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Column 091007 Clark

Monday, September 10, 2007

Who was Mexico’s Teenage Artist Abraham Angel?

By George Thomas Clark

“Where is the National Museum of Art?” I kept asking people in downtown Mexico City.

“I don’t know,” they said.

“According to this map, it’s got to be near here.”

They gestured palms up.

Indignantly, I wondered how anyone could be unaware of a national treasure so close, and strode around the area, feeling culturally attuned while ignoring the uncomfortable fact that until I opened my eyes 11 years ago I couldn’t have directed anyone to an art museum.

“It’s just right down there,” a lady ultimately told me.

I’d hit every street in the area but the right one — Tacuba. It’s a busy one-way artery three lanes wide, and the National Museum of Art stands as an enormous (yet frequently unseen) neoclassical structure guarded in front by a statue. When it was completed in 1911 and used for government offices, Porfirio Díaz entertained other despots in his ornate second-floor salon. Since 1982 the building has hosted works by Mexico’s most gifted painters, particularly from the first half of the Twentieth Century.

Amid numerous noteworthy offerings — a self-portrait of Jose Clemente Orozco maimed by several huge paint brushes entering and exiting eyes, ears and other parts of his head; Diego Rivera’s image of a stylishly-dressed man slipping on a glove with a finger serving as the pivot of a ferris wheel; and the volcanic mountains of Dr. Atl — I noticed a striking male tennis player dressed in navy blue pants and tank top, and surrounded by a pink, purple, light blue, dark green and almost black world at once delightful and ominous.

Abraham Angel, the label said, Portrait of Hugo Tighman. Next I viewed Portrait of Esperanza Crespo, an attractive dark-haired lady of high station who’s wearing a dusky blouse and sitting in front of gloomy trees that punch threatening skies. There is another work by Angel. All were done in 1924, his final year of life. Astonishingly, he was born in 1905.

So here’s a kid who, decades ago, died at age 19 and now has three paintings on display in a great museum. Damned impressive, I thought. I wonder what happened to him?

I probably would have left the question there, but later during my Mexico City vacation in July I went to the other side of town, to Chapultepec Park, and entered the Museum of Modern Art where I was overpowered by two massive hands, cupped and supplicating, in front of a faceless face painted by David Alfaro Siqueiros. I also enjoyed many other masterworks of Twentieth Century Mexican art.

Three of those paintings were by Abraham Angel, created in 1923 when he was only 18. The Maid, pretty and dignified, and The Little Mule, stepping through a fantasy village, are bright and vibrant works enlivened by a soothing and deceptively simple style that make Angel’s work distinctive.

Next to his paintings hangs Portrait (posthumous) of Abraham Angel, completed in 1929 by Manuel Rodriguez Lozano. This penetrating work shows a mischievous, slightly aggrieved, and rather effeminate Angel looking askance at a world he has the talent to control.

But something happened.

I asked about the tragic young artist but security employees, who’d been following to ensure I didn’t touch the paintings, knew nothing about Angel, the labels next to his works having been unseen phenomena. That’s all right. They’re working low-wage jobs they hope to soon leave.

Back home in California I checked the Internet and discovered that Abraham Angel, son of a Mexican mother and a father of Scottish ancestry, and the youngest of five brothers, had left home at age 17, evidently to escape the control of his mother and oldest brother.

He would study art his way. His most influential teacher, not coincidentally, was Manuel Rodriguez Lozano, one of Mexico’s finest artists. In addition to painting Angel’s portrait, Rodriguez Lozano had been his friend, his promoter, and his boyfriend. The maestro’s emerging homosexuality doubtless disturbed his wife, and the couple divorced.

Abraham Angel and his teacher spent July and August of 1923 together in Cuernavaca, and, as the paintings at the Museum of Modern Art illustrate, this was a period of profound growth and productivity for Angel. Diego Rivera, one of history’s most distinguished painters, praised the young man in a contemporary magazine article. According to another web article, in 1924 Angel traveled around Argentina with Rodriguez Lozano and painter Julio Castellanos, exhibiting work to delighted audiences.

Then the road ends. Without explanation or analysis, evidently because of insufficient information, articles declare that in October 1924, at age 19, Abraham Angel either committed suicide or died of a cocaine overdose and was buried in a tomb that no longer exists. One is forced to presume that if he did commit suicide, he used cocaine as the fatal weapon. Beyond that, I could only note the colors and psychology of his works had darkened during his final year.

I wanted more but even forays through the mammoth marketplace of Amazon.com offered nothing specifically about Angel, and on smaller websites I located two books described as scarce, appropriately so since they’re currently unavailable. Whatever personal information they offer is certain to be a sad and irritatingly incomplete portrait of a young man who, had he survived, would be a giant of modern art. He is not far from that now.

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George Thomas Clark is the author of Hitler Here, a biographical novel, and Outliving Flynn, a short story collection.  He can be contacted through his web page at http://www.GeorgeThomasClark.com/.

Abraham Angel, La Mulita (The Little Mule), 1923
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Museo de Arte Moderno, INBA, CONACULTA, México DF