Two smart women wage a polite long-distance war over a man neither has met in The Proposal, artist Jill Magid’s document of an art project that went to extremes. Pitting Magid, engaged in an exploration of the work of Mexican architect Luis Barragan, against the woman who claims near-complete dominion over the late visionary’s oeuvre, the film (Magid’s self-assured debut) addresses fundamental questions about the ownership of creative work in a unique, entrancingly dreamy way. Set to expand from its debut theatrical booking in New York to Los Angeles this week, the doc should play well in any city with a thriving gallery scene.
Barragan, a modernist with a dramatic sense of color, died in 1988, and his personal effects were preserved by a foundation in Mexico City. But the bulk of his archive, everything to do with his professional life, was carried far away — sold via a New York City gallery to Rolf Fehlbaum, chairman of the Swiss furniture company Vitra. Legend has it that he bought the archive (for around $2.5 million) at the request of the woman he wanted to marry, Federica Zanco, an architectural scholar who after the purchase became director of the Barragan Foundation. Zanco’s foundation copyrighted everything from the architect’s name to photographs of his buildings — even, Magid complains, photos taken before the foundation existed. For over 20 years, it has restricted access to the material.
In voiceover, we hear Magid read letters she wrote to Zanco, requesting various kinds of access to Barragan’s work. She presents herself, with elaborate courtesy, as a person sharing Zanco’s enthusiasm for the architect; but stepping back from the film (which, being its own sort of art work, feels no need to give us background or to explain the chronology of events), it seems clear that what most drew her interest is the wall Zanco has built around him.
While an actress reads Zanco’s polite, even friendly, refusals to cooperate, we see Magid enjoying the access she has been able to wrangle: The foundation in Mexico has been much more accommodating of the artist, allowing her to stay alone for several days in Barragan’s home, spiritually communing with his books and collections. She photographs her stay, making fine use of the home’s stark geometry. Not incidentally, she observes that Barragan decorated his rooms with the kind of reproductions of artworks that Zanco’s foundation would like to control.
As she interviews locals who object to having this chunk of their cultural heritage owned by a European control-freak, Magid imagines Zanco’s single-mindedness as a romantic obsession, one that jealously leaves traces anywhere the architect designed a building: “Every time I try to find Barragan,” she laments, “I encounter Federica.” A fine, hypnotic score by Brooklyn composer T. Griffin, pairing electronics and abstract jazz, lulls us into such a state that the plan Magid eventually hatches feels inevitable.
Viewers who didn’t read about this plan in the art-world press or in news of the film won’t learn of it in this review. Suffice to say that it is an extravagant gesture, requiring the approval of Barragan’s surviving family, that both suits the psychodrama Magid has constructed and serves as an exquisite taunt to her Swiss rival. The film documents this project as if it were performance art, but this is far from the kind of mere record one sees in museum retrospectives. The Proposal has a life of its own, beautiful and provocative. The biggest complaint one can make is that Magid, whose previous works have involved spy agencies and police surveillance, hasn’t made similar features while pursuing those projects.
Production company: Field of Vision
Distributor: Oscilloscope Laboratories
Director: Jill Magid
Producers: Jarred Alterman, Charlotte Cook, Laura Coxson
Executive producer: Laura Poitras
Director of photography: Jarred Alterman
Editor: Hannah Buck
Composer: T. Griffin
Venue: IFC Center