Category: Obituaries

On the Death of Thomas Kinkade

On Good Friday, April 7, 2012, the American artist Thomas Kinkade died of natural causes at the age of 54. He was known for his overly sentimental paintings of tranquil landscapes filled with country cottages, and for schmaltzy renditions of a pastoral Americana that never existed. He marketed himself as the “Painter of Light”, and by the end of his career labeled himself as the most collected living artist in the United States - which was no doubt true.

An oil painting indicative of Thomas Kinkade's larger body of work. Date and title unknown.

An oil painting indicative of Thomas Kinkade's larger body of work. Date and title unknown.

Kinkade published the first reproductions of his paintings in 1984, an edition of 1,000 that sold for $35 each. By the time of his death his paintings and reproductions were bringing in some $100 million dollars a year, and it has been said that his works have found a place in 10 million American homes.

As any astute observer of cultural matters will tell you, profits and popularity have little to do with quality and profundity, and the works of Kinkade serve as a perfect example of that truism.

I did not like the works of Mr. Kinkade, in fact, I found them embarrassingly mediocre and downright reactionary. In the many art circles I pass through in the city of Los Angeles, Kinkade was always the brunt of jokes, and continually held up as the very antithesis of a serious artist, an opinion undoubtedly held in professional arts circles throughout the nation. However, I will say that I believe Kinkade was sincere in his efforts, unlike so many of the charlatans found in the contemporary art world. While many of today’s artists are contemptuous of a general public unschooled in the arts, Kinkade embraced that audience; he painted images that millions of people understood and responded to in a deeply personal way. While I considered Kinkade a nemesis… his philosophy of bringing art to everyday people is something every professional artist should be concerned with.

In a brief item I wrote about Kinkade in 2004 titled Shipping Out with Thomas Kinkade, I chided the “painter of light” for producing war propaganda. I vowed it would be “the one and only time you’ll find a painting by Kinkade posted on my web log”. With his passing I am breaking that declaration, and hope this brief article adheres to the tradition of not speaking ill of the dead.

One of the great ironies of Mr. Kinkade’s career was that despite his overwhelming popularity and tremendous financial success, he was shunned by the art establishment. His works are not found in museum collections, to my knowledge he never had a museum show, and it is highly unlikely that any museum anywhere in the world will ever present a retrospective of his paintings. But here is what is so perplexing; while the elite art establishment dismisses Kinkade’s work as so much vapid kitsch (though Kinkade was unaware of his being a kitsch artist), major art museums are exhibiting and acquiring vast collections of - vapid kitsch (albeit from artists who self-identify as being kitsch). Such is the state of today’s art world.

¡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 [www.avenue50studio.com], Center for the Study of Political Graphics [www.politicalgraphics.org] and/or Tropico de Nopal [www.tropicodenopal.com]. 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.