Category: Obituaries

¡Shifra Goldman - Presente!

 Shifra Goldman in her library. Photographer unknown.

Shifra Goldman in her library. Photographer unknown.

Visionary social art historian Dr. Shifra M. Goldman died on the afternoon of September 11, 2011. She was an arts advocate, activist, researcher, critic, and author who dedicated her considerable energy and intellectual prowess in advancing an understanding of Chicano, Mexican, and Latin American art. I learned much from her extensive writings, and over the years I was privileged to meet with her on several occasions, encounters that always resulted in the liveliest conversations pertaining to socially conscious art and the role of the artist in society.

I was fortunate to first meet Shifra at an exhibition of political art I curated in Los Angeles during the 1984 Olympics. One controversial Mexican woodcut print I had on display was not signed or otherwise identified; I had no idea who had created the artwork, so I credited it in the exhibit, as well as on the flyer announcement for the show, as having been created by an “anonymous artist” (that flyer is now in the museum exhibit, Peace Press Graphics). One day Shifra attended my ‘84 Olympics exhibit, noticed the “anonymous” print, and proceeded to give me an hour-long intensive lecture on the life and times of Adolfo Mexiac (Meh-she-ack), the artist who in 1954 created the original woodcut print. This initial encounter with Shifra left me with a lasting impression of her towering intellect and profound enthusiasm for the arts.

Shifra’s acquired knowledge and expertise in her field was truly encyclopedic, but she was also a passionate advocate for the art she was so well versed in. I recall a conversation we had in 2002 concerning Frida Kahlo, the discussion taking place when the Frida Kahlo movie starring Salma Hayek was playing in U.S. movie houses. The film’s popularity resulted in Shifra suddenly becoming inundated with inquiries about Kahlo, and she told me, “I am sick of hearing about Frida Kahlo!” She had a substantive complaint; while Kahlo was transformed into a celebrity pop idol of sorts, her contemporaries, the remarkable Mexican women artists that worked in the same time frame, have all but been forgotten outside of small artistic circles in Mexico.

It was Shifra who told me about Aurora Reyes Flores, the first Mexican woman to paint a mural; Shifra instructed me regarding the works of Celia Calderón, Elena Huerta, Rina Lazo, Sarah Jimenez, Isabel Villaseñor, and a host of other incredible artists who have virtually no name recognition in the U.S. That was Shifra Goldman… ceaselessly excavating around the periphery, forever discovering hidden riches, and tirelessly sharing her treasure trove of findings with the world. Her passing is an irrevocable loss for us all, but she left her beloved community fortunes beyond imagination - the wisdom to be found in her scholarly books and articles. As long as there are people who read Shifra’s studious works, her spirit will be with us.

[The following obituary for Shifra was written by Carol A. Wells, the founder and executive director of the Center for the Study of Political Graphics, using information from an unpublished interview with Shifra Goldman done in 1992, material from the California Ethnic and Multicultural Archives, and information provided by Yreina Cervantez, Kathy Gallegos, Sybil Venegas, and Shifra’s son and daughter-in-law Eric Garcia and Trisha Dexter].

“I was never in the mainstream, never in all my life. I was born on the margins, lived on the margins, and have always sympathized with the margins. They make a lot more sense to me than the mainstream.” - Shifra M. Goldman, September 1992

Shifra Goldman (1926-2011), a pioneer in the study of Latin American and Chicana/o Art, and a social art historian, died in Los Angeles on September 11, 2011, from Alzheimer’s disease. She was 85. Professor Goldman taught art history in the Los Angeles area for over 20 years. She was a prolific writer and an activist for Chicana/o and Latino Art. In Dimensions of the Americas: Art and Social Change in Latin America and the United States, one of her award winning publications, she stated that part of her life’s work was to “deflect and correct the stereotypes, distortions, and Eurocentric misunderstandings that have plagued all serious approaches to Latino Art history since the 50s.”

Born and raised in New York by Russian immigrant parents, art and politics were central to her entire life. Goldman’s mother was a political activist and her father, a trade unionist. She attended the High School of Music and Art in New York, and entered the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) as a studio art major when her family moved to Los Angeles in the 1940’s. As an undergraduate, she was active in the student boycott against the barbers in Westwood who refused to cut the hair of the Black Veterans entering UCLA on the GI bill following the Second World War.

After leaving UCLA, she went to work with Bert Corona and the Civil Rights Congress, a national organization working to stop police brutality against African and Mexican Americans, and the deportations of Mexicans and foreign born political activists. Living in East Los Angeles, Goldman learned Spanish and became immersed in Mexican and Chicana/o culture. In the 1950’s, during the repression of the Cold War, Goldman was subpoenaed before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Two decades later, she lost her first college teaching job because a background check revealed that she had been called before HUAC.

In the 1960’s, after supporting herself and her son, Eric, as a bookkeeper for fifteen years, Goldman returned to UCLA to complete her B.A. in art. After receiving her M.A. in art history from California State University, Los Angeles (CSLA), she entered the Ph.D program at UCLA where she ran headlong into Eurocentrism when she was unable to find a chair for her doctoral committee because her topic of choice was modern Mexican art. Goldman refused to choose a more mainstream topic, and waited several years until a new faculty member finally agreed to work with her. Her dissertation was published as Contemporary Mexican Painting in a Time of Change by University of Texas Press in 1981, and republished in Mexico in 1989.  She also initiated and co-authored the bibliography and theoretical essay, Arte Chicano: A Comprehensive Annotated Bibliography of Chicano Art, 1965-1981 (1985) with Dr.Tomás Ybarra-Frausto.

Professor Goldman taught her first class in Mexican Art in 1966, possibly the only one given at that time in all of California. She later went on to a full time teaching position in art history at Santa Ana College where she taught courses in Mexican Pre-Colombian, Modern and Chicano Art for 21 years. She was one of the organizers for the Vietnam Peace Tower in 1966. Goldman also co-founded the Los Angeles chapter of Artists Call Against U.S. Intervention in Central America, in 1983, and was instrumental in bringing solidarity with the Central American struggle to the Los Angeles community.

In 1968, she began the campaign to preserve the 1932 Siqueiros mural in Olvera Street, and in 1971 approached Siqueiros for a new mural derived from the original. According to the California Ethnic and Multicultural Archives (CEMA), he agreed but the plan was thwarted by the artist’s death in 1974. His last mural in Los Angeles, Portrait of Mexico Today, 1932, was restored and moved to the Santa Barbara Museum of Art in California with Goldman’s advice and assistance.

Goldman has published and lectured in Europe, Latin America and the United States. In 1994 she became a Research Associate with the Latin American Center at UCLA and taught art history there. Goldman is also Professor Emeritus from Santa Ana College, Santa Ana, CA. In February 1992, she received the College Art Association’s (CAA) Frank Jewett Mather Award for distinction in art criticism and, in February 1993, an award from the Women’s Caucus for Art for outstanding achievement in the visual arts. She was elected to the board of the CAA, 1995-1999. In 1996 she received the “Historian of the Lions” award from the Center for the Study of Political Graphics.

The Shifra Goldman Papers, including her slides, books, and videos are part of the California Ethnic and Multicultural Archives (CEMA) at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Her extensive Chicano poster and print collection is at the Center for the Study of Political Graphics in Los Angeles. She will be remembered for her important contributions to Latin American Art scholarship and for her seminal work in Chicano/a Art History and support of the Chicano/a art community.

Professor Goldman is survived by her son Eric Garcia, daughter-in-law Trisha Dexter, and grandson Ian of Los Angeles.  In lieu of flowers, memorial donations can be made to Avenue 50 Studio [], Center for the Study of Political Graphics [] and/or Tropico de Nopal []. A memorial for Ms. Goldman will be held at 2 p.m. on October 15 at the Professional Musicians Local 47, 817 Vine St., Hollywood, CA 90038.

Gilbert “Magú” Luján: 1940-2011

Recent photo of Gilbert "Magú" Luján, taken by photographer Gil Ortiz.

Recent photo of Gilbert "Magú" Luján taken by Gil Ortiz.

On Tuesday July 26, 2011, I received the devastating news that my friend, Gilbert “Magú” Luján, died the previous Sunday at the age of 70.

My immediate reaction was to openly weep, for this was not just the loss of a personal friend and treasured colleague, but an overwhelming blow to the Chicano arts community of Los Angeles and beyond. Magú was known to one and all in that expansive circle, and while not everyone was in accord with his views, I believe we all benefited from his overall artistic vision, philosophy, and dedication to Chicanarte (Chicano art).

I cannot recall precisely when I first became aware of Magú and his works, as an artist/activist he was ever-present and highly regarded; I enjoyed his art long before I had the pleasure of making his acquaintance, which was sometime around 2003.

Appreciating my art and writings, Magú invited me to attend one of his Mental Menudo discussion groups, where Chicano artists gathered to discuss art, culture, and politics. I ended up attending several Mental Menudo gatherings, some were intimate get-togethers consisting of just a few close associates, others were mass assemblies of up to 70 or more artists; all were lively and sometime fractious dialogues regarding Chicano art and aesthetics. A natural leader due to his gregarious and personable manner, not to mention his respected standing as an artist, Magú usually chaired the meetings; however, he was also one of the most democratically minded persons I ever knew, and always sought to place decision making power in collective hands.

While artists, writers, musicians, photographers, activists and many others discussed all things Chicanismo at Magú’s Mental Menudo talks, he always avoided articulating a set definition for Chicano art. Yet, Magú definitely held his own opinion regarding what constituted Chicano art, he merely did not wish to impose that vision on others. As he once wrote to me in a 2006 e-mail; “We have a wide range of expertise and some incompetence, a broad spectrum of knowledge and some ignorance…it is a microcosm of the world. Since getting involved with this movimiento I have realized the variation of individuals make a strong body - but as a whole.” Magú believed that Chicano art was deeply rooted in the wide collective experience of Mexican-Americans, as he saw things it was a continually evolving aesthetic and it was up to all of us to create, shape, and advance the school he dedicated his life to.

El Fireboy y El Mingo - Gilbert "Magú" Luján. Color lithograph on paper. 1988. 30 x 44 in. Magú depicted himself in this self-portrait with hair aflame and in the company of one of his anthropomorphized animal familiars. Collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

El Fireboy y El Mingo - Gilbert "Magú" Luján. Color lithograph on paper. 1988. 30 x 44 in. Magú depicted himself in this self-portrait with hair aflame and in the company of one of his anthropomorphized animal familiars. Collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Magú’s own works incorporated graffiti, folk art, pop imagery, figurative realism, abstraction, and ancient Mesoamerican imagery into a whimsical and highly individualized style. On the face of it his works were pictorially naive or “primitive”, but they were dense with meaning, coded visual language, and narratives concerning place, personal chronicles, and a people’s collective history.

Soon after his invite to join the Mental Menudo circle, Magú and I became fast friends and confidantes, and over the years we shared many deep philosophical conversations regarding the world and our place in it as socially conscious artists. On many occasions Magú would telephone me from out of the blue, greeting me with a warm “Hermano!” and always wanting to talk about cultural matters; our phone conversations would sometimes last for hours. Early in our friendship Magú told me that he had once been offered a very large sum of money by the fast food giant, McDonald’s. The mega-corporation was seeking to penetrate the “Hispanic” market, and wanted to enlist Magú’s services as a well-known Chicano artist to help build confidence in the burger chain’s “brand”. He flatly refused the offer, earning my eternal respect and admiration.

Magú and I never argued, though we had our differences. Initially attracted to Chicanarte because of its innate social-political core, I always insisted that a concern for social justice and a didactic approach to art making was a strong component of the Chicano school, a point Magú in no way contested. He agreed with me that all art was political, and that in the context of our present society it could not be otherwise, but his artwork took a nuanced, seemingly “apolitical” approach to social matters. Likewise, I never disagreed with him that spiritual concerns were also a major element in Chicano art, and by “spiritual” I mean those ethereal affairs that have so captivated and befuddled humanity; questions regarding death, the search for meaning in life, and what we refer to as the “soul”. Magú and I both concurred that a profound humanism animated Chicanarte.

In 2010 Magú was invited to speak at an L.A. forum on the life and work of Mexican Muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros, an artist that long inspired the two of us. The event was titled Freedom of Speech and Censorship, and it took place on August 20, 2010 at the L.A. headquarters of the Mexican American Legal Defense & Educational Fund (MALDEF). The night prior to the event Magú made one of his periodic phone calls to me, this time longing for insights into our mutual hero Siqueiros. It was to be another of our extended phone conversations, but when it was finished Magú was eager to address the forum; he later told me the event went well, and that he spoke on the influence Siqueiros had upon contemporary art in L.A.

I could cite innumerable examples of how Magú’s art touched people, but here I will simply mention one public art commission he created for the City of Los Angeles. Some 200 of his hand-painted ceramic tiles are set into the wall at L.A.’s Metro Rail Red Line station at Hollywood & Vine, an underground train depot that services tens of thousands of people on a daily basis. Magú’s fanciful drawings on tile feature anthropomorphized animal Lowriders cruising past Aztec temples on Hollywood Boulevard, pre-Columbian speech scrolls float from their mouths as they motor through a Southern California scene decorated with all manner of Mesoamerican symbols and references. For Chicanos, the art of Mesoamerica in general and the art of the Aztecs in particular, stands as a root aesthetic – this cannot be overstated, and it must be taken into account when considering the fanciful art of Gilbert “Magú” Luján.

It pleases me greatly to know that untold millions of people will view Magú’s Metro artworks for as long as the rail-line is in existence. If for no other reason he should be known for that particular installation, and the city is blessed to have it.

 Magú's cover art for Con Safos Magazine - Volume 2, Number 7, winter of 1971.

Magú's cover art for Con Safos Magazine - Volume 2, Number 7, winter of 1971.

One of his earliest marks as a public artist was made as a student when he contributed artworks to Con Safos Magazine, an influential underground 1960’s publication in L.A. that became a voice of el movimiento, the burgeoning Mexican-American cultural and political movement. Con Safos is Chicano slang (or Calo), for “the same to you” or “back at you”. Decades before “graffiti art” became just another hot commodity in the art market, Chicano graffiti writers would sign their creations with “C/S” (short for con safos), basically stating “I am impervious to your insults”. It was that defiant spirit that filled the pages of the original Con Safos Magazine.

The winter 1971 edition of Con Safos (available here in .pdf format), published a drawing by Magú as its cover - an illustration for the publication’s serialized presentation of The Autobiography of a Brown Buffalo, a biographical story by Chicano lawyer, Oscar Zeta Acosta. The issue also included a reprinted article from the Los Angeles Times, Mexican American’s Problems With The Legal System Viewed, authored by Times reporter Ruben Salazar, who had recently been killed by the L.A. Sheriff’s Department during their attacks on the National Chicano Moratorium March against the Vietnam war in East L.A. on August 29, 1970. The issue also published Magú’s essay, El Arte del Chicano (Art of the Chicano), which in part stated:

“There are some who would say that the Chicano experience is lacking in those elements that lend themselves to universal artistic expressions. This is a narrow and shortsighted view. One only has to examine the barrio to see that the elements to choose from are as infinite as any culture allows.”

Magú’s pointed commentary is as pertinent today as it was in 1971. Already in publication before East L.A.’s historic Chicano student walk-outs of 1968, Con Safos - through its artworks, poetry, provocative essays, and photography - helped set the tone for the social explosions of that period, and Magú was there from the beginning. The rest, as it is said, “is history”.

On August 13, 2011, the dA Center for the Arts in Pomona, California will present a major retrospective of Magú’s art, called Cruisin’ Magulandia: A Benefit for the Preservation of a Legacy. The exhibition and sale of Magú’s paintings, prints, drawings, and sculptures will continue until August 30, with all proceeds going towards the preservation of Luján’s legacy and estate. The Los Angeles Times has published an obituary on Magú, and you can learn more about the artist by viewing his website, Magulandia. Not to be missed, a short but quite wonderful interview with Magú can be found on Vimeo. In closing, I offer an ancient Aztec poem to brother Magú and all those who mourn his passing:

My heart listens to a song:
I start to weep; I am wracked with sorrow,
We walk among the flowers:
We have to leave this earth:
We are living on borrowed time:
We shall go to the House of the Sun!
Let me wear a garland of many-colored flowers:
Let me hold them in my hands;
Let me flower in my garlands!
We have to leave this earth:
We are lent to each other:
We shall go to the House of the Sun!

Lucian Freud: RIP

On July 20, 2011 famed realist painter Lucian Freud died in London at the age of 88.

The Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) held a major retrospective of works by Freud in 2003. Consisting of 110 paintings, prints, and drawings, it was the one and only exhibit held at MOCA that I was ever impressed with. While the exhibition was still running the co-editor of CounterPunch magazine, Jeffrey St. Clair, published a review of the show. Titled The Paintings of Lucian Freud: Flesh and Its Discontents, the essay is a close approximation of my own feelings regarding the artist. An excerpt:

” (….) from the beginning, he cast his die with the figurative painters and against the mainstream of the abstractionists. It was a risky move and perhaps he wasn’t all that confident about it. Even today there are those who call Freud hopelessly out of date. You can hear the chiding: Too serious. Not ironic. Too much technique. And the concession must be made. Freud is very serious; his irony is dark and far from the flippant excretions of a Jeff Koons; and his is a master technician, cribbing from sources as varied as Egyptian painting and sculpture, Durer, Rembrandt, Rubens, Chardin, Velasquez, Cezanne, Courbet and Bonnard.”

 Dead heron - Lucian Freud. Oil on canvas. 1945.

Dead heron - Lucian Freud. Oil on canvas. 1945.

As if echoing St. Clair’s words the Chief executive of London’s Royal Academy of Arts, Charles Saumarez Smith, commenting on the death of the painter, said that Freud’s passing marked “the end of an era”, and now that Freud is gone, “it is as though the figurative tradition has gone with him.”

Mr. Saumarez Smith went on to say of those artists who continue to carry the banner of figurative realism, “it is hard to argue that these artists are part of the mainstream.”

Naturally I beg to differ. While Saumarez Smith may believe Freud’s “surprisingly unfashionable focus on the human form” to be a thing of the past, the discipline has outlasted the complete dominance of abstract expressionism; I have no doubt figurative realism will also survive the whims and excesses of today’s postmodernist art.

In Praise of Gil Scott Heron

Gil Scott Heron, 1971

Gil Scott Heron, 1971

Gil Scott Heron died on May 27, 2011 at the age of 62. Some obituaries have referred to him as “The Founding Father of Rap”, but as the BBC put it in their coverage of Heron’s passing, “He was quick to reject some of the more grandiose epithets such as the ‘Godfather of rap.’” I think it proper to refer to Heron as a griot. In the traditions of West Africa, a griot is an itinerant musician and storyteller who keeps alive a people’s history through song and poetry. That was certainly Heron’s role in life, and his works had an enormous influence on my generation.

In explaining his artistry, he once said; “For the longest kind of a time, I have felt that people who said that they did not care anything about politics or were not interested in it were making a political statement in and of itself. The new poetry that evolved in our society, concerned the fact that folks wanted to use both words that people could understand, and well as talk about ideas that people could understand.” I shared Heron’s belief that art, in no small sense, sprang from an awareness of the world, and his music was the iconic soundtrack for my life as a politically engaged artist throughout the 1970’s and beyond.

I first heard Gil Scott Heron in 1970, when he released his debut album, A New Black Poet: Small Talk at 125th and Lenox, a searing piece of vinyl that castigated American consumerism, racism, and pseudo revolutionaries. The album contained Whitey on the moon, a poem set to music that brought attention to the contradictions of spending vast amounts of money on the space race while social and racial inequality festered in America’s urban slums. But the album’s real gem was The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, a raging spoken word piece set to conga drums that damned America’s commercial media and advertising empires and the somnolent effect they have over a confused population…

“The revolution will not be right back after a message
about a white tornado, white lightning, or white people.
You will not have to worry about a dove in your
bedroom, a tiger in your tank, or the giant in your toilet bowl.
The revolution will not go better with Coke.
The revolution will not fight the germs that may cause bad breath.
The revolution will put you in the driver’s seat.
The revolution will not be televised, will not be televised,
will not be televised, will not be televised.
The revolution will be no re-run brothers;
The revolution will be live.”

The Revolution Will Not Be Televised became anthemic in a way, its truth immediately grasped by all those who imagined a different type of society, this is still true today. The song’s title has entered the English lexicon, defining the chasm between real social events and the fallacious spectacles broadcast by capitalist mass communications. As Heron himself put it in an 1990s era interview;

“The first change that takes place is in your mind, you have to change your mind before you can change the way you live and the way you move. So when we said that the revolution will not be televised, we were saying that the thing that’s going to change people is something that no one will ever be able to capture on film, it will be something that you see and all of a sudden you realize - ‘I’m on the wrong page’, or ‘I’m on the right page but I’m on the wrong note, and I’ve got to get in sync with everyone else to understand what’s happening in this country.’”

After his 1970 debut album I enthusiastically followed Heron’s artist output, which matured dramatically. But it was his 1975 album, First Minute of a New Day, that really got my attention. The jazz and blues oriented masterwork was a collaboration with longtime musical associate Brian Jackson. It heralded the African Liberation struggle then blazing in our collective consciousness with an infusion of African rhythms and instruments held in a jazz and blues structure. The record included the song Winter In America.

Winter In America was a devastatingly melancholy ode to the true condition of the United States. The song addressed the entropy many were sensing at the time; Nixon’s Watergate debacle was in the news but there was no resolution, America’s war on Vietnam was being lost and would totally collapse in ‘75; the powerful Black Liberation, student, and antiwar movements were dwindling. “And I see the robins perched in barren treetops, watching last-ditch racists marching across the floor, but just like the peace sign that vanished in our dreams, never had a chance to grow.” Oddly enough, Heron’s elegy seems all too relevant to our current situation.

First Minute of a New Day also contained the evocative Guerilla, and We Beg Your Pardon America, a scathing indictment that lambasted the pardoning of Nixon by Gerald R. Ford - the only U.S. president recognized by official circles not to have been elected. For many of us, the righteousness expressed in Heron’s spoken word piece would be the only semblance of justice to come out of the Watergate fiasco. The album also contained the song, Ain’t No Such Thing as Superman, a still relevant warning to those who believe that a political superhero will come to our rescue.

If First Minute of a New Day put us in touch with the African Liberation Movement, then the 1976 From South Africa To South Carolina spurred us all into action. The album contained Johannesburg, a call to actively support the freedom fighters then battling the vile racist South African apartheid regime. “Well I hate it when the blood starts flowin’, but I’m glad to see resistance growin’.” Listening to that song for the first time I knew I would become actively involved in the anti-apartheid movement; some years later when distributing my Free South Africa poster at demonstrations against apartheid rule, protestors chanted a refrain from Heron’s song; “What’s the word - Johannesburg!” (a video of Heron’s live performance of Johannesburg can be viewed on the BBC’s website).

There are many other brilliant musical diatribes from Heron that are etched upon my mind, his caustic Jose Campos Torres (1979), the anti-nuclear Shut Em Down (1980), the anti-Reagan Re-Ron (1983). Heron’s discography is much too extensive to list here, and I have not even mentioned his most recent recordings; those unfamiliar with his output are urged to take a closer look. His best works will no doubt become eternal, and it is difficult to imagine that there will ever be another Gil Scott Heron - yet times demand that other singer/songwriters step forward to play the role of griot.

The Death of Franklin Rosemont

ARSENAL: Surrealist Subversion - Cover art for the 1989 edition. Franklin Rosemont was editor of the journal, which hailed from Chicago, Illinois.

ARSENAL: Surrealist Subversion - Cover art for the 1989 edition. Franklin Rosemont was editor of the journal, which hailed from Chicago, Illinois.

Though he passed away last April, I feel compelled to note the death of the American surrealist artist, historian, author, poet, and activist, Franklin Rosemont (Oct. 2, 1943 – April 12, 2009). The few press accounts taking note of his passing wax lyrical about a colorful figure whose journey through the late 20th century put him in intimate contact with the counterculture of the U.S., from the radical Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) to the Beat poets and beyond. But Rosemont will surely be remembered for his role in familiarizing Americans with the actual founder of surrealism – the French poet André Breton.

 On my bookshelf there are two works by Rosemont. The first being, What Is Surrealism?: Selected Writings What is Surrealism: Selected Writings of André Breton, a compilation of essays and theoretical writings from Breton that were brought together and first published by Rosemont in 1978. Already well versed in the tenets of the surrealist school, I acquired Rosemont’s tome the year of its publication, and reading it cover to cover was nothing less than revelatory. What is Surrealism is the antidote for all those suffering under the illusion that Salvador Dalí best exemplified the surrealist movement. No greater tribute to Rosemont can be offered than to quote from the foreword he wrote for What is Surrealism;

“I hope no one seriously expects surrealism to have any positive meaning except to those who are aware that the existing order cries out to be negated and transformed. That there is no solution to the decisive problems of human existence outside proletarian revolution is, for surrealism, a first principle that is beyond argument. Nothing would be more difficult than reconciling surrealism to bourgeois culture.

I know that everything continues normally today, as yesterday, as if life were an IOU punctuated now and then with a yawn, a shrug of the shoulders or a punch in the nose. Immobilized beneath a seemingly inflexible net of counterfeit hopes and fears - hopeless and fearless at the same time before a destiny that could hardly be more ruinous to the free development of the human personality - men and women go on fabricating illusory foresights and pitiful afterthoughts as if nothing more important were at stake than the price of cigarettes.

But in this grim charade, fortunately, nothing is foolproof. A split second is sufficient to say no, to let the lions escape, to open the wounds of reality, to stop the assembly line, to set out for the unknown. Accidents do happen. With surrealism the phoenix of anticipation emerges unfailingly from the ashes of everyday distraction, rising defiantly on wings of vitriol and amber, putting to shame the musty compromises that provide the glue with which the existing agony adheres to so many passing thoughts. Dispelling the mirage of futility, traversing the mirror of fatality, surrealism is resolved to stop at nothing.”

The other book by Franklin Rosemont that has a place in my library is an edition of ARSENAL: Surrealist Subversion, a compendium of surrealist poetry, art, diatribes, and histories published by Black Swan Press and edited by Rosemont. Whenever I crack open the large paperback brimming with bizarre dream-like graphics, nonsensical prose, and frenzied invective against “reality” - I am always heartened. I acquired this specific edition of the long running periodical when it was published in 1989, eighteen years after the first copy of ARSENAL made its appearance in print. While the journal is filled with ecstatic giddiness and lunacy, it is far from being frivolous, in fact it possesses the steely earnestness and intensity one expects from a revolutionary tract. Again, Rosemont’s own words best serve as his eulogy - these taken from “Now’s The Time”, the opening editorial he penned for the ‘89 volume of ARSENAL;

“Most assuredly, if surrealism continues to develop it will be because surrealists continue to develop it. And even if every one of those who call themselves surrealists today threw in the towel, the fight would hardly be over. Surrealism’s questions, in any case, remain defiantly and even horribly open - the festering wounds all over the bloated body of christian-capitalist hypocrisy - and quite unphased by the would-be curative incantations of those whose job it is to reassure society’s self-appointed managers that surrealism, like working class emancipation, is safely obsolete.

Even were we to join the inane conformists’ chorus that sings surrealism’s death, it would make little difference, for those who resolve to pursue these questions must sooner of later discover for themselves that inevitably it lives again, albeit perhaps in forms not immediately apprehensible to the pontifically glib horn-tooters of total counter-revolution.

(….) Surrealism continues to advance today, and to make a difference, because it refuses to compromise with unfreedom, because it holds true to its own irreducibly wild and untamable means, outside all repressive frameworks. Anti-statist, anti-sexist, anti-racist, anti-religious, anti-anthropocentric, anti-academic, allergic to Western civilization and its values and institutions, surrealism passes with flying colors what John Muir, one of the greatest of American presurrealists, called the test of the wilderness. ‘And how do we reach this truly free society?’ Start by dreaming. Those who don’t know how to cross their bridges before they come to them will never get anywhere.”

Frank Cieciorka: RIP

On November 24, 2008, artist Frank Cieciorka (che-CHOR-ka) died from emphysema at the age of 69. Starting in the 1980s he began to be recognized for his watercolor paintings of northern California landscapes, but it would be one of his early graphic art designs that assured him a place in history.

The iconic clenched fist has long been a symbol of the international left, its usage going back at least until 1917. But the symbol was transformed and revitalized in 1965 by Cieciorka, whose rendition of the pictogram struck a cord with a new generation of activists involved in the civil rights and antiwar struggles.

Photo of Frank Cieciorka

[ Cieciorka as a young Freedom Summer volunteer in Mississippi, 1964. Photo, estate of Frank Cieciorka ©. Source - Veterans of the Civil Rights Movement website. ]

A New Yorker, Cieciorka came to California in 1957 to attend the arts program at San Jose State College. Upon graduation in 1964 he became a volunteer in Freedom Summer, the major civil rights campaign launched in ‘64 to help African Americans register to vote in Mississippi. That same year the Ku Klux Klan kidnapped, tortured, and murdered three Freedom Summer volunteers - James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman. From 1964-65 Cieciorka also served as a field secretary in Mississippi and Arkansas for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC - pronounced “snick”), one of the primary civil rights organizations of the day.

Frank Cieciorka's iconic clenched fist graphic

[ Hand - Frank Cieciorka. Woodcut. 1965. "One of the most striking symbols to have come out of the turbulent 60s".]

Cieciorka returned to the San Francisco Bay area in 1965, and created a woodcut print inspired by his experiences as a civil rights activist in the deep South. His image, simply titled Hand, made its way onto posters and flyers, but according to the artist, “It wasn’t until we made it into a button and tossed thousands of them into crowds at rallies and demonstrations that it really became popular”. I wore one of Cieciorka’s buttons as a sixteen-year-old, and I still regard his woodcut print as one of the most striking symbols to have come out of the turbulent 60s.

For more on the life and times of Frank Cieciorka, visit Lincoln Cushing’s Docs Populi.

RIP: Ray Lowry - Clash “War Artist”

Artist Ray Lowry passed away this past October 14, 2008, at the age of 64. While touring America with The Clash in 1979, Lowry was nicknamed the “War Artist” by the band’s front man, Joe Strummer. The Clash had invited Lowry to tour with them as an official artist when the group made its first incursion into the land of Coca-Cola, and the resulting sketches made by the punk war correspondent were striking.

Artwork by Ray Lowry

[ The Clash - Ray Lowry. An artwork from Lowry’s sketchbook, made while the artist toured America with The Clash in 1979. Signed Limited Edition prints of artworks from Lowry’s Clash sketchbook, are available from the See Gallery. ]

I was at the February 9th, 1979 premiere concert at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium when The Clash assaulted Los Angeles during their “Give ‘Em Enough Rope Tour”. Hollywood’s original punk venue and den of iniquity, The Masque, closed for that evening; left hanging on its dilapidated front door was a hand-scrawled sign that informed the club’s nonconformist regulars that everyone had gone to see “the only band that matters”. It seemed that every punk within 500 miles attended that landmark concert, which also featured special guest stars Bo Diddley and The Dils (still one of my favorite original 1977 punk bands from San Francisco).

Thinking back to that wonderfully cacophonous show, I cannot help but think of Ray Lowry. He was roaming the concert hall, all the while furiously drawing away in his sketchbook, trying to capture the rage and excitement of it all. Upon returning home to the UK after the tour, he would design the album jacket for London Calling, the Clash’s third album. It would become one of his better known images, a brash tribute to Elvis Presley’s first album, linking punk to early rock and roll. Later in life Lowry would publish, “The Clash: Up-Close and Personal” a book of sketches made while touring in America with the band in 1979.

London Calling Elvis Presley

[ LEFT: London Calling - Album cover for The Clash, 1979. Designed by Ray Lowry; photograph by Pennie Smith. RIGHT: Elvis Presley - Album cover, 1956. Designed by Colonel Tom Parker; photograph by William S. Randolph. ]

But Lowry was much more than just an artist who worked with The Clash. He was an accomplished cartoonist, illustrator, and writer who contributed works to numerous English publications, including The Face, Punch, The Guardian, and New Musical Express (NME). In fact, I first become familiar with Lowry’s cartoons as they ran in NME during the early 1970s. Lowry was also a painter, and a retrospective of his urban landscapes opened in October, 2008, for a month long run at the See Gallery in Lancashire, England. Sadly, it has all come to a most untimely end - but I will never forget the works of “War Artist” Ray Lowry.

Michael Rossman: All Of Us Or None

It is not likely that many people personally knew, or even heard of, Michael Rossman - yet for those even remotely interested in the alternative culture and politics that thrived in Berkeley, California in the late 1960s, Michael’s spirit looms large. I consider myself fortunate to have known him - however briefly - and to be able to say that he was a friend. He passed away at his wife’s home in Berkeley on May 12, 2008, at the age of 68, after a short but heroic battle with a rare form of acute leukemia.

Michael Rossman

[ Michael Rossman - Photograph by Lincoln Cushing, 2002. A candid shot of Michael working at his All Of Us Or None (AOUON) archive. ]

I first became aware of Michael while visiting the University of California Berkeley in the summer of 1984. While on campus I discovered Know Your Enemy, a small exhibit of Anti-Vietnam War Movement posters then showing at the university’s Heller Gallery. The poster display was curated by the All Of Us Or None (AOUON) archive. Later I asked some of my acquaintances in the Berkeley area if they had heard of AOUON, and I was promptly put in contact with Michael - who had founded the archives in 1977.

Michael invited me to his home where he gave me access to his remarkable poster collection. We became fast friends, talking until the wee hours of the morning about all aspects of poster making and collecting. He was an animated, passionate, enthusiastic, poet philosopher who could seemingly discuss anything under the sun with aplomb. Unsurprisingly he talked about the social history of posters with great expertise, but I was astonished at how naturally he discussed everything from science and literature to political theory. As a matter of fact, he taught science to school children during the last thirty years of his life. I remember our first get together ending with Michael pontificating on the joys of identifying and collecting wild edible mushrooms - complete with his detailed descriptions of various species of fungi.

By the time of Michael’s death, his All Of Us Or None (AOUON) archive had expanded to some 25,000 domestically produced political posters and flyers from the post World War II period. Aside from L.A.’s Center for the Study of Political Art (CSPG), and Lincoln Cushing’s Docs Populi archives, only the Hoover Institution maintains as large a holding of domestic posters from earlier eras (approximately 8,700), and of these, few are from the period Michael focused on in his collection). The core of the AOUON archive focused on the poster renaissance centered in the San Francisco Bay area from 1965 to the present. But the archive’s holdings are also national and international in scope, with one-quarter of its posters coming from outside of California and another 2,000 having been produced internationally. The breathtaking collection well represents all branches of America’s modern dissident cultural and political movements.

Poster - Can’t Jail The Revolution

[ You Can’t Jail The Revolution - Anonymous Serigraphic street poster 1969. Collection of AOUON. The following caption was written by Michael Rossman: "Urging support for leaders of demonstrations at the 1968 Democratic Convention, the poster quotes a notorious news-photo of U.S. sprinters giving the Black Power salute on the Olympic victory stand. The image then evoked the lone Black defendant, bound and gagged in court. In retrospect, it reflects the impact of the politicization of sports, and the Left's fetishism of Black militance." ]

Over the years Michael and I kept in touch through casual correspondence and occasional pop in visits. In the late 80s he came to see me at my Los Angeles studio, where I donated a number of my early prints to his archive. It was during that visit that I learned of Michael’s prominent role in Berkeley’s Free Speech Movement of 1964-1965, as he relayed that history to me in his typically dynamic and energetic manner. When he was finished recounting the tale of America’s burgeoning student movement - I felt as though I had been there.

It was only a few years after Michael’s visit that director Mark Kitchell’s documentary film Berkeley In The Sixties was released. In my opinion it is the finest movie ever made about the protest movement of the 60s, and luckily for us all, Michael appeared in it as one of 15 veteran Berkeley activists whose interviews provided the narrative backdrop to the movie’s historic footage. Michael’s insights and observations helped to make Berkeley In The Sixties the superlative filmic treatment of the period that it is. In 1999 Michael also played a central role in establishing the online Free Speech Movement archive, another invaluable source for historians and activists.

Until just recently I corresponded with Michael by e-mail, exchanging dispatches on the state of contemporary art and its possibilities - but the e-mails stopped coming from him a while back. I knew that because of his failing health he had restricted his immediate contacts to family and the very closest of friends. Still, he managed to find the strength to stay in touch with his extended family through the use of his personal web log, where he kept his associates across the globe abreast of his deteriorating condition. He did so with surprising gusto and dignity, managing to turn his end into a learning process for all. What struck me most about Michael’s final days was the calmness with which he faced his certain onrushing death - he confronted it like a lion. I would add that type of courage to all the remarkable traits that were a part of this dear man, his intellectual curiosity, open mindedness, compassion, gentleness, and belief in humanity.

Without crudely idolizing Michael - goodness knows how I detest hero worship - I attest to his having been an exemplar amongst the veterans of the 60s “movement”. He was in fact the very embodiment of egalitarian counter-cultural ideals and values. Now that he is no longer around, and I need not worry about embarrassing him, I can say in all honesty that our greatest tribute to Michael Rossman would be to live like he did.

[ UPDATE: A public memorial will be held for Michael in Berkeley on Monday, June 23, 2008, from 4 to 8 p.m. at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Berkeley, in Kensington. Everyone is welcome to attend. ]

Robert Rauschenberg 1925-2008

Robert Rauschenberg died at his home on Captiva Island, Florida on May 12, 2008, at the age of 82. Unquestionably there will be many eulogies written about the iconoclastic artist, and there’s not much that I can add in noting his accomplishments or his passing - save for the following. Rauschenberg always impressed me as being one of the more significant artists associated with the Pop Art movement, and my reason for feeling this is encapsulated in two well known quotes from him; “It is impossible to have progress without conscience” and “The artist’s job is to be a witness to his time in history.”

Collage by Robert Rauschenberg

[ Signs - Robert Rauschenberg. Collage. 1970. The artist captured the apocalyptic 60s by depicting the oppression of African Americans, the war in Vietnam, the death of Blues rocker Janis Joplin, and the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy, and Martin Luther King Jr. ]

Rauschenberg stood apart from his Pop Art colleagues in using his skills to draw attention to social and political issues. His art activism certainly had its shortcomings, nevertheless, his many attempts at fusing art with social concerns were noteworthy. During the course of his life he created artworks that addressed the issues of war, racial equality, nuclear disarmament, apartheid, economic development, artist’s rights, and environmentalism - themes that all too few of today’s artists seem willing to tackle. While mainstream accounts of his life and art will focus upon his being a modern art innovator - reducing his achievements to mere questions of style and aesthetics - we should not forget that Rauschenberg was also a citizen artist deeply concerned with how his art could help change the world for the better.

Collage by Robert Rauschenberg

[ Earth Day - Robert Rauschenberg. Collage. 1970. As an outgrowth of 60s activism, Earth Day was first proclaimed and celebrated in the United States on April 22, 1970, when some 25 million Americans rallied across the nation to demand a cleaner, healthier planet and an end to environmental destruction. Rauschenberg created this poster, the first of its kind, to popularize and celebrate the observance. At the time the American bald eagle, symbol of the nation, was endangered with extinction due to pesticides - so Rauschenberg made the bird the focal point of his collage. ]

Rauschenberg officially announced his Rauschenberg Overseas Culture Interchange ( ROCI - pronounced “Rocky”), at the United Nations in 1983. It was a self-financed project that had as its mission the promotion of international peace and cultural exchange through collaborative art making. Under the auspices of ROCI, Rauschenberg visited and worked with artists in countries around the globe, using materials and skills found in each nation to create arworks that were donated to and exhibited in each host country. The culminating 1991 ROCI exhibit took place at the National Gallery of Art in Washington as part of the museum’s 50th anniversary celebration. The project would eventually visit 22 countries, including Mexico, Japan, Tibet, Venezuela, Germany, and Malaysia. It should also be noted that Rauschenberg’s ROCI project openly defied the Reagan administration’s Cold War policies by visiting the Soviet Union, Cuba, and China - but it would be in the South American nation of Chile where the artist would encounter the terror and dread behind the realpolitik of the Cold War.

In the book Robert Rauschenberg: Breaking Boundaries, author Robert Saltonstall Mattison wrote extensively about Rauschenberg’s harrowing and controversial days in Chile. On September 11, 1973, the democratically elected socialist government of Salvador Allende was overthrown in a military coup engineered by the U.S. government - bringing the dictator General Augusto Pinochet to power. Thousands of civilians were executed or simply “disappeared” by the military, and the bloodletting was still going on in 1984 when Rauschenberg arrived in Santiago, Chile. The artist recalled, “Armed soldiers were everywhere, and I was startled by the sounds of gunfire in the streets.” Rauschenberg had entered the country for a fifteen day visit just as Pinochet had declared a state of siege to crush popular protests.

According to Mattison, Rauschenberg “traveled to Chile without fully realizing the degree to which the dictator Augusto Pinochet’s repressive policies were tearing the country apart”, a fact that points to the artist’s naiveté. Rauschenberg “soon encountered students and political activists. He often met them secretly in church sanctuaries, where they told him of friends and relatives who had ‘disappeared.’ As a result of these experiences and against the advice of his staff, Rauschenberg went on his own to the outskirts of Santiago to photograph everyday life in the slums.” To his credit, Rauschenberg refused to be seen as a representative or agent of the U.S. government, and he shunned State Department help in arranging ROCI project details. It should be recalled that at the time the Reagan administration was moving to normalize its relationship with the military regime of Chile.

Many pro-democracy proponents viewed Rauschenberg’s trip to Chile as inopportune, and Donald Saff, a ROCI staff member in charge of logistics, recollected: “I never experienced as much anger about any artist’s project with which I have been involved as about ROCI Chile. The reactions from friends, fellow artists, and others was absolute outrage that Bob would stage a show with Pinochet in control.” Personally I would have counted myself amongst the critics, but Rauschenberg saw his Chilean exhibit as a radical gesture that would eventually help to open the path to democracy. Perhaps it did, though I’m still inclined to think of the ROCI Chile project as a mistake and one of the artist’s political shortcomings. On the other hand, I can’t deny Rauschenberg’s obvious sympathies for the people of Chile as they struggled for a free and open society.

While tributes to Rauschenberg recall the boldness with which he toppled art world sacred cows, let’s not forget the spirit he displayed in navigating the treacherous seas of national and international politics. If more artists today were willing to acknowledge and address social issues in their works - we’d all be in much better shape.