The works of Luis Barragán, Mexico’s most famous architect, are austere, clean, linear and angular; blank, windowless walls or towering obelisks, brightly painted with stucco textures, water and trees strategically placed within the viewer’s aspect, even when standing in a garden or courtyard, staring skyward.
His most famous works in his native land — Fuente de los Amantes, Casa Gilardi, Torres de Satélite and Faro de Comercio — have a modernist minimalism that can easily be overlooked. Which is probably why, years after his death, those in charge of his legacy in Mexico sold his professional archives — drawings, writings, photographs, etc. — to a Swiss furniture tycoon, or more precisely, the tycoon’s Barragán-obsessed wife.
No buyer in Mexico could be found.
The writer and artist Jill Magid came to her Barragán mania more recently. But as she endeavored to intensify her study by visiting the works and the artist’s studio in Mexico, taking inspiration and using his art to inspire her own, she found herself blocked by this Swiss couple and their foundation.
“The Proposal” is the name of the art project she concocted to address this idea of “What happens to an artist’s legacy when it’s controlled by a corporation?”
Like Walt Disney, Alfred Hitchcock or more recently Stan Lee (still tweeting away, post mortem, as is Hitchcock), Barragán has his legacy controlled by an entity, not a family.
The Swiss couple, Vitra furniture magnate Rolf Fehlbaum and archive director Federica Zanco, have blocked any use of images of the architect’s work, stopped earlier documentaries from being made by banning the use of images of that work and even trademarked the name (“Without the accent.”) Barragan.
It’s the damnedest thing.
The story goes that Rolf proposed to Federica, who suggested that instead of a pricey ring, she’d rather have her favorite architect’s archive. For $2.5 million it was hers, to curate and dig into “as a scholar.”
Mexico’s art community was upset and has tried to gin up outrage over this affront to national pride, this cheap sell-out of their artistic patrimony. And ever since this happened in the mid-90s. every time an an artist or researcher or anybody approached the archive for access to further their research, Zanco has politely but firmly begged off — decades of letters insisting this book or that exhibition is coming up — “Unfortunately, we are struggling on closing a major project” — collating and organizing to do, etc.
“Legacy always remains an open question,” Magid notes in her narration for the film. Barragán’s is now controlled by an enthusiastic, litigious and uncooperative — my words here, not Magid’s — rich dilettante.
Magid envisions a project of her own, a years-long correspondence, travel and filming, narrating and communing with the artist’s work (she stays in his Mexico City studio for a while).
But “every time I try to find Barragán, I encounter Federica.”
Magid sees them caught in a love triangle, with the architect (who died in 1988) at its center. That leads her to “The Proposal.”
“The Proposal is an artwork and a catalyst. Its intention is to question the status of Barragan’s archive in Switzerland, and its possible return to Mexico.”
She is denied permission to film here or there, which she skirts. She sends flattering letters to “Dear Federica,” and receives polite rejections, sometimes hints of “copyright violation” and “intellectual property” litigation.
And yet, she persisted. She gets Barragán’s family involved, and the Guadalajara government. The flattering notes seem to wear Federica down, just a smidge.
Magid’s film is in keeping with the Pritzker Prize-winning architect’s ethos, quiet interludes, a little music (she gets to thumb through Barragán’s old LP collection), a film of minimalist beauty for a man who had, as his Pritzker Prize tribute noted, “accepted solitude as man’s fate.”
There are interviews with the Manhattan gallerist and the widow of Barragán’s business partner, who sold the archives, as well as members of the Mexican arts community and guardians of the buildings and “personal” archives there. We see snippets of news coverage here and there of the controversy attached to this remote, secretive “foundation” and its ownership of a vital part of Mexican artistic history.
There’s also a lot of footage of Magid — gazing, strolling, writing, showering and dressing. Hey, she put five years of work into this (God bless foundation grants). She’s going to get her closeup.
The film and the filmmaker recognize Federica for her passion for the architect, and by inference condemn her selfishness and laxity about doing something with the archives.
I was reminded of “The Fountainhead” (the artist’s rights to control their work) and “Citizen Kane,” as well as the legacy stories of Disney and others as the film’s travelogue, detective story, artistic act of persuasion, mediation and public shaming unfold.
“The Proposal” is serene, patient and sucks you into this quandary with skill. To her credit, Magid makes us care, even though we’re not sure what she’s got in mind or if she’s as persuasive as she thinks she is.
MPAA Rating: unrated
Cast: Jill Magid.
Credits: Directed by Jill Magid. An Oscilloscope Labs release.
Running time: 1:26