Layers: Collecting Cuban-American Art

Acosta, Missing Link 2005, Acrylic on Canvas, 3' x 14".

Acosta, Missing Link 2005, Acrylic on Canvas, 3' x 14"

This exhibition took place at the main gallery of the University at Buffalo. It included work from many living Cuban artists who reside in the United States. Work from three collections were exhibited: the collection of art historian Lynette Bosch, the institutional collection of Lehigh University, and the collection of philosopher Jorge Gracia. From Buffalo, the collection traveled to the College of the Holy Cross. The exhibition explored the ways different collectors collect art that is focused on questions of ethnic identity.  

On this page

Foreword: Discovering Identity

Few questions can be more significant to a person than, Who am I? And few questions can be more important in this country today than, What makes a person a member of an ethnic group? The first question is significant because it determines to a great extent how each person should act. And the second question is important because its answer identifies people and establishes the parameters of collective action within the nation. Both are identity questions that go to the root of who and what we are.

            The idea of gathering a group of scholars to explore these questions in depth in the context of the experience of an important ethnic group in this country constitutes the rationale behind the National Endowment for the Humanities Seminar entitled “Negotiating Identities in Art, Literature, and Philosophy: Cuban-Americans and American Culture” that will take place in Buffalo between June 11 and 30, 2006. The Seminar assembles fifteen faculty members from colleges and universities across the nation who have come together to explore the ways in which social groups, and particularly Cuban Americans, have worked out their various identities. I have been fortunate to have Lynette M.F. Bosch, Professor in Art History at SUNY Geneseo, and Isabel Alvarez Borland, Professor of Modern Languages at the College of the Holy Cross, join me as directors of this Seminar.

            “Layers: Collecting Cuban American Art” is an appropriate complement to the Seminar. It makes possible not only the visual encounter of Seminar participants with the work of Cuban American artists, but it also illustrates how Cuban-American collectors of art have negotiated their identities qua collectors. Thanks to it, Seminar participants, and the public at large, will be able to see both how Cuban American artists have enriched American culture with unique contributions and the way in which they have worked out the relation between their Cuban heritage and American identity. Experiences such as exile and memory, that have shaped the contribution of Cuban Americans to American culture, are revealed in it and establish bridges to the experiences of other immigrant groups who have encountered similar situations and have had to negotiate their original identities within the American context. The exhibition, as the Seminar, should be of interest to anyone interested in a wide range of disciplines, from philosophy to literature, including comparative literature, English, modern languages, American studies, history, Latin American studies, ethnicity and race studies, political science, sociology, and anthropology.  —Jorge J. E. Gracia

Foreword: Descubriendo la Identidad

Pocas preguntas pueden ser más importantes que una persona que: ¿Quién soy yo? Y, algunas preguntas pueden ser más importante en un país en este país hoy que: ¿Qué hace que una persona miembro de un grupo étnico? Esta exposición trae atención a la práctica, el proceso, y el método de coleccionar arte como medio de descubrir la identidad. Las pinturas, esculturas, fotografías, esculturas y grabados de edición limitada incluidos aquí indican una gama de estilo y presentación visual que se encuentra en arte Cubano-Americana.


This exhibition has been made possible with the support of the Samuel P. Capen Chair in Philosophy, who gratefully acknowledges:

    Carolyn Korsmeyer, Chair of Department of Philosophy

    Staff of the Department of Philosophy

    Elizabeth Zeron, research assistant to Gracia and responsible for the webpage

    The artists for their permission to use the art

    The collectors who lent the work, Gracia, Bosch, Viera

    Lehigh University for lending us the works

    Jorge Santis, Curator, Cuban Collection of Art, Fort Lauderdale Museum of Art,
    for informal advice at the very beginning

    Sonia Feigenbaum, National Endowment for the Humanities,
    for support and advice at the

About the Exhibition

Photographs at the UB Art Gallery Exhibition

This exhibition brings attention to the practice of collecting art as a means to discovering identity. The paintings, sculptures, photographs, prints, and videos included in the exhibition indicate some of the range of style and visual presentation found in Cuban-American art. In particular, the exhibition highlights the process and methods employed by three collectors, Lynette M.F. Bosch, Jorge J.E. Gracia, and Ricardo Viera, who have assembled three distinct collections of Cuban-American art. Representative works from each of the collections are here displayed and the three parts of this essay describe the varied selection criteria used by each collector. As Cuban-Americans, Bosch, Gracia, and Viera represent collectors who have linked their professional activities and their personal lives to their interest in art. “Layers” demonstrates that collecting art can be a scholarly endeavor, a search for self-knowledge, and an affirmation of identity. The three collections involve the acquisition of desired objects and the discovery of shared experience through a process of ownership and self-discovery. Such a process creates a link between objects and lives that is personal, intimate, and expressive of the collector's need to connect with a communal past.

            The collection assembled by this essay's author includes a discussion of the artistic intentions of the chosen artists. This group formed part of a larger research project, culminating in the book, Cuban-American Art in Miami: Exile Identity and the Neo-Baroque (Ashgate Press, 2005). Jorge Gracia collects for personal pleasure and as an adjunct to his philosophical and scholarly interests. Some artists included in Gracia's collection correspond to those in Bosch’s collection, thus these shared artists are discussed in the first part of this essay, with discussion of other artists following in the part involving Gracia.

            Ricardo Viera, the Director of Galleries at Lehigh University, independently curated the extensive photography component of this exhibition. A significant discussion of all the artists selected by Viera is not possible within the modest parameters of this catalogue, but those reproduced in this catalogue are briefly discussed. The third part of this essay focuses on Viera as an institutional collector bound by the regulations to which he is subject.

            This exhibition also brings together the work of representative members of different waves of exiled and immigrant Cuban-born artists who have settled in the United States, since 1959, following Fidel Castro’s Revolution. The first arrivals came after 1959 and before the October Cuban missile crisis of 1962. Additional arrivals included the 14,000 children who formed part the Peter Pan Operation, sponsored by the Miami Catholic Archdiocese. In 1962, the Cuban government stopped emigration, until 1965, when the “Freedom Flights” began to bring new waves of exiles and artists. In 1980, the exiles from the Mariel boatlift brought another wave of Cubans and artists to Miami. Since the early 1990s, the collapse of the Soviet Union precipitated another exodus and raft people (balseros) that continues.

            Some Cuban-American artists came to the United States as adults. Others came as children or adolescents, and others have been born in this country. The relationships and interactions between these groups are complex and diverse. All are joined by their divided identity, split between their Cuban and American sides and by their experience of exile, which for many has been the defining element in their lives. According to the year 2000 Census, there were 1,241,685, Cuban-born and 544,000, US born, Cuban-Americans in the United States. This constitutes a significant population, which provides a context and an audience for Cuban-American art.

I. The Art Historian as Art Collector: Lynette Bosch

Art historians who specialize in Leonardo da Vinci cannot, in all practicality, buy his works to hang in their homes for the purpose of close study. But art historians who work on contemporary art can own works by the artists on whom they work. As an art historian trained at Princeton University in Renaissance and Baroque art from Spain and Italy, I had always worked on objects to which I was allowed limited access. It was a novel experience to find, when I began to work on Cuban-American art in the 1992, that I could purchase and enjoy works by the artists I studied on a daily basis.

            Each of the artists chosen for inclusion in my research projects came to the United States with the first waves of exiles, who arrived between 1959 and 1979. This group includes some of Cuba’s leading artists, who had established national and international careers in the 1940s and 1950s. For these artists, being Cuban was an assumed part of their identity and their acquisition of an American identity varied significantly. The other artists chosen were those, who, like me, came as children or adolescents, belonging to what Gustavo Pérez-Firmat has labeled, the one-and-a-half generation. It is this group that is truly bicultural as their Cuban identities were not fully formed when they arrived. Thus, they were able to negotiate their acquired American identities by choice and amalgamate these to their original Cuban culture.

            This synthetic process of cultural blending is akin to the formation of style in art, wherein negotiations between established styles and original interpretations of form create the aesthetic basis for artistic change. A dominant element in the criteria used for choosing the members of the one-and-a-half generation was their employment of Renaissance and Baroque art as a marker for negotiating identity. Within an artistic context, such a marker is an extension of the Neo-Baroque incorporation of Latin American and European Renaissance and Baroque art into the definition of Cuban identity as discussed in the writings of Alejo Carpentier and Severo Sarduy, among others. As a scholar of Renaissance and Baroque art, it was natural for me to gravitate toward collecting and analyzing the work of this group from a personal and scholarly perspective.

            That these artists were Cuban-American, as am I, meant that by living with their work I could also have access to their personal stories and share in the cumulative history of bicultural exile they represent. As each story unfolds in the works of art I’ve studied I gain a greater understanding of my own personal history and struggle with my identity as a Cuban and an American. The path I’ve traveled is revealed in the discussion of the work of the artists with whom I’ve lived for the past sixteen years. Among the included group, Baruj Salinas, Rafael Soriano, and Eladio González belong to the generation of established artists who came as adults. Beginning with Mario Bencomo, the younger artists, who engage with the art of the Renaissance and the Baroque in a postmodernist, Neo-Baroque stylistic current, are discussed alphabetically.

Baruj Salinas (b. 1935, Havana, Cuba)

            Baruj Salinas arrived in Miami, in 1961, determined to recreate the artistic world of Cuba in exile. His efforts partly formed the nucleus from which Miami’s current art market developed. Salinas negotiates three identities, balancing Jewish, Cuban, and American culture in his life and work. As a member of Cuba’s Modernist generation, his style is abstract, with suggestions of organic forms, such as clouds, foliage, and landscape elements. Colors flow into each other and a signature use of white provides the accent that characterizes his work. An interest in Jewish mysticism pervades the paintings and prints created by Salinas, along with expanded cultural references that can include his interest in Asian philosophy and religion.

            These interests are evident in Flow-Up (1998; Plate 13) and Fuji. Fuji is Japan's archetypal mountain. Flow-Up is suggestive of spaces of infinity, linked to the circle used as the Buddhist sign of eternity and oneness in existence. Here, Salinas slightly breaks to suggest the imperfection and division, much as his Cuban, American, and Jewish identities remain divided, yet joined by his existence and experience. Next to the broken circle appears a penca, a palm frond emblematic of Cuba.


Rafael Soriano (b. 1920 Cidra, Cuba)

            Transcending a state of exile requires a strong spiritual base if one is to overcome the sorrow of loss and learn to live life anew in an adopted country. Rafael Soriano has devoted his effort to the explorations of the metaphysical side of exile. He immigrated to the United States in 1962 and settled in Miami. In Cuba, Soriano had been Director of the School of Fine Arts in Matanzas and the President of the Galería de Matanzas. As with Salinas, Soriano belonged to Cuba’s Modernist generation and is an abstract painter, working within an organic sensibility.

            In Nacimiento de la Voluntad (1984; Plate 14) and in the Untitled pastel drawing exhibited here, Soriano takes the spectator into the spiritual space from which the creative act springs. In these works, Soriano’s luminous and organic abstractions are suspended within the infinite void. Deeply spiritual in presentation, yet linked to the organic world of form and shape, Soriano’s images interpenetrate the spaces that separate the material from the spiritual. As such, they are concrete renditions of his unshakeable belief in God and providence.


Eladio González (b. 1937, Itabó, Cuba)

            Eladio González draws inspiration for his work sculptures, and paintings from his mixed Afro-Chinese-European heritage. In 1967, González left Cuba for Spain, arriving in the United States, in 1967. He lives and works in Chicago. González is endowed with a great figurative imagination that relies on abstraction to engage the viewer in the interpretation of reality. As a painter, González plunges the spectator into imaginary landscapes peopled by beings that seem to be constantly metamorphosing into ever-changing identities.

            In both painting and sculpture, González adheres to a style that suggests transformation and metamorphosis of forms and figures in the process of being and becoming. Strongly mystical and erotic, as is evident in Embrujo, Una Mujer Enigmática and in La Gallinita (2005; Plate 8), González’s works occupy a liminal space between material existence and spiritual reality. Thus, his paintings and sculptures resonate with the experience of being transcultural. González never resolves the tensions he raises in his subjects or compositions as he keeps the spectator suspended between being and becoming.


Mario Bencomo (b. 1953, Pinar del Río, Cuba)

            Mario Bencomo left Cuba at the age of fourteen, in 1968, emigrating first to Spain, and then to the United States, where he settled in Miami. His recurring themes reflect an interest in spirituality, mysticism, history, personal identity (as a Cuban-American of mixed Jewish ancestry), time, travel, geography, erotic passion, and ecology. Deeply influenced by the work of Mark Rothko and Vincent van Gogh, Bencomo has created a technique that is a contemporary recreation of Renaissance chiaroscuro, as he paints from dark to light, in series such as If Quebec Were in the Tropics (If Quebec Were in the Tropics II, 2006; Plate 3), Stanley Park, and The Torquemada Series (examples from each are exhibited here). The Quebec series is a meditation on the juxtaposition of Northern and Southern zones. The Torquemada series is a meditation on injustice and the spiritual resistance to political oppression, as embodied by the Grand Inquisitor. The Stanley Park series reflects Bencomo’s ecological interest.

            Bencomo works on paper and on canvas and his wash and charcoal drawings are carefully balanced compositions of light and dark tonalities, where the gradation of shading enhances the spatial possibilities of the two-dimensional surface. In his paintings, Bencomo employs a richer painterly mode marked by swirling lines that are the result of his manipulation of various sizes and shapes of brushes across surfaces of paint of varying thickness. Space is determined by texture, color, and form. Movement is constant and fluid, following the energy patterns and paths of migration of living flora and fauna. Always on the border between abstraction and realism, Bencomo’s paintings are evocative of the balance the bicultural exile maintains between what was left behind and what exists now.


María Brito (b. 1947, Havana, Cuba)

            María Brito left Cuba as part of the Peter Pan Operation, in 1961. She settled in Miami. Her life has been a balancing act between her duties as a daughter, wife, mother, sister, and artist. Brito is a mixed-media artist, equally comfortable working in installation, ceramics, sculpture, painting, and drawing. Her technique mirrors her divided, yet fluid, identities, which represent conflict, negotiation, and adaptation. These elements are evident in Self-Portrait as a Swan, which expresses the desire to fly while being caught by greater forces. Similar conflicts are revealed in the beleaguered protagonist of Study for the Traveler and in Evo (1996; Plate 4), where Adam and Eve are being cast out of Paradise.

            Brito has created a confrontational visual language that frequently draws on imagery taken from the artistic traditions of Catholicism, most frequently from Renaissance and Baroque art and imagery. She uses a ready-made visual vocabulary, based on Catholic imagery, of strong emotional content, sacrifice, suffering, passion, and redemption that parallels the Cuban-American experience of alienation from the motherland and a bicultural life.


Humberto Calzada (b. 1944, Havana, Cuba)

            Humberto Calzada left Cuba in 1960 and settled in Miami. His life and work are focused on recreating his lost country, which remains accessible through memory. Calzada focuses on architecture. Palladian in their simplicity, accurate in their remembered details, Calzada’s houses, buildings, streets, and rooms record the various forms and structures of Cuba’s colonial homes. Renaissance and Baroque architectural elements Classical Corinthian, Doric and Ionic motifs and Spanish tiles blend in Calzada’s invented buildings. The times of day cast their light on his subjects as they sometimes disappear in silent floods, crumble into pieces, emerge amidst luxurious gardens, or become decorated by paintings that echo the work of Cuba’s famous artists. Cuba by day, at twilight and at night, is the enduring theme of Calzada’s meditations. Island in Crisis (2005; Plate 5), El Misterio de la Noche Cubana, and Still Life in Stone are representative of Calzada’s recreations.

            The technique employed by Calzada is in keeping with his reconstructive mission, as he paints with strong colors in flat layers that define plasticity even as they retain the tension between the two-dimensional panel or canvas and the reality of three-dimensional architecture. Calzada is not an illusionist, always remaining at the edge and on the border, while never transgressing the reality of his Cuban past and his American present.


Demi (b. 1955, Camagüey, Cuba)

            Demi left Cuba, in 1962, eventually settling in Miami. Her subjects range from children painted in traumatic circumstances, to family portraits and idyllic scenes of life with her husband, the Cuban-American painter, Arturo Rodríguez. The Park (1992; Plate 6) belongs to the group of paintings that represent the struggle of children who must cope with difficult circumstances even as they persevere to retain hope and humanity. Two Sisters, a family portrait of Lynette and Annette Bosch, presents the sisters as characterizing the cultural hyphens of Cuban-American families. Lynette, born in Cuba, wears an old-fashioned Cuban dress; Annette, born in the United States, wears a more modern blue sailor suit.  An Artist’s First Painting is an idealized portrait of her husband as a child.

            The struggle of coming to terms with the condition of exile is imprinted in the very surface textures of Demi’s works, which mirror the twisted circuits of the lives of the children she paints. The surfaces of the canvasses are heavily paint-laden and the impasto is so stiff that it forms sharp dots, almost pointillist in intent and effect. Rivulets of paint create indentations and protrusions at almost microscopic levels, as though each painting were meant to become a via crucis for the painter as well as her subjects. Technique and imagery are so tightly joined that her thought process flows seamlessly from form to execution, subject, and intention.


Emilio Falero (b. 1947, Sagua La Grande, Cuba)

            Emilio Falero left Cuba as part of the Peter Pan Operation. Falero has always lived and worked in Miami. For him, his identities as an artist, a Cuban, a Catholic, and an American are interlinked and provide the base for a belief in spirituality and the enduring values of humanistic Catholicism as formulated in Renaissance and Baroque artistic culture. Imbued with the strength of faith, Falero’s paintings represent (sometimes ironic) juxtapositions of subjects and images taken from the history of art, which form part of a series entitled Art on Art. Falero frequently contrasts the art of the Renaissance and Baroque with the icons of modern and contemporary art to indicate the lack of emotional depth and the cool presentation of form that has arguably defined art since the early twentieth century. In The Crack (1986; Plate 7), he alludes to contemporary addiction to alcohol or cocaine by including Velázquez’s Bacchus at the center of the work. In The Cross, Ribera’s Christ is seen on a raft, becoming an emblem of those who have crossed between Cuba and the United States.

            Falero’s painting echoes the style of the painters from earlier eras. In a manner of speaking, he becomes the painters he paints as he recreates their technique from the inside, so that he can comment on its significance from the outside. In so doing, he both becomes himself and a painter from the past. Acting as an artistic social conscience, Falero juxtaposes aspects of his identities in layers that artistically evoke his complex Cuban-American life.


Ramón Guerrero (b. 1946-93, Camagüey, Cuba)

            Ramón Guerrero came to Miami as part of the Peter Pan Operation. His death from leukemia cut short his artistic career. His legacy is a series of photographs of portraits, nudes, still-life arrangements, balsas, and views of Miami’s Cuban community. As a photographer, Guerrero sought to incorporate the warmth and spirituality of the religious art of the Renaissance and Baroque into a cold, technological medium. His photographs are bathed with a Baroque chiaroscuro that aims to transcend material existence in order to penetrate the spiritual world through nature. Deliberately, Guerrero photographed his contemporaries, creating portraits of the Cuban-American artists he knew.

            It is, however, in his still-life photographs, that Guerrero came closest to achieving his goal of giving form to the transcendent spirituality he wanted to represent. In these photographs, light and dark hide and reveal form and mystery as he juxtaposes life and death. Still Life with Triangle, Sphere and Mirror is a meditation on destiny and on the outcome of life beyond death.  Still Life with Garlic and Olive Oil (1993; Plate 9) alludes to the staples of Cuban cooking, reminding the spectator of one aspect that defines lo cubano. Still Life with Padura’s is a play on reality and art that juxtaposes Guerrero’s photograph of Padura’s still-life painting with real objects, a visual balance to the Cuban-American identity of both artists.


Juan Carlos Llera (b. 1965, Sagua La Grande, Cuba)

            In 1972, Juan Carlos Llera’s family left Cuba and settled in Miami. Llera is a mixed-media artist who works as easily with traditional oil painting, as he does with manipulated computer-generated photographic and printing processes. Currently, his work is a mixture of computer imaging and traditional painting. The images he creates function as metaphors for Llera’s exploration of identity as he negotiates the threshold that separates his chosen media and his experience as a bicultural exile. His imagery is sometimes derived from Renaissance and Baroque art, through which he attempts to capture a certain spiritual significance.

            In Fear of Flight (2004-2005; Plate 10) and in Untitled (Landscape), Llera’s combination of technology and painting can be seen. The effect created by this mixed technique is dreamlike and suggestive of altered states of perception. His goal in these works is to blur the dividing lines between technology and traditional art and to join representation to abstraction in one image. These works function as metaphors for Llera’s personal identities as Cuban and American.


Alberto Rey (b. 1960, Agramonte, Cuba)

            In 1963, Alberto Rey left Cuba, at age three, and grew up in Barnesboro, PA, visiting Miami every summer. In 1998, he returned to the country he did not remember. Although comfortable with an American identity, Rey began to explore his Cuban side in a series of paintings of Cuban foods, such as guavas and bars of guava. In ex-voto paintings on wood, Rey combined Cuban imagery with the local sights of Western New York State, where he is a Professor of Painting at SUNY Fredonia. In a series of similar paintings, he has explored the rafts and the objects that Cubans bring to the United States as they drift to their new life. Rey’s style is meticulous, representative and evocative of classical painting technique as practiced in the Renaissance and the Baroque.

            After his trip to Cuba, Rey began a series of portraits of Cubans inside and outside the island, meant to include representatives of all the generations of Cubans and Cuban-Americans. In so doing, Rey recreates the art of portraiture practiced in Europe and in Latin American during the Renaissance and the Baroque. His portrait of Arielle Marcus Bosch  (2001; Plate 11) represents a new generation of Cuban-Americans of mixed heritage. Born in the United States, Arielle is a second-generation, Cuban-American on her mother’s side. Her father is Jewish-American, thus her personal history encompasses two populations of exiled immigrants in a combination of identities parallel to those of Baruj Salinas and Mario Bencomo.  Hence, in a newer generation, the patterns of Cuban identity are repeated in the United States.


Arturo Rodríguez (b. 1956, Las Villas, Cuba)

            Arturo Rodríguez left Cuba in 1973, living first in Spain and then in Miami. At the Prado, Rodríguez devoted considerable time to studying Renaissance and Baroque painterly technique and his style is grounded on his in-depth knowledge of the properties of oil paint and it application. As a painterly painter, Rodríguez has successfully welded figure, form, subject and content to execution and style. The images of human interaction he creates flow across the surface of his canvas in the same effortless manner in which thoughts emerge. Rodríguez’s style indicates an artist who understands that the physicality of painting takes precedence and must subsume imagery if it is to succeed as painting first and then as message. It is the message, communicated through brushstrokes on the canvases that has made Rodríguez a powerful voice of the experience of exile, as his work consistently addresses the separation, isolation, mourning, alienation, and transformation of exiles.

            In the series of small untitled paintings belonging to the Bosch collection, Rodríguez has explored individual vignettes belonging to his larger thematic vocabulary of floating, isolated figures engaged in introspective and mysterious activities suggestive of disconnected existence. The larger painting from the Ghost Archipelago series explores the threshold between life and death, and between being and becoming. In each painting belonging to this group, the artist leaves bare the creative process, layering the surface of the canvas in a manner that takes the spectator from the unfinished cloth through the under drawing and under painting to the finished parts. By uncovering the creative process, Rodríguez shares his private world and his creative inspiration with the spectator. He takes us on a journey that evokes crossing from one culture to another and the loss of one life as another unfolds. Figures that fly, perched on unstable supporting structures float and recur in it, reflecting the unceasing internal motion of the divided self.

            The Untitled (1997; Plate 12) painting of a couple suspended in space belonging to the Gracia collection and the pencil portrait of Demi, form part of an ongoing series in which Rodríguez explores his love for his wife. In the portrait, Demi is represented as both dark and light, happy and sad, evoking an ever-changing emotional reality. In the painting, the couple is so perfectly balanced in their interaction that the painting can almost be hung as easily upside down as right side up.

II. The Philosopher as Art Collector: Jorge Gracia

(Based on an interview conducted in September, 2005)

Jorge Gracia is a philosopher and historian, whose numerous books and articles have focused on metaphysics, ontology, historiography, ethnicity, race, and issues of nationality and identity. Recently, he began collecting Cuban-American art. Gracia and his wife, Norma, collect as a family enterprise. As collectors, of remarkably similar taste, their partnership has acquired another dimension. The collection gives concrete form to his children and grandchildren’s ethnic heritage, thus creating a generational link for the Gracias and their descendants.

            A collector of art for thirty years, Gracia’s Cuban-American collection is a new focus. In hindsight, Gracia thinks that the choice of Cuban-America art might have been an indirect result of a visit to New Orleans, a city with strong connections to the Caribbean and to Cuba. The new focus led him to Alberto Rey, whose work he admires and who lives nearby in Fredonia, New York. In February, 2005, Gracia met Lynette Bosch, who assisted him with early acquisitions.

            Collecting Cuban-American art has returned Gracia to his Cuban identity, as lost memories have resurfaced. Unlike many Cuban exiles, Gracia never considered Miami, the lodestone and replacement city it is for other Cuban-Americans. Until recent trips to buy art, Gracia had spent only a few weeks in Miami and only recently has he become immersed in the city’s Cuban-American culture. Nor did his personal history follow the usual pattern for Cuban exiles.

            Gracia came to the United States alone at the age of eighteen by a ferry that connected Havana and West Palm Beach. His father was deceased and his mother and sister stayed to take care of his grandmother. After a short stay in Jacksonville, Gracia went briefly to Miami to learn English. Later, he attended Wheaton College, the University of Chicago, the Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, and, lastly, the University of Toronto from which he received a Ph.D. He eventually settled in Buffalo. Always, Gracia has easily assimilated into American culture. His greatest departure from this assimilation was his marriage to Norma, who is Argentine. Gracia seldom eats Cuban food and does not follow Cuban events closely. When he meets Cubans, there is always a start of recognition of shared culture and a sense of being home, but Gracia does not consciously seek out these moments. His recent foray into collecting Cuban-American art, however, has awakened his sense of national identity.

            In meeting the artists whose work he collects, Gracia has been returned to the world of Cuban social customs and the food, music, ambience and the special kind of Spanish spoken a lo cubano. The direct dialogue with artists also deepened his understanding of the motivation and intention of the works he owns. As Gracia has stated “Owning a Picasso does not mean that you knew Picasso.” These meetings with artists were unexpected, as Gracia originally thought that he would buy works from galleries.

They also confirmed for Gracia that being Cuban is not a homogenous identity. Cubans are a mixed group and along with Latin Americans and Europeans, there are Cubans of African, Filipino, Chinese, Jewish, French and varied Hispanic descent. Gracia has begun recording his meetings with artists in a series of videos, on display during this exhibition. These videos will eventually be given to a suitable institution.

            As Gracia has considered the acquisition of individual works and the work of different artists, he found himself buying a painting from Alberto Rey that brought him back to the moment of his departure from Cuba. Rey’s El Morro depicts the fortress that was built by the Spanish to defend Havana’s harbor. El Morro’s twilight atmosphere is precisely that which Gracia remembers as the 6:30 p.m. ferry left the harbor. Thus has Gracia’s collection amplified and reiterated his memories of his native country.

            Among Gracia’s early purchases are works by Gustavo Acosta, José Bedia, and Pedro Vizcaíno. Unlike the first wave to arrive in Miami, these artists found a ready-made art world where they could continue their careers in professional venues. Thus, their experience varies significantly from the experience of the first group, because by the 1990s, Miami had been transformed from the provincial town of the 1950s into a metropolis of Latin American art and culture.


Gustavo Acosta (b. 1958, Havana, Cuba)

            Gustavo Acosta arrived in Miami in 1991. Acosta’s architectural paintings are based on the artist’s intimate and recent knowledge of the buildings of his native country. These paintings comprise either individual portraits of single buildings or depict panoramic views of sections of Havana or of its streets. Painted in dark tonalities, the imagery is simultaneously gripping and threatening. The dramatic use of earth tones and dull reds and blues dramatizes the atmosphere, producing a chiaroscuro effect reminiscent of Baroque theatric lighting. Missing Link (2005; Plate 1) is a telling representation of one of the icons of Cuban architecture, the presidential palace. What is missing? A legitimate government? A true leader? It is not clear, but Acosta’s suggestive painting opens up many possibilities for reflection in the context of the Cuban situation. Hypothesis of Madness is an image of an asylum, harking back to the schizophrenia produced by the Cuban experience.


José Bedia (b. 1959, Havana, Cuba)

            Gracia was drawn to Bedia’s work because of their shared anthropological interest in Cuban customs and culture. Bedia incorporates the imagery of Santería’s synchretic linkage of African and European religion and culture into his paintings, drawings and installations. In these, scenes of ritual sacrifice and mystery rites recur. Bedia is a practicing palero, that is, a practitioner of one of the African religions that still thrives in Cuba, but he is generally interested in the connections between original cultures from Africa and America. He has traveled widely, collecting artifacts from all over the world, which he later uses in his art. His work until very recently was characterized by a simplicity of line that echoed the work on skins typical of American Indians. His use of color is very sparse, and the design simple. Acerca del Viaje (2001; Plate 2) is a good example of his technique on amate paper. The work is about a trip filled with allusions to both modern transportation and African religious motifs. What trip is he depicting? The one he took to Miami, or a trip of the soul? This ambiguity informs most of Bedia’s work. Bedia arrived in Miami, in 1991.


Pedro Vizcaíno (b. 1966, Havana, Cuba)

            Pedro Vizcaíno appealed to Gracia because of the artist’s playful sense of humor and his graffiti-style, an intentional combination of modernism with color and forms taken from popular culture such as taxis and sneakers. Vizcaíno’s work illustrates well how an important American art current has influenced a Cuban-American artist: pop. Moreover, the simultaneously dirty and bright colors simulate the life of the city, which is brilliant and dirty, optimistic and depressing. He works with materials he gathers from everyday life, like plastic bottless and cardboard boxes. Taxi (2005; Plate 15) illustrates well this technique, with its dirty colors and cardboard materials. Sneaker illustrates both his indebtedness to American art and his deep roots in the Cuban tradition of caricature, play, and humor. Vizcaíno began exhibiting in Miami, in 1999.

            Gracia’s identity as an American scholar has also influenced his selections.  Initially, his criteria for inclusion were quality, affordability, and personal taste. But recently, he has introduced other criteria into the selection process, always guided by his personal taste, formed during student years at the Escuela de San Alejandro and at the School of Architecture of the National University in Cuba. As a scholar, Gracia started his career specializing in medieval philosophy and metaphysics, later adding an interest in social and ethnic identity, particularly Hispanic and Latino identity. Trips to Mexico, Argentina, Peru, Chile, and other Latin American countries have deepened these interests. Thus, collecting Cuban-American art joins his scholarly interests to his personal history. As a philosopher, Gracia seeks to collect works that stress identity and the themes of exile, displacement, and adaptation that generate the philosophical issues attached to the study of emigration and immigration.

            Gracia is now collecting to include representative artists from each of the waves of arrivals to the United States and to other countries. His collection includes the work of the artists discussed in the first essay and above, as well as works by younger artists, such as Carlos Estévez, Tomás López, Rafael López-Ramos (settled in Vancouver), and Víctor Manuel González (working in Argentina). Future plans include acquisitions from Glexis Novoa, Paul Sierra, Leandro Soto, José Franco, and Luis Cruz Azaceta, among others.

            As with most other private collectors, Gracia also considers other factors in his collecting. Price, of course, is a major determinant. But there is also a question of size and taste. After all, this is art to live with and it has to fit the spaces that Jorge and Norma have in their home and those of their children. Space is one of the reasons Gracia does not generally collect sculpture or installations. And he is also concerned with authenticity, for which reason he does not generally collect the work of dead artists. Thus, personal history and identity, scholarly interests and the pragmatic need to have works of art that fit his life are some of the guiding principles that Gracia has developed as he has entered the world of the art collector.

III. The Institutional Curator as Art Collector: Ricardo Viera

(Based on an interview conducted by Lynette Bosch in December 2005 and on some materials taken from the catalogue, Latin American Artists-Photographers from the Lehigh University Art Galleries Collection,  October 6-December 8, 2001. The analyses of the works of five artists at the end have been added by the author of this essay.)

Ricardo Viera came to Lehigh University in 1974 as an Assistant Professor in Studio Art and Gallery Director of Exhibitions and Collections. He was a studio artist with a Diploma from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts of Boston, a BFA from Tufts University, and an MFA from the Rhode Island School of Design. Under his leadership, as Director/Curator Lehigh University Art Galleries Museum Operations has expanded significantly. Viera’s contribution to “Layers” is the photography component.

            Viera arrived in the United States in his late teens as part of the Peter Pan Operation and his Cuban-American identity has always been uppermost in his thoughts. His ability to increase curricular diversity by acquiring photographs by Latin-American artists reconnected him to his cultural heritage. As Viera’s interests in Cuban-American photography expanded, he brought his abilities as a curator to a series of national exhibitions on Cuban-American art. He was one of three curators responsible for the 1987 landmark exhibition, organized by Ileana Fuentes, “Outside Cuba/Fuera de Cuba: Contemporary Visual Artists/Artistas Cubanos Contemporáneos,” which originated at Rutgers University. He was also contributing curator in charge of photography for the seminal exhibition, “Cuba-USA: The First Generation,” curated by Marc Zuver, curator and director of Fondo del Sol Art Center (Washington, DC), in association with the National Museum of American Art. And he was the curator of the Cuban-American component of “American Voices: Latino Photography in the United States,” organized by FotoFest, which opened at FotoFest 94 Houston and subsequently traveled to the Smithsonian Institution.

            The first fine-art photographic images that Viera added to the Lehigh collection were part of a portfolio by William Rau (1855-1920), “Lehigh Valley Railroad Photographs, 1895-1899,” that were transferred from the Linderman Library to the art collection. Immediately after, the collection received gifts from distinguished alumnus Lou Stoumen (1919-1991), photographer/film maker and Academy Award winner, who encouraged and advised Viera in building the collection. At an opportune time in the photography market, Viera was able to exchange and trade some of the Rau images for the 19th and 20th century works that were a strong foundation of today’s collection.

            When Viera acquired these photographs in the 1970s, the debate regarding whether photography should be considered fine art or not was unfolding. Viera became an enthusiastic supporter of the medium and participated in discussions that ensued in galleries in Manhattan and at professional meetings. Although Viera was not a photographer, he had an intellectual interest in the medium and was especially drawn to photography as contemporary art. As he developed Lehigh’s work-study teaching collection in a variety of media, his interest in photography led him to important developments in this area. The collection serves as an educational laboratory and valuable classroom resource for students of art, architecture, museum studies, and others disciplines at Lehigh and for the community at large.

            The collection includes a Latin American, Caribbean, and Latino component of over 400 images and video art. Latin American art photography is an integral and respected part of the contemporary art world and, according to Viera, the work of Latin American artist-photographers communicates a sense of the broad Latin American culture and imagination, while it simultaneously examines current social and political issues, the land, the human body, spirituality, and religion.

            One of the Lehigh collection strong components consist of Cuban-American works. Among the artist-photographers featured in it and selected for “Layers” are artists born in Cuba, before or after the triumph of the Revolution, and without exception schooled or self-taught in the United States. These include the following: Mario Algaze (b. 1947), Silvia Lizama (b. 1957), María Martínez-Cañas (b. 1960), Luis Medina (1942-1985), Ana Mendieta (1948-1985), Tony Mendoza (1941), Abelardo Morell (1948), Mario Petrirena (b. 1954), and Gladys Triana (b. 1937).

            Other Cuban-American artists included are: Néstor Arenas (b. 1964), Elizabeth Cerejido (b. 1969), María Magdalena Campos-Pons (b. 1959), Arturo Cuenca (b. 1955), Gory (Rogelio López Marín) (b, 1953), Luis Mallo (b. 1962), Juan Martín (b. 1954), Eduardo Muñoz Ordoqui, (b. 1964), and Andrés Serrano (b. 1950). The photographs by Roberto Machado (1905-1979) were printed by Silvia Lizama as a tribute to a Cuban photographer who was active in the 1950s. These prints are from negatives brought out of Cuba by Machado.

            The works of the Cuban-American artists Viera has collected at Lehigh serve as a significant visual reference for many aspects of the influential history of the medium. The photographs emphasize technological evolution and diversity and are intended to be inspirational to students, other artists, and audiences who are looking for an understanding of the many streams of Cuban-American art and culture. They are also intended as an incentive to those who can promote and support the photographic medium. Viera believes that the Latin American collection as a whole is strongest as a teaching tool, and that the holdings of the Lehigh collection today is just a beginning. Because the buying power of institutions is limited and they depend heavily on the generosity of alumni, student’s parents, friends, and artists-photographers, there is much room for improvement.

            Of the large group of artists from the Lehigh’s collection whose work is represented in “Layers,” the following have images reproduced in this catalogue.


Mario Algaze (b. 1947, Havana, Cuba)

            Mario Algaze’s Biscayne Bay, Miami (2003;  Plate 16) presents a view of the city’s waterfront area that is simultaneously a record of its buildings and an interpretation of its atmosphere. In the photograph, the row of palm trees, visible on the left, indicate a tropical region. They also function as a metaphor for Algaze’s native country, Cuba, famous for its royal palms. Miami’s palm trees are another species and its buildings belong to an American reality, thus through the represented image, we perceive another image, that of Havana Harbor, belonging to a previous life. By alluding to the unseen through the seen, Algaze makes his two histories transparent and joined.


María Magdalena Campos-Pons (b. 1959, Matanzas, Cuba)

            In Above All Things (1997; Plate 17), María Magdalena Campos-Pons has photographed an African woman dressed in white, who stands holding a bowl in a manner that suggests she is making an offering. At her feet, smaller bowls are suggestively placed to evoke a ritualistic arrangement. The woman’s face is painted with white markings and her eyes are closed while her face has taken on an expression of meditative transcendence. The image evokes participation in a Santería ritual, the synchretic religion developed by Cuba’s African slave population, in which offerings to the Orishas (the deities of Santería) are required to invoke the protection of the chosen god or goddess. In reproducing one aspect of Santería, Campos-Pons connects the spectator to a specific spirituality associated with Cuban culture.


Gory (Rogelio López Marín) (b. 1953, Havana, Cuba)

            Gory’s It’s Only Water in the Stranger’s Tears (1986; Plate 18) juxtaposes a swimming pool filled with water with an old Cadillac. Both have seen better times and their decaying state raises questions about their history, their function, their owners and the reasons for their slow decline. Luxury items both, the waning state of their condition functions as a commentary on aging and the loss of vital function. As objects linked to the ease of life associated with American culture, the existence of the car and the pool in an undefined geographic setting functions as a link between an upscale life and an eventual degeneration of that life. Is this Cuba? Cuba when? Can it be Miami? “Old” Cuba was a country where the upper classes enjoyed luxury objects in imitation of American culture. The Cadillac and the pool, icons of American success were part of an Americanized Cuban culture on the island engaged in acquisitions of foreign elements that with the passage of time have not been renewed, but have decayed. The photograph's title suggests a longing for a past that has vanished as the years have removed the vitality of both objects. Thus, the photograph recalls better times in a nostalgic still-life that is reminiscent of the “Vanity” paintings of the Flemish Baroque - sic transit gloria mundi - would seem to be an underlying theme of It’s Only Water.


Tony Mendoza (b. 1941, Havana, Cuba)

            Man with Grandchild in a Havana Park, from the series Going Back (1996; Plate 19), is Tony Mendoza’s record of his trip to Cuba, where he renewed his engagement with his Cuban culture. The man sits proudly displaying the grandson on whom he gazes with loving attention. The child looks directly at the viewer with his right hand lifted in a gesture that suggests engagement. In the background, buildings and trees are seen. The image is simultaneously specific and universal. The man with the child and their surroundings do not immediately suggest Cuba. They could just as easily be sitting in a part anywhere. It is the title that gives us the location and the context for the photograph and the significance of the image as a concrete visualization of a return to restore a connection that was severed.


Gladys Triana (b. 1934, Camagüey, Cuba)

            Gladys Triana’s Plug Extension ( 2002; Plate 20), from her series I Am Working Here/Cada Vez, es Ahora, captures a moment of specific arrangement of the working tools of the artist. The combination of an electric plug, the pair of hands and the sculpture being worked on forms an image that is a commentary on the artistic process and is itself a finished work of art. The created image functions as a commentary on the nature of art and on the moment of creation as it reminds the spectator that the completed work is the result of manual labor as much as it is the result of inspiration. By presenting the plug and the materials of which art is composed in combination with the hands of the artist, Triana brings the abstract and the concrete together in a manner that requires the spectator to complete the image of the process of creation. Yet, Triana has deliberately avoided presenting a real moment of working, instead it is the suggestion of working that is the subject of her photograph rendered into a meditation on creation that works on multiple associative levels that link us to her varied identities as an artist and as a Cuban-American through her bilingual title.