“Man on Fire: Luis Jiménez”

Fifteen years ago, I lost my job as Washington editor of Art International magazine because of my critical enthusiasm for Man on Fire, the sculpture that gives its name to the Luis Jiménez retrospective currently on view at the National Museum of American Art (NMAA). “You are going to have to work a little harder to convince me about the estimable Jiménez,” read the postcard my editor sent from Switzerland. In the end, the artist’s less provocative Progress II was reproduced in the glossy, high-art periodical rather than the offending Man, along with a neutralized version of my original text.

At the time, I thought that it was naive critical judgment that ended my AI career. Only now, upon seeing Jiménez’s work again at the NMAA, can I see that art politics were at work. In the late ’70s, Jiménez’s style was too exuberant, too sexy, too colorful, too kitschy, too unapologetically American to win approval in the art world’s most rarefied circles.

By that time, Jiménez had already staged solo shows in New York for a decade and executed a number of corporate and public sculpture commissions. His work in the Western States Biennial identified him as a leader among nonmainstream artists in forging alternative visions for contemporary American art. But art’s validating institutions are like freighters—they take a long time to alter their course. When the art world eventually readjusted itself during the 1980s, Jiménez, the son of Mexican immigrant parents, was perfectly positioned to exploit the new enthusiasm for multicultural art.

Even without multiculturalism to give his career a boost, Jiménez’s early life contains all the elements that predict art world (as opposed to merely artistic) success. He had an artisan father to whom he was apprenticed in early youth. Jiménez was educated in architecture at the University of Texas, then went to Mexico City to work with sculptor Francisco Zuniga and studied the heroic murals of Orozco and Siqueiros, whose influence lives on in his mature work. When he arrived in New York City in 1966, he became an assistant to sculptor Seymour Lipton. With a combination of audacity and talent, Jiménez endeared himself to the influential Ivan Karp, who helped arrange his first solo show in 1969 at Graham Gallery. The artist’s second show won a favorable notice from New York Times critic Hilton Kramer. Clearly, this is not the career profile of an outsider.

Still, Jiménez’s work was and is outrageous. Even in an art world that is accustomed to just about everything, the glossy speckled surfaces of his fiberglass sculptures, their shrieking, unmodulated colors, their appalling sexism, potentially crushing melodrama, and unapologetic vitality still throw many viewers off-balance. The cause of this discomfiture is probably not, for example, Jiménez’s sexism, which is explicit and deliberate, but his demand that serious cultural consideration be given to materials and subjects that usually don’t receive it.

Jiménez’s works, with the exception of the 24-foot Sodbuster: San Isidro, make Mexican-Americans—especially males—and Mexican-American culture of the Southwest the model for a heroic, universal, humanistic vision. The artist presents that vision using the most vulgar material and colors imaginable. In spite of the rhetoric of postmodernism, fiberglass in brilliant reds, oranges, greens, purples, yellows, blues, and blacks has still not insinuated itself comfortably into the canon of high art. There’s no way around it: Jiménez’s work looks like plastic and might seem to have the same emotional and intellectual depth as the decorative art that partially inspires it.

Some of the exhibition’s works, particularly those from the ’60s and the more recent animal and “still-life” works, are visually compelling—but conceptually thin. Yet Jiménez often manages to create many images that link the banal and the transcendent or concretize aspirations as cultural icons. His technique and vision seem to have come forcefully together in 1969, the year that saw the production of the “Man on Fire” cycle and The Barfly—Statue of Liberty. National myths and national identities are simultaneously idealized and rendered ironic in the last two works, which explore the intense unreality of mass-media images of women and America’s passion for fast machines, respectively. All three pieces demonstrate Jiménez’s sensitivity to cultural passions as well as his growing ability to monumentalize while sustaining a mordant critique.

The other side of Jiménez’s vision can be seen when speed and sex fuse in the still-shocking American Dream (1968), which presents a rambunctious black VW Beetle having intercourse with a voluptuous blond woman. The work’s sublime silliness makes it tempting to overlook its aggressive sexism. This is art that grows out of the “women really want to be raped” school of interpersonal relations, though the work’s humor expertly camouflages that fact. Though some male viewers have commented that they feel diminished by being transformed into an insignificant automobile, the basic relationship of violent domination remains the same.

Because there are so many impressive and provocative new insights generated by Jiménez’s work, it’s difficult to integrate the art’s pervasive sexism into an overall analysis. On one hand, the artist seems to be aware that media images of women are ridiculous, but nevertheless conflates the contempt that such images inspire with actual, living women. This he seems to combine with the attitude—so familiar from Christian teachings—that women are to blame for the sexual responses men have to them. (The artist makes this explicit in a series of drawings and lithographs showing death as a female dancer, one of which is included in the exhibition.) In the commentary accompanying the show, Jiménez speaks accusingly of the diseases that women transmit sexually to men. His analysis, one that relieves men of accountability, has been reinforced in both high and popular culture for 1,500 years. For Jiménez to espouse this sentiment is disappointing, for he is able to see many other systems of oppression clearly and to deconstruct them compellingly in visual form.

One of Jiménez’s chief accomplishments is the resurrection of native Mexican and Mexican-American myths and the creation of Mexican and Mexican-American archetypes to replace the generic European ideal that was adopted by American art. He transformed the equestrian monument with Vaquero, one version of which stands by the entrance to the NMAA as an emblem of American art. The sculpture shows a cowboy on a bucking horse whose two rear legs are in the air, a feat never achieved or even attempted by European or American sculptors working in the classic tradition of the equestrian monument. Jiménez shrewdly recognized the power of the “cowboy” as a universal American image, and reminds viewers that the original cowboys were Mexican. In some Southwestern communities that have considered acquiring versions of the sculpture, objection to the gun in the horseman’s raised arm has sometimes led to a rejection of the work. Says Jiménez, “We don’t think of taking away Robert E. Lee’s guns or George Washington’s sword, but somehow the thought of a Mexican with a gun is somehow seen as a big threat by some.”

The horse-and-rider image is also transformed in End of the Trail (With Electric Sunset), a fiberglass-and-polychrome-resin work whose horse has flashing electric lights set into the sunset beneath it. Trail derives in part from the sentimentally rascist, early-20th-century, bronze kitsch image of the defeated Indian. Jiménez achieves a more nuanced and ambiguous interpretation with bright colors, shiny textures, and an enlarged scale. The shifting emphasis occurs in the works of the artist’s “Progress” series which explores transportation as a metaphor for the settling of the West (not included in the exhibition), and in Southwest Pieta, which is the the most obvious example of Jiménez’s joining of Mexican mythology, American materials, and European formal types.

This fusion has been a persistent theme in Jiménez’s work, from one of the earliest sculptures in the exhibition, Man on Fire (1969) to the most recent, Border Crossing (1989). Man refers to the story of the 16th-century Aztec warrior Cuauhtemoc, who helped drive the Spaniards briefly out of Mexico City and was later captured and burned at the stake. Adopted by the Mexican muralists as a symbol of the Mexican Revolution, Cuauhtemoc is presented by Jiménez in a heroic stance, his sensuously nude body partially covered by fire and his hair and left arm turned into a finlike flame. The sculpture has its roots in the 1969 study Man With Molotov Cocktail, but the drawing’s situational nihilism is subsumed by the universal transcendence achieved in the final work.

A similar sense of sacrificial heroism is at work in Border Crossing, a 10-foot sculpture of a man carrying a woman and child on his shoulders. Again, the situational narrative is immediately overshadowed by the grandeur of the work’s human drama of survival, determination, and fate. Some commentators have linked it to Bernini’s sculpture showing Pluto carrying off Proserpina, but the more appropriate reference, it seems to me, is that sculptor’s Aeneas, Anchises and Ascanius Fleeing Troy. The dignity and sense of purpose in Bernini’s reproduction of Virgil’s story endures in Jiménez’s work, and underscores a reading of history as a grand narrative of immigration—of border crossings. Just as Virgil rewrote Homer so that the losers of Troy became the founders of Rome, Jiménez alters images to incorporate the distinctive features of new heroes. Jiménez’s ability to change particulars while preserving universal truths is most powerfully presented in Border Crossing, but also informs his sculptures of steel workers, farmers, cowboys, and dancers as well as his drawings of the Mexican-American world from which descriptive details of his work derive. His is a surprisingly optimistic vision, and that’s exactly what makes it both classic and American.