Carlos Alfonzo (1950-1991)
Carlos Alfonzo (1950-1991)
Carlos Alfonzo (1950-1991)
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Carlos Alfonzo (1950-1991)
4 More
Carlos Alfonzo (1950-1991)

Water Seeds

Carlos Alfonzo (1950-1991)
Water Seeds
signed 'ALFONZO' (right panel, lower right), also signed, titled and dated 'ALFONZO, WATER SEEDS, 1988-89' (center and right panels, on the reverse)
oil on canvas
56 3/8 x 80 7/8 in. (143.2 x 205.4 cm.) each panel, 56 3/8 x 242 5/8 in. (143.2 x 616.3 cm.) overall
Painted in 1988-89.
Acquired directly from the artist.
Further details
1 Carlos Alfonzo, quoted in The Art of Miami, exh. cat. (Winston-Salem: Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art, 1985), n.p.
2 Giulio V. Blanc, “The Enigmatic Carlos Alfonzo: Beyond the ‘New Hispanic Art,’” Arts Magazine 64 (October 1989): 14.
3 Alfonzo, quoted in César Trasobares, “Public Voices and Private Transcendence,” in Carlos Alfonzo: Triumph of the Spirit, A Survey, 1975-1991, ed. Olga Viso, exh. cat. (Miami: Miami Art Museum of Dade County, 1997), 140-41.
4 Blanc, “Excerpts from Notes and Essays on Carlos Alfonzo,” in Carlos Alfonzo, 60.
5 Alfonzo, quoted in Juan Espinosa Almodóvar, “Conversation with Alfonzo,” Art Nexus no. 4 (April-June 1992): 213.
6 Alfonzo, quoted in Julia P. Herzberg, “Conversations with Carlos Alfonzo,” in Carlos Alfonzo, 129.

Lot Essay

“My works are language links and barriers and straight continuity of my daily life,” Alfonzo once reflected. “It could happen that thoughts, diverse feelings and also death may end or start with them. The fact of not comprehending them totally would not make me feel uncomfortable but as part of lifetime revelations they provide the magic to understand God and the universe.”[1] At the forefront of the Miami generation in the 1980s, Alfonzo tapped the cultural mythos of Cuban America in paintings that scour the depths of human suffering and mortality. The outstanding artist of the “Marielitos,” he came to prominence within a broadly defined diasporic generation that included Ana Mendieta, María Brito, and César Trasobares, among others. Working in an allusive, expressionist idiom grounded in his experience of exile and subsequently of the AIDS epidemic, he developed a rich symbology gleaned from differing belief systems—Catholicism, Afro-Cuban Santería, the occult Rosicrucian order—and diffused through syncretic allegories of time and place.
Alfonzo’s practice took an introspective and self-consciously spiritual turn in the late 1980s, the lyrical dramaturgy of his painting conjuring mysteries of body and soul. Rendered in increasingly resonant and metamorphic color, these canvases—notably, the pendant paintings Paradiso and God (Turned Backwards) and the monumental In Flesh and In Spirit, all from 1988—cogitate over material and mystical transformations, their energy vital and apocalyptic. “As he approaches the ‘90s,” observed Giulio V. Blanc, the foremost critic of the Miami generation, “Alfonzo is attempting to pare down his baroque excesses. Fewer elements are present in the compositions and an interest in color and its lack of subordination to line is more evident than ever. While the example of the abstract expressionists has contributed to this, Alfonzo points to fauvism and to Matisse’s life-long struggle to balance color and line as sources.”[2] Acknowledged sources also include Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, whose work Alfonzo first saw in New York, in 1982, at the Museum of Modern Art and Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum; he doubtless would have seen Vasily Kandinsky’s swirling abstractions at the Guggenheim, paintings whose cosmic dynamism set a bar for his own. The brilliant, rhapsodic color of Water Seeds pulses with a similarly explosive energy, spiraling in kaleidoscopic whorls of pigment that evoke the powerful current of the Gulf Stream, flowing between Miami and Havana.
Alfonzo referenced the tropics throughout the decade, prominently in the ceramic-tile mural Ceremony of the Tropics (Santa Clara Metrorail Station, 1986) and in the painting Gulfstream (1988), among the numinous landscapes that he found “to be a source of inspiration,” his friend César Trasobares recalled. “The sea was an especially significant image, an unavoidable and obsessive public subject for many artists growing up on islands." In his only commission for a private collector—the present Water Seeds, “he pursued the theme of the sea and the sun, an appropriate subject for a home situated on an island, at the edge of the tropical ocean currents. In this complex, colorful work, he celebrates the meeting of water and sand and the transformation of the tide and the sky. Installed between windows, high on the walls of the formal living room, the complex landscape alludes to external forces: changing weather, meteorological shifting, and atmospheric evaporation.”[3]
This maritime metaphor permeates Water Seeds, wending through a rich and intimate iconography adapted from Afro-Cuban and Rosicrucian sources. A riveting, emotional image of spirituality and suffering, the painting renders the pathos of the body—punctured and in pieces—against the undulating violence of the seashore, teeming with the occult. A Santería charm against evil, the dagger-pierced tongue wards off gossip as well as the insidious and multiple evil eyes scattered across the triptych; an oversized teardrop falls from the all-seeing eye at the top of the right panel, an allusion to “drops of semen, blood, and rain.” Floating hollow cubes, in the left and center panels, stand for “creation and perfection,” their geometry countered by coiled vortices, virile bodily forms, and bloodied hands (suggestively of the martyred Christ).[4] “It is like a return to the initial seed, like the internal movement of a shell,” Alfonzo remarked of the recurrent spirals—“a driving force for the body which gyrates in its own anguish”—seen in his late paintings. “So the spiral, which is an element which I have used a lot, becomes a part of my body, of the human body in the picture.” Apropos of his illness, he continued, “There are things in our lives which cannot be understood, but there are also things which occur instantaneously: like a whiplash. All I can say, and this is a very subjective comment, is that there is a kind of enormous need to fight with the problem in a different way, above all in a creative way. Feelings are something so destructive that it is necessary to transform them into something permanent, which cannot be destroyed by any plague.”[5]
“I am interested in a poetic, mysterious quality even though there are specific themes I ‘unwind,’ Alfonzo stated at the end of his career. “I’m trying to communicate a sense of life’s mystery. At the same time I struggle to understand my own place in what I sense is a great unknown. I try through my visual language to suggest the presence of mystical forces that surround us and are part of us. And my own personal feelings, no matter how they may be interpreted in my work, guide me as an artist. I myself am trying to come to terms with human existence—with life, death, fate, and solitude. So I naturally feel these are the concerns in my work.”[6] Across its three panels, Water Seeds sows an aqueous iconography of germination, describing a seedbed of visual and spiritual metamorphosis not inconceivably Alfonzo’s own: “a true artist,” reads his gravestone, “lives in a sunken ship asphyxiated.”
Abby McEwen, Assistant Professor, University of Maryland, College Park

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