An Art Opening and a Generation of Artists

Juan A Martinez, 2017

The following narrative relates to an exhibition, a group of artists, and related people and art institutions. My memories come with opinions and interpretations. They may not be accurate in some details, given the perversity of memories, but they are lucid. The significance of the Miami Generation exhibition lies in that it was held at a museum, a first for the artists involved, travelled to other cities, had an essayed catalogue (actually three, one for each venue as artworks changed), and it gave a name and early recognition to a loose group of artists who today are well known in Miami and beyond..

October 10th, 1983-evening. Driving south on nondescript 12th avenue to an opening at the Museo Cubano de Arte y Cultura, I was thinking: “the Miami Generation, what a smart title for an exhibition and a group of artists. Seemingly simple and straightforward, although in the context of Cuban culture in Miami, nothing is that simple.”  I arrived early, and there was still parking on the side street. It always surprised me that the building was a fire station before conversion to museum. It looked like a modest house, like those of the rest of this working-class neighborhood, except this one had no windows. The Museo Cubano… was a museum without walls for a decade before the City of Miami, in 1982, rented this building to the Board of Directors for one dollar a year.

I walked into the entrance with reservations. Giulio Blanc was the curator of the exhibition, who intelligently coined the term Miami Generation. I had recently met Giulio, an up and coming art critic/historian, a bit aloof, but always friendly towards me. Although his choice of artists was solid and the relatively small museum allowed best for a limited number of artists, I was troubled that Arturo Rodríguez was left out of the exhibition. Like the rest of the artists in the show, he was born in Cuba, came of age in Miami, and emerged in the late 1970s with numerous exhibitions in local galleries and glowing reviews in the local media. He is very much a part of this group, and so are others, like Miguel Padura, Connie Lloveras, and the photographers Ramón Guerrero, Mario Algaze, Mirta Gómez/Eduardo del Valle, and Sylvia Lizama.  

I came through the double glass door into the main rectangular space as people were just beginning to arrive. As usual, I turned to the right, going to the smallest square room, which is where I liked to start. This was Mario Bencomo’s space and it was practically empty. He (30 years of age at the time of this exhibition) is mostly a self-taught painter. When I first met him, Mario told me that he became an artist through an epiphany he had in the 1970s, in front of a Mark Rothko painting in the Museum of Modern Art in New York. His paintings in the exhibition were medium-size abstractions of vibrating colors.  The title of the series-- Insular Night: Invisible Gardens, alludes to a poem by José Lezama Lima (1910-1976), as abstract as the paintings Bencomo’s expressionistic abstractions in this show were intimate, lyrical, and easy on the eye.

Juan González’ and Humberto Calzada’s paintings were in the main hall. González (38 years old) had an MFA degree from the University of Miami. By the late 1970s, he had developed his mature style, inspired by 15th century Northern Renaissance painting. He was an early sui-generis postmodernist. His small, jewel-like, colored pencil drawings are obsessive in execution, exquisite in looks, and dreamy. He is the Guillermo Collazo (1850-1896) of Cuban-American art. Some of his late 1970s works made reference to Cuba, especially its landscape, such as his masterpiece in the show, Nacimiento 1979. The new pieces in the exhibition did not refer to Cuba but did continue to show his interest in portraiture and self-portraiture.  

Calzada (36 years old) studied engineering and is a self-taught painter. By the mid-1970s, he had arrived at his subject matter and visual language: Cuban colonial architecture, specifically the homestead of Cuba’s white elite Creole class of the 19th century, painted in sharp focus realism. The subject of the paintings and the empty spaces of the interiors saturated the images with a sense of nostalgia. They represent his version of the Cuban historic (1960s) exile obsession with “la Cuba de ayer.”  The paintings in the exhibition represented a second stage in his artistic development--well preserved flooded ruins of the same architecture, such as tightly composed The Paradox, 1983. The new paintings were still immaculate, static in composition, and cold. The iconography of these, however, is more complex and the sense of melancholy less pronounced. In Juan’s and Humberto’s paintings the ocean often plays an important role, which I read as a sign of that which separates/connects Havana from Miami, the past from the present.

There I met Marta Gutierrez and Dora Valdes-Fauli, fire and ice, which were the owners of Forma Gallery (1977-1985). They were the first to exhibit major Latin American artists in Miami, like Fernando de Szyszlo, Antonio Amaral, Gunther Gerzo, Rogelio Polesello, and Elmar Rojas. They also showed Cuban artists Cundo Bermudez, Mario Carreño and Guido LLinás.  Of the Miami Generation artists, Forma represented: Calzada, Falero, Bencomo, and Miguel Padura. The gallery had a streamline and elegant interior design. We exchanged pleasantries and they informed me that Forma was organizing an exhibition of Falero’s works in progress. He took so long to finish a painting that the only way to have a full exhibition was to include them. “I’ll be there”

I moved into the room to the left of the entrance, pass the reception desk. Like in the rest of the interior, the ceiling was low and the walls bared white. By that time a steady stream of people was arriving. That room featured Pablo Cano’s and Emilio Falero’s work. Cano (22) had just returned from the Maryland Institute of Art with a BFA.  His space was dominated by a large black, red, and white drawing with a curious juxtaposition of a female version of St Sebastian in martyrdom on the left, a seated Madonna with an elaborate halo to the right, and a side view of a horse in the middle. References to Catholicism are found in this generation of artists, which I interpret as cultural signs of identity, given the ethnic and religious background of the historical Cuban exile. According to the artist, Saint Sebastian(a) represents suffering Cuba, which will be difficult to ascertain by just looking at the image. It is nevertheless a memorable painting, where Catholicism, Freud and exile politics peculiarly meet. Cano also exhibited well-crafted art books, which when opened showed three-dimensional geometric designs, inspired by Russian Constructivism.

Falero (36) studied art at Miami-Dade Community College with the famed New Realism sculptor Duane Hanson, and had developed his mature style by the mid 1970s. He showed a number of his illusionistic paintings with collage like composition, where two or more incongruous realities meet, such as the marvelous Findings, 1983. Major themes are the past crashing into the present, his Spanish heritage meeting his American upbringing, and

rupture coalescing with continuity. The allusion to Spanish art, and by extension culture, that often appears in the paintings, may be seen as an affirmation of his heritage and that of 99% of the 1960s Cuban exile.

Going through a door to the left came a somewhat narrow rectangular space with Maria Brito’s sculptures. She (36) earned an MFA from the University of Miami in 1979, and had developed her mature vision by the time of this exhibition. In the family tree of 20th-century art, her works hangs in the same branch as that of Joseph Cornell and Edward Kienholz. The sculptures in the show, made of used wood and other found objects, immediately called my attention and lured me in their direction. The pieces emanated a ghostly domestic presence, feminine, but not delicate, and definitely enigmatic. Maria’s assemblages did not make reference to Cuba or Miami. My favorite tableaux among the pieces she exhibited was Woman Before Mirror 1983, which suggests a fragment of a woman’s bedroom.  The work is mostly made of found objects and consists of a floor made of unfinished wood planks, a small cabinet, and a wall with worn out wallpaper, on which hangs various objects: an oval mirror, part of which is transparent and one can see small objects floating in space, a small ledge with two clear glass jars, each containing a photo of a monarch butterfly, and hanging from the ledge there is a hand mirror with the face (photocopy) of the artist.  The cabinet has pinned on the inner side religious stamps and is lined with purple cloth. Inside are small hand mirrors with photocopies of the artist’s face on the reflective side and a shell. It represents a fresh, personal, and feminine look at an old and tired subject.

Somewhere near Maria’s pieces, I would have hung paintings from Arturo Rodríguez’s two series: Exiles and Survivors, both of 1983. He (27) is a self-taught painter and draughtsman whose visits to the Prado Museum as a young man led him to become an artist with a passion for the work of the old masters. In time he also looked intensely at the work of 20th-century expressionists artists and movie directors. The Exile and Survivors series synthesizes both traditions. In these paintings, he makes angst palpable through the distortion of figures inhabiting topsy-turvy spaces. At the time, Arturo’s work expressed in psychological exactness the mood of exile and displaced survival, without an iota of nostalgia.

Right behind Brito’s Woman Before Mirror was the entrance to a small narrow room with an installation by Fernando García (38). He received a BA in mathematics from the University of Georgia, and later took art courses at Georgia State University. Garcia was attracted to Minimal and Conceptual art, as seen in the pieces in the show. Luckily the room with his site-specific piece was empty of people and I had the work all to myself. This site-specific piece (in its physical location and content) consisted of a medium size mirror, placed in one wall at eye level, with the outlines of a Cuban flag engraved on it. On the opposite wall was a quote, written backwards in white chalk on a black background and taking the whole wall, a supersized blackboard. The quote was from the Cuban writer and patriot hero José Martí, about the art of Michelangelo. Seen through the mirror the writing became legible. What a poetic piece: minimal in form and complex in meaning. Its reflective quality and distortions offered an intelligent metaphor for the nature of historical and cultural memory. Although it has a Cuban theme, there is nothing personal or wistful about it.

In an interview related to the Miami Generation exhibition, Fernando spoke of the elusive relationship between his generation’s ethnicity and their art.  He may have spoken for all when he said,  “I feel equally as comfortable in all situations, American or Cuban. Some of my personal habits have been shaped by my Cuban upbringing.  In my work, though, I have at times incorporated Cuban themes, but in most instances, however, I deal with more universal themes.”  

The next cubicle belonged to the art Carlos Macia (32), a thoughtful being with an MA in Theology from Barry University. His paintings and prints made absolutely no reference to Cuban anything. He exhibited two different series of work. One consisted of various large paintings of New York worn out facades, some with graffiti or signs, and done in a realistic style. They were impressive due to their mural size, detailed rendering, and matter of fact expression. Carlos’ other set of works was small etchings drawn in a Renaissance like style; outstanding among them was Jacobs Ladder (1983). I liked its elegant and precise line and and that it was an original and quite different interpretation of the story. By the time I returned to the main hall, the place was full of people in conversations.

Someone had turned up the volume. I proceeded to César Trasobares’ space. He (34) had an MA in Art History from Florida State University and was drawn to Pop and Conceptual art.  César exhibited a number of works related to his Quinceñera series, an innovative artistic-anthropological exploration of this coming of age ritual that Cubans transplanted to Miami. My favorite Quinceñera piece in the show was Potentate, 1978, a multi layer assemblage representing the alpha male in such rituals. My other favorite piece was De donde son los cantantes?, 1983, a mixed-media construction with sound, which makes multiple references to Cuban popular culture. César’s carefully arranged assemblages are witty darts pointed at Miami’s Cuban pop culture and certain sectors of the community.

Walking around I met Helen Kohen, the long-time critic for the Miami Herald. She greeted me with:

“Juan, isn’t this a magnificent exhibition?

“Yes, it is.”

“Don’t ask him, he doesn’t know good art if it bites him in the ass.”

Thus, joked my friend and colleague Sheldon Lurie. He was dressed all in black, which in Miami at that time was not yet the uniform of the art world. Sheldon was an artist and director of the art gallery at Miami-Dade Community College, New World campus (today, the Wolfson campus of Miami-Dade College). In a small awkward space in the fifth floor of the main building, he curated shows with essay catalogues of many emerging Cuban American artists: Luis Cruz Azaceta, 1978; Juan Gónzalez, 1980; Latin American Art, A Woman's View/ Maria Brito, Ana Mendieta, Elena Presser, 1981; Pablo Cano, 1981; César Trasobares: Quinseñera Works, 1984; Arturo Rodríguez: 1977-1987, 1987; Abstraction: Four from Latin America: Carlos Alfonzo, Jake Fernandez, Ramiro Llona and Francisca Sutil, 1988; Manipulations: Photographs by Roger Cutforth & María Martínez-Cañas, 1988; and The Art of Carlos Alfonzo, 1988, among others.

Four days after the opening, Kohen published a review of the exhibition entitled Miami Generation: Cuban artists in Transition.  In writing about the group as a whole, she pointed out that there are references to Cuba in their art, even nostalgia, but such references are indirect.

“There is knowledge of their homeland and some nostalgia for it in their artwork. That is true even though Cuba, per se, is seldom flat-out conspicuous. With each artist, the past is manifested through references to history, high culture, folkways, topography, architecture and art.”

In contrast, Rafael Casalins, the food and art critic for El Nuevo Herald in the late 1970s and early 1980s, wrote a review six days after the opening entitled, Nueve artistas, nueve conceptos (Nine Artists, Nine Concepts) in which he rejected any references to Cuba in the current art of

this group or any sense of nostalgia.  After arguing his point of view for each artist, he concluded:

“Maybe the best of La generación de Miami is having escaped tradition. To live in the past is always dangerous, especially in art.”

Both critics are actually right. In some of the pieces in the show there were references to Cuba: one landscape (Gonzalez), architecture (rather generalized, Calzada), a flag (Garcia), icons of popular culture (actually Miami Cuban culture, Trasobares). However, the current (dated 1983) pieces of each artist did not make such references, with the exception of Garcia’s A Marti, which is unique in his production. I did not detect nostalgia in the exhibition as a whole, nor the influence of Cuban Modern Art, and much less the presence of Cuban exile politics. The connections suggested by Blanc in the catalog between the art of Portocarrero and Peláez and that of say Trasobares, Calzada and Cano are tenuous at best. Many of the Miami Generation artists were aware of the work of some Cuban modernist artists and liked it, but did not use it as models for their art.

The organization of the exhibition into discrete spaces reflected the fact that these artists’ visions were quite different. Their biographies had commonalities, but their art did not, at least in any obvious way. The title of Casalins’ review noted this phenomenon from the get-go - Nueve artistas, nueve conceptos.

The crowd that night was made up of young and old faces in a place where the old had prevailed. Walking around I saw Margarita (Cano) talking to Giulio. Margarita was the mastermind of the exhibition, a member of the Board of Directors of the museum, and the director of the art program at Miami-Dade County Public Library. Over the years she had organized a number of exhibitions featuring Cuban American artists. She championed their exposure.

One of the most memorable exhibitions Margarita organized was: 10,865… A participation piece, June 1980. This was a rare political exhibition in support of the people who rushed into the Peruvian embassy in Havana that led to the Mariel Boatlift. It was also about the brutal response of the Cuban government to such events. The participants were, Brito, Calzada, Cano, Rodríguez, Pedro Hernández, Roberto Montes de Oca, and the filmmakers Fernando and Miñuca Villaverde. It took place in the second floor of the Miami-Dade Main Public Library when it was on Biscayne Boulevard. “In the exhibition space there was a figure of a man cut out of paper with sad eyes and placed on the floor. He was trying to jump a fence with barbed wire. … There were walls pasted with newspapers, which headlines related to the Mariel events.  It looked like a mastaba. A short narrow corridor led to a very small room.  It was a desolate place covered with heartbreaking photos. … I saw on the wall a white painting replete with nostalgia and multimedia drawings of impressive black, gray, and white ink. There was a small TV with a fixed image.  Behind it, next to the image of the Virgin, were shoes, dirty shirts, socks and broken things. In the back there was a dump and the tyrant hung, all in a dry green. … Another piece consisted of a chair, a table, and a window. The window was close, the table was clean, and the chair was empty. All of it was made of wood, colorless and silent. In the back wall, militia men made of paper, without faces, watched house and sea. On the floor, broken up, some drowned men floated in water and many others were beaten.”  The visual experience was disturbed by the sound of two musical notes in endless repetition. The exhibition/installation was visually/auditory stimulating and disturbing.

Returning to Margarita and Giulio, I approached them and enthusiastically congratulated both. They smiled and Giulio asked: “Do you like it?” Margarita did not wait for my answer, saying:

“ I am looking forward to your lecture.” Then Giulio intervened: “Come, let me give you a catalogue.”

At that time, it always called my attention how people in an opening would talk about everything but the artworks on the wall. As I walked around the place, I heard shards of conversations like:

--“Que cubano-americano, ni cubano-americano, yo soy cubano…”

--“El es tu hernamo, ahora y siempre. Este no es tiempo para aclaraciones…”

--“Gardel estaba comiendo mierda cuando dijo en su tango que 20 años no son nada…"

As I started my last round about the museum, I saw the Scull sisters, twin folk artists. Better yet, they were consummate performance artists, without any knowledge of that practice in contemporary art. They usually wore matching loud dresses, lots of make-up, and were always smiling. That night they wore tight long white dresses with flower motif, red stone necklaces, and hats to match. I saluted them:

“Hola Haydé, hola Sahara. Están acabando como siempre.”  

“Gracias. Jih, jih, jih.”

After a few more encounters with friends and acquaintances, I had enough. The interrupted conversations in openings always left me a bit dizzy and uncomfortable.

Before going out, I stopped by the long l-shape reception desk to say hello to Carlos M. Luis, who was standing there. He was a well-read intellectual with a passion for Surrealism and the director of Meeting Point Art Center in Coral Gables (1978-1983), one of the first places to show extensively the work Cuban and Cuban Americans artists. It was a combination of commercial gallery and meeting place. A few years later, Carlos became the director of the Cuban Museum.

Meeting Point was located in a quaint Neo-Spanish building on Aragon street, presently the site of Books and Books. You entered through an intimate courtyard into a rather dark space.  The first thing in sight was a magazine rack with a wide variety of art magazines in English and Spanish, which could not be found anywhere else in Miami. Next came the exhibition space. In one of my first visits I saw a signed small Antoni Tapies collage and a Wifredo Lam drawing for $150 each. Unfortunately, I let them slip through my hands. Carlos encouraged avant-guard exhibitions, such as Viva Tristan 1980, a homage to one of the founders of the Dada movement, Tristan Tzara. It was what may be called today an installation/performance event, organized by the Villaverde husband and wife team mentioned above and Arturo Rodríguez, with the collaboration of Pablo Cano. “The ambience was achieved through collages, photos, prints, and postcards displayed with care; alternating with the oblique projection of a very short film, endlessly repeating itself, of a couple having sex in bed. You could also hear a loud speech about the work of Tzara in three languages, and a musical descarga,” wrote Norma Niurka, the theater and at times art critic for El Nuevo Herald.

At the end of the reception desk I saw a small stack of the free Mariel magazine, which had a newspaper like format. This was the third issue of the magazine and was dedicated to Enrique Labrador Ruiz (1902- 1991), who since 1978 had lived a more or less obscure life in Miami. He was one of Cuba’s most irreverent and innovative novelists and poets. This magazine published in-depth articles about Cuban culture and politics, and reproduced a variety of artworks by Cuban, Cuban American, and other artists. It had a national distribution, and I consider it still today one of Miami’s few Cuban cultural treasures of the 1980s.

On the way to my car I crossed path with Juan Espinoza, who greeted me with: 

“Hola tocayo. Ya te vas?


“Para Tropicama tan temprano.”

“Me leíste la mente.”

Juan was an interesting character, who at the time had no driver’s license or bank account.  This is way before people spoke of living off the grid.  He was the director of the Bacardi Art Gallery, which was located in the first floor of the company’s award-winning headquarters building in Biscayne Boulevard. The space was all glass on three sides and had temporary walls to show the art. It was the first gallery to exhibit Cuban art in Miami going back to 1964.  Juan was the director for most of the 1980s, organizing exhibitions not only of Cuban art, but also of young Cuban American and Mariel generation artists. Small catalogues usually accompanied the shows.

The gallery directors, non-profit and profit galleries, the Cuban Museum, and art critics mentioned were pivotal in the development and exposure of the Miami Generation, as well as other artists.

Driving home, I was thinking about the many young people I saw at the opening. That was new. The museum was created to keep the memory and flame alive of pre-revolutionary Cuban culture, “la Cuba de ayer,” and for the first time the old guard, who was in charge of the institution, acknowledged that a new generation was creating a Miami Cuban culture worth owing. In fact the exhibition marked the first anniversary of the opening of the building. It certainly brought the young crowd in. It was about time. As my thoughts drifted from conversations at the opening to the artwork, the diversity of the artists’ style and content hit me. The artists shared similar experiences growing up, but their artistic response to those experiences was quite varied. They did not represent a movement. I was also surprised by the variety of their artistic sources: the Italian and Northern Renaissance, Baroque art, European Modern art, and contemporary American art. Absent were references to the modern Cuban artists best known in Miami at that time: Victor Manuel (who’s exhibition the museum opened a year earlier), Amelia Peláez, René Portocarrero, Wifredo Lam, Carlos Enríquez, and Fidelio Ponce. Under the roof of a small museum in Little Havana you could see, with a little imagination and knowledge of art history, the presence of Renaissance Florence and Bruges, Baroque Madrid, Modern Paris and Moscow, and contemporary New York. “In this great future we can not forget our past…” sang Bob MarLey on the radio as I reached home.

The Exhibition

The next day, I sat to eat my regular breakfast, which in those days was pan cubano and café con leche. It took me too many years to realize this was a nutrition-free meal and it was time to change how I welcomed the day. Afterwards, I started eyeing the catalog. The preface by Cynthia Jaffee McAbe mentions that she would like for the work of these artists to retain “the special bicultural qualities” seen in the art of this exhibition.  I wished that she was more specific about the bicultural qualities she saw in their work. In his essay, Giulio inserted the work of the Miami Generation in the history of Cuban Modern Art. I was skeptical of that assertion. I did like his conclusion and its implied open possibilities: “They are Cuban, they are American, and they are something more.”   Next came the illustrations...

“Daddy what are you doing?’

“I am reading.”

“I am bored”

“Okay, I’ll take you to the park in a while.”


“Soon, let me finish.”

“Ivan, leave your father alone. Come play with Natalia.”

“Never mind let’s go. I will continue when we come back.”

Thirty years later, Jorge Santis asked me to write an essay on the trajectory of the Miami Generation for a commemorative exhibition of the original one, which he was curating for the Art Museum, Fort Lauderdale.  Santis was a long-time curator of that museum, and the architect of its magnificent collection of the art of Cuban Americans.

I began by revisiting the catalogue of the original show. On it, the exhibition title, the Miami Generation, stood out. It called my attention. Let’s remember that Miami in those days was not a city to be proud of. In May 1980, following the acquittal of four Miami-Dade Police officers in the wrongful death of Arthur McDuffie, an African-American, we had the deadliest riots since the 1960s. From April to October of that year we had another social tsunami, the Mariel Boatlift. 125,000 Cubans arrived during that period, some were common criminals and mentally ill, taken out of prisons and mental hospitals, and many dumped in the streets of Miami. And Miami was ground zero in the 1980s drug wars. “Cocaine cowboys” were fighting each other and being sought after by the local police and Federal agents. According to a 1981 front-page article in Time magazine, Miami was “Paradise Lost.”  

To appropriate the name Miami at that time was an act of hope and defiance.  Actually, the Miami Generation exhibition was one of a few cultural events that in retrospect opened the way for a bigger and better future regarding the visual arts in this city. On May 7, 1983, the installation of Surrounded Islands by Christo and Jeanne-Claude was displayed in Biscayne Bay, putting Miami on the world cultural map. In 1984 the Center for the Fine Arts, today the Pérez Art Museum Miami (PAMM), opened its doors to the public and became a major venue for the exhibition of contemporary art. Around this time commercial art galleries and alternative spaces began to proliferate as well. The Miami Generation exhibition in the Cuban Museum of Arts and Culture, also a new institution, was part of a cultural birth that acted as a counterpoint to the ugly side of the Miami narrative of that time.

And then there was Miami Vice (1984-1990).  This TV series beamed to the world an image of Miami as a dangerous, sexy, metropolitan border city of beaches, Art Deco, and postmodern architecture, all presented in pastel colors. This look was superficial, but attractive, and put the city upfront in the American imaginary. I will put this popular culture show in the positive column.

From the Cuban perspective, Miami, which in the catalog is reinforced by having a map the city on the inside frontispiece, has other connotations. It refers to the home of the historical Cuban exile.  It is not only a geographical location within the map of the United States, but a home away from home, and a state of mind.  By way of duality, as all cities with large exile and/ or migrant communities, Miami points to another place--La Habana. Miami is the yang to La Habana’s yin. Miami is not Havana, but…  Here Havana often signifies Cuba at large. The connection between Miami, Cuba, and this exhibition is alluded to by the fact that it opened on October 10,th   the day that Cubans celebrate El Grito de Yara, which marks the beginning of The Ten Years War (1868-1878), the first of Cuba’s three wars of independence. By the 1980s, Miami was also beginning to carry its own weight as the place where exile turned to immigration, Cubans to Cuban Americans, teenagers to adults, and in our case students to artists.

Twenty some years into exile, Miami Cubans reluctantly began to use the term Cuban American, an acknowledgment, new at the time, embedded in the title of the exhibition: The Miami Generation: Nine Cuban-American Artists. For those who arrived as children or teenagers, the Cuban side of the identity is based on narratives about family history, tales of their home town, admiring statements concerning Cuba’s natural beauty, stories about Cuban history, society, and culture, seen through the lenses of exile, thus centering on lost, desire, hope, and resentments. That side of the identity is also grounded in the perseverance of the Spanish language, collective self-confidence (resulting from the fact that the adults who came in the 1960s, their parents, were mostly well educated professionals or businessmen), and an attitude of being survivors, rather than victims, which seems deep-seated in the Cuban psyche. The American side involved the command of the English language, Spanglish aside, the experience of the American school system from elementary or middle school through college and embrace of this country’s high and popular culture. For the Miami Generation artists integrating into American life also mean the participation in a creative profession in the United States and being contributors to its diverse contemporary art scene. Already by the 1970s, the artists in question and their generation in general were at ease in both worlds, however, because of the Cubanization of Miami, the Cuban side seemed stronger.

Another term in the catalog that also called my attention was “generation.” This word/concept is widely used in Cuban art historiography to study modern and contemporary art, rather than the more usual expression: movement.  Generation is a looser term and thus more appropriate to study an art of multiple adapted isms. The same can be said of the Cuban American artists. The work of the aforementioned artists never coalesced into a movement.  Although aware of each other’s work, they never formed a group or even met informally.  They do not share any particular visual language or theme or wanted to advance any collective cause. What they have in common is a life story-born in Cuba to white middle-class Catholic families, part of the 1960s historical exile, grew up in Miami, and developed an artistic career here.  I believe that Blanc also used the term generation to connect this group of artists to the history of Cuban art.  The first part of his essay in the catalogue of the Miami Generation exhibition is a summary of Cuban Modern Art from the 1930s through the 1950s using the generational concept.  By implication the work of the Miami Generation discussed next and seamlessly in the essay is an extension of that art and history. A friend of mine, who at the time was part of the museum’s board of directors, told me that the reason Giulio included Cuban art in his essay and made a connection to the Miami Generation was to win approval for the exhibition, given the museum’s mission to show Cuban art from a certain period. Also, because the art of some--Garcia, Trasobares, and Brito-- did not conform to the esthetics the board was familiar with. I think both reasons do not exclude each other. Giulio had a strong interest in Cuban Modern Art of the Republican period (1902– 1959) and believed these artists were connected more or less to that tradition, especially its cosmopolitanism. An aside, I wonder to what extend Giulio and I developed an attraction to Cuban art of the Republican period because of living in Miami exposed to pre-revolutionary Cuban culture and the identity/nostalgia issues that went with it. Giulio also grew up looking at a premier collection of Cuban Modern Art owed by his parents.

The Catalogue

Two years before the Miami Generation exhibition, César Trasobares introduced me to Ana Mendieta at an opening in the Frances Wolfson Art Gallery, where she was part of a three- person exhibition. As immigrants or exiles from the same country often do when they first meet each other, her first question was:

“De donde eres?”

“De Jaruco”

She gave me a sly smile, paused, and told me that she recently did a piece in a cave at the Escaleras de Jaruco. Las escaleras… is a chain of limestone hills adjacent to my native town. Her carvings there are considered a major work in her production. In our brief conversation, she mentioned that she met a group of young Cuban artists working in Havana, who were doing pretty exciting work. I did not pay much attention to that information and did not get to know their work until 1989, during my first visit to Cuba. For most of the 1980s, young artists working in Havana and in Miami were not aware of each other. Nevertheless, a comparison of both groups I believe sheds light on the Miami Generation by way of contrast.

In the early 1980s, a new generation of artists was emerging in Havana: José Bedia, Juan Francisco Elso Padilla, José Manuel Fors, Flavio Garciandía, Israel Leon, Rogelio López Marín, aka Gory, Gustavo Pérez Monzón, Ricardo Rodríguez Brey, Tomás Sánchez, Leandro Soto, and Rubén Torres Llorca (to mention only those associated with the historic Volumen I art exhibition held in Havana in 1981). Like the Miami Generation these artists broke with Cuban artistic traditions and represented a restless and dynamic group, whose strength lied in their diversity. There, the similarities end. The Havana 1980s generation emerged in an artistic context that included strong state support for the arts, that valued cooperation among artists, had no art market, and had a tradition of artists gathering in endless conversations. The Miami Generation emerged without institutional support, except for the exhibition in question. They came on the scene when the art market began to grow in Miami as the number of galleries increased, the culture was/is one of competition and individualism. Another characteristic of their formation is that the city had no tradition of artistic gatherings. Miami did not have a center with cafes where people gravitated to meet and converse.  The art departments in the colleges and universities seemingly did not encourage after class meetings and discussions. The Miami Generation came together only at art openings and there was a soft sense of comradely.

Most of the artists of Cuba’s 1980s Generation (Volumen I and post Volumen I) left the island in the early 1990s, during the beginning of that decade’s depression, known as the Periodo Especial. Many ended up living in Miami up until today. Once in Miami each artist kept more and more to himself/herself, their art became less experimental, more product oriented, and less Cuban centered. Interestingly these artists have been working in Miami for at least twenty years and have produced their best works in this city, and yet they are still talked about in relation to Cuba.

In regards to the art of these two groups, one important difference is their artistic sources. Whereas the Cuban Americans, as I have just observed, were inspired by a wide variety of sources from different historical periods and places, the Cubans were mostly appropriating contemporary art from New York. Why were most of the Cuban Americans so open to European historical art or even American art from the 50s and 60s?  Was it due to their artistic formation in American universities, sitting in art history classes seeing color slides of a wide range of European and American art, and looking/reading the accompanying textbooks? Was it their ability to visit museums in the US and Europe at will? Was it their exile mentality that opened them to look at the art of the past as well as the present? Probably it is a combination of these and other factors. In general, the Cuban Americans were also more conservative in the use of media. Many opted for painting, mixed-media/found objects sculpture, and straight photography. Only García and to some extent Trasobares practiced conceptual and performance art.  Through contact with visiting artist from the United States and Europe, and the acquisition of a trickle of art magazines and books that streamed into Cuba, the Havana 1980s Generation was strongly influenced by Arte Povera, Minimal, Conceptual, and Performance art. To a lesser degree by abstraction and Pop art as well. There was strong desire to be up to date on new developments, as it often happens when artists feel isolated.

Given their different upbringing and social realities, each group of artists explored dissimilar themes.  In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the Miami Generation main themes were art as aesthetic experience, social commentary, memory, and above all personal identity; the Havana 1980s Generation were concerned with the idea of revolution/utopia, popular culture, and interestingly, given their atheist upbringing, non-western religions and mysticism. In Cuban art of the 1940s Afro-Cuban and Catholic religious subjects existed side-by-side in tension. Interest in these subjects disappeared in the next decades as artists turned their attention to other issues. The exception was Wifredo Lam, who continued to find inspiration in Afro-Cuban culture for the rest of his career, and Manuel Mendive, who has consistently explored Afro-Cuban subjects since the late 1960s.  A number of artists of Havana’s 1980s generation recovered the subject of Afro-Cuban religions, however, their interest went beyond national identity (as it was the case in the 1930s and 1940s) and had a more universal ring to it.  Some of the artists of the Miami Generation used Catholic symbols as part of an assertion of personal identity based on their Spanish Catholic background, in counterpoint to the dominant Anglo-Saxon Protestant culture in which they came to live.

Another difference in themes between these two generations that calls my attention is the interest on the part of Cuban American artists for self-portraiture.  I believe that the conspicuous individualism found in the United States does not alone explain this phenomenon. Self-portraiture, an under studied subject, combines observation and imagination to project a persona. Among the varied postures promoted by self-portraiture, the one shared by the Cuban American artists in question is one of emotional and psychological self-scrutiny. It may be described as a search for personal identity and affirmation of such an identity. The condition of exile and/or immigration puts into question personal and cultural identity when confronted with a new society and culture. There is a process of deconstructing and reconstructing one’s identity to negotiate a new and different reality, which calls into question who you are and where you came from.  It is also about making yourself visible and confident in the new environment. This I believe is the major motivation for the symbolic self-portraits of González, Brito, and Ana Mendieta, and the existential ones of Rodríguez and Luis Cruz Azaceta.

Maybe because of their very different trajectories and probably also because of artistic and tribal jealousies, Havana’s and Miami’s 80s Generation have not mixed.  At most they have exhibited together in a few occasions and some individuals have developed personal relationships. They exhibited together in the 1990s at the Fort Lauderdale Museum of Art, the former Cuban Museum of Arts and Culture, and the Lowe Art Museum in shows curated by Jorge Santis, Ileana Fuentes, and myself respectively.

Closer to home, the Miami Generation shared the stage in the 1980s with the Mariel Generation. In August 1983, the same year of the Miami Generation exhibition, the Mariel Generation had their official debut in an exhibition at Tamiami Park, entitled Festival de las Artes. It included a large number of artists, not all marielitos: Juan Abreu Felippe, Carlos Jose Alfonzo, Angel Luis Balmaseda, Juan Boza, Ernesto Briel, Odilia Casañas, Jose Chiu-Suarez, Nelson Curras, Ronald Curras, Pedro Damian, Humberto Dionisio, Manuel Fernandez, Denise Ferrera, Gilberto Marino Garcia, Victor Gómez, Carlos Gonzalez, Felix Gonzalez, Jorge Alberto Gonzalez, Oscar Hernandez Pizarro, Oscar L. Herrera, Juan de Lara, Laura Luna del Campillo, Eduardo Michaelsen, Eliel Milian, Orestes Miqueli, Luis Molina, Victor M. Navarrete, Hector Nieblas, Miguel Ordoqui, Luis Pardini, Luciano Raffart, Manuel Revuelta, Gilberto Ruiz, Jesus Selgas, Marcos Soneira, Fernando G. Trujillo, Andrés G Varelio, Luis Vega, Julio Venegas, and Raul Vilaboa Rodriguez. When I saw this exhibition, it hit me that a good number were actually graphic or craft artists. The ones that stood out for me were Boza and Alfonzo, the latter receiving national recognition by the end of the 1980s. The humble catalogue accompanying the exhibition had one brief essay by José Gómez Sicre and another co-authored by Juan Espinoza and Dr. Nuncio Mainieri.  The Mariel Generation artists also practiced diverse styles and used a variety of subjects, a few incorporating Afro-Cuban religions into the form and content of their art. Understandingly, their art expressed zero nostalgia. Again, given their very different trajectories, the Miami and Mariel Generation artists generally did not mix.

Two or Three 1980s Generations

In retrospect, the early 1980s was a pivotal time for the visual arts in Miami.  As I see it, the Miami generation artists made a significant contribution to the emerging art scene in Miami and their art and legacy have withstood the test of time. I hope this collage of memories, which comes, as you may have noticed, with a tinge of longing, gives a glimpse into a moment and shard of Miami’s cultural history.