For Cuban painter Carlos Alfonzo, the sea that initially trapped him later liberated him. Born in Havana in 1951, he studied at the city’s San Alejandro Academy and, before long, his work joined the collection of the prestigious National Museum of Fine Arts.
Success, however, couldn’t make up for what he saw as the restrictions placed on his freedom of artistic expression by Fidel Castro’s rule. Alfonzo was also denied the chance to travel abroad and see art outside his island, so in 1980 he decided to join the Mariel boatlift of approximately 125,000 Cubans in mass exodus to the United States.
After a brief spell in an Arkansas relocation camp, the artist settled in Miami for the final decade of his life. The sea would become a recurrent feature in his paintings there, including Water Seeds (1988-89), which appears in the Latin American Art auction at Christie’s in New York on 22 May.
This large triptych has only ever had one owner and has never previously been seen in public. ‘It’s a revelation, marking the painter at the height of his powers,’ remarks Virgilio Garza, Head of Latin American Art at Christie’s. ‘Alfonzo was a trailblazer, who worked in tune with the leading Neo-Expressionist and Conceptual artists of the 1980s.’
He had a fondness for rapid, gestural brushwork and working in large formats. Rather than being overtly figurative, his pieces are filled instead with all manner of rich symbols related to his upbringing. These include crucifixes and chalices (from Catholicism), as well as pierced tongues and evil eyes (from the Afro-Caribbean religion known as Santería). A pierced tongue was said to ward off any curse cast by evil eyes — and examples of both appear in Water Seeds.
Elsewhere, floating cubes in the left and centre panels suggest a geometric perfection countered by an array of spiral forms, which the artist himself said represent ‘the initial seeds of life’.
Thanks to the shades of blue, there’s an aqueous feel to the picture. ‘It’s really a seascape,’ confirms Garza, ‘with water coming and going. It’s a wonderfully fluid composition, with a sense of openness and freedom throughout. Life can be seen germinating underwater — but we’re not meant to think of just sea creatures here. We’re meant to think of the creation of all creatures, humans perhaps especially. Alfonzo was never afraid to tackle the great, universal themes of life and death.’
‘After a gap of three to four decades, Neo-Expressionists are now being reassessed and rediscovered’ — Virgilio Garza
In February 1991, within just two years of completing this picture, the artist tragically died of an AIDS-related illness. He was 40 and had just been named one of ‘Ten Artists to Watch in the 1990s’ by Artnews magazine. That spring, a number of his paintings would feature in the renowned Whitney Biennial of contemporary American art in New York.
‘The Biennial of 1991 is remembered as an important one in terms of the way it broadened and redefined the idea of what American art is,’ says Garza. ‘New voices were heard, multiculturalism was now being celebrated, and as a gay artist originally from Cuba, Alfonzo’s work was at the absolute centre of that.’
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In 1998, Alfonzo was the subject of a retrospective at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., and the appearance at auction of a major work such as Water Seeds now looks set to bring the artist attention again.
‘It was a short career, but a distinguished one,’ states Garza. ‘After a gap of three to four decades, Neo-Expressionists are now being reassessed and rediscovered [with exhibitions such as Fast Forward: Painting from the 1980s, for instance]. Carlos Alfonzo is as ready for rediscovery as anyone.’