Gone But Maybe Not Forgotten
On a chilly Saturday afternoon in February, the Miami Art Museum bustles with visitors who zigzag through a posthumous survey of Carlos Alfonzo's work, taking in the bright-color, densely painted canvases that made the Cuban artist a favorite among local collectors a decade ago. Unfailingly, when they reach the last gallery, the buoyant visitors grow quiet and linger. Parents take their children by the hand. Couples sit on the bench in the middle of the room and silently stare at the walls.
The large, dark canvases in this gallery are known, for obvious reasons, as the "Black Paintings" -- spare, abstract configurations that stand in powerful contrast to Alfonzo's busier early works. The popular and prolific artist, who arrived in Miami with the Mariel boatlift, created these paintings in the months before he died of an AIDS-related cerebral hemorrhage in 1991. The works share a set of images that were symbolic for the 40-year-old painter at the end of his life: a large, faceless head, the outline of a kneeling figure, and, in the background, skyscraper-like shapes -- stand-ins for souls that the artist referred to as "witnesses."
"Carlos was very active until the end," remembers artist Cesar Trasobares, a close friend of Alfonzo and the former director of Metro-Dade Art in Public Places. "I remember going to Carlos's studio one day and he was crawling on the floor with a brush in his hand. He was weak, but he was determined to finish the painting. That was what mattered."
Morbid though the notion may sound, death became the work of Carlos Alfonzo. Curators and collectors agree that the dark, symbolic canvases produced in the last months of his life were his finest. Just months after his death, three were included in the prestigious Whitney Biennial in New York, exposing an international audience to his legacy. A painting worth $12,000 at the time of Alfonzo's death can now fetch more than three times that sum. And thanks to collectors who have an obvious financial as well as philanthropic interest in his fame, Alfonzo's legacy is sure to live on.
But his case is an exception in the world of art. More common are the stories of less-celebrated artists whose losing battles with AIDS have meant that their creations wind up in the dustbin of art history.
"What happens to the also-rans?" Pat Jones asks. "What happens to the ones who may have had a potentially brilliant career but were at the beginning of it when they died? They didn't really have a chance to develop ... a real market for their work."
The former director of the South Florida Art Center, Jones is the South Florida coordinator of the Estate Project for Artists with AIDS, a nonprofit organization devoted to helping artists plan for the preservation of their work after their deaths. She is also a driving force behind "Touched by AIDS," an exhibition opening March 11 at Miami-Dade Community College's Centre Gallery, which will showcase the work of thirteen Miami artists, including Alfonzo, who have died of AIDS.
"One function of an artist is purely to produce objects and aesthetic material," observes Patrick Moore, the Los Angeles-based director of the Estate Project. "But I think an equally essential function is to document a particular time through the practice of art. We're in the midst of incredible turmoil because of a particular disease, and if we preserve and study this work I think we're going to have a real historical picture of a certain time."
Peter Menendez knows precisely what Moore means. An architect and collector, Menendez remembers an era when he felt like he was attending more memorial services for artists than gallery openings. "We really started losing people in '90, '91, '92," Menendez says grimly. "One person after another." The works on display in his home, many by Miami-based Cuban artists, serve as reminders of lost friends.
And more than once Menendez has had to take on the painful task of sorting through the belongings in deceased friends' homes, sometimes discovering a cache of artworks that no one except the artist knew was there. "It's kind of a modus operandi," Menendez says. "Most people think they're going to lick the illness. They think they're going to get it together, so they don't make plans for their work."
Indeed, the rapid spread of the AIDS epidemic a decade ago hit the nation's artistic community especially hard and created an unprecedented pool of artists cut down in their primes. A rampant loss of intellectual property came with the fatalities. "Artists want to make art," Moore notes. "They don't want to deal with the business of art."
In the case of artists with AIDS, the loss of work was often exacerbated by the stigma associated with the illness. In some instances, Moore laments, whole estates left to relatives were destroyed because family members didn't approve of the works' content or because survivors regarded them as junk. "More common is that they just don't know what to do with the art," Moore says. "We can all just imagine our mothers and fathers trying to deal with some of the art we see in galleries today."
Launched in 1991, the Estate Project quickly published Future Safe, a booklet for visual artists, writers, filmmakers, and choreographers that explains basic legal procedures for wills and lists arts agencies that might accept work for their archives or otherwise assist an artist in placing it. (Future Safe advises all artists -- regardless of their health -- to make plans for the survival of their work after their death.)
Moore soon began looking into other cities that could benefit from the Estate Project. He hired Jones to head the Miami effort last year. "I found there was a huge amount of death in Miami," Moore says. "What we found that was different in Miami than in other cities was that the great period of impact and loss had already occurred."
In fact, Jones has had difficulty identifying area artists who might benefit from the Estate Project. One reason is that with medication, people with HIV are living longer. And as the AIDS epidemic continues, more artists are aware of the importance of putting their affairs in order. Jones can't exactly call the lack of urgent cases a problem, but it has meant that she has had to rethink the function of the Estate Project here: "We're shifting our focus from targeting living artists and helping them to plan their estates to documenting and preserving the work of artists already gone."
Cesar Augusto is probably best-known as the author of the fanciful mural on the facade of Camillus House in downtown Miami. A familiar figure in Miami's gay community, Augusto was not embraced by the high-rolling art world, but he often did community projects and showed in alternative spaces. Some of his paintings are still on display in a tanning salon in Coral Gables, where he had a show shortly before his death this past September. Augusto left his work to his cousin Jose Luis Ayala, but much of it is being stored at the house of Andrew Cohan, an ex-boyfriend.
The whereabouts of a lot of the work is unknown. For example, Cohan fondly remembers a herd of large wooden giraffes that Augusto made during a summer in Provincetown and placed in the garden of their rented house. Cohan found the giraffes among a pile of things in his garage, but it turned out they had all been decapitated; the creatures' heads have simply disappeared.
"I have this feeling in the pit of my stomach that says somebody should do something," says Cohan, who works for AT&T and knows little about the mechanics of the art world. "I'm just not in a position to find all of Cesar's stuff and arrange a show."
Realtor Jim Kitchens knows the feeling. He keeps a list of "Things to Do" stuck on his refrigerator. Among the usual sundry errands there's one item that stands out, and it's been on the list for a long time: Find an art dealer to represent Humberto Dionisio's work.
"The problem is to get someone I can trust," Kitchens says. "A person who will take care of it." Dionisio, another Mariel artist, died in 1987. He did not leave his works to Kitchens but to Michael Ford, a graphic designer at the Metro-Dade Public Library and Dionisio's partner. When Ford died, the estate fell into Kitchens's hands.
"It's been quite an ordeal in many ways," admits Kitchens, who works as a hair stylist in addition to selling real estate. "The preservation of the work alone is a big job, and if you're not in the art world you really don't know what to do with it." He lets out a sigh. "People tell me it's very hard to create a market for a dead artist."
Dionisio was trained as a graphic designer, and in Cuba he worked creating posters for the National Library. He was unimpressed by the local art scene when he arrived in Miami, according to Kitchens. Dionisio eventually had a solo show at the Key Biscayne Public Library, but he was generally unconcerned about securing commercial gallery representation here. "He thought Miami was two-bit compared to Havana," Kitchens recalls.
That didn't prevent Dionisio from making art. When he died at age 37, he left a legacy of about 400 paintings, drawings, and mixed media works, in addition to examples of his posters that he brought with him from Cuba. The works now cover the walls of Kitchens's house on Bird Road. Rolled up canvases pop out of the closets. A pile of black portfolios holding the artist's drawings sits on a shelf.
"I used to visit all of these fancy houses and I'd see all this art on the walls and I'd say to myself, 'Someday I'm going to have beautiful art,'" Kitchens muses. "Well, it came in spades. I'm just sorry Humberto and Michael had to die for it to happen."
Still, Kitchens knows there must be a better way to honor the memory of Dionisio than to decorate a private home.
He hopes the exhibition at Miami-Dade will incite interest in the work on the part of local curators and collectors. Dionisio's paintings will get further exposure when they go into the Estate Project's Internet image bank, a "virtual gallery" that serves as a national clearinghouse for the work of artists who have died from AIDS.
But so far, Kitchens's efforts to place the work have been futile, except for one achievement. Several years ago he was approached by curators at the Smithsonian Institution who had seen Dionisio's paintings in a traveling group show. Kitchens subsequently donated two of Dionisio's works and his personal papers to the Smithsonian. In 1994, he went to Washington, D.C., for World AIDS Day. Hanging just inside the door of the National Gallery was one of the works by Dionisio, a large white cross on Plexiglas painted with images of nude men ascending into Heaven, the artist's homage to friends who had died of AIDS. When Kitchens read the accompanying label -- "Gift of Jim Kitchens in honor of Michael Ford" -- he wept.
On the advice of a Smithsonian curator, Kitchens has since made slides of all of Dionisio's work that he owns. Having done so, he's ready to let the work go. If only someone would take it. "I have pieces that I'd like to be in the collections of Miami's museums," Kitchens says. "I can't say that I really know where they belong -- but I don't think they belong in my house."
Former Miami Herald art critic Helen Kohen holds a sheet of slides up to the fluorescent light in the office of the Centre Gallery at MDCC's Wolfson Campus. She looks over the works to be included in the "Touched by AIDS" exhibition, of which Kohen is cocurator. Some of the images suggest how the artists dealt with illness through their art. Tomas Touron, for example, an artist who began painting only after he found out he was HIV-positive, depicted male figures with spikes through their bodies to symbolize the physical and spiritual ravages of the disease. A disquieting self-portrait by South Beach artist Craig Coleman has hollow eyes and chattering teeth. A ceramic face by Jose Bernardo can be seen as a death mask. But Kohen stresses that the idea of "Touched by AIDS" was not to be an exhibition of art about AIDS, but rather to celebrate the work of a diverse group of largely forgotten local artists.
"This isn't a show about blood and gore and T-cells," she says. "It's about life -- an extended life. It's about what these people did. The great stuff they did when they were alive."
For the past year Kohen has been working on the exhibition with the Estate Project's Jones; Barbara Young, the Miami-Dade Public Library curator; and Margarita Cano, the former library curator. Borrowing from collectors, heirs, and friends of artists, the women have amassed more than 50 works by thirteen artists. Alfonzo will certainly be a feature attraction, but the curators hope to renew interest in the work of other artists that has not been seen by the public since their deaths.
"We've literally been digging in people's garages," Kohen announces. The gallery office has an appropriately chaotic feel. Sculptures sit on the floor; garment bags containing drag costumes from past editions of the White Party at Vizcaya hang around the room. The show will also include photos of the deceased artists, poems and artworks by friends, and other personal items, such as an urn made by ceramic artist Carlos Alves to hold the ashes of Cesar Augusto.
Jones, Kohen, Young, and Cano sit around a conference table, reviewing a checklist of artists: Sheldon Lurie, the first director of MDCC's Frances Wolfson Gallery, also a realist painter. Juan Gonzalez, who left Miami for a successful career in New York. Coleman, who, as the drag queen Varla, could often be spotted sitting in the window of his studio at the Espanola Way Art Center, barking greetings at passersby.
"I have a postcard from Carlos Alfonzo saying he's going to donate a print to the library," Cano says. Kohen fishes around in a pile and holds up several invitations to memorial services. Young looks through a folder about conceptual artist Fernando Garcia from the library's art department files. She was particularly fond of Garcia, who was 44 when he died in 1981. "He was such a charmer," she remembers. "Always smiling, always warm. He would bring flowers or a pastelito whenever he came to the library. And he always had such great ideas."
Her eyes go blurry as she sifts through the papers: exhibition catalogues, an old grant application with a fresh-faced passport photo attached, personal notes, a Miami Herald obituary. She pulls out an invitation for a "reading symphony" Garcia organized at the library.
"Remember?" she asks the others. "That morning was so much fun." The women smile for a moment, then grow quiet.
"There have been a lot of tears shed," Kohen explains. "When we started this project, Barbara, Margarita, and I were crying all the time." Organizing "Touched by AIDS" has elicited bittersweet memories of a time before Miami gained a reputation as a capital of Latin American art, or before it had become a city with museums striving for prestige on the national contemporary art circuit. Cano gave many of these now-deceased artists exposure in shows she curated at the library's main branch, when it was still located on the bayfront downtown -- shows that were reviewed by Kohen.
There was a freewheeling spirit among Miami's artists then, Kohen remembers, a sense of community rather than career-making. "The art scene in the Eighties was very small, very backward; it was retro," she says. "And it was really spurred on here by the Cubans who either grew up here or came with Mariel. There's no question about that."
All but two of the artists in the exhibition (Coleman and Lurie) came from Cuban families. The artists known as "the Miami generation" grew up here, part of the first wave of postrevolutionary Cuban immigrants. In 1980 the Mariel boatlift brought to Miami a varied group of homosexual artists who had not been favored by the island government. Together, Kohen says, they "turned 'Miami the cultural desert' into a tired cliche." The onslaught of AIDS brought an abrupt end to the blooming vibrancy of that young Miami art scene, one that no one quite expected.
"Remember when they used to say only Haitians had AIDS? Of course nobody clean and white could have AIDS," Kohen says sarcastically. "But the first generation of people here who died from AIDS were from nice religious families. Who had ever heard of such a thing?"
Certainly not Beatriz Brito. A classically beautiful woman with stylishly short white hair, Brito looks younger than her 71 years. She sits on a plush chair in her living room in Kendall, flipping through a scrapbook that holds mementos of her son Wil, a jewelry designer. Photos show a ruggedly handsome, smiling young man, playing bingo with senior citizens in a nursing home and acting in a community theater production.
When Wil told Brito he had AIDS, she had only a vague idea of what the word meant. "He said 'Mom, this means I'm going to die,'" she remembers. "I said 'Well, we're all going to die sometime,' and he said 'No, Mom. This means I'm going to die before you.'" She began going with Wil to doctors and local AIDS organizations, and they gathered all the information they could. "We learned about AIDS together." He died in 1990, when he was 40 years old.
Brito wears several pieces of jewelry made by Wil, including a gold bracelet fastened with two clasping hands he described as "the hands of God." She goes to the bedroom and brings out an ornate crown of golden roses and leaves that will be put on display at the Centre Gallery.
Brito picks up a photo from the table showing a striking young woman with porcelain skin, wearing the headpiece at her wedding. The picture is of Brito's niece, Elena Alonso-Ochoa, who also died of AIDS in 1990. That was also the year that Brito's younger son Jon Fernando died, also of an AIDS-related illness. Jon was 35, an artist living in New York. Like his brother, he spent his last days in the front room of the family's Kendall home.
Jon made iconic paintings on glass and large glass plates with intricate, colorful designs of fruits or flowers and byzantine figures. Bette Midler collected them. Some of the plates are displayed, ethereally backlit, in a china cabinet in Brito's living room. When Jon became very ill she went to the New York gallery and brought all his work home. "I called the gallery owner and said: 'Do not sell another piece,'" she recalls.
Brito has turned her home into a museum of her family's works. Jon's paintings cover the living room walls. Wil's striking jewelry pieces are displayed on a side table. A sculpture by Brito's daughter -- a mask of Wil's face with antlers -- also decorates the living room, as do several Giacometti-like sculptures made by her husband, a lawyer and businessman who briefly made his living as an artist when he arrived here from Cuba in 1961. He now lives in a nursing home, having suffered a heart attack and several strokes Brito says were brought on by grief over the death of his sons.
Brito opens a second scrapbook, Jon's, and leafs through his old report cards, clippings about his plates from Town and Country and New York magazine, his resume, his obituary. "I had all these things in a box -- one for each of my sons," she says. "I decided to put things in order." Brito has documented all of her sons' work on slides in a manner that Pat Jones of the Estate Project considers exemplary. Organizing the work has been a way of keeping her family together, Brito says.
A third album is filled with articles about AIDS clipped from newspapers and magazines. Brito works with AIDS support groups and speaks publicly about her heartbreaking experience when asked, in order to educate other families dealing with the illness. She regularly volunteers with AIDS patients at Mercy Hospital. "Helping helps," Brito says, although she admits she's not really sure how she's survived. "All of a sudden my world came to an end." She shrugs and forces a smile. "I talk about these things, but I really can't believe they happened to me."
Her greatest comfort is living among the works her sons made. Brito's eyes sweep over Jon's paintings on the walls, the plates in the breakfront. Fingering the gold bracelet around her wrist that Wil gave her, she smiles. "This way I know that they'll always be here with me.
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