The 'Fiery' Visions of Iconic L.A. Artist Carlos Almaráz

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Snapshot of Carlos Almaráz with one of his freeway car crash paintings.  (Los Angeles County Museum of Art / Steven Cuevas (KQED))

Actor, comedian and art collector Cheech Marin calls Carlos Almaráz the John Coltrane of Chicano art.

Like Coltrane, Almaráz’s life was cut short by illness before he was able to reach his full potential. But in his 48 years, he created dozens of paintings, street murals and other works.

‘Echo Park nos 1-4’ (1982), a 24-foot long, four-panel work by Carlos Almaráz. Each panel is owned by a different collector. This is the first time the complete work has been available for public view in years. (Steven Cuevas / KQED)

More than 60 paintings, sketches, notebooks and other ephemera are collected in ‘Playing With Fire: Paintings by Carlos Almaráz’ at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. It’s the first comprehensive retrospective of the Mexican-born artist’s work in decades.

Almaráz’s formative years in Los Angeles were as a founding member of Los Four, a Chicano artists collective that also included Frank Romero, Beto de la Rocha and Gilbert Luján. Los Four formed in the early 1970s to create art for the people, for la lucha; the struggle.

Carlos Almaraz in 1974  during the installation of the "Los Four" exhibition at LACMA, Los Angeles CA. (Wikipedia )

“They had some pretty grandiose ideas with Chicano art at the center,” explains actor, comedian and filmmaker Richard Montoya. He’s wrapping up a documentary of the artist called “Carlos in Wonderland."


“These were big personalities to maintain in kind of healthy, sometimes unhealthy competition.”

Almaráz began to chafe within the rigid ideological frame of the collective. He wanted to take his art further, says Montoya. And he wanted more control.

“Carlos kind of takes off as an individual artist. There’s a need for him to pull away from movement identity politics and into the studio for much more personal and private work.”

Work that reflected more universal if very personal themes; his own bisexuality, the metaphysical, Mexican mythology. But the L.A. neighborhoods he knew and loved best -- Boyle Heights, Echo Park, East L.A. -- were never too far away.

You catch glimpses of them throughout "Playing with Fire."

Detail of another Carlos Almaraz painting depicting L.A.'s Echo Park Lake. (Steven Cuevas / KQED)

I spent an afternoon with Montoya and exhibit curator Howard Fox at LACMA. Here’s some highlights of our conversation.

On Almaráz's L.A. urban landscapes and his iconic freeway car crash paintings, arguably his most well-known paintings:

Fox: “We respond to the imagery almost viscerally like you would if you saw an actual car crash, you can’t not look at it. But with the thick buttery impasto that he paints these desperate images with, it’s almost as if you want to go up and lick the painting, but don’t do that please!”

One in a series of freeway car crash paintings from the 1980’s by Carlos Almaráz. (Steven Cuevas / KQED)
Detail of one of Carlos Almaraz’s freeway car crash paintings from the 1980’s. (Steven Cuevas / KQED)

Montoya: “It’s got these Disney colors too, so he’s drinking in California; the open sky, the things he couldn’t see in Mexico City as a kid. But he comes to L.A. and my God there’s these things called freeways that rise over the barrios and there are these skies and these colors.”

Fox: “You’ll see grand cityscapes featuring naked people cavorting in the streets, freeways zooming and zigzagging all over the place and buildings themselves are wagging like puppy dogs tails, it’s visually in your face.”

‘Echo Park nos 1-4’ (detail) (Steven Cuevas / KQED)

On his role in Los Four, the Chicano art-collective:

Montoya: “It was a movement that demanded to know how militant you were, how Chicano you were, how authentic you were. It wasn’t the place to explore one’s gender or spirituality. Carlos was one of the first, but not the only artist, to retreat from that — for much more personal and private work, exploring gender for example. That’s a heartbreak for a Chicano artist such as myself. But the good news for me, the thank you I feel I owe to Almaráz is that he leaves the movement, but that he leaves the art and the conversation in a better place than where he found it.”

On whether Almaráz would embrace or resist the title of 'Chicano artist':

Fox: “Carlos said, I’m an American artist [who] also happens to be a Chicano. So he acknowledges the heritage, he embraces it, but he does not typify himself, he does not specify or pigeonhole himself.”

Detail of ‘La Mujer de Aztlan’ street mural at Ramona Housing project in L.A.’s Boyle Heights, created by Judith Hernandez and Carlos Almaráz in 1976. (Mural Conservancy of Los Angeles)

Montoya: “I’ve never felt that Chicanismo was something that needed to be transcended. Or that we grow to a greater appreciation of art. For me, his genius is taking the best of all these things, and I felt that Howard [Fox] wasn’t taking any of that away. There’s a moment in the show, in a room that carefully looks at the gay aspect of Carlos’ life. That’s super important to so many of our transgender kids, our LGBT youngsters, our undocumented kids. He was an immigrant. Each one of those things has tremendous value."

On Almaráz living on the border of multiple identities: Mexican/American, bisexual:

Fox: “One of his paintings, titled “Europe and the Jaguar,” I was really entranced by that because it showed a half-man half-jaguar -- a symbol right out of Mesoamerican mythology -- juxtaposed with a classical female nude, right out of European old master paintings. And between those two promenading figures, there’s this dapper young man, in a blue suit and a blue fedora. I realized, intuitively, that this was a self-portrait of the artist paying homage to the Mesoamerican mythology, modern and traditional European art."

A vision of La Llorona, the crying woman, by Carlos Almaraz. La Llorona is a popular character in Latino folklore. (Steven Cuevas / KQED)

Fox: "A lot of people thought you could not combine them successfully, that the juxtaposition would be too much of a clangorous rupture. But Almaráz embraced those traditions in a really interesting hybrid way.”

On why it took 30 years for a major Los Angeles museum to stage a Carlos Almaráz retrospective, despite many art critics considering him one of the most important California artists of the 20th Century.

Fox: “That’s a very good question and I’m afraid that any of the answers would point to curatorial neglect."

Montoya: “It’s not just that we’re in an “Oscars-So-White” town. The battle now moves into the large museums and into the theaters as well. We’re keeping it up because Carlos is kind of shoving open a door for us. And now that we’re in, with help of the curators and the third-tier allies, we’re in a tremendously exciting time. But there can be no let-up. We must continue to push forward.”

Special thanks to Oscar Garza and Jonathan Shifflett of KPCC’s The Frame for their production help on this story.