At some point in our lives, each of us realizes how really finite we are. For me this realization has been a driving force in my creativity and in my life in general. I paint with a new abandonment almost trying to deny the fact that I too will someday pass on and the only thing remaining will be the images that I leave behind.
Carlos Almaraz 1941–1989
Carlos Almaraz’s life and work encompasses several disparate phases and reflects the bold vision of a studio artist who straddled the roles of activist and painter. Almaraz was a pioneer of the Chicano Art Movement who used his art to translate a message of social revolution and political activism, not least through his collaborations with César E. Chávez and the United Farm Workers. In the last decade of his life, Almaraz would move away from the public art milieu and towards the studio, where he fostered a successful career as a solo artist and created work deeply rooted in psychological impact.
Born in Mexico City in 1941, Almaraz and his family settled in East Los Angeles. After time spent in New York in the 1960s, he returned to Los Angeles in time to engage with the heated political and cultural struggles of the Chicano movement. In 1973, Almaraz co-founded the Los Four, an artist collective whose mission included advocating for the rights of migrant laborers. Over the next six years, Almaraz collaborated with other artists who shared an interest in muralism and graffiti; this dual focus on public art and civil rights for Latino immigrants lent itself perfectly to Almaraz’s work with the United Farm Workers.
Almaraz’s activist ties loosened by the end of the 1970s; as curator Howard Fox has put it, Almaraz “was a very complex personality, and he was feeling very constrained by the essentialism implicit in Chicano notions of shared identity. At that point, he estranged himself from political activism and became more of a traditional studio artist.” In this subsequent chapter of his career, Almaraz produced a personal and complex body of work that served as a visual diary of his environment, his sexuality, and, following a 1987 diagnosis, his life with HIV.
During the almost decade-long period between his return to the studio and his death in 1989, Almaraz truly embraced his relationship with Los Angeles: the lure of the city and turbulent climate of the 1980s resonated with Almaraz in a deeply profound and complex way. His ability to turn inward resulted in celebrated paintings that layer elements of the representational and spiritual, the mundane and cataclysmic, the real and unreal.
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