A long-overdue retrospective of the California painter Carlos Almaraz is on view at LACMA.
Nearly 30 years after Carlos Almaraz’s death in 1989, the narrative of this complicated Los Angeles artist remains overly simplified. Today Almaraz—who was born in Mexico but moved with his family to Southern California in 1951 at the age of 10—is known almost exclusively as a Chicano artist. Indeed, he was heavily involved with the Chicano movement both artistically and politically throughout the 1970s. However, by the end of the decade, Almaraz consciously pulled away from the movement and from the Chicano art collective he co-founded, Los Four. Instead, he developed a rigorous and highly personal studio practice that focused on his own fascinations, Surrealist influences, and the landscape of Los Angeles. “Playing with Fire: Paintings by Carlos Almaraz” (through December 3), now on view at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), showcases Almaraz as a notably independent and complex painter.
As a solo artist, Alamaraz was successful, showing frequently with gallerist Jan Turner, who sold his work to fashionable collectors in L.A. There was a survey of the artist’s paintings and drawings at the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery in 1984 and an exhibition of drawings and prints at the UCLA Grunwald Center for the Graphic Arts in 1991, but there hasn’t been a major survey of Almaraz’s paintings since his death. “Playing with Fire,” with its focus on large-scale painting, is the first major museum survey to take up the mantle. It features some 65 works, mostly paintings and a few important pastel works, and deemphasizes the artist’s popular editioned works (though they can be found in many high-profile collections in L.A.’s Westside). Eschewing the traditional chronological organization schema for a thematic one, the survey focuses on tropes seen frequently in Almaraz’s work, such as dreams, car crashes and fires, domestic scenes, the cityscape, and sexuality. The show is part of the Getty’s Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA initiative, which puts hundreds of exhibitions devoted to Latin American and Latino art on view at over 70 cultural institutions in Southern California this fall.
Howard N. Fox, LACMA’s emeritus curator of contemporary art (he served in the position from 1985 to 2008), was, as he puts it, “brought out of mothballs” to curate the show. It was, in fact, a phone call from Cheech Marin (of Cheech and Chong fame)—an avid collector of Chicano art who had previously worked with Fox on an exhibition—that brought the curator to the project. “I’m probably one of the only curators in town who has met Almaraz,” says Fox. The curator had two studio visits with the artist in the ’80s, and though he didn’t develop a close relationship with him, Fox was struck by Almaraz’s charisma and presence. “He was,” says Fox, “a legendary figure.”
After moving to California, Almaraz’s family settled in East Los Angeles. The artist studied at Loyola University of Los Angeles, California State College, Los Angeles, the Otis Art Institute, and the University of California, Los Angeles. Returning to L.A. in 1970 after several stints in New York throughout the ’60s, Almaraz plunged headlong into the political and cultural issues of the Chicano movement in Southern California, writing manifestos and taking to the streets to proselytize. He painted banners for the farmworkers’ cause, led by Cesar Chavez, and sets for Luis Valdez’ Teatro Campesino (Farmworkers’ Theater), in efforts to expose the slave-like work conditions of migrant agricultural laborers. He painted murals in the social-realist style on buildings throughout East L.A. His murals (very few, if any, of which are still extant today) depicted the area’s Mexican residents as they lived and dressed—not in traditional Mexican garb—as a way of bringing attention to the reality of a group that had long been invisible to mainstream America and marginalized by Mexicans living in Mexico.
In 1972, Almaraz formed Los Four. The group—one of the first Mexican American art collectives of its kind—included Gilbert “Magú” Luján, Frank Romero, and Roberto “Beto” de la Rocha. The group adapted a shared interest in muralism and graffiti to create a distinctive style of street art. Their work was the subject of a 1974 exhibition at LACMA titled “Los Four: Almaraz/de la Rocha/Luján/Romero.” The group amicably disbanded in 1979, after which Almaraz reengaged with a studio practice, making paintings, pastels, prints, and sketches in his notebooks.
“Almaraz’s return to the studio is where this exhibition picks up,” says Fox. “He becomes a private, almost mystical painter, influenced by Surrealism, European masters, and Mesoamerican traditions. His studio art from ’77 and ’78 isn’t really Chicano-oriented at all, it’s more distinctly personal.” Fox theorizes that Almaraz felt constrained by the very movement he helped establish and turned away from public art completely to pursue his own vision.
Out of this vision came what amounts to a love letter to L.A., Echo Park in particular. “Almaraz paints Echo Park as a paradise,” says Fox. “In reality, when he was painting it, it was sort of a mangy, dusty place, but he idealizes it.” The artist’s 24-foot-wide, Echo Park Lake nos. 1-4 (1982), is a highlight of the exhibition. The painting’s four panels, which recall Monet’s languid depictions of Parisian parks, haven’t been together since 1987.
Almaraz’s depictions of Los Angeles extended to the freeway, which is featured coursing through the city in works such as Growing City (1988). With beauty and spectacle, Almaraz frequently painted cars on the freeway on fire. Longo Crash, a 1982 painting, shows one car turned over and two ablaze, with puffs of gray smoke drifting into a bright blue sky. Crash in Phthalo Green (1984) also shows multiple cars almost completely obliterated by flames on a green freeway ramp, while a piece of flaming detritus nearly falls onto cars driving below. Sunset Crush (1982), which comes to the show from Marin’s collection, depicts two enflamed cars on an upper freeway ramp exploding like fireworks or rockets before a hot yellow sunset. “He’s showing these almost apocalyptic explosions, yet they’re so sumptuous,” says Fox. “They are layered with buttery impasto, and you almost want to lick the painting.”
Almaraz, who openly had sexual relationships with men and women (he ultimately married the photographer Elsa Flores and had a daughter with her), created work, such as The Muffing Mask (1972) and Siesta (1984) that acknowledged both heterosexual and homosexual intimacy. Though Almaraz’s sexuality was by no means a secret, few pieces of scholarship on the artist acknowledge it. Fox believes that his sexuality was “whitewashed” from catalogue essays, and in particular the Chicano literature. “This show,” says Fox, “while it does not turn Almaraz into a gay artist or gay activist, makes no bones about discussing his sexuality.”
Fox theorizes that Almaraz’s sexuality influenced his non-sexual themes as well. “He was attracted to images of shoot-outs, trash fires, cars exploding, and he’s painting them over and over again, and I see this as a reflection of leading a double life.” Fox notes that the artist was gay or bisexual during a time when it was customary to keep it quiet, which was undoubtedly stifling. This reading of his work is new ground for the scant and typically one-sided scholarship on Almaraz, which has rarely acknowledged his sexuality or deeply examined his solo painting practice. “I was not trying to make a revisionist exhibition,” says Fox, “but it’s a de facto revisionist exhibition, which shows the artist moving away from the Chicano movement, into the studio, and considers his sexuality and the reflection of it in his art.”
Almaraz was diagnosed with HIV in 1987. In the two years between his diagnosis and his death, the artist continued to paint, doing so until the night before he died. During this period, Almaraz continued to pursue the themes that had long enchanted him, but his style and rendering became more subdued and serene. Deer Dancer (1989), one of the artist’s final paintings and a highlight of the show, is thought to be a self-portrait. In it, a half-animal, half-human figure moves through a dreamscape surrounded by washes of intense color, symbols, and animal and mythical figures and heads. In the lower right corner, there is a cartoonish skull. It feels almost like an apotheosis.
In addition to “Playing with Fire” at LACMA, Almaraz’s work will be on view at Craig Krull Gallery this month. The Santa Monica gallery mounts “Carlos Almaraz and Elsa Flores Almaraz: Domestic” on September 9 (through October 14) with an opening reception that evening.
By Sarah E. Fensom