“Luis Cruz Azaceta: Painter of Exile,” Preservation in Print

Finding evocative echoes of his boyhood home Havana in New Orleans

via Preservation Resource Center of New Orleans

Yellow Wall 2, Luis Cruz Azaceta’s photo construction at the Renaissance Arts Hotel (see story on page 15), uses five hundred sixty-five photographs, taken mostly on Tchoupitoulas Street. The montage is mounted on a convex steel sheet. It reads as an abstract painting, and as a complex architectural record. 2003. 10 x 12 feet.

Although Luis Azaceta moved to New Orleans from New York in search of a more tranquil life, his spirited Yellow Wall 2 with its 565 photographs shot around Tchoupitoulas Street seems to shout, “Yeah I’m a little disheveled, but man, am I alive!” Just like his adopted city of New Orleans.

Luis Azaceta, a warm and rational Cuban exile, doesn’t strike you as a man who would ever hold a gun or a knife to his own head or the head of anyone else. But he has done this. He tells the very funny story of posing before a mirror in his New York apartment with a gun and then a knife held to his head to get the right image for a painting dealing with urban violence. A woman in a nearby apartment in his Italian neighborhood observed him through the window and sent someone rushing to the rescue. It’s an amusing tale, but behind the humor is the ever-present specter of loss, chaos and alienation that has defined his work for the last thirty years.

Luis’ tidy studio in the 3800 block of Tchoupitoulas Street is a dramatic foil to the raw energy and barely controlled turmoil of his huge canvasses. The 7500 feet of unfettered open space seems at first to be a showroom for his work. Where do you work, I ask? Here, in here, he answers. Everything he uses to create his large-scale constructions and paintings—the saws, tools, paints, ladders and other accoutrements—he puts away when visitors are expected. Otherwise, he explains, the visual confusion would be disconcerting.

The search for a more tranquil life is what led Luis and his wife, painter Sharon Jacques, to move to New Orleans from New-York in 1993. Finding recognition and success in the premier art center of the world was no small achievement for a refugee from Castro’s Cuba with no connections. For Luis it was the stuff of dreams to step from his Soho studio into the art scene of the New York of the 80s. But living in New York became increasingly distracting. Sharon was from New Orleans, and like many New Orleanians, the gravitational pull of the city where her family lives was strong. Raising a child in New Orleans was also a more reassuring prospect. Their first house in New Orleans was on Perrier Street in the Uptown section. Now they live in a house built in 1895 on the corner of Prytania and Marengo in the same area of town.

Luis strongly believes that an artist must be a part of the place where he lives; he must belong to his environment. By taking hundreds of photographs in the historic districts, he came to know the city intimately. He feels that New Orleans in a small way shares the things he loved in New-York: diversity and a sustained sense of history. Also he found the familiar signs of impermanence, dissolution and ambiguity that resonate in his work. And here too were the evocative echoes of the Havana he left as a boy of eighteen. In fact, because of the culture, the music and the architecture, he feels the best transition for Cubans would have been from Havana directly to New Orleans.

Luis worked in a factory when he first came to New York from Cuba in 1960. He started drawing and painting on his own. Then, through adult classes and self-teaching, he developed a portfolio that he used to get admitted to the prestigious School of Visual Arts in New York. Geometric abstraction prevailed stylistically in the mid-sixties, and this was Luis’ genre until he went to Europe for the first time in 1969. The master works in the great museums of the cities of Europe profoundly affected Luis and his work. Goya and German Expressionist Max Beckmann were of particular significance to him. Their themes of psychic darkness and suffering appealed to Luis’ awakening sense of social injustice. “What kind of artist do I what to be?” he asked himself. He changed styles, themes and mediums.

His paintings, deriving from experience, began to examine the ills of society. A series of works based on such themes as urban violence, auto accidents, Latin dictators, the Aids epidemic and Cuban refugees (rafters) led to a gallery connection in New York. As Luis mined the specific vices of his fellow urbanites, he changed styles. For five or six years he experimented, returning to abstract painting that had evolved organically out of experience. Luis believes that the job of artists is to observe, but transform, reality. A work of art must transcend reality, and make content and aesthetics work together to be beautiful.

By 1982 Luis was making a living as an artist. Visiting professorships at LSU, Cooper-Union in New York, and the University of California at Berkeley came his way. By the 1990s his work was represented in forty-two museums including the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum in New York and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. He was a big success, but he was still, and always will be, an exile. He eloquently describes this condition, common to all exiles, as the feeling of existing in a space between two identities, neither of which can ever be fully assumed. Much of Luis’ work examines the situation of marginality, separation from the mainstream, and constraint or exclusion. Critic D. Eric Bookhardt points out that “Contained in his work is the suggestion that every victim is an exile, a deportee from the American Dream and its myth of unctuous materiality.”

Not everything is Sturm und Drang, however. Luis finds poetry and beauty as well as angst in the cacophony of urban existence. The detritus of distressed neighborhoods, their peeling paint, mattresses on the street, and jacked-up Jesus cars repel, but also attract. For him discoloration and weathering say something profound about the temporal quality of life. With his bright, gritty photographs of Tchoupitoulas Street, he transforms reality into abstraction, and in doing so makes us see with different eyes, see different possibilities. The spirited Yellow Wall 2 at the Renaissance Hotel on Tchoupitoulas Street has attitude. Like the city of New Orleans, it seems to say, “Yeah I’m a little disheveled, but man, am I alive!”