MEXICO CITY - Mexico City-born collector Eugenio López has lived in Los Angeles for two decades. But if anyone ever questioned López’s loyalty to his homeland, they won’t after the November opening of the stunning Museo Jumex in the heart of Mexico City. It will be the largest private contemporary art space in Latin America, and is certain to seal his reputation as one of his country’s leading art patrons.
Eugenio Lopez shares the garden of his Los Angeles home with Jeff Koons’s Elephant (Yellow), 2004.
Designed by British architect David Chipperfield, the new building will provide a brilliant showcase for the ever-expanding holdings of the Fundación Jumex Arte Contemporaneo (FJAC), which López founded in 2001. The museum will also organise world-class exhibitions, beginning with a major Cy Twombly show, the first ever in Latin America of the artist’s work.
On a late August afternoon at López’s sleek mid-century house in Beverly Hills, there was frenetic activity as numerous personnel swept in and out and provided López with updates on the progress of the building.
López’s vast living room displays significant pieces by, among others, Donald Judd, Bruce Nauman, Andy Warhol, Damien Hirst, Richard Prince, Robert Rauschenberg and Twombly. Outside, in his garden, Jeff Koons’s Elephant, 2004, a two-ton work from the artist’s monumental Celebration series, towers over the hedges.
As the handsome and energetic 46-year-old López recounts, however, his career as a collector began humbly. “At one point in my life I was lost, in many issues,” he says. “When I was 22 I had dropped out of college and was working in the marketing department of my father’s company.”
López is the only child of Isabel and Eugenio López Rodea, president of Grupo Jumex, the largest producer of fruit juices in Mexico. The family’s fortunes were founded by López Rodea’s father, who emigrated from Spain to Mexico. In the 1920s, he came up with a new way to preserve jalapeño peppers. “They used to store them in glass,” López explains. “He came up with a way to electrically seal them in cans, so they would last longer.” In Mexico, those were the makings of a very good business indeed.
Eugenio López at his home.
The young López realised he was not especially suited to business, however. Casting around for something to do, he began dabbling in contemporary art. “I bought a lot of things that I can tell you now are junk.”
But while flipping through a Sotheby’s catalogue at a friend’s house in 1993, one image more or less changed his life. “I saw a Robert Ryman. A white painting,” he recalls. “It was estimated at $300,000 to $400,000. I didn’t know anything about Ryman, or art, really. At the time, I just saw this white surface. But I thought, if somebody is going to spend this kind of money, there must be something to it.
“I started doing research. I learned Ryman had been doing white paintings for 30 years and I came to know his genius.
“That same year I went to my first evening auction at Sotheby’s in New York. As I walked in, I saw this great room with the people on the telephones, the conversion board, the auctioneer. I will never forget that moment. I still have chills talking about it now.
“I said to myself, Eugenio, this is serious, you have to learn about this. From that moment, I started talking to everyone I could – dealers, curators. . .”
He learned quickly. In 1994, López opened the Chac Mool Gallery in Los Angeles, where he showed primarily Latin American artists. “In the beginning, it was a way for me to convince my father to let me live in Los Angeles,” López explains of the gallery, which closed in 2005. That year he joined the board of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles.
Later he also joined the board of the New Museum in New York. López educated himself further by traveling frequently to see important collections around the world, explaining “it was the Saatchi Gallery that really inspired me. It was then located in a warehouse space on the outskirts of London. By that time I was buying a lot of art but had no room to display it. When I saw the Saatchi collection, I thought, ‘We have the factories!’ ”
Lopez’s home, which was recently renovated by Los Angeles-based architectural firm Marmol Radziner, includes a diverse range of artworks including Alexander Calder’s Black and White Ailerons, 1963, Donald Judd’s Amber Stack, 1987, Andreas Gursky’s Frankfurt, 2007, Damien Hirst’s Memories Lost, Fragments of Paradise, 2003, amongst others.
López subsequently convinced his father to let him transform one of the Jumex factories on the outskirts of Mexico City into an arts space for FJAC, not only to collect art but to advance research and encourage critical thinking about contemporary art. The Colleción Jumex is now the largest private art collection in Latin America, with over 2,000 pieces by notable international, Mexican and Latin American artists. While it focuses on contemporary art from the 1990s to the present, it includes significant works created in earlier decades by artists ranging from Carl Andre and Dan Flavin to Martin Kippenberger and Joseph Kosuth.
As the foundation and its holdings grew, López contemplated building a purpose-built home for it in a more accessible location. His father surprised him with the gift of a prime site in Mexico City, which he procured during a lunch with Carlos Slim Helú, the wealthiest man in the world. López Sr negotiated to buy acreage adjacent to the Museo Soumaya, which Slim opened last year.
Instead of undertaking a lengthy competition to choose an architect, as many cultural institutions do, López decided to expedite the process by relying on good advice and trusting his instincts.
In 2007, at the suggestion of Vicente Todolí, then a director of Tate Modern, López met with David Chipperfield. Based on that meeting, López felt he didn’t need to interview other candidates. “You know when you just hit it off with someone? That’s what I felt with David. So I just said, OK, let’s do it.” In his choice, López showed his prescience: Chipperfield’s recent triumphs, such as the Neues Museum in Berlin and an extension to the St. Louis Art Museum, have solidified his reputation as one of today’s preeminent architects.
In October, he received one of the world’s most prestigious awards, Japan’s Praemium Imperiale. López gave Chipperfield a few instructions. “I told him I wanted it to be top quality, and to have natural light and flexibility, which meant not having load-bearing walls.” Chipperfield came up with a monumental yet dynamic design for the building, which is made of exposed white concrete and locally sourced travertine, and features a distinctive saw-tooth roof.
The Museo Jumex, which opens to the public in November, enlivens the Mexico City skyline and art scene. Photograph by Michel Jean Philippe.
With complicated commissions such as this one, friction between patron and architect invariably develops. But not here. “I’ve got nothing but good things to say about Eugenio and his family,” says Chipperfield, by phone from London. “They have been exemplary to work with. They understood what was necessary to make a good project and then gave all the support necessary. I couldn’t have been happier with the process.”
After the museum’s inaugural show of its own collection, it will open next spring with a tightly focused exhibition of 57 major works by Twombly, which is being curated by Twombly Foundation vice president Julie Sylvester and Philip Larratt-Smith. Plans are also underway for an Andy Warhol retrospective, which will also be a first for Latin America.
Even as López ramps up for the opening in his native city, he is stepping up his commitments in Los Angeles. In July, the board of MOCA elected him to serve as a vice chair. According to outgoing museum director Jeffrey Deitch, “Eugenio has been one of the most generous and inspiring patrons of MOCA for many years. He has had a transformational effect on the museum.” Beyond the walls of MOCA, Deitch accords López with the highest accolades: “He is one of the great art collectors and patrons of our time.”
Hammer Museum director Ann Philbin offers high praise, too: “Eugenio is one of those people who makes a big difference in the places he loves. His commitment to weaving cultural connections between the U.S and Mexico has been spectacular.”
Certainly, the Museo Jumex is poised to energise and elevate the cultural life of Mexico and all of Latin America. The bar is about to be raised.
“Mexico has never had public museums with international art,” he says. “For me to be able to spend my lifetime doing what I love, and then sharing it with my country – I am delighted.”
James Reginato is writer-at-large of Vanity Fair.
Photography by Emily Shur.