Visual Arts

Cuban Crisis

Trust me when I say that "Landscape in the Fireplace: Paintings by Pedro Alvarez," an exhibition of 40 large mixed media paintings by the Cuban artist currently on display at Arizona State University Art Museum, may be your very last opportunity to see so much of Alvarez's work -- particularly new work -- in one place anywhere in the world.

And that's not just overblown P.R. puffery or obnoxious art world hype. The truth is that five days after his show opened at ASUAM on February 7, 37-year-old Alvarez, a native of Havana, Cuba, who had been temporarily living and painting in Spain, jumped from the fifth-story window of his room at the Twin Palms Hotel on Apache Boulevard in Tempe.

According to Tempe police, the Maricopa Country Medical Examiner concluded the artist committed suicide, after finding no evidence of drugs, alcohol or foul play and taking into account eye witness reports of Alvarez's fall from the window onto the hotel parking lot below. Alvarez left no suicide note, so the reason he decided to end his life will always be a matter of pure speculation.

Alvarez's untimely death, a genuine shock to people who had interacted with the artist just hours before it happened, has spawned the usual messy issues of legal ownership of his work, putting the brakes on ASUAM's plans to tour "Landscape," Alvarez's first solo museum exhibition in the United States. Collectors here and abroad who stood in line to buy work from Alvarez also have been left empty handed by the fallout.

I was personally shell-shocked by news of the artist's death, since I had been lucky enough to have him as a guest in my home on a number of occasions, had flown to Santa Monica to see the opening of his first U.S. gallery show and had promised to fatten him up with a great dinner before he left the States to go back home. Though I finally made it to Cuba last November for the Havana Biennial, I wasn't able to see Pedro there, since he had been working in Spain at the time. Little did I know that a recorded interview I did with him at a noisy ASUAM press function just two days before he died was the last time I, or anyone else for that matter, would capture him cracking jokes and talking animatedly about his irreverent, politically incorrect -- though absolutely dead-on -- paintings, into which he threw everything including the kitchen sink.

It's unfortunate that the tragic manner in which Pedro Alvarez died may color appraisal of the art he left behind as a lasting legacy of his aesthetic and philosophical vision. Suicide and self-destructive behavior are known occupational hazards for the creative soul. Painters Mark Rothko, Arshile Gorky and Vincent Van Gogh wrestled with the death demons and lost, as have a number of literary figures, including writers Ernest Hemingway and Virginia Woolf. To cast the creative output of those who, for whatever reasons, have chosen to end their own lives solely in terms of some overly dramatic desire to die does a disservice to both the artist and his work. Viewers and critics alike will have to wrestle against the urge to play shrink and avoid reading possible portents of Alvarez's anguished psychological state or an underlying death wish into his most recent paintings.

Because, for the most part, the Pedro Alvarez I knew was a pretty funny, gregarious and compassionate guy, universally liked and respected both as a person and as an artist. The lanky, bespectacled painter, who looked a little like a young Elvis Costello with a buzz cut, was blessed with a wonderful gift of wit that swung from wry to wacky, a regular guy who loved to joke, laugh and hoist a few brews among friends. Because he was able to spend a significant amount of time in this country, as well as in Spain, where his work was shown frequently, he also had a solid grip on the American psyche.

Alvarez had a longstanding connection to Arizona. His work had been included in ASUAM's 1998 "Contemporary Art from Cuba: Irony and Survival on the Utopian Island," a groundbreaking show of Cuban art curated by museum director Marilyn Zeitlin that toured the U.S. to rave reviews. Part of a group of young, upcoming artists working during Cuba's "special period," Alvarez had lived through the very real privations Cubans suffered in the 1990s after the Soviet Union collapsed and withdrew financial support from the island nation -- deprivation unconscionably compounded by the U.S.'s continuing embargo. The painter's humorous take on serious issues engendered by Latin America's centuries-old colonization by foreign intruders, including racism, cultural servitude, stereotyping and globalization spread by capitalism's most enthusiastic entrepreneurs, was forged in the fires of food shortages and the lack of basic necessities, like toothpaste and painting supplies.

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Kathleen Vanesian