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Juan Francisco Elso, Por America, cat cover

"In 1991, while on a trip to the List Gallery at MIT to oversee the installation of an Arneson exhibition, I wandered into an adjacent gallery. On view was an astonishing body of work mostly made from tree branches, twine, dirt and paper. The work, fragile, so full of humanity and astonishingly original, captivated me. I asked the List’s curator Katy Kline the identity of the artist: Juan Francisco Elso, a Cuban who had died, at age 32, in 1988. This was his memorial show, only his third solo exhibition, organized by the Museo Carrillo Gil in Mexico City.

"Not long after and with Elso’s work still in mind I read an article in Arte En Colombia (now ArtNexus) on the work of another Cuban artist, Jose Bedia. Something struck a chord and I immediately contacted two Cuban friends to see what they had to say about him. “The best young artist in Cuba,” Luis Cruz Azaceta informed me. I contacted him and arranged a show that was his first solo exhibition in the US and the start of what was a 16-year relationship with the gallery. 

"But the work of Elso continued to haunt me and it wasn’t until some years later that I was offered the opportunity to read a draft of a monograph on Elso by Rachel Weiss. As it happened, I carried the manuscript with me to Miami where I stayed with the Bedia family. Late that night I mentioned the manuscript and Bedia, to my astonishment, casually informed me that Elso had been his best friend.

"That was enough for me. Through Bedia and Weiss I was able to contact the artist’s widow, Magali Lara, in Mexico and persuade her to allow me to offer his great work, Por America, a portrait of the Cuban patriot Jose Marti, with the promise that it would only be offered to a museum. Despite rumbles of protest from the Cuban artistic community who were upset that what they considered to be part of their patrimony was being offered in the US (as oppose to Cuba), Olga Viso, then Curator of Contemporary Art at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington DC quickly arranged to acquire the sculpture for their collection in 1998.

"Elso’s use of found materials (he graduated from ISA during the Soviet/Cuban “Special Period” when traditional art supplies were largely unavailable), his incorporation of themes from Afro-Cuban religions, as well as themes of geographic isolation mark him as the inspiration for many Cuban artists, notably Kacho and Los Carpinteros. Indeed Elso (along with Bedia) was one of the first from the 80s generation to emerge from Havana’s art scene and become internationally recognized (not Kacho as some have claimed), appearing in such exhibitions as the groundbreaking Volumen I, in Havana (1981), the second Havana Bienal (1984), and even the 1986 Venice Biennale.

"Viso, now an independent curator, is at work on the first exhibition of Elso’s work since the show that show at MIT, set to open at El Museo del Barrio in New York this fall (El Museo owns another great work by Elso, Caballo contra Colibri, 1988) and travel to the Phoenix Art Museum in 2023."

Juan Francisco Elso, Por América, 1986. Carved wood, plaster and earth, 56 3/4 x 17 1/4 x 18 1/4 inches variable.

Juan Francisco Elso, Por América, 1986. Carved wood, plaster and earth, 56 3/4 x 17 1/4 x 18 1/4 inches variable.

George Adams recounts his introduction to the work of the late Cuban artist, Juan Francisco Elso:

 

"In 1991, while on a trip to the List Gallery at MIT to oversee the installation of an Arneson exhibition, I wandered into an adjacent gallery. On view was an astonishing body of work mostly made from tree branches, twine, dirt and paper. The work, fragile, so full of humanity and astonishingly original, captivated me. I asked the List’s curator Katy Kline the identity of the artist: Juan Francisco Elso, a Cuban who had died, at age 32, in 1988. This was his memorial show, only his third solo exhibition, organized by the Museo Carrillo Gil in Mexico City.

"Not long after and with Elso’s work still in mind I read an article in Arte En Colombia (now ArtNexus) on the work of another Cuban artist, Jose Bedia. Something struck a chord and I immediately contacted two Cuban friends to see what they had to say about him. “The best young artist in Cuba,” Luis Cruz Azaceta informed me. I contacted him and arranged a show that was his first solo exhibition in the US and the start of what was a 16-year relationship with the gallery. 

"But the work of Elso continued to haunt me and it wasn’t until some years later that I was offered the opportunity to read a draft of a monograph on Elso by Rachel Weiss. As it happened, I carried the manuscript with me to Miami where I stayed with the Bedia family. Late that night I mentioned the manuscript and Bedia, to my astonishment, casually informed me that Elso had been his best friend.

"That was enough for me. Through Bedia and Weiss I was able to contact the artist’s widow, Magali Lara, in Mexico and persuade her to allow me to offer his great work, Por America, a portrait of the Cuban patriot Jose Marti, with the promise that it would only be offered to a museum. Despite rumbles of protest from the Cuban artistic community who were upset that what they considered to be part of their patrimony was being offered in the US (as oppose to Cuba), Olga Viso, then Curator of Contemporary Art at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington DC quickly arranged to acquire the sculpture for their collection in 1998.

"Elso’s use of found materials (he graduated from ISA during the Soviet/Cuban “Special Period” when traditional art supplies were largely unavailable), his incorporation of themes from Afro-Cuban religions, as well as themes of geographic isolation mark him as the inspiration for many Cuban artists, notably Kacho and Los Carpinteros. Indeed Elso (along with Bedia) was one of the first from the 80s generation to emerge from Havana’s art scene and become internationally recognized (not Kacho as some have claimed), appearing in such exhibitions as the groundbreaking Volumen I, in Havana (1981), the second Havana Bienal (1984), and even the 1986 Venice Biennale.

"Viso, now an independent curator, is at work on the first exhibition of Elso’s work since the show that show at MIT, set to open at El Museo del Barrio in New York this fall (El Museo owns another great work by Elso, Caballo contra Colibri, 1988) and travel to the Phoenix Art Museum in 2023."