Modern art arrived in San Antonio with Marion McNay’s collection of several impressionist paintings in the 1920s by Claude Monet, Paul Gauguin, Vincent Van Gough, and Mary Cassatt. In 1927, she bought a Mexican masterpiece, Diego Rivera’s “Delfina Flores,” a small oil painting of a young Mexican child, the daughter of Rivera’s housekeeper. The painting had been shown at the San Antonio Art League exhibit that same year. The opening of the McNay Art Museum in 1954 represents the moment when Texas established its first modern art museum.
Modern art in San Antonio has evolved over the decades, and fortunately, not all of it is in museums. At an evening art lecture at ArtPace by Dr. Beverly Adams, Curator of Latin American Art at the Museum of Modern Art in New York [MOMA], the esteemed curator
commented on the stunning abstract mosaic mural by Mexican painter Carlos Merida located in the historic HemisFairs grounds. Merida, who had more than 40 exhibitions in the United States, is well-known to many collectors of Mexican and modern art.
Merida is considered one of the pioneers of modern Latin American art. His desire to learn about modern art began in 1912 when he left his hometown in Guatemala to explore the world of art in Europe. He resided in Paris for a few years and made friends with Pablo Picasso and Amadeo Modigliani. He returned to the Americas in 1914 and eventually settled in Mexico City in 1920 where he lived for the majority of his life.
In 1967, as a gift to the city of San Antonio, Alfred and Nancy Negley commissioned a work by Merida with the theme of the Confluence of Civilizations. Merida painted an abstract Venetian glass tile mosaic mural for the opening of Hemisfair. Merida’s mural, which is 40 by 42 feet, was later restored and moved to face the Juan O’Gorman mosaic which is on the outside wall of the Lila Cockrell Theatre.
The Merida mural is next to the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center where one can find dozens of works by local artists, including several landscape drawings by Angel Rodriguez-Diaz. Rodriguez-Diaz, a native of Puerto Rico, studied art and printmaking at the University of Puerto Rico. Between 1975 and 1980, he exhibited at the Museum of the University of Puerto Rico and the Rio Piedras campus of the University of Puerto Rico.
Rodriguez-Diaz moved to New York in 1980 to study at Hunter College where he earned an MFA. Over the next fifteen years, he participated in art shows in New York, Washington, D.C., Mexico City, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, Pittsburgh, and Chicago. A highly accomplished artist, Rodriguez-Diaz relocated to San Antonio in 1995 to live with his partner Rolando Briseno. Over the period 1995 to 2020, Rodriguez-Diaz emerged as one of America’s leading Latino artists.
Rodriguez-Diaz is known for his portraits and
self-portraits. His well-known painting of Sandra Cisneros was acquired by the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C. Ruben C. Cordova, who curated a highly successful retrospective show of the artist’s work at the Centro de
Artes in 2017, commented that Rodriguez-Diaz also made “really uniquely original works by using self-portraiture as a vehicle for social criticisms.”
I recently learned that Rodriguez-Diaz designed several metal and ceramic sculptures near the Alamo Quarry, which is close to my home. I realized that I had passed by his Beacon Hill Obelisk [on Blanco and Fulton Street] on many occasions as I drove to the Blanco Cafe or the studio of Rolando Briseno.
My wife Harriett and I also frequently passed the “Smokestacks” on the corner of Basse and Blanco on our way to the Centro Cultural Aztlan. The two “Smokestacks” facing each other from across Blanco Street are in close proximity to the former industrial site of the Alamo Cement Company. Next to the plant, the company built “Cementville,” blocks and blocks of decrepit housing for their workers, described by the residents as shacks.
Commenting on the death of Rodriguez-Diaz in March of 2023, Marco Aquino of the San Antonio Current noted that the artist “attracted international attention for his ability to combine technical proficiency with political and social commentary to create an instantly recognizable visual style.”
The Centro de Artes in Market Square is another Latino gem, less hidden today than in earlier years. An exhibit of over 200 photographs by twenty award-winning Latin American and Latino artists awaits visitors interested in the arts. Guillermina Zabala, a UTSA Professor of Practice in the Film Department, curated the collection. Zabala titled the exhibit “From SA to SA” [From San Antonio to South America]. The exhibit covers a broad range of topics including immigration, Indigenous realities, the effects of the pandemic, and women’s rights. Zabala notes that “What you’ll see in this exhibit is the connection of common themes and narrative that goes beyond borders.”
I especially liked the work of Guillermo Arias, a
Mexican photographer raised in Oaxaca and currently living in Tijuana, Mexico. Arias followed an immigrant caravan as it advanced from Central America to the U.S. border. Many of his photographs have been published in France by the Agence France Presse and cannot be reproduced in local press or other media.
Mexico can be dangerous for immigrants traveling alone, and the caravan served as a safe measure for moving through the country. Documentary photographer Veronica G. Cardenas, a video and photojournalist based
in McAllen, produced a series of striking images of immigrants crossing the Rio Grande in South Texas.
Cardenas was a middle school math teacher in South Texas when she made friends with individuals from Oaxacan villages who regularly sent families, young and old, to the United States. She joined these immigrants as they hopped on railway cars and hitched rides on sixteen-wheeler trucks. In an account published by the International Women’s Media Foundation, we learn of her experience, “If they were hungry, I was hungry. If they were thirsty, I was thirsty. If they were unsafe, I was unsafe,” Cárdenas said. “I just knew that I had to do that and that I would relate more with people – that I would really feel what they were going through.” Her dramatic photos earned her assignments and recognition in The New York Times, Rolling Stone, and Time magazine, among other publications.
Centro de Artes, which is operated by the City of San Antonio Department of Arts and Culture, is open six days a week and admission is free. The art and artists featured in this essay and other “hidden gems” are easily accessible if you look carefully around you as you explore beautiful San Antonio.