The large-scale public sculptures of American artist Luis Jiménez (1940–2006)—mythical, violent, political, garish, sexy, fun, and often profound—reflected their maker's vision of Mexican-American culture and his often critical views of the wider Southwestern and American cultures in which Mexican Americans live.
Jiménez worked in the industrial, unabashedly commercial medium of fiberglass, and he drew on such commonplace art traditions as Mexican wall calendar prints, cowboy imagery, and "lowrider" truck decoration. Yet his work reflected a detailed knowledge of Mexican and European artistic traditions. He made sculptures for public places, intended to be seen and understood by the thousands of ordinary people, in many cases of Latino descent, who would pass by them every day, yet he also had a strong following among sophisticated art collectors. Jiménez's art had many aspects, but perhaps its most distinctive characteristic was the way it was structured to appeal to a variety of audiences. "My working-class roots have a lot to do with it; I want to create a popular art that ordinary people can relate to as well as people who have degrees in art," Jiménez explained to Chiori Santiago of Smithsonian . "That doesn't mean it has to be watered down. My philosophy is to create a multilayered piece, like [novelist Ernest] Hemingway's Old Man and the Sea . The first time I read it, it was an exciting adventure story about fishing. The last time, I was deeply moved."
Luis Alfonso Jiménez Jr. was born in El Paso, Texas, on July 30, 1940, and grew up in the city's Segundo Barrio neighborhood. His grandfather had been a glassblower in Mexico, and his undocumented immigrant father, Luis Sr., ran a sign shop and had hoped to become a professional artist himself. He had won a nationwide art competition in the 1930s, but the promised prize money fell victim to Depression-era cutbacks at the sponsoring organization and was never delivered. Instead, he poured his creativity into signs that appeared around El Paso. "Right here was the Fiesta Drive-In," Jiménez told Santiago as he showed her around El Paso. "It had a neon sign that he made of a woman dancing in a flamenco skirt in front of two guys sitting on the ground wearing sombreros. With each flash of light in the circuit, her dress would appear to go higher and higher, until at the end the guys' hats would fly up in the air. That was typical of my dad's signs—lots of action and color."
Jiménez started working in the shop at age six, becoming familiar with industrial materials such as fiberglass and the paints that could be used on them. The family appreciated art where they found it. Sometimes on trips to Mexico they would visit museums or public buildings bearing giant historical paintings by José Orozco or one of the country's other great muralists. Jiménez, however, saw few prospects for himself in El Paso, whose atmosphere for Mexicans he likened to that of apartheid-era South Africa for blacks. He jumped at the chance to attend the University of Texas at Austin in 1960. "College was really a great experience for me, because had I not gone to Austin, I would never have had the kind of exposure to the world that I ended up having," he said in a Texas Alcalde interview quoted in the Austin American-Statesman . His father was furious when he switched his major from architecture to art, but he persisted and received a fine arts degree in 1964.
After two years spent studying art in Mexico City, Jiménez headed for New York. He felt a new sense of freedom there—in a city with people and artists from all over the world, his Chicano ethnicity did not stand out. As an unknown artist competing against hundreds or thousands of others, however, he faced long odds. He got a job as an assistant to sculptor Seymour Lipton and also worked from 1966 to 1969 for the city of New York as an arts program coordinator. His marriage to his wife, Vicky, which had begun in 1961 and produced a daughter, Elisa, broke up in 1966. He was married again the following year to Mary Wynn, but that marriage, too, ended in divorce after three years. Jiménez visited numerous galleries, trying to interest them in his work, but he got nowhere.
Finally, in 1969, Jiménez parked his truck in front of the prestigious Leo Castelli Gallery, which he had heard featured works by up-and-coming artists. This time, instead of relying on verbal salesmanship, he dragged three large sculptures through the front door. Gallery director Ivan Karp was outraged at first, but then impressed. He sent Jiménez to the Graham Gallery, which mounted the artist's first solo show. The staff there expressed surprise when Jiménez's sculptures found a ready market among art buyers, and Jiménez's career accelerated when the powerful and notoriously cranky New York Times art critic Hilton Kramer praised the Jiménez works displayed in a second Graham Gallery show.
By that time, Jiménez had begun to create works with the characteristic cross-cultural imagination that made him famous. "Man on Fire" (1969) was a sculpture of a burning man that suggested both the Buddhist monks who set themselves on fire in protest against the Vietnam War and the story of the Aztec emperor Cuauhtemoc, who underwent fire torture at the hands of Spanish conquistadors. Jiménez's American Dream (1967), now housed a the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C., depicted a sexual coupling between a woman and a Volkswagen Beetle. More controversial was Barfly (1969), a portrayal of the Statue of Liberty as an overweight beer drinker. Jiménez worked in fiberglass, which for him carried a more popular touch than marble or bronze.
It was also a material he had been working with since childhood, but at the time it was used by just a handful of artists. Jiménez's art was rooted in those early experiences. "Perhaps because of the experience of working in the sign shop, I realized early on that I wanted to do it all—paint, draw, work with wood, metal, clay," he told Santiago. Although his career was flying high, he felt disconnected from his roots. He returned temporarily to El Paso in the early 1970s, and then in 1972 drove to Roswell, New Mexico, and showed his works to art collector Donald Anderson, who offered Jiménez a job in his private museum. Jiménez moved there, and would live in New Mexico for the rest of his life. He later moved to the rural town of Hondo, living in a converted schoolhouse and hunting small animals in the dry surrounding valleys, always eating his kill. In 1985 Jiménez married Susan Brockman and had one more child, a son.
Jiménez continued to create small sculptures, paintings, and drawings, some of which were purchased by such institutions as the Museum of Modern Art and Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and the Art Institute of Chicago. Living in the Southwest, he began to concentrate on Western and Southwestern themes. His Progress series of 1974, along with other works, explored the violent reality behind conventional Western stories; Progress I showed an Indian hunter piercing a buffalo with an arrow as bloody saliva drips from the animal's mouth. Because of his growing prestige and his new regional focus, Jiménez began to win commissions for large sculptures to be mounted in public spaces in the expanding cities of the Southwest. His first public commission was for a sculpture called Vaquero , to be installed in Houston's Tranquility Park, next to the city hall.
Public sculptures, with their large audiences, often become lightning rods for controversy, and Jiménez's works, with their rough realism and sharp social agendas, were perhaps more controversial than most. The cowboy shown in Vaquero was Mexican, and he was also waving a pistol while riding on horseback. Both images were accurate historically; Jiménez meant the sculpture as a correction to traditional cowboy imagery that generally depicted cowboys as Anglo-American and sanitized the violence inherent in Western life. But city officials balked at installing the sculpture in its original location and instead suggested a location in Moody Park, in a predominantly Latino neighborhood. There, too, the sculpture encountered criticism. Jiménez met with local activists to discuss the work, however, and the result was strong community support for keeping the sculpture. The pattern of official disapproval followed by grassroots support would be repeated several times over the course of Jiménez's career. A cast of Vaquero was later installed in front of the Smithsonian Institution's Museum of American Art in Washington, D.C.
Among Jiménez's most famous sculptures was Southwest Pietà (1984), which fused Christian and Native American imagery. It showed the mythological lovers Popocatepetl and Ixtacihuatl after whom the two large volcanoes near Mexico City are named; the deceased Ixtacihuatl lies on her lover's lap, in a pose reminiscent of Michelangelo's famous sculpture of the Virgin Mary holding the lifeless body of Jesus. The figures are embedded in the back of a bald eagle. This sculpture too encountered criticism from activists. "Critics, who say it depicts the aftermath of the rape of an Indian maiden by a Spanish conquistador, say it is offensive to those of Spanish heritage," noted an Albuquerque Journal article quoted by Santiago. The sculpture was moved to Albuquerque's Martineztown neighborhood.
Some of Jiménez's sculptures addressed Mexican-American experiences directly, such as Border Crossing (1989), which showed a man carrying his family on his shoulders as he crossed the Rio Grande (Rí Bravo del Norte) into the United States. But as Jiménez's renown grew, he began to receive commissions in parts of the country with small Hispanic populations. Sodbuster , which was mounted for many years in Fargo, North Dakota, showed a muscled farmer behind two massive oxen. A Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, sculpture called Hunky—Steel Worker once again stirred controversy after some objected to the term "Hunky" as an ethnic slur on those of Eastern European descent. Jiménez had his supporters in Pittsburgh as well, but he eventually agreed to grind the word off the sculpture, which was later moved to the University of Massachusetts at Boston. Jiménez presented a rich look at country music and its culture with Honky Tonk , a large, part-plywood rendition of a bar and the interactions among its patrons.
Despite the controversies that attended his sculptures, Jiménez became widely recognized in his later years as one of America's most important sculptors. His various honors included an invitation to dinner at the White House with President George W. Bush, who reportedly admired his work. Jiménez showed up in a pair of red cowboy boots. Personal unhappiness dogged the artist's last years, however; his third marriage was dissolving, and he suffered from health problems. An eye injured in a childhood BB-gun accident had to be replaced with a glass one. Jiménez struggled to finish an enormous fiberglass-and-steel horse sculpture called Mustang that had been commissioned in 1992 by the city of Denver for its new airport; it was behind schedule and had been the subject of legal wrangling. On June 14, 2006, the sculpture slipped off a hoist and swung out of control, pinning Jiménez against a beam and severing a major artery. Twenty-eight miles from the nearest hospital, he died in the ambulance from the resultant blood loss. "To know Luis is to know that, for him, work was life," his estranged wife, Susan, told the Rocky Mountain News . "Someone said he couldn't have gone out any other way. This was the rearing Mustang; Luis died in battle, the battle of creating."
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