May 6th, 2001
The Miami Herald
by ELISA TURNER
For Roberto Behar and Rosario Marquardt, there's an art to capturing a child's appetite for wonder. And this is the very sort of art that feeds the communal soul of a city bloated with traffic and sprawl.
?We're very concerned with interactive public sculpture,? says Behar.
These two South Florida artists have a talent for offering wonderful, traffic-stopping surprises. In April they completed a capacious living room that appears to have landed magically on the corner of Northwest 40th Street and North Miami Avenue.
It's their most recent Design District mural, one in a series commissioned by developer Craig Robins. A tour de force completed on the side of a vacant building, it's called, well, The Living Room.
The effort, Behar announces excitedly, is all about ?trying to bring attention to the fact that ultimately we are alive.?
Marquardt, his wife as well as his collaborator, gently reigns in his focus.
?Surprise,? she prods him.
?We're trying to be surprised,? he continues, ?like when we were kids, and to look at a place like it's the very first time.?
A paradoxical piece that features an out-of-doors interior, The Living Room beckons to passersby with a sleekly modern sofa of fuschia cushions and a pair of white reading lamps. Its backdrop is a 42-foot-high wall aswirl with 300 pink-and-orange flowers, painted and interlaced like vintage wallpaper.
In tropical hues reminiscent of hibiscus hedges, ripening mangoes and coral reefs, the wallflowers frame a 10-foot-high window framed by gauzy white curtains. Through the window is a glorious view of clouds, sky, even a bird roosting on a telephone line.
Exposed to the sky and street, the mural welcomes a world of imaginative possibilities. It's a kind of larger-than-life, virtual version of Surrealist Ren? Magritte's famously dream-like paintings of clouds. And with its proportions both human-scale and huge, the room casts a delightful spell. For a wonderful second, you feel like a child entering a gigantic doll house.
?It's not easy to make a curtain this big, it's almost 40 feet long,? explains Marquardt. ?But we wanted to have it homey, open to the street. The idea is to have an open home spread around the [Design] District.?
Another room in that home is two blocks away. That mural, The Salon, graces the front of the Buick Building at 3841 NE Second Ave. and presents a grand pair of oval portraits, like old-fashioned family cameos, that also look both mythic and strange.
One is of Mackandal, a rebel slave from Haitian folklore who escaped the French by morphing into such creatures as the yellow and black butterfly arising from his shoulders in this portrait.
His companion is La Malinche, the native Mexican bride of Hernando Cort?s. She's portrayed as a New World Madonna cradling a lizard and regarding her complex past, present and future with a trio of eyes.
?She's also one of us, in the process of trying to invent ourselves in a new place,? says Behar, finding in both portraits a mirror of Miamians who moved here from so many other places and pasts to reconstruct their identities.
On the other side of the Buick Building, visible from Northeast 39th Street and Federal Highway as well as from Interstate 195 is The Bedroom, another colorful pair of murals.
One shows a man sleeping under a sky-blue blanket, another a view of his dreams in which his good side slugs it out with his bad side in a profoundly human match between boxers costumed as devil and angel.
?When you say devil in English, it has a diabolical meaning. But when you say it in Spanish, it means more like a trickster,? Behar says. ?In Latin American culture, at least in Argentina, if one doesn't have a little bit of the diablo, then one has something wrong, one becomes very dry, very boring.?
Dry is something this Argentine-born husband-and-wife team are not, asserts Vincent Scully, the eminent architectural historian now teaching at the University of Miami.
''What they are doing is very unusual, full of life, and witty,'' he says. ''It's wonderful art for Miami because it draws on South American imagery, but comes into its own in a jangled urban landscape that goes from high-rises to villages.''
The willowy, soft-spoken Marquardt and the shorter, vivacious Behar have been a couple since they were 18 and studying art and architecture in the Argentine resort city of Mar del Plata, where Marquardt ran a puppet theater.
In the 1970s, they participated in protests against Argentina's military dictatorship, even hiding a printing press in their studio. They knew many who were killed or disappeared.
Marquardt's 24-year-old sister was shot dead in the street, and her brother was jailed for five years. Only after he was released did they leave the country, arriving in New York in 1982. They attended the Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies for a year, then settled in Miami where Marquardt began to paint and Behar took a job teaching architecture at UM.
''I think that period had an effect on our work,? Marquardt, 46, says of those dark years in Argentina. ?When the dictatorship came we were critical, we tried to act in our way to stop it.?
Their public work here ? a vivid fusion of art and architecture, like the red four-story ?M? resembling a giant alphabet block at the Miami Riverwalk Metrorail station ? is also, they say, a critique of the status quo.
?We try to resist that tendency of the city to forget about the public spaces of the streets,? Marquardt says, ?to just leave the street for the cars.?
With this tendency, bemoans Behar, 47, ?we are preventing the possibility of meeting each other. The contemporary city is about private space and comfort, it's not about public space and beauty.?
Their critique is laced with nods to the radical acts of Gordon Matta-Clark who, in the 1970s, carved vast holes in abandoned buildings in New York ghettos, documenting his opened-up architecture with photographs that became emblems of his belief that most urban housing blocked a sense of community.
Other sources are the Baroque plazas in Rome that made Marquardt feel as if she'd entered ?big rooms open to the sky.?
Closer to home, their painted walls play on the tradition of hand-painted signage in nearby Little Haiti, where goods such as papayas, fish and hair gel are illustrated in flourishing detail on storefronts.
These examples show how the two are ?very cosmopolitan, and yet they apply that knowledge to very local situations,? says Miami Art Museum senior curator Peter Boswell, who met the artists when he was the fine arts director at the American Academy in Rome.
Their murals create ?a very livable space, and people really respond to it,? he adds. ?There are big stretches in Miami-Dade County that are really quite ugly because no one has taken the care to make them look better. What they've done is a real enhancement.?