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Dancing With Death

Renowned artist, former UA teacher Luis Jiménez is killed by his own creation

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When Terry Etherton moved his gallery from Fourth Avenue to downtown in 1988, he knew exactly which artist would make the splash he wanted for the new space--Luis Jiménez.

Jiménez, then a professor at the UA, was already internationally renowned for his gigantic fiberglass sculptures depicting figures of the Southwest borderlands. Borrowing from a hot-rod aesthetic, Jiménez made his muscular vaqueros, dancers and border crossers in the red-hot colors of Mexican folk art. He also made beautifully rendered drawings and prints, conjuring up dancers in the barrio and migrants struggling across the Rio Grande.

"I love his work," Etherton says. "It's so hyper-exaggerated. It might seem garish to some people, but it's beautifully executed. It's so much a part of his culture; it's like low-rider cars painted in 50 layers of glittering paint."

Jiménez, who died last week, was "warm, generous and funny," Etherton says, and his sense of ease extended to deadlines. Five days before the big opening, no works had materialized in the gallery. A frantic Etherton learned that the pieces he was expecting were still on display in a gallery in Jiménez's native El Paso, Texas. Luckily, the gallery owner there took pity on Etherton and cut her own show short.

"We rented a giant truck, and Michael Stern (then Etherton's partner) drove in the night to get the work. The day of the opening, we installed it."

Despite Jiménez's legendary reputation for lateness, his work was so highly prized that he won an endless string of public art commissions throughout the United States. His giant alligators writhe in the Plaza de Los Lagartos in El Paso. Albuquerque, N.M., boasts "La Pietà del Suroeste" (Southwest Pietà), a meshing of the Christian Pietà with an ancient Aztec tale. "Man on Fire," picturing the last Aztec emperor, set afire by the Spaniards, is in the Smithsonian's National Museum of American Art in Washington, D.C. "Vaquero," a wild cowboy on a blue horse, is outside the museum on the mall.

The artist is best known for his reworking of Mexican clichés, but he admired working-class heroes of all ethnicities; he has a steelworkers sculpture in Pittsburgh and sodbusters in Fargo, N.D. At his death, he was still at work on a firefighters sculpture for Cleveland.

"Of all the artists I've worked with, he was a giant," Etherton says. "He worked on his own schedule, and he lived to do his work."

In the end, it was his work that killed him. The artist, 65, was in his sprawling studio in rural Hondo, N.M., trying to finish "Mustang," a fiberglass statue of a stallion with glowing eyes. Rearing on its hind legs, standing 32 feet high, the horse was commissioned 13 years ago by the Denver International Airport. (Airport authorities nixed the artist's plan to have laser beams shooting out of the horse's eyes, says Tucson painter Jim Waid, a friend.)

Jiménez had already missed four deadlines for the piece--including one on May 31--according to The Denver Post. On the morning of Tuesday, June 13, when he was trying to move a section of it, a cable broke, and the sculpture fell, pinning him against a steel beam. The accident nearly severed his leg and sliced through his femoral artery. He rapidly bled to death.

"It's a tremendous loss," says Julie Sasse, curator of contemporary art at the Tucson Museum of Art. "It breaks my heart. Someone here said maybe it was the way he would have wanted to go, in his studio, at work, but not at the hand of his own art."

Sasse, who had worked with Jiménez on gallery shows in Scottsdale, remembers him as a "very congenial person, always in a good mood, down to earth." His Chicano-tinged art, she adds, "spoke for a people, a region, a culture that had not been addressed and was acknowledged by very few artists or collectors. He opened that door, and did it with such joy."

The artist was born in Second Barrio of the border city of El Paso in 1940, the son of an illegal immigrant who later became a citizen. His father, Luis Jiménez Sr., had crossed over with his own mother from Mexico in 1924, and the haunting image of people struggling across the Rio Grande became a mainstay of Jiménez's work. In his sculpture "The Crossing," at the University of Texas at San Antonio, a mother staggers along with her baby strapped to her back.

His dad had his own neon sign shop, and the son became his apprentice, says Ben Goo, a Tucson sculptor who became friends with Jiménez when both were in an artists-in-residence program in Roswell, N.M., in the late '60s. Jiménez later made a print that pays homage to his father's influence on his art. It portrays the artist himself drawing, and the title is written in the loopy neon letters Jiménez Sr. used in his flashing signs.

Jiménez studied art and architecture at the University of Texas at Austin and later studied in Mexico with Francisco Zuñiga. He went off to New York to become an artist, working first with gang kids in Brooklyn and coming up with early protest art condemning the Vietnam War.

But eventually, "he started recognizing the stuff he grew up with," Waid says, the cars, dancers and skeletons of Mexican and Chicano popular culture. He had found his subject, and in those days, it was daring.

"His colors, his materials, how he portrayed things, were very controversial," Sasse says. "It was in fiberglass. That's for hot rods, not art. He did figurative art at a time when everything was minimal or abstract."

If the materials were unconventional, the content was incendiary. When Sasse was working in Scottsdale, the Scottsdale Center for the Arts had a chance to get a wild cowboy piece, she remembers. A battle royal broke out between the lovers of traditional Western art and the supporters of Jiménez, and the traditionalists emerged triumphant.

"Not John Wayne enough," Waid says.

Sometimes, the criticism came from a different direction. Middle-class Mexican-American professionals in Houston thought the armed cowboy in "Vaquero" conjured up the stereotypically negative portrayal of "violent Mexicans." To some feminists in Albuquerque, "La Pietà del Suroeste" looked a little too much like a rape. Others objected to his meshing of Christian and Aztec iconography.

"He was depicting his own culture in a visceral, physical way," Sasse says. "He had a right to do it."

Adds Waid, "He didn't set out to anger people. His work had a life-affirming quality."

Tucson's Hotel Congress had a Jiménez sculpture outside for a while in the early '90s, but the city lost its chance for a permanent installation when Jimenez's proposal for the plaza at the Main Library didn't get past the finalist stage. The winner, David Black of Massachusetts, created the now-familiar red metal abstraction.

"It's a shame," says abstract sculptor Goo. "The David Black piece lacks presence for the area."

But Jiménez, who taught at the UA from 1984 to 1994, did leave some traces in town. The University of Arizona Museum of Art owns 12 pieces, and in the wake of his death, it's displaying the sculpture "Man on Fire," and three prints, including "Illegals," a view of migrants traveling at night. The Tucson Museum of Art is exhibiting a self-portrait lithograph and the sculpture "End of the Trail With Electric Sunset," a reworking of the cliché of the tired Indian falling asleep on his horse.

Two commercial galleries also have numerous works for viewing: sculptures and prints at Davis Dominguez and prints at Etherton.

Jim Waid keeps the Jiménez lithograph "La Baile con Talaca" in his studio. (UAMA is displaying the same print.) When he got the terrible news about the death last week by phone, he looked up at the picture, which shows Jiménez himself dancing with a skeleton. Dancing with death.

Waid sighs. "He could draw like an angel."

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