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Enrique Alf³rez: Art and Life

The sculpture of Enrique Alf³rez

The sculpture of Enrique Alf³rez has left an indelible mark on the city of New Orleans. From his first commission in New Orleans in 1930 until his death in 1999, Alf³rez undertook a steady stream of public and private commissions that ranged from the streets of the Central Business District to uptown homes. His most celebrated works, however, are the public works begun under the sponsorship of the Federal Art Program funded by the Works Progress Administration (WPA), which brought art to public spaces and federal buildings across the country in the 1930s. Unlike many artists working for the WPA, Alf³rez continued to work in this arena for the next 60 years, sustaining the idealistic spirit of the public art of the '30s. His work is so carefully woven into the urban fabric that much of it has receded into the shadows of history. Thus, this exhibition serves as a long overdue historical and critical re-evaluation of the artist's life and work.

The Life

Born the son of an artist in northern Mexico in 1901, Alf³rez came of age during the Mexican cultural revival in the Teens and Twenties. In 1925 he continued his studies in the Chicago studio of sculptor Lorado Taft, where he executed several public commissions before relocating to New Orleans in 1929. He was planning to depart the United States from New Orleans -- en route to Mexico -- when he decided to stay. Unknowingly, this initiated a cycle that, with few interruptions, found him in Mexico in the summer months and back in New Orleans the remainder of the year.

Passionate, opinionated and extroverted, Alf³rez made a strong impression on all who met him. He led a remarkable life and many of his adventures have become legend. The facts themselves are dramatic enough. Early on he was taken into the band of infamous Mexican Revolutionary Pancho Villa. In Chicago he earned a living climbing the Wrigley Building wearing a pair of tennis shoes to raise and lower the flag. He was mistakenly declared dead in Mexico in the late 1930s; his obituary was published in New Orleans and he was mourned in the French Quarter. In 1930 he became a teacher at the Arts and Crafts School, and was soon known as one of the most distinctive characters living in the French Quarter. As with many individuals whose public perception is always larger-than-life, the recounting of these and many other legendary stories has obscured, and even replaced, a genuinely critical analysis of his life and work.

The Art

Alf³rez's artmaking was nurtured by a deep understanding and lifelong investigation of the complexity and paradoxical nature of life. The direct passionate link between art and life, a powerful bond that still speaks to the viewer today, sustained him throughout his long, prolific career. He purposefully resisted the rapid aesthetic changes and stylistic trends of the post-World War II art world. Having matured in a climate energized by the cultural rebirth that grew out of the Mexican Revolution, Alf³rez was committed to a vision of art that was at once idealistic and democratic. Grounded in the collective idealism of the period, these artists believed in public art that was physically and intellectually accessible. This belief in a democratic art was further reinforced by his studies under Lorado Taft, during which time Chicago was witnessing a building boom and with it an integrated approach to art, architecture and urban design that sought to rival New York. At once nurturing and serious, Taft's pedagogy offered his students solid training in the figurative academic tradition combined with a new spirit of contemporary art prevalent in Chicago.

For Alf³rez the expressive possibilities of the human figure in art were endless and preoccupied him over eight decades. Stylistically his work did not evolve in the traditional linear path characteristic of many artists working in the twentieth century. In an era of abstraction, Alf³rez clung to the figure as metaphor and symbol. When many artists and critics argued for the separation of art and life, Alf³rez felt they were one and the same.

Looking at his public and studio work, several influences are at once apparent. Like most Mexican artists of his generation he could not escape the powerful ancestral legacy of the art of pre-Columbian Mexico. Also, his use of clear elemental forms is dramatized by the open dynamic energies prevalent in the art of the Colonial Baroque, the European influenced art of the Catholic church in Mexico. After service in the army he spent eight years in Europe, four in Paris, and another four in Italy (1945-53). These years found him particularly drawn to the classicism of the Italian Renaissance. And finally, Alf³rez also absorbed the lessons of modern art. Early photographs show him in his studio sitting in front of figures built of cubist broken geometric planes, and his entire generation was impressed by the emotional impact of expressionism, two elements of modernism. The Legacy

Enrique Alf³rez lived two years short of a century in a time marked by radical historic and aesthetic change. The Mexican Renaissance, the Great Depression, World War II and the accelerated change of the post-War world ushered in an era of cultural, political and social transformation. His work remained constant in a time of change, anchored by the idealism of the 1930s. When comparing him to other artists of his generation, it is important to remember that Alf³rez was Mexican in his formation and international in his outlook; he worked outside the formalistic confines of post-war American art.

This exhibition is intended to serve as a reintroduction to the remarkable life and art of Alf³rez, as well as an introduction to many works that have never been publicly exhibited. The familiar bronze sculptures are supplemented in the showing by terra-cotta figures and preliminary drawings. The leather goods, furniture and ceramics were originally intended for daily use and not for exhibition. These, and the many public works that still stand in their original sites, attest to the enduring power of Alf³rez's skill, idealistic beliefs and vision. His art, although grounded in the past, still speaks to the vitality of the human spirit and consistently addresses what the French painter Henri Matisse very early in the twentieth century identified simply as "the joy of life."

David Houston
Chief Curator
The Ogden Museum of Southern Art, University of New Orleans

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