José Luis Cuevas
At 31, Jose Luis Cuevas is an "old master" among
young Mexican artists.
He is obsessed with death, but conscious of the
life beneath the nightmares; filled with hatred for
Mexico and her nationalism, restlessly roaming the
world, but always returning home; in revulsion against
colorful romantic murals of patient Indians and disdainful
of attacks on him by Mexican critics, but not impervious
He is attuned to the world of Kafka, Ionesco, Beckett,
and Genet, but is not unmindful of the world of Madison
Avenue: mass media, midtown; art market, uptown.
And this says less about him than it does about our
There was plenty of time to absorb Cuevas' macabre
grey view when I visited his apartment in Mexico
City. He was late for our appointment. A maid brought
coffee into the simply furnished room; Cuevas' two
little daughters peered in and disappeared. The walls
were covered with his work: self-portraits of himself
as Rembrandt, of himself sketching at Coney Island,
as he imagines himself a clown to his daughters;
sketches for his autobiography "Cuevas por Cuevas" just
published in Spanish and English; framed letters,
scrawled and illustrated, that he sent home from
New York, Paris, Rome, Morocco, Spain. His original
illustrations for "The Worlds of Kafka and Cuevas," reprinted
in the new book. Sombre drawings of the poor, the
mutilated, the insane, the funeral of Franco.
Time Magazine calls him "the golden boy;" rich
collectors rush to buy his work. Who knows the investment
"In the world of Cuevas, the insane have already
installed their madhouse in the palace; jesters have
become law-givers; buffoons establish moral standards;
the blind order executions; and the deformed set
themselves up as the image and likeness of the ideal," his
friend, the novelist Carlos Fuentes wrote for the
catalogue of Cuevas' recent Los Angeles exhibition
Horror Theater, dedicated to Tod Browning and James
Whale, "masters of the horror film."
Through a narrow slit in the catalogue cover, a
pair of appraising eyes look out; on the next page
a photograph of the artist, hair brushed down over
his forehead. I thought of that famous photo of Truman
Capote languidly flaked out on his ornate sofa.
Nothing in the artist's work prepared me for the
artist. He was too handsome. Jimmy Dean, Paul Newman,
Marlon Brando. He belonged to the Hollywood pantheon
of rebels. But what would those pale blue-grey, X-ray
eyes see in Hollywood?
There was barely time to say hello and recover from
that dazzling white smile, when the phone rang. The
image of Hollywood exploded as a burst of staccato
Spanish and an incredible rush of nervous electricity
filled the room. Cuevas, wearing a heavy sheepskin-lined
navy foul weather jacket over a black sweater held
the phone and paced the floor in his high boots,
back and forth, back and forth in a small circle.
It was an exhausting performance.
He apologized for the delay. His studio had been
burglarized just as he was preparing for a new show
in New York. Everything else had been sold at the
Los Angeles show.
He went for his scrapbook so that I could see what
has already been written about him, and three-year
old Mariana came trotting back with him. She leaned
over the heavy scrapbook on my lap, turning each
page so that I might admire her father. I murmured "bueno" dutifully
and tried to take notes.
Cuevas spoke of the rheumatic fever which set the
direction for his life. As a small boy, he spent
two years in bed, reading omnivorously, discovering
Dostoyevski, and drawing when he wasn't reading.
If it had not been for the heart condition, his father,
a commercial pilot, would have encouraged him toward
a more active profession. As it was, until three
years ago, Cuevas used to race around on his motorcycle
until he was grounded by a nearly fatal accident
and spent three months recovering. He is still unable
to drive a car.
By the time he was 14, he had his first show in
a loft - sketches of himself with the fever, with
mumps; and the ugly dark lines of the prostitutes,
the cadavers and the infamous street below his window.
In a newspaper interview during his first professional
show at 19, he tried to explain that his subjects
might appear French, but the artistic influence was
pre-Columbian. He talked about the dictatorial attitudes
of the big three: Rivera, Siqueiros and Orozco and
the closed door of official Mexican art circles toward
young painters reaching out in other directions.
It brought the wrath of the critics down on his head.
"It is not possible to say anything against
Mexican art," Cuevas said. "The Mexicans
are very nationalistic and for them the most important
art in the world is Mexican art. Mexican food is
the most delicious food; the most beautiful landscape
- Mexican land. Because of this nationalistic attitude,
the Mexicans live with a very big cactus curtain.
The Mexican people look only at this curtain and
never see other countries."
Speaking rapidly in English with a quick shrug of
irritation when he couldn't find the right word,
Cuevas said, "The prestige of the three top
Mexican muralists is not for the quality of their
paintings; it's for political reasons. Like the work
of Diego Rivera, it is sometimes very superficial.
The very serious and important art centers are not
interested in the three. The revolution in Mexican
art was not an aesthetic revolution. The subject
is the revolution, but the art is not revolutionary.
It's reactionary. I understand the attitude of the
Mexican artists during the revolution I don't speak
about the men, but about the art and the art is reactionary.
"For me, the biggest mistake in Mexican art
is the superficial folklorist with very nice colors.
It's nice for American tourists who like souvenirs
to show how beautiful the Mexican people are, " Cuevas
After his first show in the United States at the
Pan American Union in Washington in 1954, he publicly
criticized the Mexican artists again, saying that
they were influenced by the Europeans and that the
only really Mexican artist was Tamayo who has done
nothing worthwhile for the last ten years since he
"As a result, some Mexicans wrote violent articles
against me. My response when I read the attacks is
to make many shows in different countries." He
added proudly that his work had influenced many young
artists in Columbia and his influence can also be
seen in some work at the new Museum of Modern Art
in Mexico City. He has had one-man shows in nine
countries, is represented in 20 museum collections,
and has won three international prizes.
His own first influence was pre-Columbian art, Cuevas
noted, "but my actual expression is the point
of view of one young man of this century. I want
to express the sense of my time. My influence is
that of my counterparts in the silent movies; Kafka,Ionesco,
Beckett, Genet. I am not influenced by contemporary
painters because my expression is my personal point
"The Mexican artist is in the realistic tradition,
but this way is not contemporary," he said. "I
am in the new figurative tendency - like the English
(Francis) Bacon- and the Mexican realistic work is
in the old academic, realistic way. The Mexican realistic
artist is melodramatic like the German expressionists.
For the Mexican realistic artist, the subject in
the painting is most important and the subject always
is very poor.
"In the new figurative, the artist never is
melodramatic. He is never compassionate for humanity.
The elements in my work are the incongruity and the
absurdity of life. I am only the witness of my moment.
The socialistic artist, or realistic, is reformatory
of society. I am not a reformer."
He thought for a moment and observed, "Bunuel
said one thing and it is very good for me, too -
'the sentimental is immoral.' I don't like the sentimental
attitude of the realistic painters. Maybe in this
thing I am a little surrealistic.
"For me to make a drawing, or to make love
is one human act, but the consequences are not important.
Only the act is important. My work is no good for
society; my work is no good for reforming. It is
only the expression of the moment."
He went on to speak of his hatred for Mexican nationalism
and its limiting effect on the Mexican people."I
don't like Mexico," he re-affirrmed - and it's
hard not to wonder about the relationship between
his non-Mexican appearance and his passionate diatribes. " I
am not interested in the Mexican heroes. What is
sacred for me? The Mexican flag, the Mexican heroes
and the Mexican president are not sacred."
"Why live here then?"
"It is cheaper. It's easy. But I stay in Mexico
only three months of the year. I like the U.S. because
it is more exciting; New York is very exciting. But
I can't stay permanently in any city. I need to change.
In New York I can only stay six months. In other
countries, four-five months. In Mexico when I stay
three months, I am very depressed, very nervous.
Mexico is a very insane country. The air is bad,
the streets and the people are very sordid. In one
word, Mexico is very bad for my health. The most
ugly and inexpressive people in the world are the
Mexican people. I say these things always. It's true.
When I say these things I am very frank and honest."
"It is terrible to feel so alienated from one's
country," I remarked.
"I don't know what happened with me and my
country," Cuevas responded. "Some people
don't like western themes, or don't like Coca-Cola.
Well, I don't like Mexico. For me, it's a problem
of taste. The Mexican people are hypocritical and
have a terrible inferiority complex. Never do they
talk with truth. They don't have self-criticism." He suggested reading Oscar Lewis' "Children
of Sanchez" (heatedly condemned by most Mexicans)
as an example of what he was talking about, or his
"But," he added reluctantly, "I
can't be indifferent to Mexico. I can say I hate
Mexico, but it is impossible to say Mexico is not
important to me. Mexico for me is like a terrible
pain in the head, or a toothache. I think of Mexico
always in bad things. The sense of hate for a country
in which one is born is like when a son hates the
parents. It is not possible to be indifferent to
them. It's not easy for me to explain why I hate
Mexico; maybe it's in the childhood, like the complex
problem of a son.
"When I talk to the Mexican critics, I say
always I am not interested in the opinions of the
Mexican people, but it is not true. I always want
to know the reasons for the criticism. Maybe I am
a little provincial because I'm preoccupied with
the opinion of my fellow countrymen.
"My primordial preoccupation in life is to
die. Sometimes in the midnight, it is not possible
for me to sleep because of the terrible preoccupation
with death. Maybe I make drawings to push away the
idea of death. And to forget this idea, I not only
make drawings, I like to travel, to stay in different
places, to see movies, a strip tease, I like the
jazz. With these things, I forget for some moments
the terrible idea of death. When you have a terrible
consciousness of death, it is not possible to be
the socially conscious man. It is not possible to
have a very profound preoccupation with the politics."
Then, with a glimmer of a smile, "I sense the
life too in my masochistic idea of the death. Because
when you think of death, you sense much more of life."
Magazine August 1965