Patricia Phelps de Cisneros interview: 'This is a collection made with love'

As a new show of modernist art from South America lands at the Royal Academy, Time Out meets the woman behind a remarkable collection

  • Carlos Cruz-Diez

    'Physichromie No 500', 1970. Coleccion Patricia Phelps de Cisneros. © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2014.

    Carlos Cruz-Diez
  • Lygia Pape

    'Untitled (from the series Weaving)', 1959. Coleccion Patricia Phelps de Cisneros. © Projeto Lygia Pape

    Lygia Pape
  • Alfredo Hlito

    'Chromatic Rhythms II', 1947. Coleccion Patricia Phelps de Cisneros. © Sonia Henriquez Urena de Hlito

     Alfredo Hlito
  • Juan Melé

    'Irregular Frame No 2', 1946. Coleccion Patricia Phelps de Cisneros. © Estate of Juan Mele

    Juan Melé
  • Joaquin Torres-Garcia

    'Construction in White and Black', 1938. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Patricia Phelps de Cisneros in honour of David Rockefeller, 2004

    Joaquin Torres-Garcia
  • Lygia Clark

    'Machine – Medium', 1962. Coleccion Patricia Phelps de Cisneros. © The World of Lygia Clark Cultural Association

    Lygia Clark

Carlos Cruz-Diez

'Physichromie No 500', 1970. Coleccion Patricia Phelps de Cisneros. © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2014.

Art collector Patricia Phelps de Cisneros regularly ranks near the top of art world power lists, rubbing shoulders with movers and shakers like Tate director Nicholas Serota. Never heard of her? That may be because, even though her collection of Latin American art is reputedly the best in the world, the Venezuela born patron hasn't put her name to a museum. Instead, much of her 2,000-strong trove of colonial, modern and contemporary art,  along with ethnographic objects from the continent, circles the globe as loans to institutions such as MOMA in New York.

Its latest incarnation is the Royal Academy's 'Radical Geometry', a blast of a tour through Uruguay, Argentina, Brazil and Venezuela during the twentieth century that, as well as documenting the cultural and political changes that forged the identity of abstract Latin American art, makes a concerted effort to bring the likes of Op Art pioneer Carlos Cruz-Diez out from the shadows of their contemporaries in Europe and the US.

‘There's not one banana tree on show’

Portrait: Benedict Johnson

Portrait: Benedict Johnson

'We're very proud of being Latin American but we always feel that we've been on the back burner,' says Phelps de Cisneros. 'We're such a rich continent in terms of culture and mineral wealth, but nobody's paid enough attention to us. We want to get away from the stereotype of South America towards an appreciation of the sophisticated thought that came with this type of art. I hope people will be happily surprised. There's not one banana tree on show.'

Phelps de Cisneros, who married media mogul Gustavo Cisneros in 1970 and started to buy abstract art shortly afterwards, tempers her crusading zeal with an evident affection for the art she's amassed. 'This is a collection made with love,' she says. 'All of the work you'll see in the exhibition has been in our home over the past 40 years. One day an art magazine called up to ask about our "art collection" and until then I had never even thought of the work as a collection. Ever since that day it has been fun but it's also been a responsibility. We figured that not that many people would be going to Venezuela to look at art, so we became a lending institution.'

It's been rumoured that part of the reason for the collection remaining mobile has been to keep it out of the reach of former Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez, and speculation is rife that Phelps de Cisneros will one open a museum of her art. 'Never,' she says. 'Because I think we can do more good by lending the way we do and because I would hate to impose that upon one's children. It's just how I feel.'

Which isn't to say that she's against doughty institutions such as the Royal Academy: 'I come from a place where the past and tradition is being erased,' she says. 'So to have this sense of tradition at the Academy is very important. I hope you're all as proud of this place as you should be.'

The four countries of 'Radical Geometry'


The focus is on Montevideo in the 1930s and ’40s and in particular the work of Joaquín Torress-Garcia (1874-1949) who returned to his native city in 1934 after decades spent soaking up the culture of Barcelona, Paris and New York. Torres-García founded the School of the South, blending Mondrian’s grids with the muted colours of Incan ceramics.

Prime example ‘Construction in White and Black’, 1938, by Torres-García (pictured).


Far younger than Torres-García, artists in Buenos Aires in the 1940s looked to revive the radical ideas of the Russian Contructivists. They called themselves the Concrete Art-Invention Association, refused to sign their work, and had it in for rectangular pictures, considering them the ultimate in bourgeois convention.

Prime example ‘Irregular Frame No 2’, 1946, by Juan Melé (pictured).


It’s a tale of two cities as the show contrasts the rigorous machine aesthetic of São Paulo and the more rhythmic art of Rio in the postwar years. In São Paulo, artists such as Hermelindo Fiaminghi were making op art from mathematical formulae, while in Rio things swung to a bossanova beat with Helio Oiticica’s off-kilter formalism and Lygia Clark’s interactive sculpture.

Prime example ‘Machine – Medium’, 1962, by Lygia Clark (pictured).


The Dubai of its day, Caracas in the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s was rich on the proceeds of Venezuelan oil reserves and set about building major urban projects like architect Carlos Raúl Villanueva’s University City while attracting major international names like Alexander Calder. Homegrown art was ambitious and playful, typified by Jesús Soto’s shimmering, superimposed grids and the delicate constructions of German-born refugee Gertrude Goldschmidt, known as Gego.

Prime example ‘Sphere’, 1976, by Gego (pictured).