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EDWARD ARCENIO CHÁVEZ: A MAN OF ART
 

“My work, my art, is to me a means of giving some semblance of dignity and even sanity and meaning to a world too often obsessed with material concerns, with false values and meaningless goals...”
-Edward Chávez

He signed his letters “Eduardo” but, most often, you’ll find his name anglicized in the annals of art history to “Edward.” And, if you look in the archives of art publications around the middle of the last century, you’ll find his name often.

Newspaper and magazine stories on Chávez’s work began appearing in the late 1930’s in publications like the Denver Post and Parnassus. Even while he was in service during the war, the press kept tabs on his progress as the Wyoming Eagle, Art Digest magazine and others reported when he won a LIFE magazine competition with a 1942 watercolor called “Convoy Practice.” Even news of an on-base mural leaked through security to the local papers and it couldn’t have helped an enemy intelligence service to learn that morale and confidence were up at the base and that forces of art and culture were in an opposing uniform.

In the years following the war, when the artist had settled in Woodstock, N.Y., the New York Times, Herald Tribute, Journal American, Art News and other periodicals joined their voices to an acclaim which had become international with notices in Il Mento (Italy), LeMonde (France) and other foreign publications with a cultural eye. In art circles during the 1950’s, Eduardo Chávez had come to be considered one of the “New York Ten” and discussions of his work rippled regularly through the media.

An early representational style showed some impact from his enthusiasm for the Italian Quattrocento painters Piero della Francesna and Paolo Uccello as well as the later Pieter Brueghel. He studied in Italy on a Fulbright Scholarship and participated in the federal arts program of the Works Progress Administration. His style developed an internal theory of pictorial evolution and instinctive adjustment which drew him from organic inspiration toward abstract and subjective extension.

His work appeared in major national exhibitions at the Carnegie Institute, the National Academy of Design, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Corcoran Gallery of Art, the Whitney Museum, the Hirschom Museum, the Museum of Natural History, the Museum of Modern Art, the National Institute of Arts & Letters, the Smithsonian Institute, the Walker Gallery of Art, the San Francisco Museum and many other sites. He had solo shows in New York, Denver, Rome, Italy and many stations in between. His commissioned murals were admired from Center, Texas and Geneva, Nebraska to Recife, Brazil.

During the 1960’s, in Woodstock, where recording artist Bob Dylan had retreated to shield himself from the rigors of world fame, the singer-poet would drop by to chat with Chávez or sit wordlessly to watch the artist at work for hours at a time. There was a lot to learn from this neatly-attired man of dignified bearing; this self-assured channel of creation. Where many artists took art to be a vocation, in itself an enormously demanding dedication, Ed Chávez understood art as self-definition. It was a realization which could not be compromised or altered any more than he could have changed the date and place of his birth.

Born in Wagonmound, New Mexico on March 14, 1917, Chávez opened his eyes in a land of scenic splendor. He was raised on a beet farm with eleven siblings but agriculture never settled in his mind as an option. There was never a decision to become an artist. It just happened.

“It’s all I’ve ever done,” Chávez said matter-of-factly in 1993. “It was a natural process. There was no ‘point’ where I decided to become a painter. I’ve been drawing ever since I was old enough to hold a pencil and that’s all I was ever interested in. It just continued.”

As his artistry blossomed in high school and his 1936 graduation approached, Eduardo’s attention was drawn north to what had been the Broadmoor Art Academy in Colorado. He described Broadmoor as having been a wealthy western community since the 1800’s which possessed many attractions, including horse racing. The presence of an art academy doubled its draw for Chávez...equine and easel. How could he resist?

“They started an art school there which became quite famous,” Chávez related. “As a matter of fact, a lot of Woodstock artists, like John Carlson, went out there to teach and it became a highly regarded institute. Just when I started painting, it became the Colorado Springs Fine Art Academy and I went there as a student.”

Among the art students he would encounter at the Academy as he studied, most notably with muralist Frank Mechua, was a pair of bright and lively twin sisters, Ethel and Jenne Magafan. It would be the latter sister he would marry after a suitably artistic courtship and before his enlistment in the army, which followed the outbreak of the Second World War.

After receiving his training at Fort Warren, Wyoming (where his talents were quickly recognized and where, in 1942, he painted that large American Indian mural in the Service Club which he called “Panorama of the Plains- A Legend”), Chávez was tapped for a documentary art unit and assigned to document the war in photographs and paintings.

“There were artists from all over the United States involved (in the documentation); several from Woodstock, in fact,” Chávez recalled. “Fletcher Martin was one of them. Edward Millman was in the Navy doing the same thing; quite a few artists. Civilians were given a commission but I was only a corporal when they asked if I’d be interested in going over to ‘documentary.’ Naturally, I said ‘yes’ and they gave me an increase in rank as a serviceman but civilians were automatically given an officer’s rank.”

Chávez excelled in artistically rendering the facts of military life in war time. His direct western regional style keenly captured the camaraderie, hardships and drudgery, courage and determination in the peculiar situational circumstances of the American soldier of the era. He was on his way to North Africa to freeze the valor and ferocity of the battlefield upon canvas and had landed in Brazil at a military take-off point for Dakar when word arrived that the African campaign had ended. This, in effect, stranded him in South America in a dangling twilight zone of “offstage” activity. This he dutifully recorded as flyers returned from Africa and either stayed at the base, returned to the front, or were sent back to the United States.

“There was a lot of movement in and out of Brazil; a lot of burnt-out flyers, real nutsy guys they brought back,” Chávez said with a tight smile. “They were brought back to Brazil to go haywire there rather than at the front. They were so restless, they were making up dangerous games just to keep active; mock bombing runs, seeing how close to the ground they could fly without crashing...and some of them did. They were really nuts.”

The Magafans, in the meantime, had been coaxed by one of the Woodstock instructors at Colorado Springs, Arnold Blanch, along with his associate of many years and fellow artist, Doris Lee, and novelist Irving Stone, to move to the art colony while Chávez served. Jenne, who was on her way to becoming a nationally recognized artist herself, was impressed by descriptions of Woodstock’s attributes- not least of which was its proximity to New York City. This move would also have an indelible effect upon her husband’s postwar career.

“I came here because my wife was here, not because I wanted to, and I’ve been here ever since,” Chávez said in his Woodstock home, adding pointedly that he would have headed back to the southwest, otherwise, when he was discharged from service. And return he would, to his beloved high desert, whenever opportunity afforded throughout his years in Woodstock. Even as we spoke, he relished the thought of another visit looming. He was at that moment in the early 1990’s serving on a jury in Santa Fe to select an artist to create a bronze memorial statue of that city’s first mayor. He had recently returned from meetings in New Mexico and another one was pending. “Any excuse to get out there,” he confided, “I take it.”

“Once I got here (to Woodstock) after the war, of course, it wasn’t so easy to go back again,” Chávez admitted. “To put it another way; it seemed wise...or necessary to be near New York City and to show in the City.”

In 1946, Art Digest, the New York World Telegram and other publications were already taking note of his work. The Miami Daily News observed that a magnificent “memoir” of his war years called “Brazilian Landscape” covered most of a wall at the Miami Beach Art Center. In the following years, the notices came ever more thickly. His first one-man show in Manhattan was well received by the New York Times in September of 1950. Art News described him as a “semi-abstract painter who restates the visual world with a refreshingly original fantasy...whose formal discourse is relaxed, sure and to the point.” New Yorker magazine commented that his work “reveals a sound originality of attack.” The New York Herald Tribune placed him in “a new class of expressionism” and Time magazine seemed to misplace his 1952 Woodstock address in reviewing a Roman showing of 11 Fulbright art scholars when they wrote: “A favorite of the show: New Mexican Edward Chavez’s flowing study of three white nuns’ bonnets set against an abstract florentine background.”

In Europe, Le Monde, referring to a show at the Whitney Museum, told France in December of 1951 that “Edward Chavez, Keith Finch, and Robert Greco are without doubt the artists most frequently admired by American critics.” Jenne, by this time, was also enjoying considerable success as an artist and both husband and wife were busy accumulating awards when tragedy struck.

Shortly after returning from a European trip in 1952, Jenne was felled by a cerebral hemorrhage while visiting a friend with her sister and her brother-in-law, painter Bruce Currie, who recalled the event for me in August of 2001. She died three days later at age 36.

The temptation may have been strong at this point for Chávez to return to the west but, by now, he had become part of the fabric of the Woodstock artists community; his guitar and folk songs well known at its frequent gatherings. He had already integrated into the local scene and helped revitalize the colony’s presence on the world stage. As historian Alf Evers noted in his 1987 book Woodstock: History of an American Town: “New artists settled in postwar Woodstock, notably a contingent of Westerners. Fletcher Martin, Edward Millman, the Magafan twins, Bruce Currie, Edward Chavez as well as Manuel Bromberg, Walter Plate, Reginald Wilson, James Turnbull and others gave new life to the colony.”

In 1968, Chávez, along with Robert Angeloch, Franklin Alexander, Lon Clark and W.J. Jerominek founded the Woodstock School of Art which, to this day, draws students from far off locales.

“Woodstock was different then. The artists were closer than they are now,” Chavez observed. “At least in my experience, we were welcomed back then as newcomers. We were just ‘another artist’ and most of them (Woodstock artists) were older, more established than I was when I came here. But they treated me like another artist and took me in socially. I think that has changed...There’s not the exchange of ideas that there was. We always wanted to know what somebody else was doing. Millman would be working on something and call to say ‘Why don’t you come on up and see what I’m doing?’ Or Manny Bromberg or someone else would find reason for a get-together. That just gradually faded off. Everybody just works in their own studio now.”

The framework of American society was changing and, along with it, the art world. Eduardo Chávez was an interested observer but these factors remained peripheral to his primary focus. The real action was in the creation of art; in the artist’s own definition of what art was. He didn’t show his work very often in later life, he said, because he wasn’t interested in going through that kind of effort. He merely wanted to continue working in his studio; to continue nurturing and following his own need to create.

“One of the important things is that the art world has become so commercial,” Chavez pointed out with evident distaste. “When I was out there, nobody was a big shot celebrity. Some were well known; others were not known but we all considered ourselves equals; peers with an interest in what other artists were doing. The whole art scene is a big business now and who’s interested in business? I’m not, at least. Not very many artists are. We’re interested in art, in our work, in what we’re doing. When it becomes ‘business’ and ‘art personalities’ there just isn’t that same feeling of excitement, of interest and curiosity about other artists. I’m not interested in the dealers and museum directors. I’m interested in art.”

Distancing his artistic pursuits from what he saw as a distortion of values became something of a motive for Chávez and he made analogies between the creation of “stars” in the music scene and in painting, insisting upon an integrity of the form which could not be influenced by the marketplace. He cited Raoul Hague and his friend Philip Guston as examples of artists who painted what they wanted, following their muse regardless of trends or market pressures. If artists who charted their own course were lucky, Chávez felt, they were picked up by the art public but that wasn’t a major point. Art was the point; the creation of it. Whether it sold or the artist became well known were secondary concerns.

“It seems like an awful lot of artists now are doing things just for novelty, to try to attract attention, to get noticed,” he sighed. “Because dealers are looking for something new, something different. So, they feed each other.”

Artist Eva Van Rijn provides some insight into Chávez’s withdrawal from the mainstream art world in later years. Born in Holland, Van Rijn and her family left during the war years and had settled in Woodstock by the time she was eight. Her father invented a mechanical switch and founded Rotron, a company which produced fans to cool motors, in the late 1940’s.

“I knew Ed from the time I was 10, 11 years old,” Van Rijn recalls. “He lived on Plochman Lane and I used to ride my horse past his house.”

By then, Chávez was a fixture in the local art scene, a dashing figure and an avid horseman who rode his own horses well into his final years. (A recent documentary film on Chávez by Tino Villanueva, in fact, contains scenes of him in his 70’s galloping robustly across his Woodstock land.) Eva’s awareness of Chávez would, by 1967, grow into romance and marriage. It was Chávez who guided her own entrance into painting before the marriage ended in divorce. It also produced a lovely daughter, Maia, whose penchant for poetry was a source of great pride to Chávez. But, at first, Eva didn’t fully appreciate his fame beyond Woodstock.

“He was a man with a very brilliant early career,” Van Rijn said. “When he got out of the army and came to New York, he got a job teaching at the Art Students League. He was painting and he was very well noticed. I went to Yale to study art history after I left Ed and had to research through all the art magazines for my papers. I‘d find his name all over the place.”

Van Rijn laments the relative inattention his latter work received since his withdrawal from the most active circles of the art world. She finds it a bit incongruous that people are more interested in his early work, the WPA days and his celebrated paintings of the 1940’s and ‘50’s.

“I think an artist wants to be recognized for what they have to say as a mature person,” Van Rijn reflected. “I feel that some of the last paintings he did after I left are knockouts. Big important paintings, some of them; they’re stunning. I’m just amazed at the things he did in later life.”

Interestingly, Van Rijn sees the advent of pop art as a turning point in Chávez’s career.

“At about the time I met him, Andy Warhol and that whole movement- the Campbell’s soup can- was rising up,” Van Rijn said. “At that same time, James Heller of the Heller Gallery was killed in an automobile accident. That was Ed’s gallery, so he lost his New York gallery and he didn’t get a new one because he wasn’t going to move with the times and paint soup cans and other advertising things. He was a very proud man, so, he sort of pulled into himself and just painted and expected the world to come to his door. Sometimes it did. There were buyers who loved his work who’d come to the door and say ‘Well, what have you got now? What can I buy?’ They’d look at his work and say wonderful things and he’d feel great for a little while. But basically the art world was forgetting about him and it was like working in a vacuum.”

When the couple moved to Taos, New Mexico for a few years, Van Rijn felt that her husband had difficulty getting a show in the major “Anglo” galleries there because of his heritage, a factor which had become an issue at the time. Conversely, she thought that his marriage to her had isolated him from his own large family in the area for similar reasons.

“It seemed like he couldn’t find a place where he belonged,” she said. “And that depressed him.”

In a 1986 essay for IMAGINE: International Chicano Poetry Journal, Chávez had expressed his admiration for Chicano art and the Mexican mural painters and said that he considered himself Chicano, “not withstanding my New Mexico background.” He was not a “Chicano artist” in that sense of the term, of course, and pointed out that his work was rooted in traditions of the renaissance as well as painters of the Dutch and French schools.

“The Chicano art movement is political to a great extent and they’re activists very influenced by Mexican art. That’s the image that they have of themselves,” Chávez said. “I’m not a part of that. It started in the ‘60’s and I was a mature artist by then and they were all young people. I came from a more conventional background and I’ve never been political, in that sense, in my art. It’s not that I’m against it. It just wasn’t something that was important to me. The only ethnic connection you could make to my work is that the fact of being Spanish or being New Mexican has always been important to me philosophically. But the influence isn’t apparent in my work unless you know how I feel about things and what I see. I don’t paint symbols.”

Chávez observed that, as he developed, his work became more abstract, although he still occasionally shifted back to more representational work. In the essay, he had referred to the plight of the artist against a demand that he share his “secrets” and that he “paint pictures people can understand.” He noted that the painter of abstract or formalistic art can stand accused of being “an ‘Ivory Towerist,’ selfishly painting only to please himself, with no effort or desire to make his work ‘intelligible’ to his fellow beings.”

Drawing upon a prevailing state of chaos and change in the modern world, seemingly beyond the grasp of individual comprehension, Chávez offered that it was precisely because the artist is acutely sensitive to social turmoil that his art reacts to the confusion. The artist, he said, should react to the world and be “conscious of its strifes and stresses, its faults, its strengths and its beauties! He must be aware, for it is of these elements that he builds. These are the notes with which he composes his song. One has to listen and one can hear it too and share in the understanding of what his song has said.”

Van Rijn recalled that Chávez not infrequently destroyed his own work, painted over his own paintings. She cited an occasion when a friend had asked why he didn’t start a new painting rather than painting over an old one: “He said ‘Because they’re never finished’ which I thought was a mysterious statement. He didn’t explain it. But he never explained things too much. He just wanted you to look at them and get what you got from them...”

Although, at conception, his inspiration was a definitive “something,” a real image of sorts- however malleable or “dreamy” it might appear- it mattered little to him how the idea would manifest itself. If he happened to be working with paints when impetus arrived and a palette was handy, he would begin a painting. If he was working with sculpture, the very same concept would translate just as easily through that medium.

“I don’t see any difference between the two, actually,” he explained, or attempted to explain. “There is a difference, naturally, because the material is different but it’s just using a different medium to say what you want to say. Sculpture doesn’t make me think in a different direction, The same ideas just simply get done in a different medium.”

In his 1987 essay, Chávez had written: “If I begin with an idea or a subject matter, it is only the point of take-off from which to venture into an unknown. From then on it is a process of discovery in terms of the chosen medium or material. If in the process the original image is lost-so be it. I must allow it to grow and change and develop in whatever way it must. The painting or sculpture begins to take on a life of its own and even a will of its own that often dictates what I must do and that I cannot ignore. It is vital to me that this be so.”

And so, when Chávez said that a work is never truly finished, he meant that the inspiration which caused it was still alive in his mind and subject to constant change. After a certain point in his career, he no longer painted what he saw but how what he saw influenced him. That influence, to Chávez, was a living thing; an existential force. In his art, he was endlessly defining himself in the moment.

Art is not a finished piece in this mindset. It is a doing and an intimately personal way of doing. It is what makes technical skill in art so different from “proficiency.” This became clear as we discussed art by the late actor Anthony Quinn. Although Chávez saw Quinn’s art as technically proficient and included it in an issue of Imagine for which he was art editor, he felt technical skill was not that difficult to achieve. Chávez thought that an influence from the art of others was too directly apparent in Quinn’s sculpture and painting to allow him an artistic identity of his own.

“He does a sculpture like Picasso or a painting like somebody else. He as nothing to say of his own; nothing original,” Chávez pronounced, drawing a parallel to literature: “If you have nothing to say, it doesn’t matter how well you put the words together. Content is the only thing that matters.”

His own treatment of content, his modes of expression, his ways of doing art remained as vital an ingredient of life as breath to Chávez until his death in January of 1995. He never stopped defining his life through its magic. It was, he said, not a discipline...

“I work very erratically, when I feel like it- which means that I like to take a day off and go riding or I might decide to go out and clear some brush,” he reflected. “I don’t feel that I have to apply myself to my work religiously. But I think about it all the time. I sketch a lot now. I never used to- I used to just start working- but now I sketch ideas in hundreds and hundreds of sketch books that I make notes in. I think at night, lying in bed. I keep a little sketch pad nearby and I sketch all night long and the day after that...I may work a whole month without stopping, very long hours every day and then I may spend another six weeks just messing around. But I think about things as I go and make notes to be sure that I can remember what I have in mind...”

Art provides a wellspring of discovery. It is always as new as fresh day. It is life and it speaks to us, as Chávez would say, if we will hear it. The artist will always strive for new forms with which to express himself, Chávez insisted in what was an obvious self-description: “He is no longer satisfied with merely reflecting nature. A tree is no longer just a tree to him. He is digging at its roots, probing at its soul, breaking down, analyzing to get at the inner meanings; rebuilding and rearranging in line, space and color relations until he arrives at what seem to him the real truths of the matter, something more than the eye has seen.”

-G. Alexander Irving

 
2007 Book Art Press