COMEDIAN, ACTOR, DIRECTOR EXPLAINS TRANSITION TO FOUNDER OF HIS OWN ART MUSEUM
By Stacy Suaya
You’ve worked as an actor, director, comedian, children’s book author and voiceover talent for Disney. Now you’re opening your own art museum. Explain that transition?
At this point in my life, it would really have to be something I really, really want to do, because of the time and investment. I don’t think all these categories are significantly different for me, because one thing leads to the other, you know? Writing about Chicano culture, Cheech & Chong, Born in East L.A. or any of those things, it’s along the same path.
About the Museum
The Cheech Marin Center for Chicano Art, Culture and Industry at the Riverside, Calif., Art Museum is scheduled to open in 2020, housing what’s been called the finest private collection of Chicano art in the United States. Marin says “The Cheech,” as it’s affectionately nicknamed, will be the “center of Chicano art, not for only paintings, but sculpture, photography and video arts.”
When did you first become interested in Chicano art?
In the mid-1970s, I was hanging out with [director/playwright] Luis Valdez and [musician/composer] Danny Valdez and different people from El Teatro Campesino, a Chicano theater group that was active in the early days of the Chicano civil rights movement. They were hanging out with other artists – Carlos Almaraz, Frank Romero, Gronk – and so I was introduced to artists at the same time. When I encountered these painters, I was like, “Wow. These painters are not getting any shelf life,” and that began the journey.
How do you define Chicano art?
It is one of those things we know when we see it, but it has to have some element relating to Chicano culture, and how the particular artist is expressing that relationship. It’s not like a roadmap or a step-by-step explanation. It’s more that they create – in Spanish, it’s called sabor, the flavor of the whole movement. And you get it from a lot of different viewpoints, whether it’s historical, gender-based, religion-based or academically based. When you put all those pieces in the pie together, you get the whole picture … of the sabor. You can feel the taste of Chicano culture.
Who do you consider pioneers of Chicano art?
There was a group in Los Angeles started by Almaraz … called Los Four. Los Four was him, Frank Romero, Gilbert Luján, who is known as Magu, and Beto de la Rocha. This group had something distinctive to say. But other cities started doing it, too. There were Chicano painters in Texas, especially San Antonio, and in San Francisco, and they all had their distinctive schools. In San Antonio, there was Adan Hernandez, César Martínez, Susan Martinez, Vincent Valdez, who is a big hotshot right now, and Gaspar Enriquez. In San Francisco [it was] Carmen Lomas Garza and Guillermo Gómez-Peña. And then there was this other group that came right on the heels of Los Four, called Asco. They were originally performance artists who learned to be painters, and they included Gronk, Patssi Valdez … there were four or five of them – very exceptional painters.
Who do you consider the master of Chicano art?
Carlos Almaraz for sure. But there are a lot of them. Any of those guys in Los Four, but Carlos Almaraz, he’s one of my favorite painters of all time. He’s a cross between Caravaggio and John Coltrane.
It’s been almost 40 years since you bought your first painting. What was it?
I bought three of them at the same time. George Yepes, a very distinctive L.A. and Chicano painter; Frank Romero, who was one of Los Four; and a Carlos Almaraz piece. I went to a gallery run by Robert Berman, who was one of the seminal gallerists who showed Chicano art here in Los Angeles, and he had this show going. I was transfixed by the art and I started collecting from that.
How many pieces do you have now?
I don’t know, to tell you the truth. It’s over 750. Mostly paintings … a large portion of works on paper, whether it’s multiples or drawings or pastels. The Chicanos were way out in front in their ability to put pastel on paper. [I have] a couple of sculptures, but mostly paintings. I’ve never sold a piece from the collection, ever.
What are your favorite pieces?
I’m the Boss by Michael Alvarez, who is a new up-and-comer, a recent graduate of Art Center College of Design [in Pasadena]. His paintings are rugged from the streets, but with a sly sense of humor and a brutal poetry. Another favorite piece is I Desire Drunken Parties-Loud Music-Wild Dance by Chaz Bojorquez. I like Chaz because he is one of the earliest artists in the Chicano art movement and his work is super relevant today. He is the grandfather of graffiti art. Finally, A Dios by Einar and Jamex de la Torre, one of their early glass sculptures that I acquired from the de la Torre brothers. Their work exhibits a mastery of technique and a Rococo sense of humor in glass.
Why did you decide to open this museum?
I was in Riverside, Calif., a very old and historic and well-funded city, doing an art show, I think it was works on paper, for the collection at the Riverside Museum. … [It] was the biggest show in the history of the museum – five times bigger than anything they ever had – and so the city manager … came to me and made this proposition that I would put the collection there [and] they would provide this building. Once I realized what was involved, I said, “This is an answer to our prayer.” It wasn’t even a prayer. I didn’t even pray for this because this is out of the bounds of expectations! As I came to this age, I thought, “What am I going to do with the collection?” And everybody said, “Well you should start your own museum.” And this thing just landed out of the blue.
What’s the most rewarding part of collecting for you?
The sharing aspect of it. Showing everybody else these works of art, and seeing the amazement and the joy and appreciation in their face. There really is nothing like it.
STACY SUAYA is a Los Angeles writer who has written for T: The New York Times Style Magazine and the Los Angeles Times.
This article appears in the Spring/Summer 2019 edition of The Intelligent Collector magazine. Click here to subscribe to the print edition.