DALLAS — It’s a striking self-portrait: Standing in front of a brightly colored village, a young man tilts his head and glances at the viewer from the corner of his eye. Eyebrows slightly arched, he wears a defiant half smile that seems to challenge and invite us at the same time. “Self-Portrait” (Autorretrato) (1923) by Abraham Ángel was painted when the artist was only 18 years old, but it exudes a strong sense of self-knowledge and confidence that’s still palpable 100 years after its creation.
The painting is the first piece to greet visitors in Abraham Ángel: Between Wonder and Seduction at the Dallas Museum of Art. Ángel, who died in 1924 at age 19, after only three years of artistic production, has been mythologized and misunderstood in the ensuing decades. This show is a rare opportunity to experience the entirety of his brief but brilliant career, comprising a mere 20 paintings. It is also the first exhibition dedicated to the artist in the United States, and the first major display of his work in more than 35 years. Curated by Mark A. Castro, Between Wonder and Seduction moves past the myths to focus on the artist himself, celebrating his vibrant life and work.
Fellow Mexico City artist Diego Rivera eulogized the teenaged painter this way: “There was nothing in the life of this young man that was not beautiful, and painting was his life.” While this may be true in some ways, in reality Ángel emerged from humble and trying circumstances. Born in 1905 in the rural town of El Oro, the artist and his four siblings grew up during the tumult of the Mexican Revolution. After his harsh, ne’er-do-well Scottish miner father abandoned the family, they moved to Mexico City in search of opportunity. There, Ángel quickly began a new life as a budding artist and beloved member of the capital’s bohemian cultural circles.
A key element of Ángel’s social and artistic life was his queer identity. In 1921 he began a serious relationship with Manuel Rodríguez Lozano. This older Mexican artist claimed to have “discovered” and even “created” Ángel’s talent, and continued to manipulate narratives about the younger artist after his untimely death. This power dynamic is contested in Castro’s thoughtful curation, which firmly centers Ángel as a unique, visionary, and innovative presence in the Mexico City art world. Unlike Rodríguez Lozano, who came from an upper-class background in Mexico and began his art career in Paris, Ángel embodied a new type of homegrown Mexican artist who rejected past European traditions in favor of local influences like Mexican art history and arte popular.
In this way, Ángel gained the respect of peers like Rivera for embracing and helping to define a “new” Mexican identity that was rapidly taking shape after the Revolution. Paintings like “Portrait of Cristina Crespo” (Retrato de Cristina Crespo) (1924) succinctly illustrate the transformation. A young, unchaperoned woman poses at night, her hair closely cropped and her arms exposed. Behind her, the crowded cityscape glows under a massive electrical tower, its cables cutting across the top of the canvas. As in his own self-portrait, Ángel’s modern woman meets us with a piercing, self-assured stare. And “The Cadet” (El cadete) (1923), portraying a solitary young man who appears to be cruising, celebrates Mexico City’s burgeoning queer scene, of which Ángel would have been an active part. Each is painted in bold strokes and tangy colors that seem to convey the artist’s immersion in this vibrant and cutting-edge moment.
Despite his early death, the artist’s impact was not easily forgotten. In 1924, Rivera called Ángel “the painter of Mexico City,” and in 1925, the historian Daniel Cosío Villegas proclaimed him to be “perhaps the person who made the most Mexican paintings.” His exhibition in Dallas, and its accompanying catalogue — his first in English — offer extraordinary access into his world and should not be missed.
Abraham Ángel: Between Wonder and Seduction continues at the Dallas Museum of Art (1717 North Harwood, Dallas, Texas) through January 28. The exhibition was curated by Dr. Mark A. Castro, former Jorge Baldor Curator of Latin American Art at the DMA.