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Mexican Evolution

Art collectors hungry for the next big thing direct their search south of the border.

I’m standing outside a birthday cake of a building, a white stone mansion built in 1906. Just beyond it, paddleboats etch lazy circles on a green lake. Along the meandering paths of the surrounding Chapultepec Park, vendors hawk wrestling masks and skewered mangoes, and families picnic under centuries-old cypress trees. Although six of Mexico City’s most renowned museums lie within this 1,600-acre park, I’ve come for one small gem: the Casa del Lago cultural center, whose current exhibition has been drawing rave reviews.

But first I have to figure out how to get inside.

A gardener out front eventually points me to a door tucked discreetly beside a sweeping staircase: la galería. Within I discover a marble-floored room with low timber ceilings. Brightly colored sketches by the up-and-coming artist Marcos Castro explode like little fireworks on its white walls, depicting animals on eerie watercolor backgrounds. It’s an exhilarating find — edgy art in a pleasure palace on a lake? — though not entirely surprising. Earlier in the week, I saw exhibitions in a juice factory, a 16th-century church, a concrete-block warehouse, even a hollowed-out Japanese bus. Mexico City may have museums to rival any art capital’s, but to tap into what makes the city so vibrant today, you have to head a bit off the beaten path.

I’ve been lured back to Mexico City (locally referred to as the D.F., or Distrito Federal) in part by Abaseh Mirvali, the Iranian-American executive director of Fundación/Colección Jumex, one of the city’s most important contemporary-art spaces. We were introduced on a previous trip, and once she grasped my interest, both personal and professional, in art (I write about art, design and culture around the globe) and how little I’d managed to see on that particular visit, she stayed in touch, raving about the D.F.’s burgeoning art scene and detailing its great appeal: “Amazing weather, glamorous people, and it’s just a hop, skip and a jump away!” (Four to five hours, actually, on a nonstop flight from San Francisco or New York.) Inspired by her rallying cries and the city’s growing buzz, I’ve returned for an in-depth, art-centric look.

With its tangle of 5,348 neighborhoods and 18 million residents, Mexico City teems with head-swiveling contrasts and unexpected discoveries. It’s a chaotic place where corruption is rampant, stopping at traffic lights is regarded as optional, and the gap between the haves and the have-nots is of Grand Canyon scale. Downtown in the Centro Histórico, Aztec ruins bump up against 17th-century cathedrals and rock concerts in the Zócalo, the main square. Two miles southwest, in the chic neighborhoods of Roma and the Condesa, culture seekers drop by Art Deco galleries, and restaurants and bars thrum late into the night. In neighboring Polanco, Jaguars and BMWs cruise the tony shops and upscale eateries of Avenida Presidente Masaryk, Mexico City’s answer to Rodeo Drive. And at nearly every major intersection, vendors sell their wares from rickety carts: flowers, wooden stools, pineapples, piñatas, phone cards. You can take precautions to prevent stomachaches and robberies — two risks for travelers to this city — but there’s no way around sensory overload. For those of us drawn here, it’s the crackling energy and eye-popping street life that hook us.

The D.F. enjoys a rich artistic heritage, from the nationalist muralists of the 1920s to the much-fetishized Frida Kahlo to the modernists of the ’50s. After languishing for decades (largely because of conservative, narrowly focused museums and galleries), the contemporary-art scene roared back to life, and into the international spotlight, in the mid-’90s through the early 2000s with an influx of artists from abroad, a rise in alternative artist-run spaces, a fresh crop of risk-taking galleries and collectors and a spate of foreign exhibitions hailing the new wave of Mexican art, much of it indelibly provocative. For a show at New York’s P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center in 2002, for example, Teresa Margolles filled a room with vaporized water that had been used to wash corpses in Mexico City’s morgues; atop a pile of stolen radios purchased on the city’s thriving black market, Miguel Calderón and Yoshua Okón displayed a video of themselves stealing a car radio.

Since then, the world’s curiosity about what’s emerging from Mexico City has snowballed, driven by forward-thinking galleries, by the D.F.’s increasingly influential, Art Basel–like México Arte Contemporáneo international fair (MACO), held every April, and by collectors hungry for the next big thing. And there’s been a renewed interest in the country’s creative output in general: witness the sixteen Oscar nominations last year for Mexican directors and their films (Babel, Pan’s Labyrinth, Children of Men) and the booming careers of such actors as Salma Hayek and architects including Enrique Norten and Ricardo Legorreta.

To take it all in, I make my base the design hotel Condesa DF, an informal clubhouse for the city’s young movers and shakers and the ideal spot for visitors, like me, seeking instant cultural entrée. The hotel is on one of the prettiest blocks in the Condesa, a neighborhood known for its jacaranda-shaded streets, Art Deco buildings and lush parks and plazas. (The area is also among Mexico City’s safest.) Hit hard by the earthquake of 1985, the Condesa was later revitalized by artists attracted to the abandoned buildings. High-concept shops and trendy restaurants soon followed and then, predictably, loft-style living and young professionals and rocketing real estate. A stroll through the neighborhood still turns up an appealing mix of the new (minimalist glass-walled bars, sleek apartment buildings) and the old (artisans constructing wooden bookshelves on the sidewalk; dark, smoky cantinas). Most of the artists have since been priced out, but their influence remains: the Condesa and adjacent Roma are home to many top galleries.

Condesa DF, the area’s first hotel, opened in 2005. Carved out of a triangular 1920s building, it’s among the chicest spots in the city, with quirky interiors (cowhide, dark woods, bright florals) by the Paris designer India Mahdavi and a fashionable rooftop bar. At breakfast one morning, the gregarious Rafael Micha, one of the hotel’s managing partners, gestures around the open-air courtyard café, name-dropping all the way: “Next to us, those two giving an interview are two of the hottest young fashion designers in the city. Over there, she’s curating a show on contemporary Mexican art in Salzburg.” And so on and so forth, table by table: Enrique Rubio, a founder of the four-year-old MACO, which has made contemporary art accessible to a new generation of Mexicans and further fanned the desire of international collectors. Ricardo Pandal O., the cultural promoter and entrepreneur who recently opened a music club and gallery on a reinvigorated block of the Centro Histórico (currently undergoing a renewal, thanks to investments by local billionaire Carlos Slim Helú, the second-richest man in the world). And I’ve just missed Diego Luna, the Mexican heartthrob who starred with Gael García Bernal in Y Tu Mamá También.

Shortly after my plane landed, I made a beeline to meet Mirvali at Fundación/Colección Jumex, the largest private collection of contemporary art in Latin America, its 1,700-and-counting pieces amassed by Eugenio López Alonso, the forty-year-old heir to the Jumex juice fortune. A keystone of the thriving contemporary scene, it’s a favorite of insiders and is little known to anyone else — largely because it’s hidden in a juice factory forty-five minutes from the Condesa and is open to the public by appointment only (the collection is scheduled to move to a larger, more accessible museum in Polanco in 2008 or 2009). Alonso, who is on the board of trustees at both the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, and New York’s New Museum of Contemporary Art, doles out $2 million a year through his foundation to support Mexico City’s contemporary-art spaces and has helped nurture the careers of many Mexican artists, including Gabriel Orozco, by displaying their early work alongside that of more established, international artists.

“Eugenio was one of the first people to put an Orozco on the same level as a [Damien] Hirst; he felt art should be valued solely on the quality of the work, not on where the artist comes from,” Mirvali told me as we walked through the cavernous, naturally lit gallery. “He challenged people to look more closely at what was coming out of Mexico.” Today, biannual shows by a changing roster of curators draw from the eclectic collection. Exhibition themes vary, but the one constant is the democratic display: pieces by up-and-coming locals (“tattooed” photographs by Dr. Lakra, a light installation by Iñaki Bonillas) next to work by international stars, like Francis Alÿs, a Belgian who has worked in Mexico City for the past twenty years, and the late American minimalist and conceptual artist Sol LeWitt. French curator Michel Blancsubé designed the show I saw, transforming the gallery into an artwork labyrinth, complete with dead ends and movable walls and secret rooms. I had the electrifying sense that there could be something extraordinary just around the corner — much as I would later in the city outside that white cube.

Mirvali accompanied me back to the city. As we passed from the industrial outskirts to the heart of Polanco, potholed roads and auto-body shops gave way to sun-dappled streets lined with filigreed mansions and heavily guarded jewelry stores. Impeccably dressed women slipped out of chauffeured cars and into Chanel and Louis Vuitton boutiques, and model types in big sunglasses and stilettos catwalked down the uneven sidewalks. Mirvali deposited me at the gallery of her friend Enrique Guerrero, a dapper man in a chartreuse polo shirt and with a trim mustache who, she told me, could provide the long view on the art scene, having been entrenched in it for seventeen years. Like most galleries in the D.F., his was discreet — no sign, just a buzzer — save for its bright orange façade (the hue changes for each exhibition, according to the artist’s preference). Workers were mounting a new show, Rubén Gutiérrez’s colored-pencil drawings of stills from American movies.

In his office, Guerrero explained the particular challenges facing the local art market. First, until recently there were few Mexican collectors, a situation that forced artists and galleries to rely on international buyers. Second, as is often the case in Europe, the government controls most of the museums (“like the French model but without the funding,” as one museum director bitterly joked). And because the previous administration “cared more about control and power than culture,” Guerrero told me, “the past six years have been a challenge for contemporary art. Everything good that happened with the scene happened in spite of the government.”

To better understand the evolution of the art boom, I track down Miguel Calderón, an enfant terrible of the early contemporary scene, known for his experimental films and envelope-pushing artworks (such as the stolen-radio installation in New York). In the early 1990s, he was among a group of artists who began opening nonprofit alternative spaces in which to show their work. At the time, the local art landscape was stagnant, and, as Calderón tells me, “if you wanted something — nightlife, a place to show your work — you had to create it. And if you wanted to get attention, you had to be subversive.” La Panadería, named for the former bakery he and Yoshua Okón took over in 1994, gained renown for provocative exhibitions, film screenings and impromptu rock concerts (it closed in 2002, as artists were decamping to build their careers at more mainstream galleries).

Also pushing things forward was Gabriel Orozco, who in 1999 opened a gallery, Kurimanzutto, with his friends José Kuri and Monica Manzutto. “There was no other commercial gallery ready to commit to the new generation of artists,” Manzutto recalls, speaking in her light-flooded office in the Condesa, where she brokers sales — ranging from $9,000 newspaper collages by rising star Jonathan Hernández to a $1.5 million Orozco sculpture — to collectors including Charles Saatchi and Craig Robbins. “But we had no money. So we decided to open without a space.” The nomadic gallery has since become one of Mexico City’s most respected, but for now it continues to debut in a new location with each exhibition. (Manzutto and Kuri recently bought a compound in San Miguel Chapultepec, just west of the Condesa, and are planning to turn the existing buildings there into permanent exhibition spaces next year.)

I stop by the current space, a concrete-block warehouse the size of an airplane hangar, to view sculptures by Gabriel Kuri, José’s brother, of random objects arranged on graphlike bases. Exiting the gallery still pondering his work, I stumble on a fruit and vegetable market shaded by bubblegum-pink tarps and manned by a gauntlet of vendors proffering slices of papaya on the points of their knives. I wander through the Technicolor spectacle, fingering bags of cactus leaves, inhaling the scents of guavas and boiled corn, wondering at an aquarium jam-packed with hundreds of tiny crawling turtles. It’s all a bit surreal but unmistakably Mexico City. Where else can you buy a million-dollar sculpture and a chili-dusted mango within moments of each other?

Mexico city’s art scene shows no sign of slowing down. The country’s art is a hot commodity, and collectors are snapping up pieces everywhere from Art Basel Miami Beach to the Frieze Art Fair, in London. Mexico’s own MACO fair has doubled in size since its inception; this year’s featured eighty-five galleries and more visitors than ever before. Young artists who used to look to Europe and the United States for their influences are now finding inspiration much closer to home. A new generation is emerging, buoyed by the growing art community and an unprecedented sense of opportunity.

“How does living here inspire you?” I asked the artist Gabriel de la Mora on my last day in town. We sat in his studio in Roma, surrounded by the latest pieces in his series of “drawings,” portraits made of human and synthetic hair. The late-afternoon sun filtered in through arched ivy-covered windows, glinting off antique cabinets filled with religious artifacts and shimmering on the parquet floors. “In Mexico City, there is corruption, chaos, beauty, creativity, humor —the best and worst of everything,” de la Mora said, emphasizing his words with little jabs of a paintbrush. “André Breton said once that Mexico is the most surreal place on Earth, and I believe that. I always carry my camera, because everywhere I go, I see something weird and surprising. The best performances and installations are right here on the streets: real life, real art.”

Mexico City: Insider Advice

What to know & where to go in Mexico City.

What to know & where to go in Mexico City.

When calling the telephone numbers below from the United States, first dial 011-52-55, unless noted otherwise.

When to Go

Mexico City’s high altitude—nearly 7,400 feet above sea level—keeps the climate mild year-round. During the coolest (and smoggiest) months, January through March, it rarely drops below 50 degrees; the hottest months are April and May, when temperatures can reach the 80s. July is the rainiest month. Culture seekers should consider coming in late March, for the Festival de México en el Centro Histórico (fchmexico.com), or in early April, for the México Arte Contemporáneo international art fair (macomexico.com).

Getting Around

The city is safer than it used to be, but visitors should remain vigilant. The most important rule is never to hail a cab off the street, as it may be a rogue; rather, ask your hotel or restaurant to call a sitio, or radio taxi. For a hassle-free experience, have your hotel arrange a car and driver for the day.

Where to Stay

Condesa DF Forty rooms with walnut headboards, sculptural pedestal sinks and lime green floral prints. The Top Suite, which has a wraparound deck and floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the lush Parque España, feels like a penthouse apartment. Light sleepers, beware: the noise from the popular rooftop bar, courtyard restaurant and basement dance club carries throughout the hotel. Double rooms from $175, Top Suite $395. 102 Avda. Veracruz, Condesa; 5241-2600; condesadf.com.

Four Seasons Hotel México, D.F. This fortresslike hotel is an oasis in the middle of the city: no noise permeates its walls, and once you’re inside it’s easy to forget where you are. The hacienda-inspired building surrounds a lovely courtyard and fountain. Service is polished and anticipatory; you can avail yourself of twenty-four-hour multilingual concierges, private cultural tours led by art historians and other perks. Double rooms from $360. 500 Paseo de la Reforma, Juárez; 800-819-5053; fourseasons.com.

Habita Hotel Featuring a sleek frosted-glass façade designed by Enrique Norten of TEN Arquitectos and thirty-six spare, airy guest rooms, Habita is a minimalist’s dream come true. It’s steps from the tony shops of Avenida Presidente Masaryk, which is worth exploring if you can tear yourself away from the hotel’s gorgeous terrace, with its pool and see-and-be-seen bar. Double rooms from $195. 201 Avda. Presidente Masaryk, Polanco; 800-223-6800; hotelhabita.com.

Hippodrome Hotel The Condesa’s newest hotel is in a beautifully restored 1931 Art Deco building near the Parque México. The sixteen earth-toned guest rooms have marble floors; the tequila-filled minibars are a nice touch. Off the lobby at Hip Kitchen, chef Richard Sandoval turns out contemporary Mexican cuisine with Asian, French and American accents. Double rooms from $230. 188 Avda. México, Condesa; 1454-4599; kerryhotels.net.

W Mexico City Open since 2003, the first W in Latin America references the region in subtle, playful ways: black volcanic rock in the lobby, an adobe Mexican-style sauna in the spa and a woven hammock in every guest room. Ask for a room on a high floor for sweeping city views from the glass-walled bathroom (yes, there are blinds). Double rooms from $369. 252 Campos Elíseos, Polanco; 877-946-8357; whotels.com.

Where to Eat

Prevent stomach problems by drinking only bottled water; at restaurants, order drinks sin hielo, without ice.

Águila y Sol

Chef and cookbook author Martha Ortiz’s sophisticated alta cocina mexicana restaurant has attracted culinary pilgrims since it opened, in 2002. Start your meal with a rosewater-infused cocktail and sea bass seviche; move on to pork loin in yellow mole with gingered mango. And save room for dessert: mamey (a West Indian fruit) custard topped with edible gold leaf and carnation preserves. 229 Avda. Emilio Castelar, Polanco; 5281-8354.

El Bajío

This local favorite, helmed by chef Carmen Titita Ramírez Degollado, is renowned for its rustic Mexican dishes, like the famous mole de Xico and chipotle broth with bone marrow. Breakfast and lunch only. 2709 Avda. Cuitlahuac, Obrero Popular; 5234-3763.

Le Cirque

The restaurant arrived in Mexico City in 2002, bringing Sirio Maccioni’s beloved glamour, and Le Cirque’s legendary French-inflected cuisine, south of the border. Expect legions of foreign businessmen and ladies who lunch. Jackets required. 700 Avda. Mariano Escobedo, Anzures; 5263-8881.

Izote

Celebrated chef Patricia Quintana puts a spin on indigenous, pre-Hispanic ingredients at this understated, elegant spot. If it’s on the menu, try the seasonal escamoles (ant roe), and finish with a traditional café de olla, coffee flavored with brown sugar and cinnamon. 513 Avda. Presidente Masaryk, Polanco; 5280-1671.

Pujol

Rising-star chef Enrique Olvera’s spare, gallerylike restaurant is the perfect backdrop for his artfully presented modern Mexican dishes. Go for the seven-course chef’s tasting menu, which may include sea bass al pastor with pineapple sauce and cilantro puree or four-corn mesquite soup with jellied mayonnaise. 254 Francisco Petrarca, Polanco; 5545-4111.

Restaurante Lamm This sleek eatery serves Mexican fusion— medregal in cream sauce with tequila and lemon, crab ravioli with Mayan honey sauce—on a partially glass-enclosed redwood deck in the courtyard of a century-old mansion. Also on the property are art galleries, a high-end jewelry shop and a design-focused bookstore. 99 Avda. álvaro Obregón, Roma; 5514-8501.

Nightlife

Cibeles

With its chic vintage look (exposed-brick walls, leather couches) and glossy red bar, this new Roma bar attracts a glam local crowd. 17 Plaza Villa de Madrid, Roma; 5208-2029.

Zinco Jazz Club

Jazz aficionados flock to the candlelit subterranean club, housed in a former bank vault, for concerts and late-night jam sessions by major international musicians. 20 Motolinía, Centro; 5512-3369.

Where to Shop

For fine Mexican handicrafts (embroidered textiles, silver jewelry, carved wooden sculptures), your best bets are the Bazaar de Sábado arts and crafts market in San ángel (Saturday only) and the exquisite gift shop at the Museo de Arte Popular (11 Revillagigedo, Centro; 5510-2201; map.org.mx), a new folk-art museum. For antiques, gallery owner Monica Manzutto recommends Antigüedades San Cristobal (87 Avda. Durango, Roma; 5207-8821); for custom furniture and reupholstered vintage finds, explore French designer Emmanuel Picault’s Chic by Accident (180 Calle Colima, Roma; 5514-5723).

Where the Art Is

Galleries

Here’s your cheat sheet for a day of gallery-hopping:

Galería Enrique Guerrero 1549 Calle Horacio, Polanco; 5280-2941; galeriaenriqueguerrero.com.

Galería Nina Menocal 93 Calle Zacatecas, Roma; 5564-7209; ninamenocal.com.

Galería OMR 54 Plaza Rio de Janeiro, Roma; 5511-1179; galeriaomr.com.

Garash Galería 49 Avda. álvaro Obregón, Roma; 5207-9858; garashgaleria.com.

Kurimanzutto Call for current location. 5256-2408; kurimanzutto.com.

Proyectos Monclova 244 Calle Colima, Roma; 5506-7319; proyectosmonclova.com.

Trolebús Galería Calle Guadalajara at Avda. Veracruz, Condesa; 5456-8168.

Museums

Casa del Lago Juan José Arreola This lakeside cultural center hosts contemporary-art exhibitions, film screenings and dance, theater and music performances. Antiguo Bosque de Chapultepec; 5286-6457

Fundación/Colección Jumex

The largest private collection of contemporary art in Latin America. A major Kiki Smith retrospective is up through October. Appointment required; 272 Vía Morelos, Sta. María Tulpetlac, Ecatepec (forty-five minutes outside the city); 5775-8188; lacoleccionjumex.org.

Laboratorio Arte Alameda

A multimedia museum carved out of a 16th-century church. 7 Doctor Mora, Centro; 5510-2793; artealameda.inba.gob.mx.

Museo de Arte Contemporáneo Internacional Rufino Tamayo Eclectic exhibitions range from contemporary African photography to ’60s and ’70s New York painting (through September 19). Paseo de la Reforma and Calle Gandhi, Polanco; 5286-6519; museotamayo.org.

Museo del Palacio de Bellas Artes

A grand concert hall and museum with an Art Nouveau exterior and an Art Deco interior. The Ballet Folklórico de México performs here every Wednesday and Sunday. 1 Avda. Juárez, Centro; 5521-9251; cnca.gob.mx/palacio/museo.htm.

Museo Nacional de Antropología

Archaeological and ethnographic treasures from Mexico’s pre-Columbian cultures; if you’ve got time for a flyby only, the must-see galleries are the Mayan, Aztec and Teotihuacán rooms. Paseo de la Reforma and Calle Gandhi, Polanco; 5553-6386; mna.inah.gob.mx.

A Frida Pilgrimage

This year marks the centennial of Frida Kahlo’s birth. Celebrate the artist’s vibrant spirit with a visit to her home, the cobalt blue Museo Frida Kahlo (247 Calle Londres, at Del Carmen, Coyoacán; 5554-5999; museofridakahlocasaazul.org), filled with personal artifacts (her back braces, her easel), original furnishings and artwork by Kahlo and her husband, the famed muralist Diego Rivera. You’ll want to stop at Museo Casa Estudio Diego Rivera y Frida Kahlo (Calle Diego Rivera, San ángel; 5550-1189), but the largest collection of Kahlo’s and Rivera’s works is at the Museo Dolores Olmedo Patiño (5843 Avda. México, Xochimilco; 5555-1016; museodoloresolmedo.org), a renovated 16th-century hacienda formerly owned by a glamorous philanthropist. To see Rivera’s murals, head to the Palacio Nacional (Avda. Pino Suárez, Centro), on the east side of the bustling Zócalo.