César Cervantes is a Mexican art collector with an unconventional trajectory. An autodidact with no formal art education and owner of a chain of taquerias, he started seriously collecting art 12 years ago. He now has most of his personal collection displayed in his home, a modernist house located in the Pedregal de San Angel neighborhood of Mexico city. The open plan makes an ideal setting for showcasing works of contemporary art. Walking through the house, it can be hard to distinguish if something is part of his collection, a household item, or as I discover opening a dishwasher to find it full of sex toys (Claire Fontaine’s “Dildo Washer“) a mix of both. Certain items can be ambiguous, like the banana peel on the floor in the living room, it could be garbage, a prank waiting to happen or “Installation (Banana Peel)“ by Adriana Lara (and yes it does have to be changed daily!). The playful chalk drawings on the driveway might be by a famous artist or in this case, César’s children Lázaro and Bruna. This is what makes this place fun. Seeing artwork outside the context of a gallery/museum, co-existing amongst everyday objects and people creates a certain playfulness and uncertainty that results in a very different experience.
César joins us after we’ve been wandering around his house for a few hours (he had given us free reign of the place to photograph it before our interview). He apologizes for being late, he was in a meeting to try and preserve some sculptures by artist Mathias Goeritz and architect Luis Barragán located in his neighborhood El Pedregal. It gets us talking about the neighborhood, which was developed on a lava field by architect Luis Barragán in the mid 1940’s. I’m a big fan of Barragán and love hearing in detail about his projects. César is like a professor, there is so much information packed in each sentence that I feel like I need to write it all down to review later. Unfortunately I have lost my notebook somewhere in his house and I don’t want to try to find it lest I miss some of the conversation which is now focused on the history of El Pedregal way before Barragán came into the picture. César definitely goes in depth when he’s interested in something.
His little son Lázaro joins us and even though it is way past his bedtime he is super excited, jumping around and hanging out on his dad’s shoulders. He insists we go check out the mirror room (Monika Sosnowska) where he plays around experimenting with his reflection. In the library he climbs up the Rirkrit Tiravanija pole (the whole metallic floor of the library is also part of the piece) and shows me his favorite piece, a book that whistles when it opens (Mathieu Briand). Finally he picks up a stamp that says “this is not a work of art” (by Marcel Broodthaers and edited by Third Drawer Down) and starts stamping it on César’s arm.
Melinda: What’s the relationship of your children with all the art in the house? Do they play around with it or do they know its something important that they can’t touch?
César Cervantes: Lázaro doesn’t know any different, he was born the same year as we got the Jimmie Durham (“Still life with Spirit and Xitle”), so he was basically born with a crushed car in front of his house. In my time, cars were so untouchable, they were something very important that kids weren’t allowed to interact with so it’s a totally different experience for him. Lázaro calls the art around the house “sculptures”. He likes to show his friends the “sculptures” but he understands they are not toys. In their room the kids can paint all over the walls and play with everything but after telling them once not to do it outside their room they understood.
After asking a bit about Anna and myself (I mentioned we met at art school in Vancouver) we make an interesting discovery. Long before he became an art collector, César Cervantes considered going to Emily Carr himself.
You thought about going there? When was that?
It was the mid-eighties and the school was located in just one building on Granville Island. I went for the interview but my father was worried about me becoming a starving artist. He had one taqueria at the time (there are now 120) and wasn’t convinced going to art school was the best route for me, it’s not that he didn’t give me permission to go, I decided to go a different path on my own.
Why didn’t you end up going?
Por fresa! (fresa is a term given to affluent preppy kids in Mexico) I went to a couple of parties while I was visiting Vancouver and it was all very hippy, people were drinking beer out of these things…kegs? At the time I was a Pedregal boy all the way, hanging with the future president’s son and in Mexico beer was reserved for the workers, not for us… and seeing cool kids drinking it from a barrel… it was much to avant-garde for me. There were also a couple of suicides in Vancouver while I was visiting and I think that kind of scared me off as well…
So your flirtation with the art scene came to an early end…
Yes, and before deciding that I would not study art, I had also gone through a professional soccer moment and had also decided a few years back not to pursue that. I always had this entrepreneur thing on my mind… since I was very little I had always been involved in different businesses. When the decision came I went on to business school, I felt I could do better for art from a business position than as an artist.
Tell me about the first work of art that you purchased?
It was around 1989 or 1990, I was going to school in Florida at the time and I was a bit of a loner. I liked to go to do things by myself but of course it was a bit weird going alone to the movies and such so I mostly ended up going to this gallery at the mall. It was a commercial chain of galleries that operated in malls and cruise ships. I didn’t know anything about art but I always went there and there was a painting I usually went to look at. Until one day I went and it wasn’t there anymore. I asked about it and was told it was on loan for a show and would be back in a couple months. At that moment something changed, I realized I really wanted to see it. I waited a few weeks as to not look too weird and went back but it was still gone. I was scared maybe someone had bought it. I was told it had been damaged while being transported and that they were going to have to take it back to the artist to fix it. I knew then it was my opportunity and I asked if I could buy it damaged, at a discount. It cost around $3 500 which was way too much for me and of course the gallerist didn’t want to sell a damaged painting. But I was really insistent and so they finally ended up talking to the artist and he agreed to sell it to me for $1 700. Of course I was living on about $500 a month so it was way beyond my reach but I asked them if I could buy it on credit. It was pretty much impossible for a Mexican student with no job to get credit but I insisted so much that somehow I got the credit and ended up paying $30 a month for five years.”
That’s an unusual commitment for a student…
At the time the kids I knew, when they got money or a present they always wanted cars, or the latest tv set or to throw a crazy party for their friends. I didn’t know anything about art but I could tell people with art in their homes were different. For my graduation trip I asked to go to New York city. There was an exhibition at the MET. It was about Mexico. Mexico: Splendors of Thirty Centuries. It was a very important show, very ambitious for the museum and showing the various styles and aspects of art in Mexico. At the end of the show I fell in love with the last piece, it was a painting of Cantinflas (a famous Mexican comedian) by Rufino Tamayo. From then on my priorities started changing. I started traveling, being more of a hippy, hanging out with artists who sold their work in the park. I didn’t really go to museums, they were too cold, intimidating… they still are.
How did your collection evolve after that first piece?
By the late 90’s I was working and building the family business, I started buying art from friends. Nobody had a gallery back then, I started buying art to give as wedding presents. Whatever I could afford at the time, usually very small paintings. I also started to hear about more conceptual artists which I didn’t know about yet. At the time, for me art was paintings, sculptures, things that took time and technique. I started hearing about artists like Gabriel Orozco that were doing something different, but I hadn’t seen anything of his yet.
I’m curious about the transition between more traditional art and the more conceptual stuff which is seem all over your house..
In 2000 I discovered that there were art fairs like Basel and I went to FIAC. That was the first time I saw the work of On Kawara. It was a painting from the Today Series, I thought it would be great to buy one with a significant date for me.
How much did one of his paintings cost?
35 thousand! And it was really small too. The large paintings I owned which took way longer to do cost so much less, I realized then that I didn’t get it at all. So I bought an On Kawara book instead of the painting and started to study him to try and understand.
At the FIAC I looked at the list of artists, and didn’t know any of them. I saw the name of Gabriel Orozco, which I had heard about. He was the only Mexican artist I think, so I looked him up as well and realized there were common thread with him and On Kawara, and I just went from there.
The books is how I got informed, I would buy a book on an artist or a topic I liked and then get more books on artists or topics that were mentioned in it.
You ended up buying a lot of books…how many would you say you have in your library?
I have over 6000 art books…
Wow, and have you read all of them?
Yes all of them, except that row down there, those are new, I haven’t had a chance yet…
So after discovering On Kawara and all these other artists and understanding more conceptual art, how do you decide what to get for your collection?
For me it’s not about how much something is worth, it’s just about loving it and wanting it around. I don’t know where I read or heard this but its this saying that art should match your living room, and I agree with that, maybe not in the way that the colors match your sofa but that it needs to feel comfortable to you…when its comfortable you are more motivated to learn and explore, to always keep being curious.
So I guess you finally feel comfortable with On Kawara…
Photos: Bruce Nauman/ Studies for holograms, chocolate gnome sculpture: Paul McCarthy / Peter Paul Chocolate, Painting: On Kawara/ Feb 27, 1990, bamboo leaf mobile: Gabriel Orozco /Bamboo balls, encased bullets on the coffee table: Chris Burden / Roundies and pointies, cupie doll between chairs: Dr. Lakra/ Untitled, books: Carol Bove/ Touching, wooden crate: Rirkrit Tiravanija/ Untitled
Photography: Anna Sulikowska and Melinda Santillan
Check out one of Cesar’s favorite artist Daniel Guzmán’s feature also found in The Music Issue here.