Frank Romero is a quintessentially L.A. artist.
Romero was born here and his masterful paintings distinctively capture the history and social geography of the city.
The first major retrospective of Romero’s work is currently at the Museum of Latin American Art in Long Beach. The show is called "Dreamland: A Frank Romero Retrospective," and several of the works in the show are on loan from Cheech Marin — the comedian and actor who is considered the foremost collector of Chicano art.
So it only felt natural to have Marin walk through the show and chat with Romero about his origins as an artist, as well as the impact of the Chicano art movement and the moments it captured.
Marin: We are sitting in front of “Arrest of the Paleteros.” It was painted in 1996 and it depicts ice cream men being rousted by a SWAT team because they are such a menace to society, because they are unlicensed and on the streets of Silverlake and Echo Park. What does it say to you that this problem just came up again [when the L.A. City Council voted to legalize street vending].
Romero: It’s interesting. It’s very much like the mural problem which recurs every few years. I guess you can’t paint a mural legally in Los Angeles without getting a permit. Of course, in the '60s, we all painted them anywhere we wanted, and I think they still do.
Marin: Well, the city could use them. [laughs]
Romero: This is the area I’ve lived in since my early 20’s. In my early childhood it was on Franco [Street], and then later on, in Echo Park, it was on Lemoyne. And they are both very famous artists, two of the very first artists in the Americas. One of them was French and one of them was Spanish. I, of course, am known for [depicting] police actions. And, of course, low rider cars, police cars and the SWAT team — everybody harassing them.
("L.A. River" is a monumental 46-foot long painting by Frank Romero.)
Marin: This is a beautiful painting. Thank you very much for painting it. It has resonance today as we speak.
Romero: I can’t believe that you own it. I was absolutely robbed! [laughs]
Marin: Yes, well that’s my nature. I rob these starving artists so they could starve even further because they need penance in their lives. [laughs]
Romero: I don’t know. I think it kind of saved my life at the time as I recall. [laughs]
Marin: So, this is your very first museum retrospective show that encompasses really the body of your work throughout the ages. How does that feel to have your first retrospective in your home town? How do you feel? Older? (Laughs)
Romero: [Laughs] Yes, you’ve mentioned "iconic," or "legendary," yet I really feel like an old man. But I must say I came for many years to the Museum of Latin American Art when it first opened. It was just for Central American and Mexican artists. This is the first major exhibition for a Chicano artist at MOLAA — that is really exciting. [Editor's note: MOLAA was founded in 1996 by Dr. Robert Gumbiner as a showcase for his collection of Latin American art.]
("History of the Chicano Movimiento," a painting by Frank Romero that's currently on-view at the Museum of Latin American Art.)
Marin: Why do you think that was? Why did they exclude Chicanos in the beginning? Because Chicano art was viewed as something “other?”
Romero: Other. We’re still the other!
Marin: You know, and that is the source of our pride — that we are the other, and there is even the definition of what "Chicano" is — it’s a less than. It’s all within the progression of recognizing Chicano art as an American school of art — which it is, just as much as Abstract Expressionism or the Ashcan School or Hudson River Valley School or any of those. And it is much bigger in scope because it is an integral part of the cultural fabric.
Romero: Exactly, I feel that way very much about it. So I’ve been very happy to be recognized as a painter in this culture and this medium.
Marin: So, your early start as an artist — you were a product of the L.A. school system. You went to what high school?
Romero: Roosevelt High.
Marin: And you had a very influential teacher that taught you there?
Romero: George May. In junior high, when I graduated from Stevenson Junior High, I was given a scholarship to Otis Art Institute for the summer, and Joe Mugnaini was the drawing instructor at that time, who I still really respect. He’s been gone a number of years now, but he was an incredible influence on my art. And he arranged it for me to study with Herbert Jepson, the famous legendary art instructor. And Paul Landacre, I learned print-making from. And Guy Maccoy, also silk-screen printing. This is before Sister Karen [Boccalero] at Self-Help Graphics.
Marin: Wow, Sister Karen.
Romero: So I fell in love with that school, and I especially liked the way the oil painting studio smelled. It was exhilarating. I never sniffed spray cans — for me it was turpentine!