Michael Tracy, 1943 – 2024

by Roberto Tejada July 2, 2024

Michael Tracy, impassioned maximalist of the Texas-Mexico borderlands, remembered by a generation of artists across the Americas, died peacefully at his studio compound in San Ygnacio, Texas, on June 15, 2024. He was 80 years old.

A highly saturated orange non-figurative abstract painting.

Michael Tracy, from the “August” series, 2013-2015, photo: Hickey Robertson

With his feverish large-scale works and visceral performances that exalted the senses by refuting the brutality of human history, Mr. Tracy established himself as “one of the most radical and prolific insider/outsider artists practicing in the U.S.,” according to Adam Weinberg, Director Emeritus of the Whitney Museum of American Art. “Working in relative isolation in the desert of South Texas — and intermittently visible to the international and national art world — Tracy produced some of the most transgressive and heterogeneous bodies of work in painting, assemblage, installation, performance, photography, and video.” Mr. Weinberg observed that the artist’s “unsparing yet elegiac approach upended art historical and religious tropes and reconceived the notion of ‘the sacred’ for the present.”

Mr. Tracy incorporated the dramatic sensuality of European baroque painting and the vivid pageantry of Catholic ritual, together with cultural emblems and ceremonial objects found in Mexico’s indigenous societies. His surfaces abounded in solid planes or swaths of gold, crimson, ember, and ash, alongside vividly encrusted sculptural works that are unparalleled in contemporary art. His imagination held capacious space for religiosity, homoeroticism, and historical violence expressed over a fifty-year period through distinctive modes of working. Tracy envisioned the artist as an officiating priest entangled by — and driven to expel — the foundational horrors of European colonization in the Americas and its afterlife in current U.S. hemispheric policy. He wrote: “To carve an aesthetic out of realization of pain, suffering, and death — can one live doing that?”

Born in Bellevue, Ohio, in 1943, Mr. Tracy was raised Catholic in the repressive Cold War climate prior to Stonewall and the civil rights movements. He went on to study literature and art as an undergraduate at St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas (B.A., 1964), and the Cleveland Institute of Art, Ohio (1964-1967), with graduate training in studio art at the University of Texas at Austin (M.F.A., 1969). Having settled near Houston in the port city of Galveston, he first gained attention in museum shows that included Seven Gold Paintings in 1971 at San Antonio’s McNay Art Institute (now Museum), and two 1972 exhibitions, Six Paintings at the Art Museum of South Texas, Corpus Christi, and Paintings and Drawings at the University of Houston’s Sarah Campbell Blaffer Gallery (now the Blaffer Art Museum). 

A gallery with large scale framed black and white photographs

Michael Tracy, images documenting “Sugar Sacrifice,” 1974,  photo: Hickey Robertson

His breakthrough, Sacrifice I: The Sugar, was a 1974 action involving the artist and several assistants who together enacted a sacrificial destruction. The performers impaled bronze spikes into one of Mr. Tracy’s own large-scale monochrome canvases (For H.B., 1972), which had been wrapped around an armature. As a processional and sacrificial object, it was raised by forklift onto a salvaged wooden platform serving as a mock altar. The artwork doubled as a tortured body thus offered to a monumental pile of raw sugar, pyramidal in shape, and stored within the vast interior of Galveston’s Imperial Sugar Warehouse. The specific cargo and material site of Sacrifice I evoked a deeper history of extractive economies and slave labor in the Americas.

For the late art critic and poet Thomas McEvilley, Sacrifice I offered a “primal statement in the symbolic debate about the value of painting that occupied much of the art of the 1960s and 70s” after Duchamp “had demonstrated that quitting art could be a form of artwork, an artistic statement,” In Mr. McEvilley’s view, among the many artists who unsettled “the ethical value of civilization’s delicate obsession with the masterpiece,” no statement came “closer to the passional roots of the question than Tracy’s.” 

A shrine-like sculpture comprised of framed images and small structures sits before a large wall-sized painting.

Michael Tracy, “Cruz to Bishop Oscar Romero, Martyr of El Salvador,” 1980-1981, photo courtesy of Museum of Contemporary Religious Art, St. Louis, MO

In 1978, Mr. Tracy relocated to San Ygnacio, 35 miles south of Laredo along the U.S.-Mexico divide, once a frontier outpost and among the oldest communities along the borderlands. In subsequent works made there in his chiefly outdoor studio, he furthered his encounter with the history and culture of Mexico and his critique of U.S. military involvement in Central America with such monumental cruciform altarpieces as Cruz to Bishop Oscar Romero, Martyr of El Salvador (1980-81) (Museum of Contemporary Religious Art, MOCRA, Saint Louis University). The work mourned the political assassination of the Catholic Archbishop of El Salvador and served as an indictment, Tracy wrote, of the “daily madness and terror and the insane waste of war.” 

Describing this work and others of the period (Cruz de la Paz Sagrada VII: A América Latina, 1981-83), the late curator and critic Edward Leffingwell wrote of a “color presence that ranges from burnished bronze to Titian red and gentian violet. The crosses, recalling the ideogram in Tracy’s vocabulary of pain, atonement, reconciliation, and transcendence, are heroic images of suffering and power… the crucifix a complex sign for the passion and transformation of martyrdom, a cry for a theology of liberation.”

A dark gallery hosts large scale sculptures.

Michael Tracy, “Stations of the Cross,” 1989, photo: Hickey Robertson

Mr. Tracy’s visits to Mexico City in the 1970s eventually extended into longer stays. By 1978, he had met the Mexican artist Eloy Tarcisio during an opening at the Galería Pecanins where, a year later, Mr. Tracy featured in his first Mexico City show. In 1984 he rented a studio space “across the airshaft” from that of Mr. Tarcisio, in one of the many neglected colonial buildings along the vibrant working-class streets of the downtown centro histórico. Mr. Tarcisio recalled that such a recognized artist “was very important in Mexico because he took many Mexican artists to the U.S. — he promoted them — and here he influenced a lot of people.” As Mr. Tracy gained critical attention from New York writers Roberta Smith, Peter Schjeldahl, Susan Platt, Bill Berkson, and Michael Brenson, his work was welcomed with exhibitions at premier Mexico City venues, among them the Centro Cultural/Arte Contemporáneo (Michael Tracy: Las Estaciones de la Cruz, 1989). 

He turned his studio on Calle Licenciado Verdad into a makeshift residency and improvised gallery space. Artists who had met Mr. Tracy in Texas — Thomas Glassford, Ethel Shipton, and Alejandro Díaz — arrived in Mexico City and soon formed part of a burgeoning art scene that included artists Aldo Flores, Sylvia Gruner, Eduardo Abaroa, and Pablo Vargas Lugo, as well as curators Guillermo Santamarina and María Guerra, from Mexico; but also expats Eugenia Vargas Pereira (Chile), Francis Alÿs (Belgium), Melanie Smith (UK), Ibrahim Miranda (Cuba), and art writer Lorna Scott Fox (UK), all of whom lived, worked, and socialized in the orbit of Mr. Tracy and that downtown building. 

Multimedia artist Thomas Glassford, to this day a Mexico City resident, described Mr. Tracy as having supported a generation of emerging artists in that nascent 1990s scene by collecting their work and providing a space of conviviality. Mr. Glassford related that, while still an architecture student at the University of Texas at Austin, the elder artist encouraged him to energize the momentum that would lead to his own artistic practice. Ethel Shipton wrote that Mr. Tracy’s influence allowed her “to other” — as in “other ways of moving the way of seeing, other ways of being.” Alejandro Diaz, too, recalled how Mr. Tracy altered the trajectory of his work. “I learned how artists could affect and engage with a community or affect society at large. Most importantly: he taught me that artists have a responsibility to stand up to social injustice and corrupt systems of power.” And Aldo Flores described Mr. Tracy as someone who “took us all under his wing” and promoted our work “inside and outside Mexico.”

A photograph documenting a performance in a river with a large sculpture on fire and a figure in a boat next to it.

Michael Tracy, “The River Pierce Sacrifice II,” 1990, photo: David Crossley

These exchanges informed yet another of Mr. Tracy’s major works, a “collaborative action,” The River Pierce: Sacrifice II, which took place on Good Friday, April 13, 1990, in San Ygnacio, Texas. An assembly of “two hundred artists, writers, activists, friends, neighbors, and a documentary and support staff” joined in a “binational procession and sacrifice” — the ritual destruction of Mr. Tracy’s sculpture Cruz: La Pasión (1982–87). The event was inspired, on the one hand, by San Ygnacio’s yearly Via Dolorosa and, on the other, by fellow artist Henry Estrada’s vision of a floating altar set ablaze on the waters of the Rio Grande/Rio Bravo, the U.S.-Mexico geopolitical dividing line. Over a mile-long path leading to the river were fourteen 20-foot wooden crosses, made by Eloy Tarcisio, marking a Via Crucis. Artist Eugenia Vargas led a semi-ancestral performance with other participants, fully nude, covered in mud, and draped in deep-fuchsia silk fabric. With a substantial production staff, a choir, photographers, and film crew, the participant witnesses included artists Thomas Glassford, Ethel Shipton, and Abraham Cruzvillegas; critics Edward Leffingwell and Thomas McEvilley; photographers Graciela Iturbide, Keith Carter, and Oweena Fogarty; the poet Norma Cantú; the Jesuit priest, Peter Neeley, S.J., who celebrated mass; and a panel of experts including human rights attorney Frances Tarlton “Sissy” Farenthold and U.S.-Mexico border historian Manuel Ceballos. 

“Living on the ‘northern’ edge of the Rio Grande, on what officially is the edge of Latin America,” Mr. Tracy wrote, “has had immeasurable impact on my life and work. I have had a front-row seat in the ongoing drama of two distinct cultures hemorrhaging into each other; the physical migration itself, the cultural nullity, the sociological angst and despair, and the legal miasma. The monstrous political cynicism has infected my soul and heart, and probably my body.”

A series of non-figurative abstract paintings installed seamlessly on two gallery walls.

Michael Tracy, “Speaking with the Dead,” 2008-2009, photo courtesy Michael Tracy Foundation

An artist for whom words were of the essence, Mr. Tracy’s journals and artist’s books explode with sentences written in his uniquely swarming, frenzied script. In his late works, he began to view his own art in terms of language; a complex of physical efforts, historical strata, and memory worlds suggested in the thickness of paint, including scraps of studio clutter, and other discarded materials, even plastic bags that once contained pigment. He titled a 2013-2015 series Speaking with the Dead, canvases thick with tar-colored acrylic that suggested transformative life processes of decay and preservation, as though a slurry of semi-solid compounds kept the deep past a secret within its fossil record. “What’s at stake in these works,” he observed, involves “the unity of script and body — remember Nagiko, the protagonist of Peter Greenaway’s The Pillow Book? She’s left to dream out loud: ‘I can now make my own list of things that make the heart beat faster.’”

In the last decades of his life, Mr. Tracy devoted the bulk of his efforts to preserving San Ygnacio’s architectural patrimony, to restoring the Treviño-Uribe Rancho of 1830, one of few extant examples of colonial frontier architecture in the Hispano-Mexican tradition, and to supporting the town’s present-day placemaking, the acquisition and restoration of an important National Register District. Christopher Rincón, Executive Director of The River Pierce Foundation, which manages Mr. Tracy’s legacy, seeks to continue that work providing “educational events for local and regional artists who have seasonally participated in symposia, poetry readings, art and environmental workshops.”

A highly saturated orange non-figurative abstract painting.

Michael Tracy, from the “August” series, 2013-2015, photo: Hickey Robertson

Art historian E. Luanne McKinnon, editor of the forthcoming monograph Michael Tracy: Art and Writings, notes that although Mr. Tracy has been “lauded for his iconic artworks from the 1980s that were an outcry against the genocide in Latin America, in the last several years he turned his attention to the genocide of planet Earth.” The artist grew “increasingly preoccupied with the thinking of the French Jesuit paleontologist, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin” whose “writings were placed under a Vatican monitum for ‘dangerous ambiguities and grave errors’ expressed in his theory of the integral relationship between humanity and the rest of matter in a constantly evolving universe.” These writings inform the artist’s late style, especially given the Jesuit’s “conviction, as both a scientist and a theologian, that spirit and matter coalesced in the human experience” — a confirmation of Mr. Tracy’s cherished themes that coupled “environment and space and infinity” to art’s rhythmic vitality and healing powers, its “sacred mysteries.” 

A non-figurative abstract painting with black and grey shapes.

Michael Tracy, “Crucifixion II for Ann Bright,” 2018-2021, photo: Kevin Greenblat

Mr. Tracy believed that “all the things we think of as finished are somehow a timely departure rather than a process brought to some order of completion. I want someone else to fill in the blanks….”

 

Please visit the River Pierce Foundation to be notified of the upcoming memorial in San Ygnacio.

7 comments

7 comments

Camille Lyons July 2, 2024 - 11:00

I feel privileged to have had Michael Tracy’s work in my gallery (LyonsMatrix Gallery) in the 90’s. His world view was unique and exciting and of course his sculptures were beautiful. Michael allowed me to have a few sculptures and what was his Magnum Opus The Caravaggio Notations. The caveat was that they could only be viewed in storage and couldn’t be advertised.
A more recent memory was making a pilgrimage to San Ignacio during Holy Week. He set out a beautiful brunch and entertained royally using his trademark fuschia table linens. He will be missed.

Reply
Margaret Adams July 2, 2024 - 15:59

Michael loved each of us in his very wide and deep community. His voice so honest snd urgent Often reached my ear to impart the important news of the day. Once after midnight he arrived to inform me that Jackie Kennedy would marry Onassis. Of course. Michael loved people the stuff of drama and source of every story. I will try to hold his memory for as long as I can .
Margaret

pressing news of the day. I remember being awakened to learn oof of Jackie Kennedys marriage to Onassis.

Reply
Robert Ziebell July 3, 2024 - 18:01

The Making of River Pierce

https://vimeo.com/8623195

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KATHRYN DAVIDSON July 6, 2024 - 12:54

Michael Tracy was a passionate artists. I was a Curator at the Menil Collection when he came to visit. We had a small exhibit of his some of his works in the Museum. He also created a marigold flower arrangement outside the Rothko Chapel at that time.

Rested a

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MaryRoss Taylor July 7, 2024 - 10:37

Loved him. Miss him.

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bill crawford July 7, 2024 - 11:31

Did Michael speak Spanish?

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MaryRoss Taylor July 11, 2024 - 13:49

Yes, according to Christopher Rincon…

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