Every avid Metrorail rider who has passed through the Santa Clara station in Allapattah or walked under the pedestrian bridge of Florida International University’s College of Engineering & Computing has witnessed the dazzling ceramic tile work of the late Carlos Alfonzo. Scattered across these site-specific murals that still stand more than 30 years after their creation is the story of Alfonzo’s artistic trajectory. With an emerging career in Havana through the 1970s and in exile via the Mariel boat lift, he was processed through Arkansas, eventually settling in Miami in July 1980.
Alfonzo’s identity as a gay Cuban man and artist is emphasized by “Carlos Alfonzo: Late Paintings,” which opened April 21 at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Miami. Occupying two of the museum’s ground-floor galleries, the exhibit explores the last year of Alfonzo’s life before his death in February 1991 from AIDS-related complications. Ten paintings depict the reality of the artist’s horrific battle with the disease, which would cost him just a month before his work was exhibited at the prestigious Whitney Biennale in New York City.
In 1990, the Bass Museum of Art in Miami Beach showed “Carlos Alfonzo: New Work,” which carried a similar tone to 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 refers to Jackson Pollock’s own ‘black paintings’. This reference also refers to the bleak era of the Spanish painter Francisco Goya’s work and comments on a particularly troublesome aspect of an artist’s oeuvre.
For the curator of the exhibition, Gean Moreno, who is also director of the Knight Foundation Art + Research Center at the ICA Miami, this period of Alfonzo’s work has increased in vitality. “In the three decades since these works came into existence, and since Alfonzo’s untimely death in 1991, his final paintings have continued to grow in meaning and cultural resonance,” Moreno says. New times† We can now look at these last works by the artist and interpret them in light of Alfonzo’s practice in general, his biography and their social context – and tellingly, their witness to the AIDS crisis.”
Upon entering the exhibition, the viewer is greeted by imposing large-scale works, inviting to be studied up close to understand the complexity of texture and technique while taking in symbols and imagery from afar. Each canvas is not only filled with black, but illuminated with grays, dark greens, deep reds and burnt oranges symbolizing the complexities of emotions that Alfonzo endured during his painful final years. The works exude remorse and regret, with sharp iconography of impaled nails and hideous shadows scattered throughout.
Yet in every work a battle is depicted. The horizontal compositions of Cimetière marin (Cemetery by the sea) (1990) and Blood (1991) are jumbled and filled to the brim with the hallucinatory, haphazard communication of a sick man. The former alludes to the 1920 French poet Paul Valéry’s meditation on mortality and death, while the latter is one of the last paintings the artist worked on before his death. One can only empathize with the physical, emotional and mental toll that Alfonzo’s disease has taken, especially given the stigma of the time on gay men and the disproportionate impact of AIDS on society.
“The exhibition will only further cement Alfonzo’s place as one of the most prominent painters of the 1980s.”
The set of ten paintings evokes this idea of considering your mortality, whether that means finding peace with the inevitable or the opposite: fighting for your life and doing what it takes to endure and survive. For Alfonzo, the repeated imagery of bent knees, in reverence or even in a fallen condition, is in continuous motion. It is a cyclic act of submission to the divine if one believes or the uncontrollable forces if one does not, resulting in the spiritual quality of the work. The artist was known to employ Santería rituals, Rosicrucianism, and Catholic ideologies throughout his life and oeuvre, creating the feeling of a cathedral or blissful sanctuary.
The possible analyzes of Alfonzo’s heavily layered and charged compositions are endless. Yet Miami, as the primary base and thread to draw information and research related to the artist, is reflected in Alfonzo’s decade in the Magic City. “We consulted with some of Alfonzo’s colleagues – those who knew him best during his productive years in Miami,” explains Moreno. “We also consulted as many records as were available to us, including Alfonzo’s own archive, which he left with friends and possessions in the Vasari Archives at the Miami-Dade Library and the Cuban Heritage Collections at the University of Miami.”
Fitting 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 is that we’ve been able to bring all these powerful paintings back together,” says Moreno. “It is difficult to explain the emotional reach and serious energy of these works to someone who has not stood in a room full of them. They imbue the museum space with an almost liturgical atmosphere. The other reward was to reflect on some from the deep questions of human mortality that the paintings raise, while constantly being reminded that they come from a very specific moment: the tragic in which Alfonzo’s friends died of AIDS-related illnesses, and he himself on his way was to an untimely death.
“The exhibition – the power to see all these late works together – will only further cement Alfonzo’s place as one of the most eminent painters of the 1980s. I think the exhibition will also have the positive effect of reminding us – and young artists in particular — the kind of serious questions that painting can still tackle and the powerful emotional tones it can generate.”
“Carlos Alfonzo: Late Paintings.” On display through Nov. 27 at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Miami, 61 NE 41st St., Miami; 305-901-5272; icamiami.org. Admission is free.