Luis Cruz Azaceta: Interview

Date: 06/2008
Interviewed by Jorge J. E. Gracia

The interview was carried out through the Internet

[Gracia] Luis, tells us something about who you are, where you were born, about your life and education.

[Azaceta] An assignment as a student at the School of Visual Arts, NYC sort of encapsulates my personal history. We were asked to write a brief statement on where we were when the bomb went off. The essence of the story: I was 3 years old riding my tricycle around and around, around and around
Under the mango tree.
My mother called, "Luisito, where are you?"
Riding, round and round waiting for a mango to fall down.

I have a painting from 1994 entitled 1942—the year I was born. The Polaroid images are things from around the studio such as: my clothes, tubes of paint, parts of my body that create a frame of reference to the artist in the studio. At that time I was working with combining images, photos and words or numbers and did this work. I started with the self portrait in the middle of the canvas and then wrote the large numbers (1942) followed by the polaroid's that frame part of my face, tilting one of the polaroid's to break the square—to create tension. Then I stared drawing the lines emanating from the eye spot. Last, was a bucket of shellac thrown onto the canvas to seal the charcoal of the head and also to create an immediacy---risking everything (risking destroying the painting but counting on the hope that it would actually seal it).

Also I have two photo collages of my parents. The one of my father with model airplane F47 and tools and wire on wood, approx. 24" x 28". In this photo my father was 90. He was an airplane mechanic in the Cuban airforce for 33 years. He was born in the province of Las Villas, Cuba. My father & mother came to the US in 1966 to join the family in NY. The one of my mother entitled Ia (1998, María Azaceta de Cruz), photo collage on wood, 8" x 6".

My mother was born in Tampa, Florida and her Spanish parents emigrated to Cuba when she was 3 years old. I grew up with all the Azacetas in Almendares, Marianao. My mother was the oldest of 7 children. My 4 uncles all worked in the family business begun by my grandfather. It was a carpentry shop that made furniture, doors , windows, etc.

[Gracia] Did you always know you were going to be an artist? When did you know you were going to be one, under what circumstances?

[Azaceta] When I came to the US, I went to live with my Uncle Carlos and his family in Hoboken, NJ. I started working 3 days after I arrived in November, 1960. I worked in a trophy factory in Brooklyn where my uncle was a foreman in the carpentry dept. After two and a half years I was fired because of Union involvement. This time of unemployment made me reflect on what I wanted to do with my future. I felt uprooted, without identity and this led me to paint. I was buying art supplies for the first time the day Kennedy was assassinated. I started painting on my own and later heard about School of Visual Arts and applied and attended on a merit scholarship.

As a child, I was able to draw. My earliest memory goes back to kindergarten when I saw colored papers that captured my attention. I loved to play juxtaposing different colors and making "rehiletes" with the colored papers.

[Gracia] When did you leave Cuba?

[Azaceta] I left Cuba in November, 1960 because I was forced to join the army and didn't want to do so. Also the political climate was unstable with much violence on the streets that I witnessed as I went to work in the pharmacy in El Vedado.

[Gracia] Tell us about the circumstances under which you left Cuba, and how you did it.

[Azaceta] I was the first in my immediate family to leave. My uncle in New Jersey claimed me so that I could get a resident visa from the American Embassy in Havana. I waited 3 days in lines of hundreds of people outside the American Embassy to apply for the visa. Outside passing trucks full of people screamed at us in line---harassing, cursing and circling around us. I flew out on Cubana de Aviasion with the clothes on my back, no money and a raincoat in hand for my arrival in NY.

[Gracia] Where have you been after you left Cuba?

I went straight to NY and lived in Hoboken, NJ for 2 and half years. After that I moved to Queens and stayed in New York for a period of 32 years. In 1992, I moved with my wife, Sharon, and my two sons, Emile and Dylan, to New Orleans.

[Gracia] Why do you live in New Orleans and not Miami, unlike most Cubans?

[Azaceta] My wife is from New Orleans. I had become established as an artist which allowed us to leave and I found New Orleans to be a city that is very Caribbean in nature—the climate, diversity of food, music, etc. A charming city for us to raise our youngest son. I have a painting entitled Going South (1992), acrylic on canvas, 10 x 10 feet.

[Gracia] How has your career been as an artist? Difficult, successful?

[Azaceta] I've always painted full time and worked part time. That's a big sacrifice because I hardly made enough money to cover the basics to survive. I knew early on that I needed to paint full time in order to grow and develop. The early days were difficult—I traded works for things I needed, family provided hand me downs, furniture, food, etc. and I managed without a lot of comfort. My family, while supportive, was also very skeptical and concerned about how I could make a living as an artist. I ignored any negativity and was driven by my passion, tenacity and determination to develop my own voice.

After graduating from School of Visual Arts, I kept painting and working at night at NYU library. I waited 5 years before I sought out gallery representation because I wanted to have a fully developed body of work with my own iconography. I was 32 years old when I approached the Allan Frumkin Gallery and began to show there, in New York.

I developed a series of subway paintings –unstretched canvas with cut-out attachments. These works represented me well and I showed them in my first exhibition in 1975 at the Allan Frumkin Gallery, New York. Examples of works from the subway series are: 6th Ave Local (1974), 92" x 54" oil, subway map/canvas; Ji Ji Ji Express (1975), 70" x 45" oil, cardboard/canvas; Caca Express (1975), 78" x 96", oil/canvas; Keep Your Hands (1974), approx: 75" x 54" oil/canvas.

In my first show I didn't sell anything. Mr. Frumkin took pity on me and purchased some of my work. He always supported my vision. I remember in 1980 a dozen gallery dealers were asked to choose an artist's work to place in a show called "For Love or Money". Allan chose my work to represent his gallery…of course it was for love, not money. However, he did began to sell my work and place it in important collections
starting in the early ‘80s. The first major museum to purchase my work was the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The new acquisitions were shown in the exhibition there called "The Age of Anxiety". One of the works was The Dance of Latin America (1983), 77" x 92", acrylic/canvas, now in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC.

Also, I should mention that the first grant that I received (which gave me much needed support and encouragement) was the Cintas Foundation Grant awarded to me in 1972 and then again in 1975.

[Gracia] At the present time, do you work only as an artist or do you have another job as well?

[Azaceta] Since the early ‘80s I've been just doing my work. I did have a couple of Visiting artist gigs for one semester at UC Davis, CA, LSU, Baton Rouge, LA; UC Berkeley, CA; and then in 1984 at Cooper Union, NYC. Since that time, I have been only doing my work---which I feel is a great privilege.

[Gracia] Describe your work—are you mainly a painter? What informs you? Is there something unique and personal that you do?

[Azaceta] I'm primarily a painter but since the late ‘80s I began to incorporate photos and objects in some works. I think of myself as a visual artist---I think boundaries in terms of media were blown apart back then and most artists think of themselves as visual rather than tied to one particular medium.

Since I moved to New Orleans I've been doing a lot of photo collages and sculpture—Probably informed by the make-shift environment of the city. In New Orleans, nothing's square, everything seems to be rigged up or shimmied. I find beauty and poetry in the distressed neighborhoods. Perhaps this is a similar aesthetic to my work.

Rob Storr (former curator at MoMA/where my wife, Sharon, worked for a decade) in a passing conversation with Sharon made a comment referring to my work in general: "... in Luis's work you always find a transgression, a break, whether the work is abstract or figurative there's always that element of dissonance. For example, Oh What A Wonderful World (1992), approx. 10 x 10 feet, acrylic and photos on canvas. This was one of the first paintings I made when I moved down to New Orleans.

[Gracia] Has there been different periods in your work? How has being out of Cuba influenced your work?

[Azaceta] I work in series. The content usually establishes the style or look of the work. The content or themes that I have addressed through the years include urban violence, Latin American dictators, self-portraits as both victim/aggressor, Cuban refugees-Balseros, war, terrorism, the aids epidemic, love, racism, cells & nano bacteria, environmental and man-made disasters—Katrina, the city as place, and lately a series of museum plans.

As a Cuban-American artist I have worked very much in isolation, contrary perhaps to Cuban artists in Cuba who have emerged as groups—that allows for an exchange between them I have never experienced here. I feel that I have an inverted relationship with the Cuban artists---I've been seeing through time certain common ground. For example, I see a lot of Cuban artists who depict knives in their work (Carlos Alfonso, Jose Bedia, Carlos Estevez and many others), kind of like a big butcher knife—a form that I had used in my work back in the ‘70s. What's interesting is that it's the same type/form, same archetype of knife. And like the balsero, which I first used in my work back in 1967 (before it was called balsero), and through the 80s I did a lot of works dealing with it. In fact, I've done so many, that people think I crossed by boat to come to this country. Here are some examples: The Journey (1986), approx: 10 x 10 feet, acrylic/canvas, now in the collection of Mary Anne Martin, New York; Despedida (1967), approx: 12" x 16", oil/canvas.

[Gracia] How does your work relate to contemporary art in general and to Cuban art, past/present, in particular?

[Azaceta] I emerged in the ‘80s in New York with artists dealing with identity, urban issues, and Aids. My work has been seen in galleries and museums as contemporary art. Since I became an artist in NY, I never really knew much about Cuban art history. Except of course, for a few well known artists like Lam and Carlos Enriquez. In terms of contemporary Cuban art, I feel we run parallel. The first show I participated in as a Cuban in exile along with mostly artists living in Cuba, took place in Mexico City at Nina Menocal Gallery in 1991. The show was called, "15 Artistas Cubanos" and I was represented with a work called "Journey XI" (1991) which is a self portrait head in an inner- tube balsero.

Some publications that would place my work in context with artists living in Cuba include:

Cuba: La Isla Posible by Ivan de la Nuez (Barcelona, 1995).
Cuba Siglo XX Modernidad y Sincretismo by Ivan de la Nuez (Barcelona, 1996).
Memoria: Cuban Art of the 20th Century by Al Nodal and Maria Vives (2004)

And one publication of Cuban artists in exile:

Outside Cuba/Fuera De Cuba by Fuentes Perez, Cruz Taura & Pau Llosa (1989)

[Gracia] Is there any Cuban artist or any other artist that's influenced your work?

[Azaceta] After graduation I went to Europe for 3 weeks and visited museums. The artist that made a big impact on me was Goya, especially the black paintings. Goya made me think what kind of artist I wanted to be. Also, Picasso has been an inspiration and an example of a prolific and inventive artist. I also like Frank Stella and others like deKooning from the NY school that influenced by work in terms of paint application, geometry and experimentation.

[Gracia] Is it correct to say your art is primarily visual? Does it have a conceptual direction? What guides your work?

[Azaceta] I'm a visual artist—so of course my work is visual. Every artist has a conceptual direction---for me it's a need to express an idea; a need to communicate; to reach out---a conceptual continuity in my work is creating certain consciousness.

[Gracia] Part of your work has Cuban content (like the balseros), why?

[Azaceta] I deal with certain themes that affect me personally and us collectively.
This is a Cuban experience that is very close and part of our reality. I think that the image of the balsero while it is Cuban is also universal in depicting isolation, horror and displacement.

[Gracia] Where does your inspiration come from? Personal experience, visual, memory….? How do you start working? Tell us something about the process of creation.

[Azaceta] My work is inspired by the environment and my surroundings which create an awareness. In terms of process, sometimes I have in my head roughly what I'll depict. That idea is challenged by the process of drawing and painting or adding elements to the work. The process can lead you to an unknown situation that may be unexpected and mysterious. My work is very immediate—I don't do preliminary drawings, because it inhibits the large scale paintings and inhibits me. I feel limited from a small scale drawing to a large scale painting. Also, I think of drawings as autonomous. Sometimes an idea seen in a drawing can trigger a painting or the other around as well.

[Gracia] Has your recent work illustrate these interests and process?

[Azaceta] Yes, for the past few years I've been working on two series: The Museum Plans and Post Katrina works. The Museum Plan series explores new territory and looks towards the museum as subject. A museum where space and strategies come together to formulate a plan for viewer's perception and consciousness; a cultural container that toys, elicits, and moves one's thoughts and placement. In making these paintings I begin with the outline structure -- a somewhat architectonic form that evolves into many absurd and playful pathways. The seriousness of the black line is played against the absurdity of elements that don't belong in these spaces, transgressions--entries/exits, tunnels/cavities, contraptions, computer chip remnants, control panels, threads, erotic angles, wires, toys --elements in shifting spaces that stream into multiple directives. The image I sent you to include--STRATEGIC MUSEUM PLAN FOR BAGHDAD--was triggered by the TV images of chaos and anarchy that took place in the museum there where precious artifacts were ransacked, looted and destroyed--a locale where civilization began. How ironic.
Post Katrina works were by life line back to the city. Witnessing the devastation, neglect and on going struggles and other experiences in New Orleans feed this work. One example is the image I sent you called --SWEPT AWAY-- an installation -- 24 by 36 feet where homelessness,displacement and the paradox of water -- life-giving and life-taking -- reside. This work will be shown November 1, 2008 as part of PROSPECT 1 NEW ORLEANS--the first international biennial on US soil.

[Gracia] Fascinating! But now that we are talking about places, what about Cuba? Would you return to Cuba if conditions changed?

[Azaceta] I usually flirt and dream with the idea of going back, especially with being almost 50 years of living in exile. In 2000 I tried to visit along with members of the New Orleans Museum of Art who had planned a trip for the Havana Biennial, but the Cuban government denied my visa…so I couldn't go with the rest of the group. The ideal condition as an artist, would be to live in both places---the US and Cuba.

[Gracia] Would you be happy to do something else if you were not an artist?

[Azaceta] If I had remained in Cuba, I probably would have become an air force pilot because that's what I would have liked.

[Gracia] Is the sacrifice involved in being an artist worth it?

[Azaceta] Yes. To accomplish anything requires many sacrifices. If you have the drive, passion, dedication and tenacity to follow your path—any sacrifice is worthwhile.