Latino Experience in the USA: Works from the MFAH Collection

The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and the International Center for the Arts of the Americas join Google Arts & Culture in celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month 2017 by featuring Latino artists whose works are part of the MFAH collections.

Unicornio en la isla Unicorn on the Island (1961, printed 1997) by Lorenzo HomarThe Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Lorenzo Homar "Unicornio en la isla (Unicorn on the Island)"

Homar (1913–2004) and his family emigrated in 1928 from Puerto Rico to New York City. There he
studied painting with Rufino Tamayo and Arthur Osver, as well as intaglio with
Gabor Peterdi, at the Brooklyn Museum
Art School from 1946 to 1950.
Homar also trained at New York’s Pratt Institute and the Art Students
League. The artist worked for the House of Cartier as a jewelry designer from
1937 to 1942 and, after serving in the U.S. Army, he worked for the jewelry firm again from
1946 to 1950. Homar’s experience with metal engraving while he was a jewelry designer
for Cartier prompted him to study historical Spanish calligraphy and penmanship
at San Juan’s Casa del Libro when he returned to Puerto Rico in 1950. Back on
the island, Homar collaborated in the Graphics Workshop of the Division for
Community Education (DIVEDCO). He left that position in 1957 to head the
Graphics Workshop at the Instituto de Cultura Puertorriqueña until 1972.
Homar is considered a master printmaker. His woodcut print "Unicorn on the Island" is a
masterpiece of Puerto Rican printmaking and a true testament to his dedicated
use of calligraphy and text as indispensable compositional elements. 

Monumental in size and of undeniable technical complexity, "Unicorn on the Island" originated as an illustration for "Cuatro Sones" (1964) by Puerto Rican writer Tomás Blanco (1896–1975).

Homar cut it to the present size in 1965.

The large-scale version of the print is such a successful marriage of image and text that neither the words to Blanco’s poem nor the virulent island landscape acts as a backdrop to the other.

Text and image intertwine in such a way that without one, the other is incomplete.

Much as the words in each stanza are shaped by the positives and negatives of the woodcut, the cadences of their suggestive rhythm are echoed by the turbulence of the depicted nightscape.

"Unicorn on the Island" is significant because it constitutes an early feat by Homar to reconcile the expressive possibilities of letters vis-à-vis a traditional visual resource such as the landscape.

By employing lettering as a design element, Homar integrates shapes of both images and letters, spotlighting the impact of the image more than the legibility of the text in woodcuts such as this one.

Arte y tradición del cartel en Puerto Rico: conversación con Lorenzo Homar (Art and tradition of the poster in Puerto Rico: Conversation with Lorenzo Homar), by Mari Carmen Ramírez, Mari Carmen Ramírez, From the collection of: The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
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Bato con Sunglasses (1984/1991) by César Augusto MartínezThe Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Augusto Martínez "Bato con Sunglasses"

César A. Martínez (born 1944) is one of the most important living Chicano artists as
well as a preeminent South Texas artist. Born and reared in Laredo, Texas, with
familial ties to Nuevo León in Northern Mexico, Martínez attended Laredo Junior
College and earned a BS degree in art education from Texas A&M University in Kingsville. He was drafted in 1969 and served in Korea until 1971, when he was
honorably discharged from the U.S. Army. Martínez creates work that deals with
the duality of life along the Texas–Mexico border and the hybrid culture that
has evolved there. He was a founding member of several important Chicano art
collectives in San Antonio, including Con
Safos (along with Mel Casas and Felipe Reyes) and Los Quemados (literally, the Burnt Ones, with Armando Peña and
Carmen Lomas Garza). Martínez is equally well regarded as one of the principal
theoreticians of the early Chicano art movement of the 1970s, and his critical
work is considered to be seminal among historians of Chicano art. 

In this stark portrait of a "Bato" (or "Vato," meaning “man” or “dude” in Mexican-American slang), Martínez continues the parallel series of Batos and Pachucos (zoot suiters of late 1930s-early 1950s), conceptualized decades earlier and executed from 1978 to 1980.

Rather than faithful portraits of living individuals, the works in these series can be read as the objectification of quintessential barrio types from the artist’s youth in Laredo.

Displaced in time, these anachronistic street characters wear clothing and sport hairstyles that date them specifically to the 1940s and 1950s.

Barring a few exceptions, works from the "Batos" series are bust-length, frontal portraits, such as "Bato con Sunglasses."

These hauntingly isolated figures transcend nationality and ethnicity to move viewers in a direct and honest way.

Arte Chicano, by César Augusto Martínez, César Augusto Martínez, From the collection of: The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
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Kiss of the Egg (1997) by Gabriel OrozcoThe Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Gabriel Orozco "Kiss of the Egg"

Since the 1990s, Orozco—who divides his time between Paris, New York, and Mexico City—has generated a wide body of work that weaves together his interest in abstract, geometric structures and everyday social concerns. By encouraging a kind of physical public contact that is at once intimate and deliberately ridiculous—which may (or may not) result in the egg splattering in the gallery—Orozco brings some of the chaos and uncertainty of the outside world into the seemingly tranquil traditional museum environment. 

Deceptively simple in appearance, "Kiss of the Egg" is one of several works that Mexican conceptual artist Gabriel Orozco (born 1962) intended to operate both as sculptural form and interactive game.

Two people place their heads in the figure eight—one in each side—and jointly attempt kissing an egg without knocking it over.

The act may lead participants to feel extremely self-conscious, not only because they are engaging in an absurdly staged form of kissing in public, but also because of the risk of breaking the egg.

"Gabriel Orozco", Amor, Mónica, From the collection of: The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
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The Anguish of Being and the Nothingness of the Universe (2000) by Marcos RayaThe Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Raya "The
Anguish of Being and the Nothingness of the Universe" 

Marcos Raya (born 1948), a Chicago-based artist, was
born in Irapuato, Guanajuato, Mexico. He is best
known for his 1970s community-based
murals in many of Chicago’s working-class and
immigrant neighborhoods, for which he gained international notoriety. Raya’s
work on canvas was discovered in the late 1990s with his participation in the 1997 exhibition "Art in Chicago 1945–1995" at the Museum
of Contemporary Art Chicago. The son of Mexican workers, Raya
arrived in Chicago in 1964 at age 14 after his parents’ separation.
Largely self-taught, he attended courses at Mexico City’s San Carlos Academy in
the late 1960s. After he returned to Chicago from Mexico, the artist stumbled in and out of alcoholism, an experience that lent his work a hallucinatory intensity as well as a macabre sense
of humor. "The Anguish of Being and the Nothingness of the Universe" is a
large-scale contemporary tondo. One cannot help but think of it as a portable mural related
to the large-scale murals of Raya’s
early career, including "Homage to Diego Rivera," Raya's first one (at 18th Street and Main Street in Chicago) from 1972, in which the artist loosely
re-created Rivera’s destroyed 1933 Rockefeller Center mural, "Man at the Crossroads" (also known as "Man, Controller of
the Universe"). In both works, Raya is concerned with
fusing flesh and metal and in depicting a “mechanical universe” akin to the
Mexican muralist’s transformation of man into machine, a concern that the
Chicago-based artist also returns to in his work.

This important painting in Raya’s trajectory features many of his favorite pictorial devices.

"The Anguish of Being and the Nothingness of the Universe" is also particularly significant for its sheer size: more than six feet in diameter.

It also represents a long-standing tradition of portraiture, depicting a skull-like mask or figure from whose eyes emanates an alternate story, a theme that is repeated in other works by Raya.

Serving as an iconographic motif of sorts, the masks Raya employs are similar to those worn by Mexican wrestlers.

In this sense, the mask allows Raya to speak of his continued fight for personal salvation or of his struggle to retain a Mexican identity.

Marcos Raya: The Anguish of Being, Interview by Claudia Morales Haro and María Isabel Ochoa, Claudia Morales Haro and María Isabel Ochoa, From the collection of: The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
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To Make a Blind Man Murder for the Things He's Seen (Happiness Is Overrated) (2002) by Daniel Joseph MartinezThe Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Joseph Martínez "To Make a Blind Man Murder for the Things
He's Seen (Happiness Is Overrated)"

A native of Los Angeles, Daniel Joseph
Martínez (born 1957) earned a BFA degree from the California Institute of the
Arts in Los Angeles in 1979 and pursued independent post-undergraduate study
with German artist Klaus Rinke. Martínez gained mainstream notoriety in 1993
when he was selected to participate in the Whitney Biennial, and again in 2008,
when he presented the installation "Divine Violence," now in the
collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art. The dehumanizing aspects of
technology—as well as its breakdown, the feeling that something has gone
terribly wrong—is at the core of much of Martínez’s recent work. Long situated
in the post-1965 traditions of Conceptual, Performance, and Situationist art,
his work is often brutally shocking, frontal, and even insulting. However, if
one can transcend the initial discomfort and revulsion that is felt when
confronting Martínez’s work, it becomes engaging and evocative of humankind’s
vulnerability. Martínez’s oeuvre includes the 2002 works
"Nallekaghnituten: Man Who Throws Rocks (An Event for an A-Moralist as
Parrhesiasters)" and "Narcissus Was a Pretty Boy You Know, He Lived
Without Anesthesia," and 2006's "Call Me Ishmael: The Fully
Enlightened Earth Radiates Disaster Triumphant." "To Make a Blind Man
Murder for the Things He’s Seen (Happiness Is Overrated)" initiated a body
of work that notably moves beyond the idea of “artist as canvas.” 

In "To Make a Blind Man Murder for the Things He’s Seen (Happiness Is Overrated)," the artist’s clone kneels on the floor wearing a navy-blue Dickies coverall and holding a razor blade in each hand.

As laughter ricochets throughout the white cube that holds the installation, the figure slashes one wrist and then the other in an (unsuccessful) ritualistic suicide.

This is his first animatronic performance, which is a contemporary adaptation of the "spectacle mécanique"—the 19th-century French curiosity that used articulated mannequins to mimic human beings.

The art from Martínez’s 2002 series shows that the artist departs from the investigation of the expressive potential of his own body to introduce a three-dimensional replacement of his physical self.

These androids, as Martínez terms the mechanical analogues of his animatronic work, exist in a transgressive state that is one step removed from death.

"Enlightenment is mythic fear turned radical (becoming more human than human)", Vicario, Gilbert, From the collection of: The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
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Revolera (2003) by José Gabriel FernándezThe Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Gabriel Fernández "Revolera"

U.S.-based Venezuelan artist José Gabriel Fernández (born 1957) is one of the most important Venezuelan artists to emerge in the 1990s. His work proposes an intimate reading of sculpture through pristine geometries and volumes, stimulating a dialogue between sculpture and the body. In these objects, the artist explores the tradition of tauromachy (bullfighting) as an approach to understanding larger cultural topics, including gender ambiguity and conflicts of identity. Soft, curving forms reminiscent of the work of Romanian sculptor Constantin Brancusi contradict the heavy, rigid materials with which they are made.

In this way, they poetically capture the gender paradox presented by bullfighting—a feat that is both art and sport, strenuous and graceful, masculine and feminine.

The silent voids in "Revolera" refer to the work’s title.

The formal movements performed in the ring with the matador's cape, are complemented by a parallel series of free-standing sculptures in the MFAH collections.

Verónica (2007) by José Gabriel FernándezThe Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Serpentina (2007) by José Gabriel FernándezThe Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Chicuelina (2007) by José Gabriel FernándezThe Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Revolera (2003) by José Gabriel FernándezThe Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Fittingly, these related floor sculptures are named after several types of "revoleras," the dance-like motions conducted during the spectacle.

“Por la seducción de ver [Entrevista con José Gabriel Fernández]", Aurora Blyde, From the collection of: The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
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Credits: Story

● María C. Gaztambide, associate director, ICAA
● The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

● "American Art & Philanthropy: Twenty Years of Collecting at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston" by Peter C. Marzio, 2010, Yale University Press

● Matt Lawson, digital assets administrator, MFAH

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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