinguished collection of art that she amassed over the space of many decades.