Obituaries

José Luis Cuevas, 83, dark master of Mexican art

José Luis Cuevas, whose rebellious personality and dark delineation of human suffering made him one of the most celebrated Mexican artists of the 1950s and ’60s, died Monday in Mexico City. He was 83.

President Enrique Peña Nieto announced his death, posting on Twitter that Mr. Cuevas “will always be remembered as a synonym of universality, freedom, creation.” He did not specify the cause.

Working almost exclusively in ink drawings, Mr. Cuevas depicted the wretched of the earth — the infirm, the deformed, the mad — in an unblinking expressionist manner that reflected the influence of artists like Goya, Breughel, and Grosz as well as the forms of pre-Columbian art. “My interest in the dying and the insane is my vision of modern life,” he told Time magazine in 1954, when his work was first shown in the United States, at the Pan American Union in Washington.

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Like other members of the “rupture generation” in Mexico, Mr. Cuevas rejected the nationalist mural art of Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros, regarding it as an artistic dead end. He expressed his opposition in a 1956 manifesto, “The Cactus Curtain,” and, as a signer of a 1961 manifesto by the New Presence group, blamed the muralists for delivering “two generations of picturesque Indians making tortillas or setting candles for the Night of the Dead.”

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In 1967, when Siqueiros was at work on the largest mural in the world, “The March of Humanity,” Mr. Cuevas responded with “Ephemeral Mural No. 1,” a triptych on a billboard in Mexico City, a third of it a drawing of Mr. Cuevas himself signing one of his own works. It was unveiled in a raucous ceremony that included go-go dancers.

Countering the warm humanism and leftist politics of the muralists, Mr. Cuevas offered an existentialist’s view of the human condition, with hopelessness a given. “Joy wearies me, and I hate happiness when I catch a glimpse of it in a human expression,” he told Newsweek in 1963.

To this bleak project he brought an exquisite hand. “Surely there is not a more refined craftsman at work today than Cuevas, no artist who draws a line with more delicate calculation, who more firmly rejects the impulsive stab or the quick, suggestive squiggle,” the New York Times art critic John Canaday wrote in 1965, adding, “No artist, not even Hieronymus Bosch, has managed to make horror more elegant.”

José Luis Cuevas y Novelo was born on Feb. 26, 1934, in Mexico City, to Alberto Cuevas Gómez, an airline pilot, and the former María Regla Novelo.

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The family lived over a paper and pencil factory, whose leavings provided José with an endless supply of drawing materials. The exaggerated torsos and spindly limbs of the dolls that hung over his bed — nuns, bullfighters, skeletons — provided a template for his work throughout his life. “They gave me my first notion of how the human body is put together,” he wrote in a memoir, “Recollections of Childhood” (1962).

When he was 12, an attack of rheumatic fever sent him to bed for two years. He spent much of that time drawing the beggars and prostitutes he could see from his window. Before his illness, he had spent one term studying at the National School of Painting and Sculpture, but he was otherwise self-taught.

A solo show at the Prisse Gallery in Mexico City in 1953 drew the notice of José Gómez-Sicre, the artistic director of the Pan American Union, who mounted a show of Mr. Cuevas’s work the next year that attracted widespread attention. His drawings, Time wrote, “powerfully portrayed the hunched reticence of schizophrenia, the hauteur of megalomania, the stares of poverty and disease.”

Shows followed in New York and Paris, where Pablo Picasso bought two of Mr. Cuevas’s drawings, as well as invitations to art festivals around the world, including the 1959 Biennale in São Paulo, where a special room was set aside for his drawings.

In 1961 he married Bertha Lilian Riestra, a psychologist. She died in 2000. He leaves his wife, Beatriz del Carmen Bazán; three daughters, Mariana, Ximena, and María José Cuevas; and a brother, Alberto.

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In the mid-1960s Mr. Cuevas spent two years at the Tamarind Lithography Workshop, where he produced a series of prints on a favorite subject, the Marquis de Sade.

Although Mr. Cuevas tried oil paints early in his career, he preferred to work in ink, only occasionally using color washes.

“With color I’m not conveying any emotion,” he told the journal Americas in 1992. “I use it sometimes, mostly to create a sort of atmosphere, to accentuate horror, to accentuate the erotic. I never stop being a draftsman, and although there may be spots and bits of color in my work, I insist I’m not a painter. I use whatever is at hand — oil, watercolors, gouache, or whatever — but I express myself through drawing.”

In later years he turned to sculpture. For the opening of the José Luis Cuevas Museum in Mexico City in 1992, he created a monumental bronze, “La Giganta,” more than 26 feet tall and weighing 8 tons. Another large sculpture, “Figure Gazing Into the Infinite,” made in honor of his wife, was donated to the city and installed in a central area just off the Paseo de la Reforma.

Despite the accolades heaped upon him, including a retrospective in 2009 at the Museum of the Palace of Fine Arts in Mexico City, Mr. Cuevas never quite shed his image as the bad boy of Mexican art.

Certainly, his talent for mischief never deserted him. In 2001, to greet visitors entering the coastal city of Colima, he created “Obscene Figure,” a quasihuman beast in a kneeling position, but with one of its four legs lifted, like a dog by a fire hydrant. The public outcry was intense.