Visual Art

At LnS Gallery, an exhibition honors the legacy of Cuban-American artist Carlos Alfonzo

Written By Miguel Sirgado
February 22, 2024 at 11:07 AM

Installation view of project room in “Carlos Alfonzo: Legacy” at LnS Gallery, Coconut Grove,  Miami, through Saturday, April 13.  From left, “Head” (1989) welded steel with pain and poured concrete. (50½ x 35 x 12 inches) (128.3 x 88×9 x 30.5 cm.) “Untitled (from the Pulpo series), (1990), oil on linen, (84 x 84 inches) (213.6 x 213.6 cm.) (Photo by Sofia Guerra, courtesy of LnS Gallery)

Tony Montana, the protagonist of Brian de Palma’s famous film, “Scarface,”  is a Cuban immigrant who escapes from the island during 1980’s historic Mariel Boatlift. Once in Florida, the “marielito” of this story becomes a hired killer to obtain and pay for his green card. His ruthless and unscrupulous style quickly places Tony at the highest level of the cocaine mafia in Miami. Over the years he even becomes an iconic figure of American popular culture.

But the Tony Montana of 1983, embodied by Al Pacino, outraged many Cuban exiles who felt that the film portrayed a negative and one-sided image of their community. They had a point.

Not everyone from the “Mariel Generation” was a Tony Montana — 125,000 Cubans are estimated to have arrived via the Mariel-Havana Key West bridge, many of whom were everyday Cubans hoping to find freedom and reunite with their families in the United States. Others were citizens who utterly disagreed with the politics, the ideology and abuses of the Castro regime.

“Oyá,” (1987), acrylic on panel, 47 ½ x 36 inches (120.6 x 91.4 cm.) (Photo by Sofia Guerra, courtesy of LnS Gallery)

What came out of this was a greatly diverse group of exceptional creators in the fields of literature, visual arts, poetry, music, journalism, academia, and theater, known as the “Mariel Generation.” They encompassed an intellectual movement with very peculiar characteristics which is still being defined and studied to this day.

Artist Carlos Alfonzo is one of them.

Defying erasure and in the name of cultural justice, LnS Gallery in the Coconut Grove neighborhood of Miami is showing “Carlos Alfonzo: Legacy,”  an exhibition honoring the Cuban American artist as a towering figure within the history of post-revolutionary art from Cuba and its diaspora. Alfonzo, who was born in Cuba and fled the Castro regime in 1980, died of AIDS in 1991 when he was only 40 years old.

According to the gallery, among the works on display is “The City” (1989), a masterpiece by Alfonzo that is being shown for the first time in almost two decades. The exhibition is made up of more than 13 works that could be considered a comprehensive survey of the artist’s oeuvre.

Additionally, the show aims to celebrate the publication of a major monographic volume about the painter titled “Carlos Alfonzo: Late Paintings,” published by the Institute of Contemporary Art, Miami (ICA) in conjunction with its exhibition at the Miami Design District museum between April and November 2022.

A major monographic volume on the painter titled “Carlos Alfonzo: Late Paintings,” published by the Institute of Contemporary Art, Miami (ICA) is available during the LnS Gallery exhibition. (Photo by Sofia Guerra, courtesy of LnS Gallery)

“I curated Carlos Alfonso’s show at ICA (in 2022),” says Gean Moreno, director of the Knight Foundation Art + Research Center at ICA Miami, and part of the institution’s curatorial team. “It was an exhibition that just displayed the paintings produced by Alfonzo in the last fourteen months of his life, before his passing in 1991 —sometimes they are called ‘the black paintings’ or ‘the black period’— and so, no work from before that (timeframe) was presented then,” says Moreno.

He says that the publication contains the black paintings and includes works from the rest of Alfonzo’s career: from drawings and sculptures he produced in Havana in the late 1970s to the dynamic compositions that brought him international recognition in the 1980s. According to Moreno, this is the first monograph dedicated to the artist in over 25 years. Its contents fill an art historical gap with newly commissioned scholarship, materials drawn from archives, and a comprehensive selection of paintings.

During the run of the show at LnS Gallery, “Carlos Alfonzo: Late Paintings,” will be for sale.

For LnS Gallery director Sergio Cernuda, his interest in Alfonzo’s work and his desire to better study his trajectory (and turn it into a historical archive) began a long time ago.

“Over the past twenty years, Carlos Alfonzo has become one of the most outstanding painters of the 1980s. In the short time that elapsed between his departure from Cuba during the Mariel exodus in 1980 and his premature death  . . . , he generated a body of work that evolved coherently and that made constant references to his various interests, such as his relationship with life and death, his spirituality and mysticism, his relationship with literature and history, his vision of the spiral of time,” explains Cernuda. “This project fully highlights Alfonzo’s work in all the media that fascinated him: painting, sculpture, and ceramics.”

Among the works on display are “The City,” (1989), oil on linen, three panels, 96 X 252 inches (243.8 X 640.1 cm.) The masterpiece by Alfonzo is being shown for the first time in two decades. (Photo by Sofia Guerra, courtesy of LnS Gallery)

The gallery owner says it is through the generosity of Alfonzo’s collectors and the interest of institutions such as ICA that helped realize the exhibition at LnS Gallery.

“Most of the paintings we are showing at LnS are from that period of the mid-1980s that we have been able to gather due to a collaborative interest in preserving his legacy,” says Cernuda.

On examining Alfonzo’s body of work in 2024, Moreno assures that the time was right.

“It’s been almost 25 years since the last time people (thought) about him in any serious way,” explains Moreno, “and it’s also a time when people are starting to think about the 1980s again. So it’d be nice to rethink the 1980s and make it a bigger picture since artists like Alfonzo were maybe on the periphery in the eighties. I think this is the time to do another rereading of his entire body of work.”

From the perspective of an Alfonzo appreciator, the work of this Cuban artist born in Havana in 1950, is an act of personal affection. Coral Gables art collector Jorge Pedroso says that in 1993 he organized and was part of the group of investors who bought the artist’s estate—with the idea of preserving the unity of the works that Alfonzo had left before his death.

“My wife and I had always been intrigued by Alfonzo’s work, but we didn’t know much about it,” explains Pedroso. “When I saw his work I was very impressed. I think (Alfonzo) is, in my humble opinion, one of the most complete and talented artists that Cuba has produced in the last fifty years.”

Installation view of “Carlos Alfonzo: Legacy” at LnS Gallery. At left, “Untitled [Head] Witness” (1990), oil on canvas, 36 x 30 inches (91.4 x 76.2 cm). At right, “Prayer 2” (1989) oil on canvas, 72 x 72 inches (182.9 x 182.9 cm). (Photo by Sofia Guerra, courtesy of LnS Gallery)

Pedroso says that for many years he had in his possession an Alfonzo piece titled “Santa Lucía.” It was especially significant to him because it bore the same name as the sugar mill owned by his mother’s family (but expropriated by Castro), in the province of Oriente, in Cuba. “It was a coincidence that that was one of Alfonzo’s favorite pieces, according to what Sena Toll Artigas told me. She is the mother of Carlos Artigas, who was the artist’s partner,” he explains.

For Cernuda, Alfonzo’s work is incredibly close to his own history. “I’m a first-generation Cuban American. Our gallery opened seven years ago, in February, the same month that Alfonzo passed away in 1991. Now, in 2024, his exhibition and the launch of his monograph is happening again in February. I think it’s not a coincidence that we are celebrating his life, his amazing work and our own gallery anniversary,” he says.

WHAT:  “Carlos Alfonzo: Legacy”

WHERE: LnS Gallery, 2610 SW 28th Lane, Miami

WHEN: 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., Saturday, noon to 5 p.m., Sunday. By appointment Monday. Through Saturday, April 13. 

COST: Free

INFORMATION:  305-987-5642 or lnsgallery.com

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