by David M. Roth
The two-carat diamond that artist Jill Magid had manufactured from the cremated remains of the Mexican architect Luis Barragán (1902-1988) isn’t much to look at. The stone is about as lustrous as a gumball machine trinket, its crude setting akin to something an eighth grader might make in metal shop. The story behind it, however, is as beguiling and compelling as any to have emerged from conceptual art in the last 40 years.
It involves art world machinations, international property rights, copyright law, authorship, a love triangle and, most of all, a Brooklyn artist whose specialty is challenging institutional power. In this instance Magid attempted to pry Barragán’s professional archive from the clutches of a wealthy Swiss collector by means of a trade: the above-mentioned diamond ring in exchange for the return of that archive to Mexico. The events
leading up to that proposition are the subject of the story told by The Proposal. The show, on view through December 10, was commissioned by SFAI and curated by Hesse McGraw, SFAI’s vice president of exhibitions and public programs, and organized with Katie Hood Morgan, assistant curator.
Apart from a deeply touching video of the exhumation, the show consists mainly of vitrines filled with correspondence between the artist and the architect’s descendants — and between Magid and Federica Zanco, the Italy-born architecture historian whose husband, a Swiss furniture magnate, allegedly bought the archive for her as an engagement gift. The $3 million purchase, brokered by Max Protetch after the suicide of the archive’s sole trustee, had the unintended effect of placing Barragán's legacy in state of complete lockdown. For two decades starting in 1995, Zanco, without exception or explanation, denied access to all interested parties, going so far as to claim ownership of every aspect of Barragán’s work — even images not in her possession. For Magid, an artist who’d previously performed guerilla actions inside the Dutch secret service and the NYPD, Zanco’s intransigent position lit a fuse.
Accounts of her subsequent interactions with Zanco (detailed in the September issue of Artforum and the August 1 issue of The New Yorker) read like a cross between a legal thriller and a Stendahlian psychodrama. They describe the seductive epistolary and artistic ploys Magid used to engineer the face-to-face meeting at which a bona fide act of transubstantiation made possible a previously unthinkable dialog – one that crystallized the issues appertaining: the responsibilities of heirs, governments and dealers in protecting national treasures.
In the end, it matters little that Zanco did not immediately accept or reject the proposal; what’s significant is her reaction to it: she asked (albeit hypothetically), the terms on which a repatriation of Barragán’s archive might take place. More important still is the model Magid’s actions set for a new kind of activist/performance: one in which empathy, scholarship, legal savvy and moral force replace mere acts of transgression.
Postscript: Laura Poitras, director of Citzenfour, a documentary about Edward Snowden, is said to be readying a movie about the Magid-Zanco-Barragán saga. From it we may learn more about all three, and, in particular, why the minimalist architect chose to design only private residences in gated communities. We might also learn how diamonds are “grown” in a lab. Such gems, today's Wall Street Journal reports, are rocking companies like De Beers. The paper calls them "indistinguishable from natural diamonds to the naked eye."
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Jill Magid: The Proposal @ SFAI, Walter and McBean Galleries, through December 10, 2016.