The San Antonio Museum of Art celebrates its fortieth anniversary with a wide-ranging exhibition showcasing the global and chronological breadth of its permanent collection.
40 Years, 40 Stories: Treasures and New Discoveries from SAMA’s Collection
October 16, 2021–January 2, 2022
San Antonio Museum of Art
The San Antonio Museum of Art, which opened in 1981 in the late 19th-century confines of the Lone Star Brewery, boasts an extensive collection that spans centuries and continents—from ancient Greek, Roman, and Egyptian relics to Chinese ceramics, Latin American folk art, and contemporary works by local artists.
In celebration of its milestone anniversary this year, the museum recently opened 40 Years, 40 Stories: Treasures and New Discoveries from SAMA’s Collection—an exhibition highlighting “recent acquisitions, rarely seen works, and fascinating narratives of creative innovation.” Organized by interim chief curator Jessica Powers with input from across SAMA’s curatorial team, the exhibition aims to showcase the global and chronological breadth of a collection that is 30,000 objects deep.
Although there are themes at play—Women, Power and Resistance, Faith Traditions Around the World, and At Sea—they serve more as organizational chapters than binding categories. During a media preview, Powers suggested that despite thematic connections, each individually selected object “can stand alone in a certain way.”
Standalone they do—and some much taller than others. Towering at nearly ten feet tall, a dramatic pair of papier-mâché Judas Iscariot figures welcome visitors to SAMA’s Cowden Gallery baring fanged smiles. Created in 1986 by influential alebrije artist Pedro Linares López (1906-1992) and his grandson David Linares, these outsize examples of Mexican folk art are typical of effigies that get set ablaze during Holy Week processions.
Joining the devilish duo on the welcoming committee are two standout pieces that spark distinctly San Antonio narratives. Created by the Milwaukee Lithographing and Engraving Company, the 1903 rendering Lone Star Brewing Co., San Antonio conjures a dreamy, nostalgic vision of the museum complex complete with horse-drawn wagons and postcard-like insets of the Missions, the Alamo, and San Pedro Springs. (Smartly, this easy crowd-pleaser is available in print and puzzle form in the gift shop.)
Casting a seemingly innocent smile from the other side of the room, the 1991 portrait Juanito is one of dozens of paintings late San Antonio artist Adán Hernández (1951-2021) created for the film Blood In Blood Out—a 1993 crime drama surrounding an East Los Angeles gang dubbed Vatos Locos. A cult classic in this neck of the woods, the film presents Hernández’s paintings as the work of Cruz Candelaria (portrayed by San Antonio native Jesse Borrego), an artistic gangster whose twelve-year-old brother Juanito dies of an accidental heroin overdose. Over the course of his career, Hernández emerged as an icon of Chicano art, and his work is also held in the permanent collections of Cheech Marin and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Hyperlocal culture fanatics may find this San Antonio-specific intro to be a bit of a tease as the exhibition quickly shifts gears to tell more esoteric stories—some of which only come to light within the meticulously organized wall text and accompanying behind-the-scenes photos.
Case in point: who knew that Polish screen siren Pola Negri ever lived in the Alamo City? Striking a sophisticated pose in a luxurious 1924 painting by Tadé Styka, Negri appears poised to school her audience on this and perhaps other well-kept secrets. Frequently cast in vampy roles, Negri made star turns in silent Hollywood films—1924’s Forbidden Paradise and 1927’s Hotel Imperial among them—and splashy headlines via affairs with Charlie Chaplin and Rudolph Valentino. Negri’s heavy Polish accent hindered her transition into talkies and she retired in San Antonio in 1957. Upon her death in 1987, she bequeathed several paintings to the museum. Amusingly, a vintage photograph included in the wall text shows Negri gazing at herself in the Styka portrait.
But Negri is far from the only star in the ladies’ room: Mary, Lady Arundell of Wardour commands attention in a massive 18th-century portrait painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds (accompanied by detailed photographs of its recent restoration) and Eldzier Cortor’s 1970s-era mezzotint diptych Dance I and Dance II illustrates the artist’s masterful celebration of the Black female form.
Slowing down to read labels and wall text becomes increasingly important as the exhibition progresses through sections containing embroidered textiles that chronicle the Salvadoran Civil War, clay tablets with cuneiform inscriptions, an Egyptian cat mummy that underwent painstaking conservation in 2017, and one of the oldest objects in SAMA’s collection—a tiny clay female figure dating to 5000 BC.
With that prehistoric relic on one end of the timeline and Dallas-based Celia Eberle’s elegiac 2016 installation Moss Grotto on the other, 40 Years 40 Stories succeeds in crunching an almost unfathomable scope into one exhibition. But given the number of contemporary works by beloved San Antonio artists in SAMA’s permanent collection (Ana Fernandez, Mel Casas, Linda Pace, Katie Pell, Chuck Ramirez, and Vincent Valdez to name a few), versed viewers may find themselves wishing for a few more stories that hit closer to home.
40 Years, 40 Stories: Treasures and New Discoveries from SAMA’s Collection is scheduled to remain on view through January 2, 2022, at the San Antonio Museum of Art, 200 West Jones Avenue.