Luis Cruz Azaceta

Interview with Friedhelm Mennekes


Luis Cruz Azaceta. Museum Plans Series

Originally written for Wynwood. The Art Magazine. Images courtesy of Bernice Steinbaum Gallery.


Luis Cruz Azaceta (Havana, 1942) is an artist whose work carries the indelible imprint of displacement. The solitude, cultural and linguistic isolation, and the certainty of no longer belonging anywhere has marked his view of the world since he immigrated to the United States from Cuba at the beginning of the sixties. Throughout his career, his works have continually exuded that feeling, whether veiledly or explicitly. His perspective is that of a displaced individual attempting to find a personal route in the midst of that strange labyrinth that is identity.

Nevertheless, in spite of having experienced exile firsthand, his work is not contaminated with the stereotypes we tend to find in many Cuban artists. In an interview with Edward J. Sullivan in 1998 on the occasion of his exhibition, “Bound,” in New York, Luis Cruz Azaceta would state: “What I try to do in my work is to go from the particular to the universal statements.” This strategy is precisely what has saved him from the ordinary and has allowed him to gain important standing within the mainstream of contemporary American art.


Luis Azaceta's Museum Plans

Originally written for Code. Images courtesy of Bernice Steinbaum Gallery.

There is almost nothing in Luis Cruz Azaceta’s Museum Plans, his recent exhibition of mixed media at the Bernice Steinbaum Gallery, that makes one think of 1980’s New York. Certainly, there is a path one can follow in Azaceta’s stylistic transformation, from those garish, colorful, idiosyncratic self-portraits, reflecting the Neoexpressionist Geist of the Reagan years, to this more sober, abstract, less iconoclastic, nonetheless thought-provoking work of today. In the mid-1980’s Azaceta appropriated “la balsa” (the raft image), made it his signature and pursued it relentlessly, this is before the raft became “cool” in the art of the Bedias and the K-Chos of the world.

It was the right symbol for the times: The decade of Capitalist self-indulgence and excess, solipsism was in the air. Azaceta’s self-depiction was not an excuse for reverberation and self-aggrandizement (Clemente, the Italian painter being a notorious example). Instead, Azaceta made his rafter alter-ego a trademark for revolt and self-definition. What better cipher than the bearded, hirsute looking artist, quixotic, alienated nomad, paddling his way through labyrinthine loops, network crossings, fragile grids and mechanic entrails? Then, toward the mid-1990’s as the mazes got bigger, the rafter got smaller and smaller until it got swallowed by a part-mechanical, part-digital mind-boggling system (it was not a coincidence that Azaceta decided to move to New Orleans). This new work hints at a formal -as well as material- development.


Artist Luis Cruz Azaceta at the New Orleans Museum of Art

Notice the poor little man splashing around near the bottom of Luis Cruz Azaceta's painting "Swimming to Havana." Even if he were to somehow escape the high cement walls of the angular pool of water that contains him, he'd still be trapped in the maze of jagged abstract shapes that twine around the edges of the canvas. There's no way out. Not physically. Not psychologically.

Azaceta, 67, sees the 90 miles of shark-infested ocean between the United States and his native Cuba as a watery Berlin Wall. For 50 years, many Cubans on the island have longed to cross over to a new life in the United States, and many Cuban exiles in this country have pined to return to the home they once knew. For well-known political reasons, the trip is very difficult, in either direction.

Azaceta said that for some, the desire to flee or to return "becomes like a mental trip, like a dream."

He tries to capture that sense of unreality in his work.

On a cold morning last week, Azaceta gave a tour of his Tchoupitoulas Street studio as he prepared for a pair of exhibitions: "Swimming to Havana, " which goes on display today in the Great Hall of the New Orleans Museum of Art, and "Exile Fifty, " which opens at Arthur Roger Gallery on Jan. 9.