Luis Cruz Azaceta was born in Havana, Cuba in 1942. Growing up, his family was largely non-political, but as the revolution in Cuba gained momentum in the 1950s with Fidel Castro’s rise to power, he felt increasing pressure to leave the country. He escaped to the United States at the age of 18, eventually settling in New York City. He went on to attend at the School of Visual Arts, receiving a BFA in 1969. He currently lives and works in New Orleans, Louisiana.
Azaceta describes becoming an artist out of the necessity “to communicate [his] experiences as a Cuban in New York.” Throughout his career, his work has addressed immigration, displacement, isolation and injustice through the lens of his own personal experiences. While at SVA, he studied under Leon Golub who was an important influence, supporter and friend early in his career. Though Azaceta’s work at the time was abstract, hard-edged and geometric, it quickly developed into a self-described “apocalyptic pop” style as he abandoned abstraction in favor of Neo-Expressionist scenes of New York infused with a wry and gritty humor. An early body of work chronicled the grotesque underground subculture of the New York City subways with images of crime, sex, broken windows and burning trains. When he began exhibiting with Allan Frumkin in the 1970s, he was introduced to artists such as Robert Arneson, Peter Saul and Maryan. Their influence can be seen in Azaceta’s work from that period, particularly in his adaption of self-portraits that, as hybrid, mechanized creatures, empathetically depict the “other.”
As Azaceta’s career progressed through the 1980s, his style became more gestural and expressionistic, working on a significantly larger scale as a way of capturing the horror and chaos of the city surrounding him from the viewpoint of a person in exile. The most significant and comprehensive body of work he completed during this period addressed the AIDS Crisis and its crippling effects on friends and colleagues alike. The series was the subject of a traveling exhibition organized by the Queens Museum in 1990. Through the 1990s and early 2000s, his paintings became increasingly reductive, in a return to his earlier graphic style. His Museum Plans from 2006 question the validity of Western museums as gatekeepers of culture and reconfigure them as vast mazes of dead-end corridors. As he further developed these abstractions, he continued to tackle issues such as gun violence, border politics and oppression. The now-emblematic subjects of his work such as labyrinths, walls, anguished figures and balseros journeying through turbulent seas continue to be relevant to today’s issues of border politics, immigration and displacement.
Azaceta has exhibited internationally and was the subject of a career retrospective organized by the American Museum of the Cuban Diaspora, Miami in 2016. He has been the recipient of several major grants and awards including a Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Grant in 1985, a Mid-Atlantic Grant for special projects in 1989, and a Joan Mitchell Foundation Grant in 2009. His work is included in major public collections such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Blanton Museum of Art, Austin; El Museo del Barrio, New York; the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington DC; the Crocker Art Museum, Sacramento; and the Museo de Arte Contemporaneo, Monterrey, Mexico, among others.