Nearly unknown in the United States, Abraham Ángel (1905–24) stands as a pivotal figure in the history of twentieth-century Mexican art. In the early 1920s, he painted a series of portraits — most of them larger than life — of young men and women in Mexico City; the works possess a sense of modernist aesthetic, and of the social freedoms possible in the rapidly modernizing metropolis. Paradoxically, however, they remain rooted in Mexican folk art traditions. Seen at the time, and since, to embody a new, nascent idea of Mexicanidad, or national identity, Ángel’s work has always had an outsized reputation and influence, undoubtedly serving as a model for better-known artists who subsequently worked to reconcile modernism with the vibrant popular arts of Mexico, such as Frida Kahlo and María Izquierdo. Most remarkably, Ángel accomplished this within the span of three years, and as a teenager, no less. A prodigy, he began to paint in 1921 at the age of 16 and produced only two dozen works, but when he died tragically at 19, ostensibly of a cocaine overdose (whether it was accidental or a suicide remains a subject of debate, nearly a century later), he was mourned with a posthumous catalogue of his paintings that featured panegyrics by notables in the Mexican art world.
The exhibition at the Dallas Museum of Art, Abraham Ángel: Between Wonder and Seduction, is the first devoted to his work in 35 years and the first ever in the U.S., and includes 20 (all but one) of Ángel’s surviving works. Organized by Mark A. Castro, the DMA’s former Curator of Latin American Art, the show begins with the 1923 Self-Portrait, a bust-length depiction of the artist before a mountainous landscape. Flanked by a pair of twisty trees and some small rural buildings, including a church in the middle distance, the artist poses dead center, the golden yellow of his collarless shirt at the picture’s bottom popping with the bright blue sky at the top.
But it is the way he looks at us from the painting that proves most arresting. His head turned down and to one side, he throws a sidelong glance back at us, coquettishly, his full lips pursed, his dark hair slicked down in glossy waves. Ángel portrays himself as both androgynous and seductive, a remarkably self-assured self-representation given that he was only about 18 at the time. Here, he suggests the specificities of personality with seemingly unsophisticated means. The artist’s use of flatness, dark outlines, saturated color with little modulation, rough brushstrokes, and rudimentary perspective and volumetric modeling make the painting appear cartoonish or childlike, as if created by an untrained artist. Ángel was, in fact, largely self-taught, and the question of whether his naïve style resulted from a lack of skill tends to linger around his works. Yet, the charmingly incisive characterization of the Self-Portrait, along with a few works of a more academic cast (one, a surprisingly Ingres-esque pencil drawing, the 1924 Portrait of an Unknown Sitter, is not, unfortunately, included in the exhibition), argue that the awkwardness of Ángel’s art was a deliberate and strategic choice.
What formal training Ángel did have was under the guidance of Adolfo Best Maugard, a painter who had developed his own drawing method, based on a set of seven abstract motifs derived from pre-Hispanic art, that purported to lend an identifiably Mexican authenticity to modern art production. Best Maugard’s method, officially promoted by the Mexican government, influenced a generation of artists in the 1920s who sought to develop a particularly Mexican modernism in the service of expressing the identity of a nation reborn in the wake of the Mexican Revolution. This group of mostly easel painters, who adopted Ángel as their youthful sui generis champion, formed one main branch of the artistic vanguard in Mexico; the other was Mexican muralism, led by the redoubtable Diego Rivera, who penned one of the encomiums after Ángel’s death.
Three small early works in the exhibition demonstrate Ángel’s command of Best Maugard’s method, their fanciful compositions constructed from a variety of lines and dots. Two prominently feature butterflies, while the third, titled Butterfly (1922), depicts human/butterfly hybrids, along with a two-headed serpent and a squiggly flower vase that could have come from Pee-wee’s Playhouse or the Memphis Group in the 1980s. For all their decorative folksiness, these drawings form a substantial part of Ángel’s tiny oeuvre, and one wants to find some sort of seriousness in them. This reviewer, for one, is tempted to see them as coded self-portraits of a sort, mariposa, Spanish for “butterfly,” serving as longtime and often derogatory slang for a gay man.
Ángel was, indeed, gay, moving in with another painter in Best Maugard’s circle, Manuel Rodríguez Lozano, sometime early in 1922. About a decade Ángel’s senior, recently divorced and returned from Europe, Rodríguez Lozano quickly became the younger painter’s friend, lover, and mentor, as well as, after Ángel’s death, a forceful advocate of his legacy. The exhibition and its catalog rightly observe that the apparent open secret of their relationship constituted a big deal in the still conservative and Catholic Mexico of the time, and points to the loosening of social strictures, at least in the progressive cultural milieu they occupied. A minor quibble: the exhibition’s texts insist on referring to Ángel as “queer,” which comes across as anachronistic. While the use of “queer” to refer to male homosexuals does appear to date back to the Jazz Age, it formed a term of opprobrium and was not reclaimed as a political gesture by those it sought to denigrate until sometime in the late 1980s. Moreover, as it is widely used today, “queer” implies a community of non-normative sexual and gender identities beyond only gay men, a community for which, in Ángel’s case, the exhibition presents no evidence.
A pair of portraits of each other by Ángel and Rodríguez Lozano might offer some insights into the dynamics of their relationship. Painted in 1922, within a year of their meeting, Ángel’s Portrait of Manuel Rodríguez Lozano shows the older artist in profile against a small patch of verdant landscape with palm trees and a volcanic mountain. He appears slightly gaunt, possibly from a recent illness, but ruggedly handsome with a beard, a shock of unruly hair, deep-set eyes, and an aquiline nose. One of Ángel’s most naturalistic portrayals, it speaks to an impulse to record the beloved with accuracy and truthfulness.
Portrait of Abraham Ángel by Rodríguez Lozano, on the other hand, painted in 1924 after the sitter’s untimely passing, pictures the late artist as a kind of fey modernist harlequin, wearing a one-shoulder number with a pattern of alternating rectangles and set against a backdrop of lozengelike leaves. His recognizable long thin nose, high forehead, and pushed-back wavy hair remain, but Rodríguez Lozano renders him with Expressionist or Fauvist panache, equally interested in demonstrating painterly flair as in capturing a likeness. And Ángel looks out of the picture to the left, not meeting Rodríguez Lozano’s gaze, perhaps because that was no longer possible or because Rodríguez Lozano could no longer bear it. If we are to believe one of the stories handed down, Rodríguez Lozano had precipitated Ángel’s death by his faithlessness.
Most of Ángel’s best portraits, the works on which his reputation deservedly rests, picture close friends and family. The painter himself occupies the center of The Family from 1924, with his mother, Francisca, in profile on the left and his sister Amelia on the right. Standing in a strangely barren landscape with six palm trees, orange and blue clouds writhing above like a baldachin, Ángel sports a conventionally formal pinstriped suit and a tie, the type of garb in which he was most often photographed, and looks down towards his mother. Amelia, however, gives the same sly side-eye and Mona Lisa smile that the artist proffered in his Self-Portrait, her upraised hand brushing her modest décolletage to complete her flirtatious mien.
While, as far as we know, Ángel based his portraits on individuals, his naif manner (faux or not) ensured that his sitters, particularly the young women, tend to look quite similar. Several paintings show such women alone or in small groups, sitting or standing in front of townscapes and windows, and any viewer would be hard pressed to pick these figures out of a crowd. But, with their bobbed hair, unconstricting dresses, and air of easy informality, they do represent a type — not flappers, exactly, but young people coming of age in a time of increasing liberation and opportunities for women. The painter’s style, however, coupled with the decidedly un-cosmopolitan settings, recalls the untrained painters of the Mexican hinterlands and, in particular, the ex-voto paintings offered up in thanksgiving in churches throughout Mexico since the eighteenth century.
In this balancing act, walking a line between a forward-looking and sophisticated modernism and nostalgic untutored tradition, Ángel found his sweet spot, with one singular painting embodying the contradictions that mark his works. The 1924 Portrait of Cristina Crespo, the sister of an art critic friend of the painter, gives us a young woman with bobbed dark hair, a piercing stare, and a near scowl. In an elegant black dress with blue polka dots, she holds a walking stick under a moonlit night sky, almost goth in her intensity. Behind her, Ángel divides the landscape in two. On the left, behind a row of trees lining an unpaved street, a flat façade with narrow openings suggests not only traditional Mexico but also a knowledge of the enigmatic deserted arcades of the Italian painter Giorgio de Chirico, created about a decade earlier. But on the right, a huge transmission tower rises above a modern city. Taller than the moon, the tower and its web of extended power lines speak of the electrifying transformations convulsing Mexico in the first part of the twentieth century, and the commanding Crespo becomes their avatar, poised precipitously between the old and the new.
On a wall at the end of the exhibition, four paintings picture male sitters. Ángel’s Portrait of Hugo Tilghman (1924) shows an athletic artist friend in a tank top. He stands hieratically, his face turned to the left in profile but his body facing us, one arm bent at a right angle and stiffly crossed over his torso holding a tennis racket. Ángel has taken care to provide a convincing likeness and muscles, yet Tilghman’s hands seem odd and tuberous. In the background, two figures dressed identically to him play tennis, making it appear that he watches himself volley with himself — a dreamlike situation that bears affinities with the Surrealism just then being launched in Europe, but also with the synoptic narratives often found in Mexican ex-votos. Another panel by Ángel, The Cadet (1923), features a young man who resembles the artist walking along a street at night, his coat collar rakishly turned up.
Rodríguez Lozano’s Portrait of Salvador Novo (1924) portrays a similar young man in the back seat of a car, presumably a taxi, as it traverses a city intersection late at night (the clock on a building seems to read either 9:00 or 11:45). And a quite wonderful painting by another artist in Ángel’s circle, Roberto Montenegro’s Portrait of Xavier Villarrutia (c. 1921), employs an old master-ish style to depict the poet as an elegantly besuited dandy, one gracefully attenuated hand holding a book. Together, these four paintings, as the wall labels and exhibition catalog convincingly argue, show us a male world of homoerotic desire, furtive assignations, nocturnal cruising, and coded identities. A label, for instance, tells us that Novo was known to have a thing for blue-collar taxi drivers. This tantalizingly brief glimpse into the artistic and literary gay scene of early 1920s Mexico City proves utterly irresistible, and one hopes that the Museum or Castro, the show’s curator, is already at work on an exhibition that will examine this further.
Ángel’s painfully short trajectory left an indelible mark on the Mexican art world, not only on his peers and artists, like Kahlo, who emerged in the years following his death, but on multiple generations that followed. We might even see distant echoes of his influence in the work of gay artists of the 1980s and ‘90s, such as Nahum B. Zenil or Julio Galán. In the contemporary, post-Guston art world, of course, expressing serious intent with a light touch and a jocular style has become commonplace. Might it be too much of a stretch to see Ángel as a precedent for someone like Salman Toor, who deploys caricature and cartoon to limn a world of budding possibilities, both clandestine and joyful, for young gay brown men from repressive societies? Abraham Ángel: Between Wonder and Seduction gives us a seldom-seen slice of the Mexican art world at the dawn of the modern age and allows us to imagine such expanding queer lineages.
Abraham Ángel: Between Wonder and Seduction is on view at the Dallas Museum of Art through January 28, 2024.