Pepón Osorio’s beating heart was recently on display in New York, as part of his largest solo exhibition to date at the New Museum. After four decades as an artist, working predominantly as a storyteller in and for tight-knit communities of Latinx and Caribbean, working-class folk, this exhibition, titled “My Beating Heart/Mi Corazón Latiente,” was a triumph. In his first museum survey since 1991’s “Con to’los Hierros” at El Museo del Barrio, Osorio is not the same artist he was 30 years ago. He became a father, moved from New York to Philadelphia, and lived with cancer. Famous for his immersive large-scale installations, Osorio is renowned because of the evocative reflection his art demands of its visitors and collaborators.
Typically, Osorio debuts his installations in neighborhoods and in front of people that are at the heart of the piece he is working on. This survey was all the more special because they were shown in conversation with one another for the first time. Osorio creates settings that would typically never be seen in the museum arena, like in reForm (2014–17), En la barbería no se llora (1994), and Badge of Honor (1995) which stage large-scale immersive models of a school classroom, a barbershop, and a set of beds (a father’s prison cell and his son’s bedroom), respectively. Originally, reForm took up residency in the basement of Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia; En la barbería no se llora in an abandoned space in Hartford, Connecticut; and Badge of Honor at a storefront in Newark, New Jersey. In this way, Osorio shares the ownership of his artworks in each of these locations and welcomes his collaborators, often working-class communities of Latinx people, to process their landscapes of memory together. No longer being shown separately, these three works, and nine others, together created a new environment on the New Museum’s second floor. The institutional activation of Osorio’s oeuvre is not antithetical to its grassroots origins but, in fact, an extension of it, fusing new and traditional art audiences into his art’s framework of radical intimacy.
Osorio’s heartbeat, part of the exhibition’s titular work My Beating Heart/Mi Corazón Latiente (2000), was one of the first things visitors heard upon entering the exhibition. The sound loop of his beating heart and its abrupt stopping poured out from speakers that rest atop Osorio’s massive heart, a six-foot-two-inch piñata of the vital organ that served as the emblem for the show. Osorio dared the audience to break open his heart and see what goodies lie inside.
My Beating Heart/Mi Corazón Latiente was installed adjacent to his most recent body of work, Convalescence (2023–). A dark-skinned mannequin, who represents Osorio, stands with his arms outstretched at his sides while hooked up to active heart monitors on a plastic-covered chair. His gaze meets his visitors’ (his subjects) through a magnifying glass drilled into the right side of his face, while the rest of the mannequin’s body is obscured by medical and spiritual paraphernalia: covered in layers of Band-Aids, decorated in cowrie shells, and punctured by dozens of needles. The need for—and difficulty in achieving—true healing is a theme coalesced in an accompanying video of a man whom Osorio met in Puerto Rico; the man details his struggles with physical health, and consequently, his livelihood. The film is situated in the man’s wooden food vending cart, covered in plexiglass and decorated with objects of the infirm: sterile clinical tools, a candle for the orisha Osaín, and figurines of nurses, surgeons, and saints. Both men are united in Convalescence by hundreds of bottles between them that form the shape of Puerto Rico, where Osorio was born and raised.
In Convalescence, Osorio narrates a multifaceted story about the myriad ways that healthcare systems in the US invalidate, threaten, and violate people’s autonomy in their own healing journeys. He begins by telling the story of his experience with cancer and how his artistic practice was integral to his recovery. Amid rampant political, social, and systemic apathy, Osorio uses empathy as artistic technique, steeping his pieces in the combined grief, hardship, and hope felt by all convalescents, and by Osorio firsthand. The exhibition, much like the artwork it is named after and this newest piece, is then a celebration of life and a reminder of its inevitable fragility.
Osorio was born in Santurce, a waterfront neighborhood of San Juan, in 1955, where he was raised by two working parents and a caretaker that each encouraged his flair for creativity from a young age. In 1975, he moved to the Bronx after studying at Universisdad Interamericana de Puerto Rico. In New York, he continued his education, studying sociology and social work at Lehman College in 1978 and later getting a master’s degree from Teachers College, Columbia University in 1985. His background as a social worker and educator is imperative to his intimate investigative cultural praxis. His artistic career hinges on interviewing families during their most fraught moments, and he has applied this inquisitive nature and his passionate warmth for teaching into his methods and motive for artmaking.
After his first 15 years of living in New York, Osorio was recognized with a now landmark solo exhibition, “Con to’los Hierros,” while he was an artist in residence at El Museo. “My Beating Heart/Mi Corazón Latiente,” curated by Margot Norton and Bernardo Mosqueira and which closed on September 17, picked up right where that initial survey left off, showcasing the work Osorio has made between 1990 and now.
Osorio’s impressive legacy and his renowned acclaim since the debut of one of his most famous works to date—Scene of the Crime (Whose Crime?), made especially for the 1993 Whitney Biennial—contributes to why this New Museum survey felt so belated. Scene of the Crime commits and stages the murder of an unknown woman in a South Bronx home, daring the audience, who peer at the scene from one side of a caution tape, to investigate their own role in the perpetuity of structural violence that has contributed to her death. Osorio created the work to directly address and subsequently challenge racist stereotypes of Latinos widely disseminated in the media.
It is also the first major museum to showcase the most complete arrangement of his life’s work, the culmination of his journey as a sincerely accessible yet powerfully radical artist. Walking through the exhibition, you hear the sounds of soft-spoken confessions, declarations of love, and demands for justice. This choir of intimate voices is most apparent in installations like Badge of Honor, Convalescence, and reForm, in which his collaborators are speaking directly to visitors and telling their deeply personal stories of incarceration and violence, healing, and loss, respectively. While telling complex stories marked by white supremacist systems, Osorio also engages visitors with his Caribbean sense of humor: always looking for the silver lining or a sign of levity, he manages to joke even in the worst-case scenarios.
reForm, for example, envelopes us in one of these worst-case scenarios: Fairhill Elementary School, one of dozens of public schools in Philadelphia that were shut down in 2013 due to budget cuts, left many students abandoned by their education system. Osorio was able to reunite generations of Fairhill’s former students and teachers to create this installation together, comprised of a classroom filled with items that were taken from Fairhill after its closure. Lining the walls of reForm are students’ letters written in response to the school’s closing by the Philadelphia School Reform Commission. They serve as a background to clay renderings of that very commission; presented almost like a classroom diorama, each government official stands on an eraser that reads “For BIG Mistakes.” Their eraser platforms double as diving boards: a wry punchline only made visible from below.
The curators and Osorio placed reForm next to an installation about masculinity: No Crying Allowed in the Barbershop (En la barbería no se llora), from 1994. In leaving the classroom for the barbershop, the exhibition drew out the differences between formal and informal education, from teacher to student and from man to man, and how they aren’t all that different. The barbershop is complete with a pool table and counters on which rest hair products, fake flowers, and mirrors ready to remind the visitor of their role in male-only spaces. Along the walls are dozens of tire rims and portraits of men; elsewhere are hats, suit jackets, and ties. The three barber chairs are screenprinted with nude male bodies, their heads replaced by video monitors playing tapes of a man’s crying face. Each chair is decked out in Osorio’s signature maximalist style. Glued to each chair are dozens of knickknacks (padlocks, little toy wrestlers painted silver, and medallions throwing middle fingers at the viewer): Osorio’s joke at the pervasiveness and absurdity of machismo.
Perhaps most striking in this survey were the smaller works on display: Purificador (2011), Reparación (2021), State of Preservation (1996), Quinceañera (2011), and Sin mal no recuerdo (If I remember correctly), from 2023. In an exhibition that demanded the audience’s presence and attention in order to activate Osorio’s immersive and deeply conceptual installations, Purificador provided an unexpected relief in its simplicity: a glass half-filled with water installed in a corner high above the viewer. (The pieceis named for its believed ability to repel evil.) Placed between Convalescence and reForm, it also served as Osorio’s reminder that each individual object holds weight and currency for him, and that we shouldn’t lose sight of that when seeing the hundreds of ready-made objects that comprise his deeply layered installations. In this way, his smaller works feel protective; good places to collect your thoughts while processing the morbid and playful journey through our lived realities.
In an often sterile institutional art environment, Osorio’s art welcomes the nontraditional museum-goer with decided warmth. Made visually complete with motifs of outstretched hands, heartfelt letters read aloud, and a reverence for the childlike, this exhibition kept our hearts beating. Over the course of more than three decades, Osorio has observed and forged community from Puerto Rico to Philadelphia with each new locale being part of his legacy, provoking all who see it to consider how they, too, create and own the vibrancy of these inherited environments. We are also part of the art, temporary fixtures in his installations, caught in glances exchanged between the many mirrors across the second floor. His work, while deeply autobiographical, is still grounded in telling the stories of communities of people that have kept his heart beating. It is even more special, and saddening, that the time to see these pieces beat together–the many chambers of Osorio’s heart–is fleeting. “My Beating Heart/Mi Corazón Latiente” celebrates the ephemerality of life, the passion it holds nonetheless, and all we do to seize it.