Interview: Curator Mark A. Castro on the Legacy of Mexican Artist Abraham Ángel

by Lauren Moya Ford December 10, 2023
Self portrait of the artist in profile

Abraham Ángel, “Self-Portrait/Autorretrato,” 1923, oil on cardboard, 31 7/8 x 28 1/4 inches. Museo Nacional de Arte. INBAL/Secretaría de Cultura, Mexico City.

Next year marks a century since the death of Abraham Ángel, one of Mexico’s most beloved but most enigmatic modern artists. Born in 1905 in a small mining town to a young Mexican mother and a wayward Scottish father, Ángel survived the difficult years of the Mexican Revolution. His arrival to the nation’s capital as a teenager opened up a life-changing pathway to art. 

Ángel received some drawing instruction in Mexico City early on from the artist Adolfo Best Maugard, but he was mostly self-taught. A young, confident, and openly-queer wunderkind, Ángel stood out even among gifted contemporaries like Miguel Covarrubias, Carlos Mérida, and Rufino Tamayo. His paintings spoke with their own distinctive voice, and the Mexico City art world took notice. 

Already at age 16, his work began to depict the nation’s new sense of Mexicanidad as it rapidly developed; drastic changes in Mexican society and environment are at the center of Ángel’s colorful portraits and landscapes in oil on cardboard. After his untimely, still-mysterious death at age 19, Ángel was eulogized by some of Mexico’s most prominent creatives and thinkers. His former teacher Best Maugard remembered Ángel this way: “Seldom has the spirit of our people taken shape so completely been more intimately linked with Art; his works are truthful accumulators of national life.”

Abraham Ángel: Between Wonder and Seduction at the Dallas Museum of Art is the first display dedicated to the artist in the United States. The show offers visitors the rare opportunity to see all of Ángel’s extraordinary surviving paintings, and it gives us a sense of his vibrant spirit. I recently spoke with Dr. Mark A. Castro, the exhibition’s curator, about this special artist and exhibition.

Installation view of large scale paintings in a gallery

Installation view of “Abraham Ángel: Between Wonder and Seduction.” Courtesy the Dallas Museum of Art.

Lauren Moya Ford (LMF): I really was excited when I saw that the exhibition of Ángel’s work at the DMA was happening, because I’d only ever seen a couple of images of his paintings before. 

Mark A. Castro (MAC): It’s funny, I obviously know a lot about the artist, but even I have to say that there was a moment where I thought, “I’m finally going to see all of his surviving paintings in one place, and I have no idea what this is going to look like,” since there hasn’t ever been a show of this many of his paintings, or a show dedicated to his work for almost 35 years. I didn’t know what I was going to think when I saw the finished exhibition, but it exceeded all my expectations.

LMF: Something I was struck by when reading the catalog was how fundamental Ángel was to his art scene at the time. For example, Diego Rivera remembers him as “the painter of Mexico City.” Ángel died at only 19 years old, but so many around him seemed to already view him as a very important artist.

MAC: He knew these artists socially, and met a lot of them in the cafes, bars, and at the parties that he was going to first when he was one of the young painters working with [the Mexican artist and educator] Adolfo Best Maugard and later with [the painter and Ángel’s partner] Manuel Rodríguez Lozano. He was very plugged into this social network of artists and thinkers, and over time they began to know his painting. 

Portrait of a woman seated in front of a window

Abraham Ángel, “The Girl in the Window/La chica de la ventana,” 1923, oil on cardboard, 51 1/8 x 47 1/4 inches. Museo de Arte Moderno. INBAL/Secretaría de Cultura, Mexico City.

What’s so interesting is that Rivera, to use him as an example, is not someone who was particularly keen on Ángel’s type of work in terms of its focus on portraiture and easel painting, which doesn’t have the bombastic nationalist messaging that Rivera felt was important. Nor was Ángel making a popular art form like Rivera’s murals. Yet Rivera also was an incredible appreciator of skill, talent, and of people who were trying to take Mexican art in a new direction and break with the European academic traditions of the past. 

Many artists knew Ángel because he was so young and because he was meant to be the first in a new generation of painters. These are artists who are training and coming of age after the Academy has lost its influence and after the Revolution has ended. In the minds of some, they’re the first generation of authentic Mexican painters. They aren’t going to Europe to study; they’re learning things at home, and they’re looking at ancient Mexican art and arte popular

When Ángel dies suddenly, artists like Rivera feel they’ve been robbed of this person who represents their hopes for Mexican culture. That plays a huge role in how they eulogize and create this legend around who he is.

Portrait of a seated woman

Abraham Ángel, “Portrait of Cristina Crespo/Retrato de Cristina Crespo,” 1924, oil on cardboard, 53 7/8 x 47 5/8 inches. Museo Nacional de Arte. INBAL/Secretaría de Cultura, Mexico City.

LMF: Ángel’s paintings of Mexican modern women and the Mexico City queer scene really captured important developments that were happening in Mexico at the time, from the ways that the landscape was modernizing to changes in social identities. He himself had a complicated identity too, didn’t he?

MAC: Yes. He’s born in this rural part of Mexico, where the industries are controlled by foreign, mostly French and British, companies. His father is an older Scottish man, and his mother is a young Mexican woman. The children are raised Protestant, but after the father dies, they’re baptized Catholic. It seems like they learned English, but primarily spoke Spanish. Then Ángel moves from this poor part of the country to Mexico City with his family, and suddenly he’s living in this ultra bohemian, vanguard place and moving in those circles. 

All these things are at play in his paintings about how the country is changing, how the city is changing, how people are changing, and how he is changing. I think one of the messages that emerged in the show is that, despite what we might know or not know about the end of his life, Ángel did find a community and a sense of belonging among these artists. 

Installation view of large scale portrait paintings in a gallery

Installation view of “Abraham Ángel: Between Wonder and Seduction.” Courtesy Dallas Museum of Art

LMF: One thing that I noticed when I saw the pieces in person after seeing them in photos in the catalog or online was that Ángel often painted on cardboard. He wasn’t the only one in his group who was working on cardboard. What were the reasons for using this material at the time? 

MAC: It’s interesting that it’s not remarked upon more in the literature about him and some of these artists. People have occasionally referred to Ángel, Rodríguez Lozano, and Julio Castellanos as ‘The Cardboard School,’ because a lot of them painted on cardboard at this time. But no one really talked about why, per se. I think there are a couple of reasons. This is early days for cardboard, so it’s a little more rigid and hardy than the Amazon cardboard boxes that we see today. Part of the motivation is definitely that it was accessible and probably cheap. I think the other thing is that it was a modern material. This was a time in which Mexican artists were trying to break with the academic past and forge their own identities. Leaving behind oil on canvas to experiment with this new material makes a lot of sense in that context. 

LMF: One of the most radical and powerful messages from the show is that Ángel was extremely young and openly queer, and seemed to possess an amazing sense of self confidence in himself and his work. 

MAC: I wanted to start the exhibition with Ángel’s self portrait from 1923 that you see as you enter the show. I look at that expression on his face and that pose, and I think, “That’s someone who, even though he’s 18, is completely sure of himself.” And although he may be young, I think you see in that portrait who he is: a very confident young artist who knows his own mind. There’s something about that cock of the head, that half smile, and that side eye that seems to say, “I see you and I see you looking at me, and I know what I’m doing.”

Portrait of a man in profile

Abraham Ángel, “Portrait of Manuel Rodríguez Lozano/Retrato de Manuel Rodríguez Lozano,” 1922, varnished tempera on cardboard, 22 5/8 x 17 5/16 inches. Museo de Aguascalientes. INBAL / Secretaría de Cultura.

LMF: It occurred to me that it must be difficult to make a retrospective for an artist that was only 19 years old when they died. 

MAC: It’s always something I’m tripping over. His career was three years long, so you can’t think of his career in the way you would think of other artists’. It’s also hard for people to avoid speculating about what he would have done artistically if he had lived longer, or if he had developed in a different way. There were even some people who were like, “How can you really have a great painter who only paints from age 16 to 19?” So it has been something that I’ve had to navigate, but I just often point to the endurance of his legacy. After 100 years, he’s still going strong in the collective imagination of people who are interested in modern Mexican art. This is now his third major monographic show, and he’s been featured in countless others. 

I say to people that with 20 paintings — 24 if we count the paintings that are lost — he was able to achieve what some artists are unable to achieve with 5,000 works. He is part of the story of modern Mexican art and Mexican art in general, and always will be. There must be something there to achieve that. I think that the paintings speak for themselves.

Family portrait with three individuals

Abraham Ángel, “The Family/La familia,” 1924, oil on cardboard, 63 x 48 inches. Museo de Arte Moderno. INBAL/Secretaría de Cultura, Mexico City.

LMF: It may be tricky to make an exhibition about someone who died so young, but there isn’t a sense of heaviness or mournfulness to the show. In person, you really feel like you’re suddenly immersed in Ángel’s bright, colorful, and diverse world.

MAC: You know, if you’re fortunate as a curator, you make a lot of shows. I’ve made a good number at this point, but this is, for me, probably the one that’s dearest to my heart and one of the ones that I’m most proud of. 

There’s this posthumous quote from one of Ángel’s brothers in the catalog about how as a young man he was always singing and running around and being funny. That really pushed me, because I didn’t want the story of this artist to just be that he died young. I think there’s a great opportunity in this exhibition for visitors to jump into his world for a moment and to feel all of that life and verve and vibrancy, because that was, I believe, the way he lived. Ángel was full of life, and that life is in his paintings. 


Abraham Ángel: Between Wonder and Seduction is on view at the Dallas Museum of Art through January 28, 2024. It will travel to the Museo de Arte Moderno in Mexico City in the spring of 2024.

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