A conversation with Cuban art historian Juan Martínez

Miami’s Cuban roots run deep. Art offers a rich opportunity to learn more about those roots.

FIU Professor Emeritus of Art History Juan A. Martínez is a leading scholar on Cuban and Cuban-American art. Martinez will be honored at an upcoming conference on Cuban art hosted by FIU’s Cuban Research Institute June 23-24.

FIU News sat down with Martínez to learn more about his work and his journey as an art history educator and scholar.

Much of your research and work has been dedicated to shedding light on Cuban art and artists. What is it about Cuban art that captures your attention?

I am attracted to Cuban art for various reasons. First, I like the look of it, and I relate to its subject matter – the Cuban landscape, the city of Havana, the island’s people, its traditions and culture. I also realized in the early 1980s that there were important collections of Cuban art in Miami and no one was studying them.

Can you tell us about some of the Cuban/Cuban American artistic movements or artists that interest you the most?

I have followed the art of quite a few Cuban Americans over the past 40 years. I am most interested in and have written about the so-called Miami Generation, a loose group of about a dozen artists who emerged in Miami in the late 1970s and 1980s. I am attracted to their work because it touches areas of my own experience as a Cuban-born person who came of age in Miami. The Museum of Art of Fort Lauderdale had an exhibition a couple of years ago, which included most of them. It published a beautiful catalogue: The Miami Generation Revisited.

You taught numerous art history classes at FIU for more than two decades, impacting countless students. What was your favorite part about teaching?

I began to teach at FIU in 1989 and taught courses in European, American and Cuban modern and contemporary art. My favorite part of working at FIU was the students. Through my enthusiasm and interest in art history, I was able to get their attention and keep the majority interested in a field that was new to most of them. I was also lucky to work with fine colleagues who strived to make the curriculum relevant, set high standards and cared about their teaching.

What role do you think art plays in maintaining or transforming cultural identity for Cuban Americans and Cuban immigrants in the United States?

Art is information. I believe that Cuban art can help Cuban immigrants and Cuban Americans to know more about their cultural identity, history and maybe even something about themselves as individuals. Like all art, it also provides visual pleasure.

Are there a few recurring themes you’ve discovered in Cuban/Cuban American art?

There are some general recurring themes in Cuban art up to the 1950s: the countryside, Havana, Afro-Cuban traditions, the Spanish heritage and music.

Your book on renowned artist and FIU alumna Maria Brito won first place in the Best Arts Book category at the 11th Annual International Latin Book Awards in 2010. What did it mean for you, on a professional and/or personal level, to write about an artist as accomplished as Brito?

I was delighted to hear that a national panel of art historians who study Latino art chose to publish a monograph on Maria Brito and asked me to write it. I had known Maria for many years and I am a fan of her work. She is a versatile artist who works in ceramics, mixed media sculptures and painting. Her work is one long, sincere and highly imaginative quest for self-knowledge and realization.

Carol Damian, Professor of Art History, and Juan A. Martínez at the recognition reception for Eternal Cuba: The Darlene M. and Jorge M. Pérez Art Collection at FIU in 2013

One of your most acclaimed works is Cuban Art & National Identity: The Vanguardia Painters, 1927 – 1950. Can you tell us a bit about this book and what you find most fascinating about Cuban art during this time period?

Cuban Art and National Identity deals with the first generation of Cuban modern artists back in the 1930s. I became interested in these artists because of their unique styles, renovation of Cuban themes and the fact that they were underrepresented. The book was published in 1994; it was the first monograph on the Vanguardia generation in and outside of Cuba. Today, there is quite an interest in these artists in the Americas and Europe, as seen in collections, exhibitions and publications.

The upcoming conference on Cuban art hosted by the Cuban Research Institute (CRI) will feature panels of experts discussing Cuban art during various time periods. How important is it to discuss this history in Miami, especially given the city’s strong Cuban roots?

It is important to have conferences on Cuban art in Miami not only because of demographics – it is the city with most Cubans other than Havana – but because it is a major repository of Cuban art. There are large quantities of Cuban art in this city of every period. They are in private and public collections.

The conference is dedicated to you and your contributions to FIU and your field. How meaningful is this for you?

It is an honor to have a conference on Cuban art in FIU dedicated to me. I guess it acknowledges my many years of work on the subject. I am thankful to FIU and particularly CRI, the Kimberly Green Latin American and Caribbean Center and the Department of Art and Art History for their financial and moral support of my research. I could not have done it without their help.

Throughout the years, you have remained active on the art scene writing books and helping curate exhibitions. What are you currently working on?

I have continued to write at a slower pace since I retired in 2013. About a year ago, I finished a monograph on the Cuban modernist artist Fidelio Ponce (1895-1949), which hopefully will be published next year. I am currently writing a long essay on the Miami Generation.

The conference, A Moveable Nation: Cuban Art & Cultural Identity in the Perez Art Collection at FIU, will be held June 23-24 at the Patricia & Phillip Frost Art Museum. Conference participants will explore the significance of Cuban and Cuban-American art, in particular the Darlene M. and Jorge M. Pérez Art Collection, which includes works by many of the best-known masters of Cuban art. View the conference program here.

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