Fine Arts & Exhibits: In Puerto Rico, Creating Art From Hardship

Hermes, Louis Vuitton and Christian Louboutin shared streets in the design district with airy showrooms of Italian and French designer furniture, kitchen cabinets and closets and a shop featuring crystal chandeliers.

It was everything that Puerto Rico was not. And in the clash, the themes for their new work rushed together: prosperity and poverty, liberty and limitations, so many promises; United States policies toward Puerto Rico and Cuba, where Mr. Calzadilla and his father had been born, opportunity, dreams and disappointment. Promise. It all added up, they said, to “Unspecified Promise.”

“The site echoed very clearly the story of construction, development and displacement that my father had been telling us about,” Mr. Calzadilla, 46, said by phone from Puerto Rico.

Ms. Allora, 43, who was born in Philadelphia, picked up Mr. Calzadilla’s drift and added the idea of shifting economic currents. “They mirror each other,” she said, “one place is going up and another is going down.”


“Blackout” by Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla at the Lisson Gallery in London. Credit Allora & Calzdilla, via Lisson Gallery

Their work is going to be massive. It will have two main elements: one of the elder Calzadilla’s faded and scratched, mustard-color Caterpillar tractors and a 15-foot-high, 55-ton boulder of American black granite. The big machine, called a backhoe or digger, has wide, knobby tires almost as tall as a man, and steel scoops front and rear for digging holes and shoving earth around. They are sawing the machine and the boulder in half, polishing the sheared face of the boulder to a mirror sheen, then attaching the machine to the stone.

Much of Ms. Allora and Mr. Calzadilla’s work has combined sculpture with performance art. In “Unspecified Promise,” the museum audience members become the performers, changing the perspective and shape of reflections in the mirrorlike granite as they move around the sculpture. The mirror, the artists say, gives the impression that the whole machine is there. “So many promises are illusions, and we’re trying to make that tangible,” Ms. Allora said. Whether people see what Ms. Allora and Mr. Calzadilla see is not their goal. “It will depend on your perspective, your experience, your role,” she said. “Your eyes.”

Ms. Allora and Ms. Calzadilla have exhibited their work at museums around the world. Amsterdam, Buenos Aires, Oslo and Sydney, Australia, are some examples. As they were working on “Unspecified Promise,” they flew to London for a solo exhibition of five of their latest works at the Lisson Gallery.

Their work is in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, the Pompidou Center in Paris and the Tate Modern in London. In 2011, they were the United States’ sole representatives at the Venice Biennale, an important international festival of contemporary art.

“They’re among the most thoughtful and progressive and innovative artists working in contemporary art today,” said Kathy Halbreich, an associate director and curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. In early November, Ms. Halbreich is moving to a new job as the executive director of the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation in Manhattan.

The new museum building in Miami, designed by Aranguren + Gallegos Architects in Madrid, is a piece of art in itself, whitewashed, three stories high with floor-to-ceiling hurricane-proof windows overlooking a garden of sculptures, palms and native Florida trees and shrubs.

It is being paid for by Irma and Norman Braman, the billionaire Miami car dealer and former owner of the Philadelphia Eagles. Craig Robins, who developed the Miami Design District, and his partners, L Real Estate, donated 12,500 square feet of land for the museum.

Ms. Allora and Mr. Calzadilla met in Florence, Italy, in a study abroad program in art in 1995. They’ve been together since. Ms. Allora, the daughter of a New Jersey surgeon, had been preparing for a career in medicine or law at the University of Richmond. Mr. Calzadilla, who had grown up in Puerto Rico, was a student at Escuela de Artes Plásticas y Diseño de Puerto Rico in San Juan. After Florence, Ms. Allora switched her major to art history. They eventually earned advanced degrees, she at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he at Bard College in New York State.

They have a nearly 8-year-old daughter, Isabella. “He keeps asking me to marry him,” Ms. Allora said, “and I keep saying ‘no;’ three times, I think. I don’t want to jinx anything. There was a point. Then we just got too busy.”

Most artists work solo. And that may not be hard to understand. “We argue all the time,” Ms. Allora said. “We constantly have to figure out how to seduce the other person, to make your idea appeal to the other person. You have to find a place where the other person can feel comfortable in the common outcome. It’s like two people having to wear the same shirt.”

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