A giant blue horse with fiery eyes rears on the mile-high Colorado plain. If we can believe that some part of an artist lives on in their work, then I like to think that some form of Luis Jiménez — defiant, beautiful, feral and fierce — inhabits Blue Mustang, his 32-foot high, 9,000-pound sculpture installed on the grounds of the Denver International Airport. In 2006, while the artist was working on the colossal equine in his studio in Hondo, New Mexico, a support hoist broke and the creature fell on Jiménez’ leg, severing an artery. Life poured from his mortal frame.
The artist’s sons completed the installation in 2008. Jiménez’ final piece stands with a remarkable body of work that includes the signature polychrome fiberglass sculptures, as well as prints and drawings. The artist brought cholo and lowrider culture, mixed with Mesoamerican imagery, into a fine art context. He re-energized Old West iconography through a lens of humor, irony, and re-examination that ranged from gentle playfulness to tougher-than-leather deconstruction. He presented the working class world in a manner that was neither condescending nor glossed over and which spoke clearly to the entire socio-economic spectrum. All with a startling, original voice.
Aside from the tawdry tabloid coverage of Blue Mustang (see, for instance, “Blucifer, the Murderous Mustang of Denver Airport” on slate.com. Really, slate?), his best-known work may be the sculpture Vaquero. Versions of this cow-vato can be seen in Houston’s Moody Park and outside the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C. Riding the hurricane deck of a bucking blue bronco, a Mexican or Mexican-American buckaroo waves a pistola with his free hand. Its back legs kicking high in the air, the caballo’s front legs stab a stand of prickly pear.
Jiménez said that the piece references the fact that the original cowboys were Mexican or Spanish Colonial horsemen. “The Spaniards brought the cattle and the horses,” he explained, “and the Mexicans developed just the whole notion of being cowboys. They went out and started working these wild cattle. They developed the technology for it, and so all of the terms connected with the American cowboy — corral, remuda, lariat, etc. — are all Spanish words.”
The notion of Juan Wayne, of course, was likely to generate a burr in the saddle for some insecure corners of the so-called dominant culture. The original Vaquero, a 1980 Art in Public Places commission funded by the City of Houston and the NEA, was originally planned for Tranquillity Park in the downtown area. Concerned about the waving gun — and, in the case of one city councilman, about the color of the vaquero’s shirt that seemed suspiciously close to pink — officials decided to place the work in Moody Park, adjacent to a Latino neighborhood. Activists there expressed concerns as well.
“That happened repeatedly throughout Luis’ career,” says Betty Moody, Jiménez’ friend and gallerist, whose Moody Gallery in Houston mounted several major Jiménez shows. “A community would react negatively to some aspect of a piece, and then Luis would come in, so affable and charismatic, for a luncheon or a public meeting and win them over. In the case of Vaquero, he explained the history of equestrian statuary, in which, more often than not, the riders carried weapons. At the meeting’s end, he would be signing autographs.”
Iterations of another major sculpture, Cruzando el Rio Bravo (Border Crossing), may currently be seen at the Blanton Museum of Art in Austin and in the exhibition The Art of Texas: 250 Years at the Witte Museum in San Antonio. The work depicts a man carrying a woman on his shoulders across the Rio Grande, which is known as the Rio Bravo in Mexico. The painted fiberglass provides the effect of wet clothing, hair, and skin, water streaming off the pair as they trudge across a shallow crossing. The piece reminds one of a haunting flashback scene in John Sayles’ 1996 film, Lone Star, in which the younger self of a successful north-of-the-border businesswoman, Mercedes Cruz, crosses the river by moonlight. Drenched with loneliness and stalked by fear, she trudges uncertainly into the dark unknown.
“I had wanted to make a piece dealing with the issue of the illegal alien,” Jiménez later explained. “People talked about aliens as if they landed from outer space, as if they weren’t really people. I wanted to put a face on them. I wanted to humanize them.” The artist had witnessed the human face of the “alien” from the moment he had first opened his eyes. His father, Luis Jiménez Sr., had crossed the Rio Grande/Rio Bravo with his own parents in 1924 at the age of nine.
Born in El Paso in 1940, the artist Luis Jiménez (Jr.) grew up in El Segundo Barrio. (In 2016, the National Trust for Historic Preservation cited the neighborhood as one of the nation’s most endangered historic places.) At the age of six he began working in his father’s sign-making shop. The senior Jiménez had won a national art contest in the 1930s, but economic conditions of the Great Depression had prevented payment of the scholarship prize. Working in the shop, Jiménez the younger learned many of the material processes he later deployed in his own art practice, though not yet how to work with fiberglass.
Themes depicted in some of his father’s neon signs, along with the use of super-vibrant color and outsize scale, appear to have naturally resurfaced in some of the artist’s mature works. At age 16 he assisted in the construction of a sign featuring a 20-foot tall horse’s head with electrified eyes. During a tour of El Paso he later gave arts writer Chiori Santiago, he pointed out the former site of the Fiesta Drive-in Theater, where his father had created a sign that may to some degree have presaged his own 1993 sculpture of traditional dancers, Fiesta Jarabe, versions of which can be seen in Houston at the corner of Wheeler and Cullen (as part of the University of Houston’s Public Art Collection) and outside the University Center at UT San Antonio.* “It had a neon sign that he made of a woman dancing in a flamenco skirt in front of two guys sitting on the ground wearing sombreros,” Jiménez recalled of the Fiesta Drive-in sign. “With each flash of light in the circuit, her dress would appear to go higher and higher, until at the end the guys’ hats would fly up in the air. That was typical of my dad’s signs — lots of action and color.”
Life was full of contradictions for the young artist. His family’s Protestantism placed them in a minority amongst El Paso’s Catholic population of Mexican ancestry, and the strict upbringing fostered a repressive atmosphere that even discouraged teenage dating. As a result he perhaps channeled more energy into that other high-school erotic zone, the automobile. And there, according to some sources, he first took notice of the magic of fiberglass. Cultural repression, also, was a fact of life in the El Paso of Jiménez’ youth. Though El Paso “had a rich Mexican heritage,” as the artist told a Cite interviewer in 1996, “the city went to great lengths to cover that heritage up, instead of plugging into it.” And when it came time to go to college, the controlling father insisted that his son pursue a course of study more practical than art. When Jiménez the younger eventually quit the University of Texas architecture program and transferred to art, graduating in 1964, his father reportedly did not speak to him for an extended period.
The middle two years of the 1960s found him in Mexico City, studying at Ciudad Universitaria. He had visited the city with his family as a child. On one particular trip, at age five or six, they remained for several months, and young Jiménez first saw the works of the great Mexican muralists Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros, and José Clemente Orozco. “I really felt like it was important for me to make that pilgrimage down to Mexico,” he said in 1985, referring to his post-graduate studies. “In fact, I thought I was going to stay there and live. When I got down to Mexico, I realized I was an American. My whole way of thinking, my framework, etc., is American.”
That realization, coupled with Mexican artist Francisco Zúñiga’s advice that he needed to be in New York, sent Jiménez back to the States. And after recovering in El Paso from a broken back and paralysis suffered in a car accident while he was riding along to provide moral support for a friend heading to Canada to skirt the Vietnam War draft, he lit out for the art capital of America. Supporting himself with a community arts program job and as an assistant to sculptor Seymour Lipton, he got tired of sending slides of his work around and getting nowhere. One day, he pulled his van up outside Leo Castelli Gallery, unloaded three of his large pieces, placed them in the gallery, then went to find Castelli rep Ivan Karp and invite him to behold his art. And much like Kris Kristofferson landing a helicopter in Johnny Cash’s yard to get him to listen to a song demo, the brash move worked. The unorthodox introduction led to his first New York show at the Graham Gallery in 1969. Even Hilton Kramer, reportedly the crankiest critic east of the Mississippi, praised the El Paso artist’s work.
The work Jiménez showed in New York was quasi-pop, but unlike the cool, detached pop in vogue in the Big Apple, it brought the heat. “Thanks to its own overwhelming provincialism,” noted Lucy Lippard, “New York has hardly ever been sympathetic to regionalism. It took a practiced and maverick eye like Ivan Karp’s in the late ‘60s to see exactly how far out New York could focus and to recognize Jiménez’ Rabelaisian populism as a cousin to Pop art, perhaps even a distant relation to Jackson Pollock’s abstract cowboy esthetic.” Jiménez’ New York pieces included such fiberglass sculptures as Barfly (1969), a buxom Statue of Liberty blonde oozing seedy temptation. The repressive aspects of his Protestant formative upbringing also collided with the sexual revolution in American Dream (1967), in which a stubby-but-suave foreign-made car mounts a reclining, writhing woman. The suntanned, naked blonde in California Chick (Girl on a Wheel) (1968) straddles a bulbous wheel that appears as though it could be packed with some primordial juice. “The whole New York experience was a release sexually,” Jiménez recalled in 1977. “The repressed sexual feelings showed up in the work.”
In a departure from that sexy-pop body of work, another 1969 piece, Old Woman with Cat, paid tribute to Jiménez’ beloved grandmother. And another, Man on Fire, summons a connection to the artist’s Mesoamerican ancestry. It’s based on the historical figure Cuauhtémoc, generally described as the last independent Aztec emperor and the last to lead native forces in resistance to the Spaniards led by Hernán Cortés. Certain that Cuauhtémoc knew the location of large amounts of gold, Cortés tortured the captive Aztec — by some accounts this involved burning of his feet and hands. Cuauhtémoc was later executed by the Spaniards, and through folk retellings of the story the means of death morphed into burning at the stake. Jiménez learned about Cuauhtémoc, “the man on fire,” from his grandmother. “Man on fire was used by all of the Mexican muralists as a symbol for the Mexican revolution, as a positive image of the Indian, because the Mexican revolution in 1910 was a social revolution,” the artist stated in 1985. Orozco’s Man in Flames is often cited as a distinctive example. “And my grandmother came out of the Mexican revolution … She herself was very dark-skinned, but with green eyes, of Indian stock from San Luis Potosi … She knew about all these images, so as a kid, I was told about Cuauhtémoc … and if I scraped my knee, for instance, and I’d come in crying to my grandmother, she’d say, ‘How can you cry about a little thing like that, because after all they burned Cuauhtémoc at the stake. They burned his legs off and he never cried.’ You know. So it became this kind of hero guy for me, and when I go into the dentist’s office, I mean, you know, ‘How can I be afraid of a little dentist’s drill when, after all, you know, Cuauhtémoc… .” Man on Fire, its blazing Indio bone structure aflame with perhaps the richest color mix of any Jiménez work, can be seen in the McNay Art Museum Sculpture Garden in San Antonio.
The artist returned to the southwest in the early ‘70s, selling work to Roswell oilman Donald Anderson (whose collection now comprises the Anderson Museum of Contemporary Art) in order to finance what is generally considered his “transition” piece, End of the Trail (with Electric Sunset) (1971). Currently on view in the Witte Museum’s expansive lobby with The Art of Texas: 250 Years, the work satirically references James Earle Fraser’s End of the Trail of the early 20th century. (Fraser’s original 1915 work can be seen today at the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City.) Jiménez wrote that he’d seen copies of the painted version of Fraser’s drooping, defeated Native American warrior and his likewise sagging horse throughout the West. “And, as I told people at that point, it was more important to me than the MONA LISA. This was ‘Art’ to me as a young kid.” Fraser’s piece represented the widespread — and wrong-headed — view that America’s original inhabitants would become extinct, that indigenous cultures had indeed drawn within sight of the “end of the trail.” Jiménez’ setting sun melting between the horse’s legs and belly derives its golden glow from lightbulbs, suggesting that early 20th-century literature and art proclaiming the demise of the “noble savage” had been just as unreflective of reality as the twinkling tinsel of early cinema.
Back in the southwest to stay, Jiménez settled in Hondo, New Mexico, establishing his studio in a former school. Betty Moody, who visited Hondo often, recalls the artist’s menagerie that included two ravens named Chula and José. Neighbors and other Hondoites would bring him coyotes and other roadkill animals that he’d place in a freezer for study. “There were a few exceptions,” the artist wrote. “The rattlesnake [in my lithograph] was not a real rattlesnake. I had a bullsnake that size that lived in my studio. It was a pet; her name was Honey.”
Though it preceded his death by more than a decade, the catalog for a 1994 retrospective, MAN ON FIRE / EL HOMBRE EN LLAMAS, organized by the Albuquerque Museum, remains one of the premier gleanings of his lifetime body of work. It even includes childhood drawings of skeletons and a photograph of a concrete polar bear that father and son crafted for a dry cleaner’s sign. But a slow turn through the pages post-RTTSW (return to the southwest) reveals why he is regarded as a major figure of the American canon. In a catalog essay, Shifra M. Goldman cites the “outsider viewpoint” of rasquachismo as an important component of Jiménez’ art. Quoting Tomás Ybarra-Frausto’s 1988 essay, Rasquachismo: A Chicano Sensibility, she notes that the phenomenon stems from a “funky, irreverent stance that debunks convention and spoofs protocol. To be rasquache is to posit a bawdy, spunky consciousness seeking to subvert and turn ruling paradigms upside down… .”
A 1974 exhibition at Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston served as Jiménez’ primary introduction to the Texas art world. As Betty Moody said of her amazement upon walking into that show, “I’d never seen work like that before.” Artist and curator Benito Huerta had a similar response and one that burrowed even more deeply into his personal perspective. Not only had he “never seen sculpture and works on paper packed with such vibrant overload,” as he noted in an Artlies remembrance of his friend Luis, “but even more significant was the awareness that if this Chicano artist could have a one-person museum exhibition, so could I someday… .” And in addition to later having his own one-person museum exhibitions, Huerta curated the traveling exhibition Luis Jiménez: Working Class Heroes, Images from the Popular Culture, which opened at the Dallas Museum of Art in 1997.
“Seen in depth,” observed Dallas writer Charles Dee Mitchell of the DMA show in Art in America, “Jiménez’ work creates a world where raucousness and pathos hold equal sway, where pointed social commentary coexists with a feel for the heroic dimension of everyday lives. His figurative style is a distinct blend of sinewy Baroque forms and cartoonlike, Pop energy.” And while other contemporary artists have utilized fiberglass as a fine art medium, Mitchell notes that Jiménez’ adoption of techniques “used in making airplane fuselages, racing car bodies or figures for the midway” is singular and unique.
“I really needed a material that is a statement in itself,” Jiménez said in 1984, “one that can incorporate color and fluid form, the sensuality that I like. Somehow the fiberglass seemed to do that.” In fact, these works have often been so statement-making — and sensual — that they have overshadowed his fine prints and works on paper. “He was extremely adept at making lithographs and other prints and loved making them,” says Betty Moody. “At the time of his death, we were planning a show of his drawings.” Prints that stand out for me include his Honky Tonk and Rodeo Queen series created at Landfall Press in the 1970s and ‘80s. The figures’ sweaty glamor and robust sexuality speak of a boots-on-the-ground authenticity, albeit a stylized authenticity. Jiménez at the OK, a 1975 graphite on paper work announcing an exhibition at New York’s OK Gallery, depicts the artist on horseback, spraying the letters with an airbrush gun.
I met Luis in 2006 when he came to Flatbed Press in Austin to create the print, La Voz de la Frontera, as a benefit for Texas Folklife’s live performance programming based on my book, Border Radio. And I found him to be the most down-to-earth internationally known artist one could imagine. We talked about how he would listen to the borderblaster XELO out of Juarez while working in his studio. Weeks later, I was half-asleep in an El Paso Holiday Inn, the local TV news on at low volume, when I drowsily heard the news of the artist’s death. It was… hard to hear, hard to believe.
This past spring, New Mexico newspapers carried a story about a “Luis Jiménez Trail,” a guided route to his publicly accessible work in Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, and Arizona that was being organized by his family. And I know where I’m beginning the trek on my next trip to El Paso. Plaza de los Lagartos! The alligators at San Jacinto Plaza. “They used to have live alligators in the center of the plaza,” the artist wrote in the Man on Fire catalog, “but I really don’t know where they came from. As a kid when I’d go shopping with my grandmother or with my mother, we would take a bus and go to the downtown plaza …It was important that the alligators were there because I was fascinated by them.” The gators lived in a plaza pond from 1889 to 1965. When the city approached him about doing a public piece in the mid-1990s, he proposed bringing the alligators back in fiberglass. And thus we have the four cavorting members of the family Alligatoridae. One flails upwards with its stubby legs outstretched as if beseeching the vast Chihuahuan Desert for the rain that gives life… .
*Other versions of Fiesta Jarabe can be seen at the Otay Mesa border crossing in southern California, on the campus of the University of New Mexico, and at the Fine Arts Center in Colorado Springs.