With brooding blues and radiant reds, Alfredo Arreguín fused the tools of classical oil painting with Mexican folk traditions, compressing fine art and ancient craft into stretched canvases that often stood taller than he did. For those of us who knew him, the news of his death on April 24 came as a jolt, as something that didn’t quite register, even though Arreguín was 88 and had cancer. A flame we thought was inextinguishable had gone out. 

For 60 years he painted with few pauses, channeling explosive energy into methodically composed canvases that sampled motifs from the jungles of his Mexican childhood and the lush landscapes of his adult life in the Pacific Northwest. His signature glow-in-the-dark aesthetic is thanks to the buildup of thousands of small brush strokes in dazzling, painstaking patterns.

As his health worsened, he suffered a fall that seemed to break his spirit. “All of a sudden I lost my inspiration to paint,” he wrote in a message to friends on Facebook. Three weeks later, he was gone. 

Alfredo Arreguín, “Nuestra Señora de la Selva (Our Lady of the Jungle)” (1989), oil on canvas, 72 x 48 inches (photo courtesy Robert Vinnedge)

Arreguín was born in Michoacán, Mexico, in 1935. He learned to paint as a child and moved to Mexico City as a teenager to attend the National Preparatory School, where Frida Kahlo had studied in the 1920s and Diego Rivera had taught. At 24, Arreguín immigrated to Seattle.

After serving two years in the Korean War, he studied art at the University of Washington with classmates including Chuck Close, Dale Chihuly, and Roger Shimomura. One of his favorite professors was Elmer Bischoff, the Bay Area Figurative artist who, like Arreguín, blended and buried his subjects into the ground of the painting. 

Bischoff, along with painter Michael C. Spafford, encouraged Arreguín to explore the visual culture of his Mexican heritage, pulling from myth as much as memory. He was inspired by symbols, shapes, and colors from masks, ceramics, and tapestries.

In Seattle, he took daily walks to study the water, forests, and mountains of the Pacific Northwest, often bringing a camera to photograph plants and animals. Like so many painters, the camera was an important tool for him. When I photographed him for a magazine story in 2021, he showed great respect for the medium. He was eager to take direction and generous with his time, and he talked about the great photographers he knew, like Bob Adelman.

Arreguín and I bonded over having our work in the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery’s (NPG) collection. The NPG, one of his favorite museums, acquired his 2006 portrait of Cesar Chavez, which is representative of his style —cool, dark colors nestle up against rich reds, and words and symbols are stitched inside the pattern. A closer look at the grid of squares reveals tiny faces inspired by Mesoamerican masks, more than 700 in total. It has an all-over quality that shares some relation to abstraction — he came of age as the movement took over America’s art scene — but the artist’s interpretation features prominent, proud figures inside geometric landscapes. 

Alfredo Arreguín, “Fragrance” (2018), oil on canvas, 48 x 48 inches (courtesy Linda Hodges Gallery)

In the NPG’s 2007 show Portraiture Now: Framing Memory, Arreguín showed pictures alongside Brett Cook, Tina Mion, Kerry James Marshall, and Faith Ringgold. He included a portrait of Frida Kahlo, a foremother of Mexican art and his favorite muse whom he painted more than a hundred times. “I use her as a symbol of beauty,” he said in 2009, “as a spiritual element that I can disguise.” 

Although his work defied labels and dodged formal schools, he was often called a pattern painter, a magic realist, and a founder of the Pattern and Decoration Movement. Last year, the Museum of Northwest Art put on a sprawling show, Arreguín: Painter from the New World, his fourth retrospective in recent years. 

Whatever the subject, there is always math or geometry behind the work’s construction — some sort of arithmetical order that allows his shapes to rhyme and repeat. With the wisdom of old age, Arreguín claimed he could lay down these labyrinths quickly and move through them mostly on instinct. 

For Latinx artists and art lovers, Arreguín was both a mentor and a bridge to the culture of “back home,” wherever that was.

“As a young Latin American artist, arriving in Seattle in 1982, the first artist I looked up to was Alfredo Arreguín,” recalled the Cuban-American visual artist Juan Alonso-Rodríguez. Deb Ramirez Rock remembered seeing Arreguín’s work for the first time: “I stood in front of it for many hours, lost in his paintings … I now know, it brought out the Mexican in me.”

Alfredo Arreguín, “The Return to Aztlán (Cesar Chavez)” (2006), oil on canvas, 60 x 48 inches (courtesy Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery)

Arreguín took part in the landmark show Chicano Art: Resistance and Affirmation, which traveled to 10 cities between 1990 and 1993. In 1995, the Mexican government honored him with the Ohtli Award, given to those who champion Mexican culture abroad.

Yet, Arreguín also became a distinctly American painter, one who earned highbrow praise and took popular commissions. He received a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship in 1980 and painted the official poster for Washington state’s centennial in 1987.

In recent years, he took on the staid genre of political portraiture, painting the official portraits of three justices on Washington state’s Supreme Court. With zigzagging shapes, thick contour lines, and cameos from ancestors, his work starkly departs from the judicial portraits that hang nearby. “Mine is not going to look like that,” Arreguín said upon accepting the commission. “Those are like classical music, and mine is more like jazz.”

There was also a jazz-like quality to the way Arreguín spoke. When I called the poet Lawrence Matusda this week, he marveled at the way his friend could tell stories, how he could hold court over dinner with the same gusto and flourish that he painted with.

“When you heard him speak, it almost sounded like melodies,” said Matsuda, who collaborates often with painter Roger Shimomura. “It was like a song: You could feel rhythms as he told you about his bad behavior, his good behavior, his redemption. In a room of people, he was the star, and he was the black hole. Everything went over to Alfredo.”

Arreguín would tell stories of himself as a rowdy young artist who drank, smoked, and never met a stranger. As a college student at his favorite bar, he jumped and swung from the overhead light fixtures and danced on the tables. When police arrested another man for being naked in the bar, Arreguín announced that he would join the naked man in jail. He went outside and urinated on the police car, and together to jail they went.

Alfredo Arreguín with his wife of 49 years, the painter Susan Lytle, in the basement studio they shared since 1987 (photo by and courtesy Quinn Russell Brown)

Arreguín credited the author Raymond Carver for helping him rein in his drinking. Carver’s wife, the poet and prolific writer Tess Gallagher, also visited Arreguín’s studio, as did the elusive Haruki Murakami. Carver wrote a 1987 short story, “Menudo,” that takes place at the Arreguín house. In the midst of a breakdown, the narrator looks up at the jungle animals on the wall and a painter named Alfredo cooks a Mexican soup (menudo) on the stove. “He put his big painter’s hand on my shoulder,” the narrator says, capturing Arreguín’s warmth with his words.

Arreguín shared his basement studio with his wife, the painter Susan R. Lytle, known for her close-up paintings of flowers. “From the moment we met in 1974, we were together,” Lytle told me in a phone call this week. “For one of our first dates, he invited me to come to his studio. I brought my canvas and paint, and we listened to music and painted together. It felt so good that we did it for the rest of our lives.” A towering pile of empty paint tubes, stacked up over decades, divides their studio in half. Flower canvases line the walls on her side and Frida’s faces adorn his.

When I think back on my photoshoot with Arreguín, I feel the same warmth so many speak of. I feel his force and his friendliness, his bullish charm. I see his square jaw smile and his blue eyes squint.

My brother was at the shoot with me. “I remember that day so vividly,” he texted me this week. It seems like I could step back into that kitchen if I closed my eyes and thought about it long enough. Maybe this was Arreguín’s greatest gift: he gave you more imagination. Lawrence Matsuda reinforced that idea when I spoke to him, “Recently I saw something that said, ‘We don’t remember days, we remember moments.’ But with Alfredo, you remember the day. The whole day.”

Arreguín pioneered a process that was rigorous and meticulous but had no underlying equation. And yet, on that afternoon, I wanted there to be one. I had been struggling to improve my drawing and painting, so I asked the master for advice. Arreguín, then 86, smiled and shook his head. How often he must have heard that question over the decades. I was just another student looking for a shortcut, a map to art’s treasures. Arreguín tapped his chest with his big painter’s hand. “Your heart,” he said. “That is what you paint with.”

Quinn Russell Brown is a writer and visual artist based in Philadelphia. He is the editor of the magazine Expedition, published by the University of Pennsylvania Museum, and is a regular contributor to...