Luis Cruz Azaceta
Since the 1970s, the paintings and drawings of the Cuban-American artist Luis Cruz Azaceta have reflected on some of society’s great modern tragedies.
About Luis Cruz Azaceta
Luis Cruz Azaceta was born on Easter Sunday, 1942. His parents were of Basque and Asturian ancentry; "Azaceta" means "from A to Z" in the Basque alphabet. He grew up in the Marianao section of Havana, where his father worked for 33 years for the Cuban Air Force as an airplane mechanic; his mother was a housewife. At the Sabrina Garrido Academy, Azaceta showed artistic talent, but it was not indulged.
He always wanted to be a pilot and he had barely started instrument training when Batista fled from Cuba. The fanaticism of both sides of the Revolution appalled him and he decided to try to emigrate. It was in 1960; he stood in line three days and nights at the American Embassy and received a visa to settle permanently in the United States. He came alone and his parents and sisters joined him several years later.
He settled in Hoboken, New Jersey and worked in a trophy factory for three years before he began to use his artistic talents, he began taking life-drawing classes at an adult education center in Queens while working during the day in various factory jobs. Eventually, in 1966 he enrolled full time at the School of Visual Arts, working nights as a clerk in the library of New York University. He kept the job until 1980. He had received a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in 1969. Then he went on to win a series of prestigious grants, including a Guggenheim and two from the National Endowment for the Arts.
In 1975, he made a list of galleries in which he would like to show his work. He visited the Allan Frumkin Gallery, casually dressed and carrying some of his canvases, although he knew well the traditional procedure, and Mr. Frumkin accepted his work. He has been associated with Frumkin ever since.
In 1980, he moved to the West Coast, where he taught at the University of California at Davis and then at Berkeley. But his work started to lose its power, its edge and he moved back to New York.
Azaceta is a fast, prolific painter who never suffers blocks, never scuffles with the empty canvas as writers sometimes do with the empty page. There is always some new social ill to record, and some new way to portray it.
My friend hates his father.
His father hates his mother.
His mother is leaving his father.
I look at my watch. I stretch a canvas.
I make some coals.
I use a two-and-a-half inch brush.
I listen to Gregorian chants and Cuban music.
I change my style.
I use acrylic paint.
I nail plywood into the canvas.
I look at myself in the mirror.
I kill a roach.
I make a painting of a barricade.
Tomorrow is coming.
Tomorrow is today.
Today is now.
Now is present.
For nearly half a century, Luis Cruz Azaceta's drawings and paintings have dared to face some of society's most difficult tragedies head on. Raised in 1950s Cuba, by the time an 18-year-old Azaceta moved to New York City, the violence, injustice, and hardship he had witnessed during the Batista regime and subsequent revolution had left a permanent mark on his worldview, and on his work.
Azaceta: I don't like sentimental paintings. I like them from reality, face on. And my work has always been like that, very direct. I don't use props in a way to diminish the impact that I want in a work of art. I like paintings that jump out of the walls. You know, I don't like harmonies. I like cacophonies in the painting—things that sometimes doesn't fit together, to create a visual dissonance in the work. To me, art is a voice and is also a weapon. That with it, we can change certain aspects of society.
Early in his career, Azaceta developed a series of works addressing the human condition. From then on, his subject matter would reflect society's various crises as they arose. From the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s to Hurricane Katrina, which, in 2005, decimated New Orleans—where Azaceta and his family had been living since 1992. Two more recent works responded to the Sandy Hook shootings and the Boston bombing.
Azaceta: Emotion is like how cruel we are to each other. We haven't changed. We're still animal for thousands of years.
Though initially his work was more representational, since the 1990s, Azaceta's style has become less literal. He says this is partly thanks to the barrage of violent images, to which we're all constantly being exposed.
Azaceta: What I do is create all this kind of abstractions to engage the viewer. Just by the title of Aleppo Alone, already being a whole association of things that people have seen on television and the devastation that is happening in that country. So I don't even have to depict people running, or people going into exile, or people crying, or people get dead on the streets, and all that kind of stuff. I did that back in the ‘80s. But the new work is all abstractions, and I prefer it that way.
Now 74 years old, Luis Azaceta has nothing left to prove. His work is in some of the nation's most important collections, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Smithsonian. Still, the painter says he's far from finished.
Azaceta: To me, this is like a religion. I don't miss one day. Actually, when I go on vacation, or visit my family in New York, or go for a show for two or three days, I'm already antsy to come back and work at the studio. So, you know, I would like to die maybe holding a brush in my hands.