Museo Jumex: Art Nuevo
Eugenio Lopez has a wild reputation, a vast family fortune, and, now, a museum to call his own. W meets the scion behind Museo Jumex, Mexico City’s newest shrine to contemporary art.
The Bosque de Chapultepec, Mexico City’s answer to Central Park, is an oxygenating expanse of forest surrounding a neoclassical palace known as the Castle, which was built as the court of 19th-century Hapsburg emperor Maximilian I. Today, in a 21st-story penthouse overlooking that bucolic setting, an unofficial modern-day court of attendants, advisers, servants, and summoned guests are awaiting the arrival of another dynastic scion who intends to leave an edifice to Mexico City that dignifies his family name. This 21st-century prince is Eugenio Lopez, the sole patron of the new Museo Jumex, Latin America’s largest contemporary art museum, which was designed by the British architect David Chipperfield and named after the Lopez family’s fruit juice empire.
Lopez, who flew in from Los Angeles on a private plane, was supposed to arrive at 1 p.m.—then 2, then 3—for an appointment scheduled for a time that no longer matters. At 6 p.m., Lopez is in the building, but he remains ensconced behind the doors of his bedroom, which open only to the uniformed maids who refer to their 46-year-old employer as Joven (Junior) perhaps to distinguish the only child and sole heir from his father, also Eugenio.
Meanwhile, Joven’s courtiers and toadies lollygag in the absence of their unifying figure, and a visitor has time to take in the surroundings. Deep sofas are laid with cashmere throws in defense against the alpine air-conditioning. Every tabletop gleams with ashtrays, lighters, and cigarette boxes in crystal, silver, and shagreen. Pale oak floors run toward floor-to-ceiling windows that are tinted like Gucci sunglasses; an entire pane once had to be removed in order for an Andreas Gursky photograph, now hanging in the foyer, to be craned in. Other artworks in the apartment are small enough to walk off with: a beautiful wall-mounted Donald Judd no larger than a bread box; a tabletop set of Richard Pettibone miniatures of paintings by other famous artists; a Cy Twombly drawing on a chrome stand by the window. There is also an all-white Robert Ryman painting, three feet square; a Louise Bourgeois spider descending an inner wall; another Judd resembling a Plexiglas coffee table; a Jeff Koons Equilibrium—that’s the series of basketballs in fish tanks—which has failed to live up to its name ever since a recent seismic tremor put it off-kilter. The overall impression—which is heightened by scents of fresh tobacco smoke and heavy masculine colognes—is of a killer bachelor pad.
Which it is for Lopez, as well as being his second home when he’s not in residence at his marginally less louche midcentury mansion in the Trousdale Estates section of Beverly Hills. The penthouse is also a sort of consular reception space where Lopez welcomes emissaries from the international art circuit. And it is a private gallery too, where the works on display suggest the Jumex collection’s bent, if nothing of its scale: The inventory runs to some 2,750 pieces. Even at this moment, a team of art handlers is removing a five-foot-tall Franz West sculpture in order to lay out a Carl Andre floor piece, which Lopez will stand on for a portrait. “It’s a Carl Andre throw rug,” jokes Victor Zamudio-Taylor, the Mexico-born, Princeton-educated art historian who serves as Lopez’s chief aide-de-camp, jester, fixer, and, on this occasion at least, surrogate host while everyone else sits around.
A few minutes later, the scurry of maids with outfits on hangers suggests some progress toward Lopez’s appearance, and soon afterward someone actually says, “He’s coming!” although he does not, in fact, emerge from his bedroom. Waiting for Eugenio Lopez is like waiting for Elizabeth Taylor: passages of forced idleness relieved at last by a clamor of uncertain meaning. And when Lopez finally does materialize, he might linger for far less time than he kept you waiting—here and gone according to his own private impulse.
Though a native of Mexico City, Lopez usually spends more time in Los Angeles. But he plans to be in Mexico for all of September and October to oversee final construction and details for the three inaugural exhibitions at Museo Jumex, scheduled to open November 14: selected works from the permanent collection, a group of Fred Sandback string sculptures, and a rather academic show by Fundación Jumex Arte Contemporáneo director Patrick Charpenel Corvera on the influential midcentury Mexican curator Fernando Gamboa. Then there are the opening parties to organize—a preview for hometown dignitaries, including the president of Mexico, on one night; another preview for the international flock of collectors and curators the next; and finally, a grand opening for the public, with a large party to follow. The museum’s debut will certainly be the most significant arts gathering in the country this year—and if Lopez eventually donates the museum and its contents to Mexico, as he says he intends to do, the opening could also be a historically significant cultural milestone.
The irony of all this is that visitors from abroad may be a touch disappointed when they see the modest scale and sober design of the building itself. Unlike many museums of the post–Frank Gehry age that strain for instant “iconic” status by dint of flamboyant appearance, the Museo Jumex keeps its chin down. Chipperfield’s geometry stays within the straight lines of classical modernism, and, in a show of serious intent, he dressed the building’s exterior in travertine, the architectural equivalent of gray flannel.
The one signature gesture is a jagged roof line—imagine Bart Simpson’s hair—that recalls the silhouettes of local factories and is meant to diffuse the intensity of Mexico City’s high-altitude light through a series of partially shielded skylights. Some call the shape dientes de tiburón (sharks’ teeth), but Zamudio-Taylor notes that European visitors have likened it to a crown. The Jumex team officially dislikes the royal comparison, but it does suit the occasion, because the opening of the Museo Jumex represents something of a coronation—definitive proof that Lopez is ready to shed his messy playboy past and, like Prince Hal crowned King Henry V, assert his sovereign seriousness in the international realm of contemporary art.
When Lopez at long last emerges from the bedroom, he rushes in to greet his waiting guests as if he had been unavoidably detained and is eager for nothing so much as to join the present conversation. Zamudio-Taylor hops to his feet and tells the boss he has just been explaining how Lopez stays abreast of the ever shifting contemporary art landscape. Lopez takes his cue. “Yes, of course, how do I keep up with everything that goes on?” he asks rhetorically as he occupies the sofa that Zamudio-Taylor has just relinquished. “I buy magazines like crazy. I read articles—not that I eat the whole magazine.” Here he laughs hard at his wobbly if expressive English. “I keep in touch with people from museums. And I have a wonderful team. I listen to everyone.”
Lopez began collecting in the mid-’90s. At the time, he was Jumex’s titular head of marketing, but he knew that he wasn’t cut out for the family business. Art provided more excitement, and Lopez recalls his first auction experience in New York the way a poker champion might reminisce about his first night in a casino: He walked into a glitzy evening sale at Sotheby’s intent on buying something big. Then the auctioneer took to the podium, and the relentless bidding began. The prices terrified Lopez; the art mystified him. He walked away empty-handed, but he was totally hooked.
“I started flipping out on things I never was aware of,” Lopez says. He was drawn to Robert Ryman’s paintings, because he intuited that surely there was something more behind the artist’s 50-year run of monochromatic canvases—a Conceptual depth beneath the Minimalist surface. -Ryman’s work also introduced another ongoing theme of Lopez’s collecting life: how to explain art to his parents, who hold the purse strings but are more at home on the golf course than in a gallery. Lopez recalls that when he first took his mother to see a Ryman he loved, she told him it looked like “a napkin.” Likewise, his friends called him crazy for buying the Koons fish tank. (“They were all laughing,” he says.) Mexican collectors had mostly stayed within the few socially acceptable categories of pre-Columbian, -Colonial, muralism, and so on, all of which focused on a nationalist past. Lopez instead wanted to position Mexico City to be a part of what he calls “the network,” the intellectual and cultural circuit that connects New York, London, Berlin, Bejing, and other global centers. “I saw an incredible opportunity in doing a collection that was not just Mexican or Latin American,” Lopez says, noting that before him, very few people were doing that. They all had Diego Riveras, Frida Kahlos, but no one bought a Jasper Johns. “I said, ‘I want to do it on an international level.’ ”
A 1997 visit to London’s Saatchi Gallery hatched Lopez’s vision for a Jumex corporate collection that would be open to the public—then, a novel idea in Latin America. The art adviser Patricia Martín, a key mentor, got him to think beyond that trophy mentality to imagine instead a foundation that would not only collect art but also dispense scholarships for arts education, provide grants for young Mexican artists, and fund acquisitions of Mexican art abroad, such as the major gift in 2004 of Damián Ortega’s Cosmic Thing to the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles (MOCA), where Lopez is on the board and spearheading a $100 million endowment campaign. “Eugenio was selected to cochair [the endowment drive] because his imprimatur is important,” says MOCA board president emeritus and campaign cochair Jeffrey Soros, who reports that the museum has already raised more than $80 million. “Having an internationally respected collector and institution builder leading us is a good idea. His involvement in art is always multidimensional. He is building a private museum, but he is passionate about supporting public institutions like MOCA.” Lopez also sits on the board of the New Museum in New York and on the international council of London’s Tate Modern. “To do a collection is nice,” he says. “But in our case, what has been most significant are the grants.”
The Jumex foundation opened in 2001 with an office and an exhibition space at one of the company’s factories in the scruffy suburb of Ecatepec. Jumex (pronounced WHO-mex and short for jugos mexicanos—Mexican juices) was founded by Lopez’s grandfather in 1961, shortly after he immigrated to Mexico from Spain. Eugenio senior grew the business into Latin America’s largest manufacturer of soft drinks, juices, and nectars. The production facility in Ecatepec covers acres, with buildings on a scale that dwarfs the dozens of tractor-trailer trucks on site. At the end of a passageway between warehouses is a plaster facade opening onto a white-cube gallery that could be straight out of Chelsea, with an upstairs library housing 7,500 books on contemporary art. In recent years, exhibitions here have attracted a growing stream of foreign visitors.
Lopez’s collecting has always been rapacious. The foundation’s inventory fills dozens of thick ring binders, one work to a page, and spans a remarkable array of international artworks from the late ’60s to the present, as well as deep holdings of contemporary Mexican artists including Gabriel Orozco, Francis Alÿs, and Damián Ortega. The ring binder for R, pulled off the shelf at random, covers Robert Rauschenberg, Pedro Reyes, Ugo -Rondinone, Eva Rothschild, and, on consecutive pages, the following: Nancy Rubins (two works), Sterling Ruby (two works), Thomas Ruff (eight works), Allen Ruppersberg (14 works), Ed Ruscha (three works), Robert Ryman (four works).
“I wanted to be a bad boy,” Lopez says. “I had fun to the point that I cannot even tell you.”
Lopez admits to feeling a lot of anxiety about being the third generation of inherited wealth who has turned away from running the family business to dedicate himself to spending its money. But he rationalizes his fate this way: A person can’t be good at everything, and self-knowledge demands that one pursue a vision of success commensurate with one’s innate talents. “Do you know how many times people have invited me to be partners in businesses?” Lopez asks, shaking his head. “That’s when you lose a fortune—not when you buy a painting here or there. You lose a fortune going to buy businesses. I’m not good for that. I’m not good for the stock market, either. I’m very conservative. I know about one thing: I know about art.”
When Lopez speaks, his voice issues from high in his throat, a bit strangulated, as if he has just subdued an anxiety attack, barely. He can’t sit still for long; since childhood he has been “rambunctious,” he admits. Perhaps ADHD would be the contemporary diagnosis, although he also manifests OCD tendencies. One peculiar detail that he remembers from the Fondation Beyeler in Basel, Switzerland, is its cleanliness, even in the bathrooms, which, he says, are a “pleasure” to visit. He acknowledges that he was not a good student, but he is a dedicated bibliophile and a habitual late-night reader. To prove his point, he pantomimes kicking out of bed a lover who tries to distract him from his book.
Lopez speaks English at an urgent pace, but his aim at the language is unsteady, and often his thoughts dash ahead of him, the result being that he fires off more sentences than those few that will finally, like an arrow completing its trajectory, connect squarely with their intended meaning. Still, through energetic delivery and an innate Latin grasp of speech’s expressive music, he somehow creates continuity in his stream of consciousness.
To many on the international art circuit, Lopez is best known as a party boy, and he admits that he has earned the reputation. Photographs show how handsome he was in his 20s; he moved to Los Angeles in his 30s to enjoy the many personal freedoms that were not available to him at home because of social expectations and security concerns, some as innocent as driving himself around in a convertible. His Beverly Hills mansion has been the site of many gatherings, from sedate catered receptions for the Hammer Museum, to spontaneous afterparties following MOCA galas to wild bashes at which the crowds swell into the hundreds. The host has been known to remain in his bedroom while the guests have the run of a large house hung with blue-chip works from the Jumex collection by Andy Warhol, Dan Flavin, Bruce Nauman, Robert Gober, Damien Hirst.
Lopez understands why some may consider him less than serious, but he portrays his wild years as harmless rebellion against the narrow strictures of his upbringing. “You know something?” he says, suddenly quite earnest. “At a point in my life, I was always the nerdy one, the stupid one, the one who followed my father. I didn’t drink. I was always obsessed with a book. And then at one point, I wanted to be a bad boy. I had fun to a point that I cannot even tell you.”
He rolls his eyes to heaven at the memory but insists he never did anything to be ashamed of. Perhaps, yes, it was unwise to open his house to so many visitors—so many potential gossipmongers. The naughty reputation still follows him. “Did it hurt me?” he asks. “Yes. Absolutely. It hurts that sometimes you try to do a deal and they don’t take it seriously.”
This may be the drive behind Lopez’s ambition and why his team frequently underscores the civic contribution made by the foundation through its grants, exhibitions, and publications. Lopez clearly wants the museum to make a splash, but he believes that the foundation’s real impact will be judged over a much longer time period. Buying and owning art is easy; he hopes that the museum will legitimize his collection before a large public. Lopez sees himself as both an importer and exporter of culture. The Museo Jumex will supplement its own holdings with foreign loans to host the first Cy Twombly show in Latin America, and it will also originate a big exhibition of the work of James Lee Byars, which will later travel to the MoMA PS1, in New York—a major validation. The underlying importance of the collection, apart from its asset value, is that it represents a vast latent potential for future curatorial programming. “There are so many things to show,” Lopez says. “We have Fontana, Warhol, Polke. Or if you want to go more intellectual: John Baldessari, Ed Ruscha. Or start with electronic art: Nam June Paik. Or Minimalist artists: Donald Judd, Carl Andre, Dan Flavin. That’s what we’re going to present.”
The morning after our long delayed penthouse conversation, Lopez, for once, arrives more or less on time at the Museo Jumex for a portrait by the renowned Mexican photographer Graciela Iturbide. He poses alongside his father, to whom he seems singularly responsive. The building’s huge windows have not yet been installed, and the floors, except for at the appointed photo spot, are still mostly covered with a protective layer of colorful flattened Jumex juice boxes, an accidental Pop touch. Still, the construction is well enough along that an on-time opening doesn’t seem in doubt.
A few hundred feet away, across the construction yard, rises Carlos Slim Helú’s recently opened Museo Soumaya. The telecommunications mogul erected the trophy building as the centerpiece of his huge mixed-use development in a former industrial zone, and his architect, Fernando Romero, who is Slim’s son-in-law, suggested selling a slice of the property to Lopez for his museum. The deal was transacted between Slim and Eugenio senior before Joven was entirely convinced that the site was ideal, but Joven now embraces his proximity to the other museum. Together they make an argument for the role of culture in urban renewal, but they also make for odd bedfellows. The Soumaya’s aluminum-plate form thrusts 150 feet into the sky and curves like a Norelco shaver—a billionaire’s megagadget. But Lopez is, naturally, unfailingly positive about Slim’s museum.
Later that evening, Lopez makes his way back to the penthouse for another round of conversation over drinks, and he takes on the matter of why he, a champion of Mexican artists, didn’t hire a Mexican architect. “There’s never been a building done in this country by an international architect,” he says. “Let’s break that tradition. I would like to see a Mexican architect in Japan. Or in California. This is the point of the network, to be more international.”
His parents have not stinted on their sole child’s project, even as costs soared to nearly twice the $25 million budget. Eugenio senior may not care about art, but he understands the complex engineering challenges needed to safeguard it. The top-floor gallery’s diffuse natural light is controlled by a complex louver system; climate control and supplemental lighting come from the experts who did the Tate Modern; an elevator imported from Finland combines the brute strength to lift a Richard Serra with the satiny surface finish of a luxury automobile’s interior. The gigantic windows are so big they required a glass manufacturer to build new kilns to produce them, and they pivot to allow the largest artworks to pass through. Final cost of the windows: $3 million. Lopez is adamant about quality: “I don’t want somebody to come to my Mexico and say [he makes a snobbish face and a dismissive hand gesture].”
This is Lopez at his proudest—the heir of an important fortune—and in his bravado he wonders aloud why he didn’t make a larger museum to create an even bigger splash. But then, with a note of the same caution that prevented him from bidding blindly at his first overheated auction, he pulls back to answer his own question.
“Listen, I didn’t know what the fuck I was up against,” he says, as if unprepared for how steep the learning curve would be on his starter museum. “I believe you have to go to kindergarten, then elementary school, then high school, then college. Later we can always do something bigger. There is always another project in life. We can continue dreaming. More important is the quality of what you dream.”