Collector Howard Farber says his passion for Cuban art is ‘only about the art’ and doesn’t carry a political agenda.

BY ELISA TURNER | Miami Herald

The first and last time Howard Farber, a collector of contemporary Cuban art, set foot in Cuba was in 2001. It was an odd introduction to the island.

Stepping off the plane in Havana, he and wife Patricia lugged shopping bags full of foot powder from a Walgreens pharmacy in Manhattan. Patricia, a New York City patron of the ballet, was bringing much-needed supplies for the foot-sore ballet dancers of Cuba.

Farber at the time was a collector of American modernist art and contemporary art from China. Although the couple went to Havana for a tour of Cuban art and architecture organized by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, Farber insisted on that trip:

‘‘No art. I am not buying any art. I am totally involved with Chinese art,’’ he told his wife. For good measure, he added: ``My brain can’t handle another collection.’‘

That attitude quickly changed as the hard-core art collector discovered adventurous art and wondered how contemporary works came to not only exist but thrive in the communist nation.

A natural-born raconteur, Farber tells of his change of heart while sitting at the dining table in his Miami Beach apartment, where he and Patricia live part time.

As he talks about that fateful trip, Farber’s looking through the bilingual catalog for Cuba Avant-Garde: Contemporary Cuban Art from the Farber Collection, which is now at the Harn Museum of Art at the University of Florida in Gainesville. It’s there until September, and then will travel to more museums.

Six months after his visit to Cuba, a museum professional in Cuba e-mailed Farber to ask about his contemporary Chinese art collection.

‘‘I was fascinated because it was the first time I’ve ever received an e-mail from Havana,’’ he says. Through that person, whose name he says he can’t divulge, Farber’s quest to collect Cuban art began.

‘‘In another life I must have been either an art critic or an art historian because to me the history of art is as important as the artwork itself,’’ says Farber, 64.

A trim man of medium height, he says he hates public speaking, but in the quiet of the Miami Beach apartment, furnished with a stylish simplicity that looks almost Asian, he enthusiastically talks on and on about art.

As with each of his collections of American, Chinese and Cuban art, he notes that he feels like ‘‘I have an eye for art, but I have had a lot of help. Someone has to train you.’’ For each of his collections, he found advisors.

To learn more about Cuban art, he trolled the Internet, consulted people in Havana, and had lunch with Holly Block, who wrote the book Art Cuba: The New Generation. It came out the year that Farber traveled to Havana.

Another critical book in his quest to collect Cuban art was New Art of Cuba, which Luis Camnitzer wrote in 1994. Farber calls it his bible. He keeps copies at his homes in Miami Beach and New York.

``I go on vacation and I take it with me. I read it on the beach. I could read it 50 times.’‘

Farber used a strategy that served him well in his American and Chinese collections: Identify the group show that captured a pivotal moment in the art he pursued.

For Cuban contemporary art, it was Volumen I, which opened Jan. 14, 1981, in the Centro de Arte Internacional in Havana. Camnitzer writes in his book that this show ‘‘has come to symbolize the emergence of the new art in Cuba for artists and critics alike,’’ and he asserts that the show had a historical impact on Cuban art in the 20th century.

Its impact since seems undiminished: Five of the artists from that 1981 show are in the Farber show. They include three who frequently exhibit in South Florida: José Bediá, Tomás Sanchez, and Rubén Torres Llorca.

A second strategy Farber used was to seek out the artists themselves. Some were in Cuba; others were in Miami, Canada, Spain, France, and Australia. He contacted them to ask where he could find the artwork that they thought was the best example of their work.

‘‘What I did was try to find the artists, find their great works, try to collect them, and put them in a show to have these works seen for the first time in many cases,’’ Farber says.

Through what he calls sometimes ‘‘nefarious’’ methods, one painting after another from Cuba reached him in New York. ‘‘It was usually rolled up and dirty because it had been sitting for years either in a basement or attic,’’ he says. After he would have a work cleaned and stretched, he says, ``there before me was a miraculous work.’‘

Carlos Estevez, who now lives in Miami, was in Paris when Farber e-mailed him. He benefited from one of Farber’s artistic search-and-rescue missions. In the catalog (but not in the show) is Across the Universe by Estevez. A large sculpture that weighs more than 200 pounds, it shows a Christ-like man with a candle and huge wings.

‘‘He saved that work,’’ says Estevez, who hadn’t seen the sculpture since leaving Cuba in 2003. When he saw it again, he became emotional.

Farber says he has been impressed by the deep friendships among Cuban artists: ``I never met a group of artists so dedicated to other artists.

He saw an example of that in February at the opening party for Carlos Gonzalez at Chelsea Galleria in Wynwood.

‘‘They are all [there] for support,’’ he says. ``They all have a history together. The original dirt on their feet is from Cuba.’‘

Tina Spiro of Chelsea Galleria remembers Farber from that night. He was observant, charming, and curious. Farber doesn’t strike her as a collector who likes art as a status symbol.

‘‘He has a personality that is in sync with art. He’s in touch with what he’s looking at,’’ she says.

Farber says his passion for Cuban art is ‘‘only about the art,’’ and doesn’t carry any political message.

‘‘I know that in Florida people really get bent out of shape with the history of Cuban art.’’ he says, his voice rising.

``People have to realize that not everybody that has the ability to collect Cuban art is involved in politics! It has to be said and I’m not afraid to say it.’‘


What:Cuba Avant-Garde, contemporary Cuban art from the Farber collection

Where: Samuel P. Harn Museum of Art, University of Florida Cultural Plaza, Gainesville

When: 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-Friday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday, 1-5 p.m. Sunday. Through Sept. 9. (Show then travels to the Ringling Museum in Sarasota through Dec. 31.)

Tickets: Free

Info: 352-392-9826 or http://www.harn.ufl.edu

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