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.

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 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.

For the full experience, watch the video at the top of the page.