Luis Jiménez, 1940—2006
June 20, 2006
Born in El Paso and an alumnus of the University of Texas at Austin, Jiménez made sculpture that coupled a Pop medium (fiberglass) with traditional Southwestern themes. His work drew from the cultural poles of Mexico City and New York City, both places where he worked and studied, and he was greatly influenced by public artists such as Mexican muralist José Clemente Orozco. The artist sought to bring Native American, Mexican, and Chicano figures to the fore in works that pay heed to classical sculptural values.
But a short biography understates the long and fruitful relationship between Jiménez and the Smithsonian American Art Museum. That relationship began in the 1970s with then-director Joshua Taylor, who was an enthusiastic supporter of the artist's work, and continued to the present day with the many staffers who speak fondly of their personal interactions with the artist.
In 1978 Jiménez personally gifted the museum with a color lithograph, Howl, one of a series of artworks based on a coyote figure; the following year, the museum acquired Man on Fire, and other works appeared in an exhibition of art from the West. For several years Vaquero, an equestrian statue that is considered among the artist's most important works, was temporarily installed near the front steps of the building (the piece was owned by the city of Houston, TX). Over time visitors and staffers alike came to regard the piece as emblematic of the museum, so, in 1990 American Art purchased an artist's proof of Vaquero, which stood near the museum for a decade. The piece was reinstalled last week at the north entrance to the museum. A museum centerpiece like Vaquero accummulates stories over time, and unsurprisingly, it figures into many staffers' recollections.
The relationship between the museum and the artist was mutually beneficial—even, at times, indirectly so. Eight years ago, Jiménez was nominated for and received an assessment award and a conservation award from American Art's Save Outdoor Sculpture preservation program for both Southwest Pieta, a public work in Albuquerque, NM, and Vaquero in Houston. Eleven program volunteers assessed the artist's work. Vaquero received one of the program's inaugural preservation conservation awards.
Because so many of his piecees were public commissions, the artist's works often took the characteristics of a community into consideration. No doubt this also owed to the unique niche Jiménez occupied. The Protestant artist did not always find that his work had a place within mainstream Chicano culture. Nor did his art hew entirely to the Pop paradigm in which he worked. Vaquero, for example, met some resistance from Hispanic communities, who argued that a monumental gunslinging Mexican cowboy reinforced negative images of immigrants. Jiménez conceived of the piece as an update on the traditional equestrian statue, in which a hero is signified by his sword or gun. (The work bears a similar composition to that of A. Phimister Proctor's 1915 Buckaroo, though Jiménez places the cowboy correctly within the context of Mexican culture.) In a similar vein, neither were regional themes predominant among his Pop Art peers.
Some controversies notwithstanding, the artist's career has not been marked by contention. For example, when Jiménez planned a commissioned piece for the city of Fargo, ND, he originally conceived a public barn dance. But figuring that a "frivolous" piece might be greeted by the Scandinavian Lutheran community with hostility, he instead proposed Sodbuster, a complete one-eighty that nevertheless tapped the regional vein. As the city of Fargo describes the work:
[Early in his career Jiménez] had found shards of pottery in his own garden and took interest in a Native American burial found near his New Mexican home. This experience was combined with readings of Northern Plains history, community visits and shows at the Fargo museum, and incorporated into "Sodbuster." The piece portrays a stout man guiding an ox drawn plow that not only opens up the soil for planting but exposes buried artifacts, from potsherds to a French Canadian oxcart wheel, of former human habitation.
My own time working with the museum has been too short to proffer an opportunity to meet Jiménez. But I have my own associations with the artist—my grandmother owns several of his drawings, and I certainly saw enough of his work growing up in Texas. Those who don't live in the Southwest will yet have opportunities to see his art, here and at the diverse institutions nationwide that house his works.
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