Recent interest in Latino art in San Antonio and Houston is not surprising. This interest was long overdue. A recent exhibit in Houston, Right Here, Right Now: San Antonio (April 21-August 5, 2018) focused on San Antonio Latino artists, and the involvement of many Latino artists in San Antonio’s Tricentennial shows that inclusion makes sense in these major Texas cities, where combined, nearly two million Latinos reside.
An article in the New York Times titled “Museums Turn Their Focus to U.S. Artists of Latin Descent” got me thinking about why minority groups remain generally unrepresentative in most American museums. While I am pleased at this sudden interest in Hispanics, there appears to be a massive amount of catching up to do. The Times commented that “As the Hispanic population continues to grow and immigration has become an increasing hot-button political issue, art institutions around the country are beginning to increase their exhibitions, curators and acquisition in Latino art.” This makes perfect sense.
Scott Rothkopf, chief curator of the Whitney Museum of American Art observed in the Times article that the Whitney Museum is re-examining its collection historically. “We’ll be looking back at the whole of the 20th century and saying, ‘Who did we miss because of our biases, because of our ignorance?’” Mr. Rothkopf said. “‘Why don’t we have a Luis Jiménez sculpture?”
As people who believe in fairness and justice , we have to answer questions like that, and I suggest, we can do better. Here is some good news: San Antonio actually has several Luis Jimenez sculptures. One in particular, “Man on Fire,” sits outside the front patio of the McNay Museum. This seven foot bronze statue created in 1969 by El Paso native Jimenez, represents one of the earliest works in what was then an emerging field of Chicano Art.
As for the museum curators interested in the Latino art they missed in collecting during the last century, there is much to say. For the first seventy years of the 20th century, Texas Hispanic artists were not identified by ethnicity. In an upcoming exhibition at the Witte Museum, visitors will see examples of this art in the works of Jose Arpa, Xavier Gonzalez, and Porfirio Salinas. The first two artists were born in Spain and emigrated to Texas from Mexico. Their art is mainly landscapes filled with bluebonnets.
No one can say for sure where or when Chicano art first appeared in Texas. Based on a few studies and newspaper articles, we can estimate that the beginning years were between 1968—1972.
Jacinto Quirate, a graduate student in art history at the University of Texas at Austin in the late sixties, knew as much as anyone in America about the rise of the Chicano art movement. For his dissertation research, he traveled throughout the Southwest interviewing artists. He documented a total of 28 painters and sculptors who appeared in his book, Mexican American Artists published in 1973.
We do know this about the origins of Chicano art: it evolved from different communities, principally in the Southwest, but also in several cities of the Midwest, specifically Chicago and SouthBend, during the early 1970s.
Chicano art followed the rise of the Chicano Movement which we began to witness following the campaign by Cesar Chavez for justice and fair wages for farmworkers. Strong artistic images were needed to communicate support for the farmworkers movement which had its roots in California, but also emerged in South Texas and the Texas Rio Grande Valley.
Chicano activists expressed a sense of frustration at injustices. To Chicanos who engaged in painting, art was needed to compliment the writing and poetry of the new Chicano Movement.
The cities of El Paso, San Antonio and Kingsville gave the Chicano art movement its major impetus in Texas. Luis Jimenez, a sculptor and Gaspar Enriquez, an artist famous for his barrio portraits, were among the most prominent Chicano artists of the El Paso artists community. Jimenez, an art graduate of UT Austin, spent the turbulent sixties in New York City experimenting with pop art. His first Chicano art pieces can be traced to his 1969 “Man on Fire” which was one of the first Chicano art pieces to be included in the Smithsonian’s world famous art collection.
Jimenez told a writer for the Smithsonian that “Man on Fire” memorializes the disproportionately large numbers of Chicanos who were drafted into the military and sent to Southeast Asia.
Another El Paso native, Mel Casas had grown up in that border city, but moved to San Antonio in 1961 following his graduation from the UT El Paso and the University of the Americas. Casas, who taught at San Antonio College for 29 years, is known for his cleaver incorporation of English and Spanish words in his images. He also mentored many young Chicano artists.
During the late 1960s, several of the most important early Chicano artists received their training at Texas A&M Kingsville. They included Cesar Martinez, Carmen Lomas Garza, Jose Rivera, Amado Pena, and Santa Barraza. After their graduation, Martinez, Garza and Barraza moved to San Antonio where they began an association with Mel Casas, an art professor at San Antonio College.
The early works of these South Texas artists have appeared in many exhibitions, but their art is held by only a few museums. Latino artists have important things to say about life and diversity in Texas. Museum curators interested in including Latino art for their permanent collections would be wise to consider these artists and others from this region.