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Luis Jiménez, 1940—2006
June 20, 2006

Artist Luis Jiménez poses with his work Vaquero.

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.

Posted by Kriston on June 20, 2006 in American Art Here


Luis was a person whom you could call by his first name the first time you met him. Warm, friendly, and genuinely interested in other people - their lives, their thoughts, their experiences - he was a friend within minutes. One of the leading artists of his generation, he was a wonderful human being who will be missed terribly.

I remember the loving kindness of Luis Jimenez and the special feeling of warmth that I had of the animals in his sculptures (perhaps because I grew up on a farm). His quote about the Mexican cowboy next to his sculpture Vaquero is a good one.

I agree - Luis was a really nice guy and a great artist. I met him when I was at UT Austin in grad school and helped out on a guest-artist in printmaking stint he did there. I would pretend to be helping and just watch him draw on a huge litho stone.

Energy and substance. That's how I think of Luis's art and the man himself. His art had real meaning for him and he said it in a way that anyone could understand. He told stories both old and new in a fresh and vital way. Utterly baroque in form and vibrant color, his sculpture was modern in spirit and materials --arousing emotions and stimulating thought. Full, tactile, sensual, pulsating, fluid and expressionistic are all adjectives that come to mind for his sculpture and, one might add, his graphic art. A master draftsman and creative colorist. He was a "natural." I watched him mix colors at night in small paper cups under floodlights to repair the surface coating on his Vaquero at the museum; there was no hesitation, just a real pro at work.

As a man, Luis was like his sculpture. He had presence. His heart and emotions were real. There was nothing pretentious about him; he would introduce himself with a big smile as if no one knew who he was.

Generosity and kindness came easily to him. He wasn't exactly a snappy dresser, but what he did wear was obviously comfortable and reflected his character. There was a wonderful playfulness to his humor of which there was abundance yet often an underlying seriousness. I can hear him now starting off on a seemingly somber note --"You know..." --and then make some outlandish comment, followed by a pause, followed by a huge grin and laughter. Like a close friend, he'll be missed in many ways we can't even grasp right now.

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