In 1961, a Polish-Jewish woman opened a small gallery in Polanco, a middle-class neighborhood in Mexico City. Over the following decade, the space became a cultural force, hosting solo and collective exhibitions by artists like Mathias Goeritz, Sebastián, and José Luis Cuevas.
That woman, Merl Kuper, immigrated to Mexico from Poland in the 1930s. She was my great-grandmother. Her daughter, my grandmother Alinka, worked in the gallery as well. After they died, our home, my mother’s studio, and my uncle’s houses became repositories of the gallery’s archives of exhibition posters, invitations, catalogs, art books, and art pieces. Together they provide a critical window into Mexico City’s mid-century cultural life.
I recently met Emilio Hernandez, who worked in the gallery for 20 years, in front of my mother’s studio. He was sharply dressed in dark blue pants and a buttoned-up shirt. Once inside, he guided me to a corner room with 20 cardboard boxes containing the gallery’s archives; in the middle of the space was my great-grandmother’s curved desk and behind it, a bookshelf with tomes of what appeared to be an old encyclopedia. When we got closer, I realized they were the catalogs.
Hernandez reached for one and opened it to reveal a collection of invitations, photographs, and newspaper clippings meticulously preserved and categorized according to month and year. He then picked up a magazine commemorating the gallery’s 25th anniversary: “Here’s José Luis Cuevas,” he said, pointing to the photos, “and here is Tamayo … this is Siqueiros … here’s your grandfather … and your mom.”
“And this,” he told me, pointing to the fox-like woman wearing the puffed-hairstyle of the 1950s, “is your great-grandmother.”
Born in 1915 in Yanov, Pinsk, to a family of five siblings, Kuper fled Poland escaping poverty, disease and anti-Semitism. Originally, her family wanted to go to the United States but at the time the immigrant quota had been capped, so they headed south. In 1935 she arrived with her husband Wolf and her newborn daughter, Alinka, to the port Veracruz (“the Mexican Ellis Island,” as historian Monica Unikel calls it) and settled down temporarily in Puebla, a heavily Catholic city close to the capital.
Eventually, they moved to Mexico City in 1955, before their second son, Jacob, was born, and finally settled on an apartment located on the eighth floor of a building in a newly constructed middle-class neighborhood on the outskirts of the city. Upon arriving, Wolf bought a small stand located in the buzzing downtown and opened a tailor shop named “The New Piccadilly”: despite its privileged location, business never quite took off. But the shop provided enough income for Kuper, who was a fervent Zionist and a voracious reader, to pursue her passion for the arts. Every year she would put up a stand at the local Yom Ha’atzamaut celebration in the JCC and sell work by artist-friends without taking a commission. Eventually, she gained the artists’ trust, and they let her keep their pieces for longer periods of time.
Kuper would then hang these paintings in her ample living room and invite people who were interested in buying art into her house. After three years of informal art-selling she decided to branch out; luckily one of the ground-floor lots of the building was up for rent. The 300-meter space, located below a massive cinema complex, was a perfect spot. But it was in terrible shape: the painting was peeling and the ceiling had holes; Kuper thus reached out to her son-in-law, architect Abraham Zabludovsky, who cleaned up the space, installed lighting for artwork, and designed a marbled-floor section to showcase the sculptures. On April, 11, 1961, Mer-Kup opened its doors.
Browsing through the gallery’s catalogs, I couldn’t help but wonder at the tremendous energy that defined the space from the very start. Every month Kuper would put on a new show, and the space would come alive with weekly poetry readings, artistic workshops, and talks. There’s nothing amateurish about the artists showcased during the first five years: Feliciano Bejar, Pedro Friedeberg, Goeritz, and Cuevas all had their start there—1968 was an unusually busy year, as the gallery took part in the Olympic cultural circuit. In 1969 the gallery hosted a one-man show for Diego Rivera.
“It was an important space,” the 92-year-old art critic Berta Taracer told me over the phone. Taracer, who has published dozens of books on art in Mexico and is currently writing a book on Rivera, was a good friend of Kuper’s and would visit the space with the sculptor Loraine Pinto. At the time, she told me, there were approximately 20 galleries in the city, but the Mer-Kup gallery stood out because of its international scope. Kuper, who spoke Hebrew, Yiddish, Russian, Polish, Spanish, and English, drew connections with galleries and art museums across the United States and Europe. She was specifically interested in establishing cultural links between Israel and Mexico and she often hosted shows dedicated only to Israeli artists.
A constant presence in the space was the Israeli painter Moshe Gat, who had come to Mexico to study with the muralist Siqueiros. Gat, who was constantly out of money, according to Kuper’s son, relied on the Mer-Kup shows to survive. He developed such a close relation to Kuper that he got married in her house. Gat wasn’t the only artist she helped; Hernandez still keeps a letter to Kuper written in the 1960s by the artist Rodolfo Nieto asking her to wire money to France, where he was residing on scholarship. Kuper helped these and other struggling artists with financial support and provided a form of maternal counseling.
Although Hernandez was not present during the first ten years of the Mer-Kup gallery, he was close. His father was in charge of the building and he spent most of his childhood playing in the nearby parking garage where he lived with his family. In 1972, Kuper, who had recently lost her assistant, approached the 12-year-old boy and asked him if he wanted to make some extra money helping her out for two hours a day. He worked under these conditions until he dropped out of college and decided to work full time. He would open the gallery, clean the floor, send invitations, and clean, three times a day, a sea-shell conch Kuper used as an ashtray.
Over the years, the influence of the gallery expanded: Mer-Kup signed exclusivity with German-born artist Mathias Goeritz and opened shows by Swiss sculptor Willi Gutmann, Salvador Dalí, and Alexander Calder. Then in 1985, Kuper fell and broke her coccyx. Hernandez would go up to her apartment and take her down to work at the gallery in a wheelchair. Kuper took painkillers, but also a medicine to treat a benign tumor behind her ear. Eventually, the drugs bore a hole through her intestines, and she died in 1990.
It took a year and a half for Hernandez to give back the hundreds of unsold art pieces that had been consigned to Mer-Kup. After the gallery had closed, Alinka gave to Hernandez the valuable contact list amassed through the gallery’s 30 years of existence. “I’ll vouch for you,” she told Hernandez. Now Hernandez is an independent and itinerant art-seller with connections to popular artists like Sebastian. He drives around Mexico City with exclusive artworks in his trunk.
Feliz Cinco de Mayo from Tablet. Read some of our articles in Spanish here.
Alan Grabinsky is a freelance writer and journalist based in Mexico City, covering Jewish life and urban issues for international media.