Elena Climent, Bookshelf of My Mother with Arab motifs, 1996, oil on canvas, 18 x 24 in. Courtesy of Mary-Anne Martin Fine Art.
ACCESSING LATIN AMERICAN ART Art dealer Mary-Anne Martin makes a lifelong commitment to the work of our Southern neighbors.
BY CHRIS BYRNE
ary-Anne Martin is an influential figure who formed the seminal Latin American Art department at Sotheby’s in the late ’70s before opening her namesake fine art gallery in 1982 at Amster Yard in New York City. Four years later, the gallery, known for its scholarship and breadth of major Mexican and Latin American painters and the development of younger artists, moved to its current space in a Beaux arts townhouse at 23 East 73rd Street. In 1990, Martin acquired Frida Kahlo’s Diego y yo, marking the first time a Latin American artist broke the $1 million threshold at auction. Chris Byrne (CB): In 2010, I had the pleasure of organizing a symposium with you in Dallas—can you tell us about your history with the artist Frida Kahlo? Mary-Anne Martin (MAM): My first encounters with works by Frida Kahlo were when I was organizing the first Mexican auctions for Sotheby’s and was looking for consignments. Almost nothing was written about her in English, and art students in the US were not taught about her work. I had the good fortune to be introduced to the art historian Hayden Herrera, who was finishing up her doctoral thesis on Frida Kahlo, and we started trading information. If she located a painting by the artist she would tell me, and if I found one I would let her know. She wrote so well that Harper & Row offered to publish her thesis as a book, and things took off after that. The biography, complete with 35 color photographs and 96 black-andwhite illustrations, was released in 1983. It sounds funny now, but in those days it was almost unheard of to include so many photographs 32
in a scholarly thesis by a commercial (not university) publisher. That was 37 years ago, and the book is still in print and read in many languages around the world. Over that same period of time Frida Kahlo has become a feminist icon and possibly one of the most faked artists of all time. That was the subject of the symposium in Dallas that you mention. My library shelves are buckling under the weight of the books on Frida Kahlo that have been printed since that first biography. CB: After working at Sotheby’s for over a decade, you became head of their paintings department and, maybe more importantly, the first female senior vice president and officer of the board. MAM: In those days it was difficult for women to advance in most companies. Feminist writers enjoined us to “throw away our typewriters,” and a book in 1977 told us to “dress for success.” I remember a British print expert telling me it was a waste of time and money to train women as cataloguers because they just got married and had babies and left the firm. To make things more difficult, Sotheby’s was a British company, having acquired Parke-Bernet Galleries, an old American firm, and they were even less informed about women’s lib than the Americans. I was lucky in a way because one of the British experts (who was exactly one year older than I was) thought I had a good eye for art and taught me how to look at paintings. It’s a lot different from standing in a museum behind a velvet rope, and I found I had my true calling. When I joined the board, he taught me how to listen and say very little. That turned out to be the secret for women to be considered brilliant and “team players.”