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Los Four's Carlos Almaraz: clown, colorist, friend, lover, nag, artist, and gone too soon

by John Rabe | Off-Ramp®

One of Almaraz's final paintings, done in 1989, the year he died of AIDS. Exhibited in "Carlos Almaraz: A Life Recalled," at ELAC's Vincent Price Art Museum John Rabe

At last, there's a major exhibit for a major artist who has been largely overlooked by the art establishment.

"Carlos Almaraz: A Life Recalled," at ELAC's Vincent Price Art Museum, is a chronological survey that includes small, big, and huge art, postcards, his ukulele, letters ... collected in one place to give you the groundwork for understanding Almaraz, the member of the famous Chicano collective Los Four, who died of AIDS in 1989.

At the exhibition opening party Saturday, I spoke with Dan Guerrero, his lifelong friend; Elsa Flores Almaraz, his widow — or as she prefers, "beloved;" fellow artist and friend Frank Romero; Ken Brecher, president of the Library Foundation of Los Angeles; and Karen Rapp, director of the VPAM, and co-organizer of the show.

Interview Highlights:

Elsa Flores Almaraz on her late husband's legacy:
"Carlos was my beloved for 10 years, we were friends for 17 ... He's got an amazing body of work that's never been seen. Thousands of pieces in private collections and he really needs to be exposed to the greater public. He was quite a mystic in sort of underlying ways, I would always call him an urban shaman, the work is imbued with so much energy."

Dan Guerrero on losing his lifelong friend:
"We were friends our whole lives until the day that he left in 1989, so I had all of this work from when we were in high school, from when we moved to New York in 1962 when he would say, 'You have a Diego Rivera poster up from a museum shop!?' Then he'd do a drawing so that I could have real art ... I saw him that very day, he died that night in December. I'm not mad at him, but I'm not happy about it. I have this thing it's a little denial or a defense mechanism, both my parents are gone, Carlos is gone, but to me they're not gone, I still think of them all the time. What they gave me what they taught me I'm still using, so to me they're not gone, they're still here. That's why I'm not mad at Carlos."

Frank Romero's memories of Almaraz:
"I miss him, of course I'm angry that we went and died on me. We met at Cal State LA in 1960, we were both 18. When we got back from New York in 1969, there was something new in the air and it was called the Chicano movement."

Karen Rapp on Almaraz's influence on other artists:
"I've met a lot of artists who were born in the '50s, they all cite Carlos and the biggest influence on their careers. He thought of himself as an artist in the context of having a voice, having a vision, he encouraged them, I think he also harassed them. He was very much a person who challenged people, a trouble maker, someone who said, 'Define your terms, what does it mean to be an artist in Los Angeles, what does it mean to be a Mexican-American artist?'"

Ken Brecher on Almaraz's love of Los Angeles:
"I think he was a profoundly interested citizen of Los Angeles. I think he loved Los Angeles. He knew how to make visual the great differences in our wonderful city from other cities. He captured the helicopters flying over at night and the lights of a movie opening in Hollywood and the loneliness and beauty of a small love boat on Echo Park lake. He helped me to see the colors of Los Angeles and he always reminded me that the greatness of Los Angeles was in the color."

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