Paintings that Ponder Death and Teem with Life

The Cuban artist Carlos Alfonzo had always contemplated the complexities of life and its end, even before he was diagnosed with AIDS in 1990.

Carlos Alfonzo: Paintings at Fredric Snitzer Gallery, installation view (all images courtesy Fredric Snitzer Gallery and all photos by Zach Balber)

MIAMI — In an interview with his friend César Trasobares in 1990, the Cuban artist Carlos Alfonzo explained that he had always seen himself “in a medieval setting with all these demons flying around. I see myself always dealing directly with these figures that appear and disappear. One is life and one is death. I dialogue with them. As I grow older, I just feel the necessity to be alone with my demons and just deal with my life, be as reclusive as possible.”

Carlos Alfonzo, “Home” (1990), oil on linen, 120 x 84″

Although he would die at age 40, just a year later, from AIDS-related complications, his interest in the complexities of life and its end started long before his diagnosis. While Alfonzo, who was born in Cuba, admired the work of his predecessors, like Wifredo Lam and Antonia Eiriz, his style spoke more to his emotional landscape than to a specific time or place. He wasn’t peerless, but he was his own; in the catalogue for Triumph of the Spirit: Carlos Alfonzo, A Survey (1975–1991), a posthumous show at the Hirshhorn Museum, Trasobares describes Alfonzo’s art in Cuba as a “form of ‘revenge,’ a way of facing the world until he could one day leave the island.”

In “The City” (1989), a painting depicting a drug bust Alfonzo witnessed on South Beach, he “wanted to deal with color, at least to complement or balance the horror of violence with the beauty of nature.” Alfonzo created paintings and sculptures constantly, as a means of — Trasobares explains — emotionally “‘unloading’” those tender themes of human existence. The only period in which he did not paint were the few years following his 1980 arrival to Miami via the Mariel boatlift — a kind of reprieve as he processed the trauma of refugee camps and gaining asylum. He’d left his son, parents, and ex-wife in Cuba; the whimsy of his earlier Cuban work gave way, then, to something else.

Carlos Alfonzo, “Untitled (from the Pulpo Series)” (November 1990), oil on linen. 84 x 84″

Fredric Snitzer Gallery’s exhibition Painting focuses exclusively on Alfonzo’s work from 1990, the period following his diagnosis with AIDS and the news of his father’s passing. There are large-scale pieces from his renowned Black Paintings series here and each contends with mortality, spirituality, the loss of Alfonzo’s friends and partner, and a general acquiescence toward the trajectory of his illness that is nonetheless resolute. Even the darkest of the Black Paintings — which weren’t all undeviatingly black — are laminas of color: “Home” (1990) is layered with blues, sienna browns, and glittering golds; the canvas of “Still-life with AIDS Victim” (1990) is a deep yellow, the slouched figure on a hospital bed next to a medical apparatus that’s rich as the sun. “Untitled” (1990), a gouache on paper, glows bright red through a mostly grayish palette.

Carlos Alfonzo, “Screaming Head” (1990), oil on canvas, 39×32″

Most of Alfonzo’s works from that year contain traces of a body — he sometimes described a few of these figures as a “witness” — such as the kneeling form in “Untitled (from the Pulpo Series)” (1990), the limb-like sinew in “Home,” or the ovular head motif — which he once attributed to the orisha Elegguá, a gatekeeper in the Santería religion — present in two images both titled “Screaming Head” (1990). Each “screaming head” is its own gaping vortex — one dark, one a mustard color, both containing what appear to be hands thrown up alongside the titular heads’ cheeks in anguish. The symbolism of Santería — an eye with a dagger-pierced tongue beneath — and other religions were themes he’d always used, fascinated as he was by the mythos of the Tarot, Catholicism, and the Rosicrucians.

Carlos Alfonzo: Paintings at Fredric Snitzer Gallery, installation view

In 1990, Alfonzo was drawing from the aesthetics and rituals of these denominations to express his own spirituality and probe the nature of human existence, particularly mortality. Even in his frantic hand, even in bodies stooped with anguish, there is no real sense of urgency but rather one of slow, steady presence and musing. His impending death, it seems, was something to be worked through; his paintings teem with life. Alfonzo passed away just before his inclusion in the 1991 Whitney Biennial. It’s a deep, painful pity to not have seen his oeuvre expand further, though he insisted — in that same interview with Trasobares — that he was at peace with himself. “I have always done what I wanted,” he said. “I have also been wise enough to concentrate my energy on what I believed in and what I’m best at. I have never scattered my energy.”

Carlos Alfonzo: Paintings continues at Fredric Snitzer Gallery (1540 NE Miami Ct, Miami) through July 14.

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