Things to do in Miami: “Carlos Alfonzo: Late Paintings” at the Miami Institute of Contemporary Art

Any avid Metrorail cyclist who has passed through the Santa Clara station in Allapattah or walked under the Florida International University College of Engineering and Computing pedestrian bridge has witnessed the dazzling ceramic tiles of the late Carlos Alfonzo. Scattered throughout these site-specific murals that still stand more than 30 years after their creation is the story of Alfonzo’s artistic journey. With an emerging career in Havana during the 1970s and exiled across the Mariel Sea Bridge, he passed through Arkansas, finally settling in Miami in July 1980.

Alfonzo’s identity as a Cuban gay man and artist is highlighted through “Carlos Alfonzo: Late Paintings,” which opens April 21 at the Miami Institute of Contemporary Art. Covering two of the museum’s ground-floor galleries, the exhibition takes a detailed look at the last year of Alfonzo’s life before his death in February 1991 from AIDS-related complications. Ten paintings show the realities of the artist’s gruesome battle with illness, which would take his life just a month before his work was to be exhibited at the prestigious Whitney Biennial in New York City.

In 1990, the Bass Museum of Art in Miami Beach exhibited “Carlos Alfonzo: New Work,” which had a similar tone of dark paintings. In a brochure for the exhibition, the late art critic Giulio V. Blanc noted how the language in Alfonzo’s work during this period references the “black paintings” of Jackson Pollock himself. This reference also alludes to the dark era of Spanish painter Francisco Goya’s work and comments on a particularly troublesome aspect of an artist’s body of work.

For the exhibition’s curator, Gean Moreno, who also serves as director of ICA Miami’s Knight Foundation Art and Research Center, this period of Alfonzo’s work has increased in vitality. “In the three decades since the creation of these works, and since Alfonzo’s untimely death in 1991, his last paintings have continued to grow in meaning and cultural resonance,” says Moreno. New Times. We can now look at these final works by the artist and interpret them against Alfonzo’s practice in general, his biography and his social context, and significantly, his testimony to the AIDS crisis.”

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Installation view of “Carlos Alfonzo: Late Paintings” at the Miami Institute of Contemporary Art.

Photo by Zachary Balber

Entering the exhibition, the viewer is greeted by large-scale, imposing works that invite close study to understand the complexity of texture and technique while observing symbols and visual language from afar. Each canvas is not only filled with black, but is illuminated with grays, dark greens, intense reds, and burnt oranges that represent the complexity of the emotions that Alfonzo endured during his painful last years. The works exude remorse and regret, with sharp iconography of impaled nails and ghastly shadows scattered throughout.

However, in each work a fight is represented. The horizontal compositions of Cimetière marin (Cemetery by the sea) (1990) and Blood (1991) are jumbled and packed to the brim with the hallucinatory and serendipitous communications of a sick man. The former alludes to French poet Paul Valéry’s 1920 meditation on mortality and death, while the latter is one of the last paintings the artist worked on before his death. One can only try to empathize with the physical, emotional and mental toll the disease took on Alfonzo, especially given the era’s stigma towards gay men and the disproportionate impact of AIDS on the community.

“The exhibition will only help to further cement Alfonzo’s place as one of the foremost painters of the 1980s.”

tweet this The set of ten paintings evokes this idea of ​​being mindful of one’s own mortality, whether that means finding peace with the inevitable or the opposite: fighting for your life and doing whatever it takes to endure and survive. For Alfonzo, the repeated imagery of knees bent, bowing, or even in a fallen state is in continual motion. It is a cyclical act of submission to the divine if one believes or to the uncontrollable forces if one does not believe, which results in the spiritual quality of the works. The artist was known to draw on the rituals of Santeria, Rosicrucianism, and Catholic ideology throughout his life and his work, igniting the feel of a beatific cathedral or shrine.

The possible analyzes of Alfonzo’s charged and layered compositions are endless. However, Miami, as the main base and the common thread from which to extract information and research related to the artist, is reflected in Alfonzo’s decade in the Magic City. “We consulted with several of Alfonzo’s colleagues, those who knew him best during his productive years in Miami,” explains Moreno. “We also consulted as many archives as were available to us, including Alfonzo’s own archive, which he left behind with friends and possessions in the Vasari Archive at the Miami-Dade Library and the Cuban Heritage Collections at the University of Miami.”

click to enlarge Installation view of "Carlos Alfonzo: Late Paintings" at the Miami Institute of Contemporary Art.  - PHOTO BY ZACHARY BALBER

Installation view of “Carlos Alfonzo: Late Paintings” at the Miami Institute of Contemporary Art.

Photo by Zachary Balber

Fittingly for an artist who gave so much back to the city where he lived and died, “Carlos Alfonzo: Late Paintings” honors Miami’s place in the ongoing discourse surrounding Alfonzo’s work.

“One of the biggest rewards has been being able to bring all these powerful paintings together once again,” says Moreno. “It’s hard to explain the emotional range and serious energy of these works to anyone who hasn’t been in a room full of them. They imbue the museum space with an almost liturgical air. The other reward has been thinking about some of the deep questions about human mortality that the paintings address while constantly reminding them that they come from a very specific time: the tragic one in which Alfonzo’s friends were dying of AIDS-related illnesses, and he himself was on his way to an early death .

“The exhibition, the power of seeing all these late works together, will only help to further cement Alfonzo’s place as one of the pre-eminent painters of the 1980s. I think the exhibition will also have the positive effect of reminding us, and to young artists in particular, of the kind of serious questions painting can still address and the powerful emotional tones it can generate.”

“Carlos Alfonzo: Late Paintings.” On view through November 27, at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Miami, 61 NE 41st St., Miami; 305-901-5272; Admission is free.