The late Carlos Alfonzo, whose paintings are currently the subject of an exhibition at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, was born in Havana in 1950. He emigrated to the United States the hard way-as a participant in the 1980 Mariel boat exodus that brought a flood of Cuban exiles to Florida as political refugees. He died of AIDS in Miami in 1991. As the writer Dan Cameron sums up the ordeal of Alfonzo’s life in the catalogue accompanying this exhibition, he was a “repressed gay man at 20, political refugee at 30, casualty of AIDS at 40.”
From what Mr. Cameron also characterizes as a “tragically foreshortened career,” a fully developed artistic achievement is not to be expected, yet this exhibition of 29 paintings at the Hirshhorn leaves us in no doubt that Alfonzo was a very gifted artist. Given the circumstances of his very troubled life, moreover-there were episodes of mental breakdown; the experience of political internment upon his arrival in Florida; the separation from his parents, ex-wife and young son and the excruciating problem of his sexuality under the Castro regime, which regarded homosexuality as a criminal offense-what he did accomplish in his painting is fairly amazing.
He was trained at the San Alejandro Academy in Havana, whose best-known alumnus-best-known to us, anyway-was the Surrealist painter Wifredo Lam. And Lam’s success in winning a respected place on the international art scene no doubt reinforced Alfonzo’s own ambition in that direction. As he later said in an interview: “On the one hand, I liked Lam’s work, but on the other, I liked the fact that he had made it outside Cuba.”
Alfonzo’s own painting is only partly indebted to the Surrealist mode, however. What may properly be called the work of his artistic maturity, which dates from 1982, belongs to a slightly later development-to that juncture at which the Surrealist impulse, with its heavy baggage of hermetic signs and erotic symbols, yields to the less literary pictorial imperatives of a highly Expressionistic abstraction. In American painting, this juncture of Surrealism and abstraction was the basis of the Abstract Expressionist painting of the New York School in the 1940’s. It was upon a similar synthesis of Surrealism and abstraction that Alfonzo created his best paintings in the 1980’s.
These paintings are, then, very much the product of his exile in the United States. It wasn’t until he got to visit the great collections of modernist painting in the New York museums that Alfonzo acquired enough of an acquaintance with the masterworks of modernist art to be able to attach his talents to a pictorial style that could accommodate his experience and ambition.
He seems to have been particularly drawn to Jackson Pollock’s pre-“drip” paintings of the 1940’s, and to Pollock’s own sources-Joan Miró, André Masson and Paul Klee. Alfonzo’s symbolic Self-Portrait of 1982 owes a lot to Klee, but it is painted in a manner that is closer to Pollock. Yet the paintings Alfonzo began producing in 1982 are not the work of an epigone. His version of the Abstract Expressionist style was sufficiently ample and allusive to allow him to make a very personal statement of his own experience. There is a heavy load of symbolism in this painting that suggests an obsession with both erotic and religious experience, all of it set to the tempo of an emotional turmoil so profound as to be barely containable in the painting itself. Yet, in the paintings of the 1980’s anyway, this tumultuous force of feeling is governed by an unfailing formal control that locks every shape and touch and chromatic flourish into place. These are large paintings, and their impact is such that they seem at times about to escape their physical boundaries to occupy the rooms in which we see them.
The last paintings-the so-called “black” paintings-are very different. Executed when Alfonzo knew he was going to die, they are more problematic. The light and color and headlong energy that are essential to the success of the paintings of the 1980’s are much diminished, if not entirely gone-and a good deal of the formal control is much diminished, too. It is only in the last painting in the exhibition-the large Blood (1991), which measures 8 by 11 feet-that Alfonzo was able to summon something close to the stamina and imagination of his best work. For anyone who knows the story of the artist’s life, the poignancy of this picture is almost unbearable, but when the visitor to the exhibition retraces his steps through the rooms containing the paintings of the 1980’s he is bound to be reminded that it is likely to be for those pictures that Carlos Alfonzo will be remembered.
Triumph of the Spirit: Carlos Alfonzo, A Survey, 1975-1991 , which was organized by the Miami Art Museum, remains on view at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington through Sept. 13.