Francisco Toledo was not only one of the most highly regarded contemporary artists in Mexico, but he was also responsible for a cultural flowering of museums and cultural institutions in Oaxaca where he lived. The USC Fisher Museum of Art is fortunate to have a number of his works in our collection and we are presenting a selection of them here in the hopes of furthering an awareness of his important legacy beyond Mexico and into the digital realm.
Francisco Toledo's Biography
Francisco Toledo, of Zapotec origins, was born in Juchitán on the Isthmus of Tehuántepec in 1940 and died in Oaxaca in 2019. He left the Isthmus for Oaxaca City as an adolescent, and there he studied art at the Escuela de Bellas Artes (UBAJO) and the printmaking workshop of Arturo García Busto. In 1957 he moved to Mexico City. Toledo then traveled to France in 1960 where he came to know the great Mexican artist Rufino Tamayo, also from Oaxaca. It was there that he became familiar with the latest trends in contemporary art and with European art history. Five years later Toledo returned to Juchitán where he supported the radical political and artistic movements of the time. After other moves he finally settled with his family in Oaxaca City. Beyond his stunning body of work in all media, Toledo was a social activist and a cultural impresario. He created museums, libraries, gardens, artistic workshops and even a cinematheque in Oaxaca, thereby totally changing the cultural landscape of the city. With the exception of a sojourn in Los Angeles in 2001, Toledo lived in Oaxaca for the rest of his life. He is internationally recognized and avidly collected and often exhibited throughout Europe, Asia, the United States and Latin America.
Toledo's Feet (2007) by Francisco Toledo (Mexican, 1940 - 2019)USC Fisher Museum of Art
Toledo’s “Self-Portrait” is unlike any self-portrait by any other artist that I know. Made of mica, a favorite medium of Toledo’s, cutouts were stitched together to fit the outlines of his feet, creating an autonomous, beautiful, if unsettling object. Indeed, upon reflection, “Self Portrait” acts as a trigger to wonder, a poetic reminder to all of us to keep moving, keep looking, keep being amazed by the road, the camino, where our feet take us.
Grasshopper and Alligator (2002) by Francisco Toledo (Mexican, 1940 - 2019)USC Fisher Museum of Art
Although the Notebooks might seem a humble way to begin this episode of In Memorium of Francisco Toledo, there is a reason for doing so. These notebooks are among the least known of Toledo’s works and incorporate many of his qualities, not only as an artist, but also as the person he was in his own “beloved community”. They are early examples of the notebooks he made, a mix of those by his own hand, and also some that he designed for the Taller de Papel, the Paper Workshop. They include images of animals, skeletons and composite imaginary beings, all of whom incorporate a number of Toledo’s lifelong interests. And, in the collaborative spirit of Toledo, remember that they are notebooks. That is, they contain multiple blank pages for the “reader” to incorporate his or her own thoughts, writings, visions and scribbles -- after encountering Toledo’s own universe.
On the left, a grasshopper-like insect in a granulated background, while on the right a kind of dinosaur-like figure. The dinosaur-like figure is upright with the stance of a human being, again in an unpopulated background. The dream-like state is reminiscent of Goya’s and his print series – so influential for Toledo.
Three Fish and Ring of Crabs (2002) by Francisco Toledo (Mexican, 1940 - 2019)USC Fisher Museum of Art
Both these notebook covers are of sea life, the left one of fish on their sides, seemingly dead, and the image on the right of a circle of crabs. Fish and crabs are recurring images for Toledo, but crabs must have been of special fascination for Toledo, as we see them later in jewelry, metamorphosed into precious objects.
Fish on Table and Standing Figure with no Head (2002) by Francisco Toledo (Mexican, 1940 - 2019)USC Fisher Museum of Art
The dead fish on the left lying on a slab exhales three circles of the type that are in the inner circle of the crabs. They feel like a message, but a secret one. Number 6 is a composite, animal-like but upright. This creature, a product of the imagination lives in a world of his own.
Two People Squatting and Crane with Falling Fish (2002) by Francisco Toledo (Mexican, 1940 - 2019)USC Fisher Museum of Art
With number 7 we turn to the skeletal-like creatures that fascinated Toledo all his life. In this case the two headed, eight-limbed thing is excreting the same circles we saw in the previous works. The circles seem to be suggesting a mysterious code, symbol or sign. Then, in a shift in number eight we see a beautiful stork-like animal, standing up like a person, playing with a fish.
Rabbit, Crocodile, Standing Bull (2002) by Francisco Toledo (Mexican, 1940 - 2019)USC Fisher Museum of Art
This last grouping has three notebooks from left to right - a rabbit, a crocodile and a bull.This image of a crazed-seeming rabbit standing over something he has broken seems strangely coded and leads us to question if these images are celebratory or ominous while a crocodile-like creature, now dancing, invites us to his own celebration. And, number 10, the final creature in our collection is represented with crab-like qualities. It seems to be both woman and man at the same time. This section of the Francisco Toledo episode relates both his feverish imagination and his collaborative spirit, evidenced in these notebooks made while working in the Taller de Papel. The last three notebooks appear to be more collaborations with the workshop than by the Maestro exclusively: less articulated, less pungent. What do you think?
Las Hojas Muertes (The Dead Leaves) (2004) by Francisco Toledo (Mexican, 1940 - 2019)USC Fisher Museum of Art
When Toledo painted, made prints of or sculpted animals they always have a character beyond the merely representational. These are the creatures that inhabit the earth. Sometimes they are actually animal-like, but often they share or are imbued with human qualities. This section, unlike the Fish section previously is meant to show the range of Toledo’s fascination with animals. This group of prints is but a taste of Toledo’s universe where two and four legged frogs and toads and storks and insects share the earth seamlessly with us humans and with all other life forms, including plants. Toledo invites us to notice them and render them the respect he has for them.
Spiders and spider webs, dreamily and affectionately drawn by Toledo. In the webs of life and death these insects become things of beauty and the webs seem to be rays of sun. The blues and copper colors offer an environment that is vital and affirmative.
Frogs Exiting From Death (1999) by Francisco Toledo (Mexican, 1940 - 2019)USC Fisher Museum of Art
In the almost Bosch-ian image to the left we have frogs and an imaginary creature walking with canes, and also an image of a frog coming out of another frog’s rear. The right frog has a humanoid aspect, not at all unusual for Toledo.
Civil Registry (2003) by Francisco Toledo (Mexican, 1940 - 2019)USC Fisher Museum of Art
In this print Toledo marries dogs and people. A dog family is playing together in a room. Goya’s relationship to Toledo is clear as Goya often mixed people and animals to make a point. Does Toledo have a political message as Goya would have? In the cases of both artists the interpretation is left to each viewer.
El Sapo Buffo (1985) by Francisco Toledo (Mexican, 1940 - 2019)USC Fisher Museum of Art
A frog is sitting at a pond. The background is kind of abstract or sketchy making it hard to determine.
Garza (1988) by Francisco Toledo (Mexican, 1940 - 2019)USC Fisher Museum of Art
Garza, a heron, seems to exist for its own beautiful form. The heron stands with his legs forming a triangle. An aura surrounds the bird lending it an otherworldly value. At the same time the bird looks back warily and the murky surroundings have an air of menace. Is the bird in danger? Is there more to this than meets the eye?
La Escalera (1976) by Francisco Toledo (Mexican, 1940 - 2019)USC Fisher Museum of Art
Frogs, or maybe lizards, are climbing or preparing to climb a ladder to nowhere. Surrounding the climbing reptilians are what look like a covey of ghosts, or maybe only abstract patterned shapes. Dozens of them cheek by jowl watch the progress of the living beings. Although the ground below is apparently solid, the atmosphere above the ladder is undefined. It is a universe of the unknown, probably a similar universe for animals and humans alike.
Flor (1999) by Francisco Toledo (Mexican, 1940 - 2019)USC Fisher Museum of Art
Is it a wasp caught in this fantastic imaginary flower, with leaves and tendrils of making wondrous patterns? The insect watches, but can it be that the center of this “flower” is a giant eye, one watching us as we attempt to grasp the meaning of the world around us? This is one of the most masterful prints made since Goya or even Rembrandt, rich in line and burr, complex in figure-ground relationships.
Toads and Pants (1974) by Francisco Toledo (Mexican, b. 1940)USC Fisher Museum of Art
Animals and Humans
The animal and human spheres are not always menacing or ambiguous for Toledo. In this section in our episode on Francisco Toledo there is a happier or at least less ominous tone to the marriage of the universe we share with our fellow creatures, a somewhat more harmonious world.
Frogs and pantaloons/pants. A convivial scene of bull frogs among a crowd of people whose feet suggest the title. Although there is nothing ominous about this image, still the line of frogs at the bottom seems to be watching us as we are watching them. Are they also celebrating? Do they have bow-ties for eyes? Are they wearing tuxedos?
Gandhi Drinking Tea with a Frog (2007) by Francisco Toledo (Mexican, 1940 - 2019)USC Fisher Museum of Art
This image almost seems as if it is Mahatma Gandhi in conversation with a frog. The hybridity of the frog–woman and frog at the same time is connected to the Gandhi-like figure, the same size as the frog. They are in warm conversation.
The Lookers (1985) by Francisco Toledo (Mexican, 1940 - 2019)USC Fisher Museum of Art
The last print in this section of Animals and Humans seems to be comedic, not a mood we have seen thus far in this episode. Note especially the two men at the bottom left who although clearly human have bovine like aspects to their faces. They are laser-beam focused with unambiguous sight lines to the cows’ rear ends. Is this a quietly and perversely erotic image? Certainly, it is a suggestive and disturbing one.
Redes con Cangrejos y un Pescado (2011) by Francisco Toledo (Mexican, b. 1940)USC Fisher Museum of Art
Toledo’s attraction to water life is apparent throughout his oeuvre. In this series, all of the works made in 2011 and 2012, he ventures into the depths within a fascinating group beginning with a crab/fish/man trio. A collage of three crabs in a row, also on what is increasingly looking like a grill is followed by three fish only pictures. It almost seems as if Toledo was working through an obsession by making these variations on a theme, paintings and collages employing oil and laser cut vellum and paper, with small variations of materials and additions such as oil and silver leaf used throughout.
Redes con Cangrejos y un Pescado, the only one in the group that reads vertically, from top to bottom or is it bottom to top? The subjects are almost swimming in the background that supports them. At the very bottom is a ghostly flash of a fish, but above that evanescent fish there is an anchoring image of a man, who although not mentioned in the title, looks like Toledo himself. Another self-portrait? Above the portrait is a frontal faced crab and above the crab a fish seen from the side. All three subjects are embedded in a pattern that suggests a net. The net in this first picture both captures them and still has the potential of letting them go.
Six Crabs in Net (2011) by Francisco Toledo (Mexican, b. 1940)USC Fisher Museum of Art
The second in the series is the collage of crabs (Cangrejos), certainly now dead. The crabs seem to be on top of a grill but what is below and behind? Is it a water-scape dream? The clouds or sky spell doom for these definitively un-free, splayed and pinned crabs! Are they a metaphor for the human condition or just a glorious image, irresistible to the artist, made from trapped creatures?
Red con Pez #8 (2012) by Francisco Toledo (Mexican, b. 1940)USC Fisher Museum of Art
A tiny piece of 5 1/2 by 8 inches is now more clearly a fish on a grill. A blank background removes any ambiguity about this. It is the end of the fish’s life, but, strangely, his beauty remains, is perhaps enhanced. The blue and copper colors of head, fins and body; the burn patterns on the net-now-grill suggest a lively visual counterpoint to what might have actually referred to a gastronomical moment.
Red Con Peces #5 (2012) by Francisco Toledo (Mexican, 1940 - 2019)USC Fisher Museum of Art
This collage continues the mood of the previous work in that the two fish are dead but now seem to be decaying. They are pinned to the grill, placed on a quiescent brown, board-looking background.
Red Con Peces #1 (2012) by Francisco Toledo (Mexican, 1940 - 2019)USC Fisher Museum of Art
The last in this series is oddly livelier than the previous fish pictures. In this case there are again two fish, one larger than the other. The smaller one is fairly static, but the larger one, even if he might be filleted, is wildly beautiful painted in purples, pinks, oranges, rust colors. Its fins have taken on an almost cutout quality and even though both fish are once again on a grill, the grill has become decorated and decorative. The background is speckled and celebratory. Somehow this fish series culminates in a joyous transformation of fish for art’s sake, rather than a contemplation of death or dinner.
Curator: Selma Holo
Assistant Curator: Stephanie Kowalick
USC Fisher Museum would like to thank:
Sara Lopez Ellistgaard Rasmussen
Bill Sheehy and Latin American Masters Gallery
Marcelo Bajo, MB Language Translations