Four months ago Rolando Briseño flew to New York City for the opening of the New York Museum of Modern Art [MOMA] exhibition, Just Above Midtown: Changing Spaces. The exhibit, which opened on October 9th 2022, drew a near record crowd of 2,000 on opening day. The exciting collection of art, in which Briseño is a participating artist, has been described as a small slice of New York–the 70s and 80s– which the curator noted, continue to “hold a grip on the public imagination.”
Art critics loved the show. The Pace Press wrote: “When entering the exhibit, it’s as if one is taken into a new realm of art, creativity, and imagination. The way these artists used untraditional, everyday materials and created the most captivating pieces is incredible.” Briseño is one of the few Latinos in the exhibition and one of the few Chicanos ever to show at the famed MOMA.
San Antonio Humanities professor John Philip Santos saw the show last week and noted that the Briseño work is prominently featured in the entrance to the exhibit. Santos first met Briseño in the early 1980s when he wrote a story about him for the San Antonio Express News. Later, when Santos moved to New York he visited Briseño frequently in his Lower East Side New York art studio.
Briseño’s introduction to art came at an early age when his parents frequently took the family to Mexico to visit relatives. Briseño’s mother, Josefina, came to San Antonio with her mother and uncle as a teen during the Cristero Revolt of the mid 1920s. The Revolt began during the administration of President Plutarco Elias Calles who in the mid 1920s attempted to extensively curtail what he considered to be the outsized influence and power of the Catholic church. Josefina returned to Mexico City at age 18 and remained in Mexico until her marriage in 1937 to Tejano born Jimmie Briseño of San Antonio.
The Briseño family maintained their connections with their Mexican relatives and went annually to Mexico City and to several northern Mexican cities for family visits. As a young boy in the 1950s, Briseño marveled at the public art in many of Mexico’s large cities and especially in Mexico City where an ample number of marvelous murals by the great Mexican artists, Diego Rivera, Jose Clemente Orozco, and David Alfaro Siqueiros, could be found
Briseño grew up in San Antonio on Monterey Street in the Prospect Hill community, a small middle-class neighborhood west of downtown San Antonio. His career path to becoming an artist began when he enrolled at Central Catholic High School in the late 1960s. Central did not offer art classes, so he went across the street in the afternoons to Providence High School, a small academy for Catholic girls that did offer art instructions. Upon graduation in 1970 from Central, Briseño went to Mexico City over the summer to spend time at the National Mexican University [UNAM] to learn more about Latin American art.
In the fall of 1971, Briseño moved to New York City to study at The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art on a full scholarship. While in New York, he participated in an NYC’s artists apprenticeship program and met Latino artist, Pedro Lujan, a native of El Paso who had arrived in New York in the mid 1960s. Lujan’s friend, Luis Jimenez, also lived and painted in the city.
Briseño stayed one year in New York and returned to Texas to enroll in the Art Department at the University of Texas at Austin. Briseño finished his art degree in three years and remained at UT Austin another two years to earn a second degree in art history. While living in Austin, he joined the ConSafos art group and participated in his first Chicano show, a ConSafos exhibit in 1975 at the San Antonio Institute of Texan Cultures with the title, “La Movida: A Creative Perspective of Contemporary Humanities Iconography.”
Briseño moved back to New York in 1977 to study for a Masters’ degree in Fine Arts at Columbia University. While living in New York, Briseño participated in numerous art exhibitions, notably, in the Just Above Midtown Gallery. A major moment in his early art career came when the curators for the upcoming exhibit Hispanic Art in The United States: Thirty Contemporary Painters and Sculptors selected several of his works for the show at Houston’s Museum of Fine Arts that opened in 1987. Briseño’s contribution to the exhibit included large pieces which the curators also selected for their exhibit catalog, a book of the same name, published in 1987 by a major New York press.
Living in New York, Briseño suffered a major setback to his art career. The building where he had his apartment and studio burned down. All of his artwork was destroyed in the fire. He decided to move to Rome, Italy where the art gallery, Wessel O’Connor, began showing his work. The following year he received news of a Rockefeller Foundation Fellowship to study art at the Bellagio Center in Italy. In Italy he began to focus on the importance of the “cultural dinner table.” He explained “the dinner table became a spiritual place to meet with friends, make deals, and talk.” During his time in Italy he also decided to paint dinner table scenes on original tablecloths.
Trinity Professor Norma E. Cantu became aware of Briseño’s work in Italy and convinced him to collaborate on a project that led to the publication of the edited book, Moctezuma’s Table: Rolando Briseño’s Mexican and Chicano Tablescapes .
. In Moctezuma’s Table, Chicana artist Amalia Mesa Bains commented on what she called Briseño’s “Re-historization of Mexican and Chicano Culture” writing that “For over twenty years Rolando Briseño has been pursuing themes related to the table and food as representations of a life source. The works transform the materials of everyday life by integrating the metaphor of food as a cultural and political phenomenon.”
Five years ago, Briseño put a pause on his art career to provide home care assistance for his life-long partner, Angel Rodriguez-Diaz. While living in New York in the mid 1990s, Briseño met
Rodriguez-Diaz and convinced him to move to San Antonio. They bought an old grocery store building and restored the site as a highly successful art studio.
Briseño is currently archiving his work and that of Rodriguez-Diaz. Both of these talented artists have left an important legacy in San Antonio and in Latino art. Briseño’s work can be seen in the UTSA collection which I initiated; on the Trinity University campus; at the Houston Intercontinental Airport; The Austin Convention Center; the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.; Museo de Barrio, New York; the Brooklyn Museum of Art; the Blanton Museum of Art at UT Austin; and several private collections in Europe and Latin America. A retrospective of his work is scheduled for August 2024 at the Centro de Artes in San Antonio.