In Memoriam: Clara Diament Sujo

A'Dora Phillips
October 22, 2020

We were saddened to learn of the recent passing of Clara Diament Sujo, a pioneering art dealer and critic with galleries in Caracas and New York City. Among her many contributions to the art world, Sujo served as an important advocate of Hedda Sterne’s work and legacy in the last decades of Sterne’s working life, including her final years, when the artist was under-recognized and experienced diminished eyesight due to macular degeneration.

 

Sujo was born Clara Diament in 1921 in Buenos Aires to Jewish émigrés. As she told Avis Berman in a 2010 interview for the Archives of American Art, she enjoyed assisting her father in his home office when she was growing up (he had a business exporting Patagonian fur garments for a Jewish market in Russia and Poland) and was keenly interested in art—perhaps, she speculated, because her childhood home contained a room forbidden to the children that was filled with art, including a nude painting she could glimpse through a window. From 1943 to 1946, Sujo worked in Chicago for Abbott Laboratories. She spent much of her free time in the city visiting museums and galleries. Upon returning to Buenos Aires, she knew she wanted to pursue a career in art and so immersed herself in the city’s vibrant intellectual and artistic milieu. She attended the famed art history lectures of the poet Jorge Romero Brest, an influential art critic, at a bookshop in the city; served as the editor for the journal he founded, Ver y estimar; and translated into Spanish the work of several African-American writers whom she felt in sympathy with, among them Richard Wright and Langston Hughes.

 

Sujo, her husband, and three children relocated to Caracas in the 1950s, both to distance themselves from the rule of Juan Domingo Perón and to take advantage of Venezuela’s economic opportunities. Unlike Argentina, which culturally seemed to Sujo to be a satellite of Europe, Venezuela seemed more closely aligned with the United States, in part because of the oil industry. She taught art history at a number of art schools in Caracas, where she met many talented, young artists. Recognizing that Latin-American art had yet to receive the attention and recognition it deserved, she mobilized her administrative skills, visionary acumen, and knowledge of art to build what was to become the world’s first collection of contemporary Latin American art for the Museo de Bellas Artes in Caracas.

 

While Sujo was a champion of Latin-American art, she was also a proponent of breaking down barriers between North and South America by thinking of an “Art of the Americas.” In 1968, with an inaugural show of Marcel Duchamp’s work, she opened the art gallery Estudio Actual in Caracas, with the goal, among other things, of introducing Venezuelans to American painting. Years later, in 1981, she opened CDS Gallery in New York, where she showed artists from North America alongside artists from Central and South America. It was in that capacity that she met—and advocated for—Hedda Sterne.

 

During her career, Sujo championed many women artists, including Mercedes Pardo, Louise Nevelson, Marisol Escobar, and Elsa Gramcko, not because she was concerned with being “fair” in her representation, she explained to Berman, but because she responded deeply to their work. Sujo was introduced to Sterne in the early 1980s by art critic and dealer, Katharine Kuh, a mutual acquaintance of Sterne and Sujo. By that time, Sterne, who had been the sole woman in the famous 1951 Life magazine photo of “The Irascibles,” was already in her seventies and living an increasingly solitary life. Her presence had become minimized in the 1980s art world, despite having exhibited in dozens of solo and important group exhibitions since 1941 and having seen her work acquired by major museums, such as the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney, and the Metropolitan.

 

Upon visiting Sterne in her studio, Sujo said she was astonished that an artist of Sterne’s knowledge, sensibility, and dedication had not been given the recognition she deserved. As she had decades earlier with Latin American art, Sujo took Sterne on as “a very special cause.” The two women became friends. Between 1982 and 2004, Sujo organized nine solo exhibitions of Sterne’s work for CDS Gallery and also helped to organize a 2006 retrospective of Sterne’s work at the Krannert Art Museum (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign). The last exhibition of Sterne’s work at CDS, Ghosts, presented the luminous and artistically significant drawings Sterne did during her years of diminishing eyesight, when, beginning around 1998, she worked on a series of drawings she told Sujo she saw as being “dictated” by “personages and memories from the past that appeared of their own accord on the blank paper, as if trying to establish a dialogue.” A number of these Ghost drawings are dedicated to Diament, who Sterne referred to as “Clara, the mama of Orchids.”

 

In her Archives of American Art interview, Sujo reminisced about her career, reflecting on the fact that she was 88 years and 10 months old and had been working since the age of 17, guided throughout by the formative influence of her father, who, like Sujo, had worked in service of the causes that moved him, and by Jorge Romero Brest, who had transformative insights into art. His “was an extraordinary inspiration,” Sujo said of Brest. “The capacity to see and make seen.” The same could be said of Sujo herself.

 

 

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