Carlos López: A forgotten Michigan Painter

/ 1 September, 2017

In the modern art period of the 20th century, some Latino artists participated in the federal mural painting projects in the United States. These public art projects were directly influenced by the Mexican mural movement of the 1920s and 30s, both ideologically and aesthetically. In Michigan, despite general interest in Diego Rivera’s Detroit Industry fresco cycle (1932-1933 at the Detroit Institute of Arts, Latino art generally speaking featured less social commentary and more individual expression that encompassed a panorama of styles and aesthetics. Many Latino artists did not refer to elements of their own culture in their work, but instead leaned toward mainstream art in search of personal meaning. Among mainstream artists working in Michigan, Cuban-born Carlos López (1908 or 1910-1953) was one of the most recognized modern painters in the United States. During his lifetime, he received many prestigious awards and commissions. An academically trained landscape and portrait painter, López serves as a vital historical link connecting American modern art in Michigan with a new Latino history of the state. As one of only several Michigan artists, Latino or otherwise, who received federal mural commissions, López also made important contributions to the development of American mural art through his historical murals in Michigan and Illinois. The work of López offers insight into the cultural history of the Latino presence in Michigan, as well as giving us a unique view of popular culture in the United States. For 20 years López played an influential role in the artistic life of Ann Arbor and Detroit as a hardworking art teacher, productive artist, and dedicated American, but today he still remains for the general public a shadowy figure in Michigan history.

Carlos López was born in Havana, Cuba to Spanish parents. He spent his early years in Spain, emigrating to the United States with his family when he was 11, where he received an American art education. A versatile artist of exceptional quality, López painted his beloved Michigan and adopted the country in modern terms, representing the new spirit of American art of the times through his artworks and teaching. López first studied with George Rich at the Detroit Art Academy and later with Charles St. Pierre at the Art Institute of Chicago. He also studied under Leon Makielski, landscape and portrait painter and University of Michigan art teacher. López exhibited for the first time in Detroit in January 1932; soon after he served as director of the Detroit Art Academy from 1933 to 1937 and later as a teacher at the Meinzinger School of Art in Detroit from 1937 to 1942. Following a brief tenure as an instructor at the Summer School of Painting in Saugatuck, Mich., in 1944, López finally became a professor of art at the University of Michigan in 1945, living in Ann Arbor until his death in 1953.

A master of oils and watercolors, he often competed in the Michigan Artists Exhibition and won a number of major awards, including the Scarab Club Gold Medal in 1938 for his painting, Boy with Bow, a study of a serious and pensive youth drawing back the string on his wooden bow. (…) López entered many state and national shows, winning more awards and critical recognition. Local awards include the Haan Prize in 1936, the Modern Art Prize in 1937, the Scarab Gold Medal in 1938, and the Kahn Award in 1940. He was featured in Detroit area exhibitions at the Detroit Institute of Arts, the Detroit Scarab Club, and the Detroit Artists’ Market during this early period in his career. He also exhibited in the Golden State Exposition in 1936 and the World’s Fair in New York in 1939.

(…) As a teacher, Carlos López was known for his loyalty and devotion to his students who looked to him with admiration and fondness. After his death, Rhoda was immediately flooded with numerous requests from former art students asking to purchase his artwork. Fortunately for his students and friends, she arranged an exhibit and sale of his work, which included a collection of assorted drawings, some recently completed and signed, and some designs for future paintings, at the Forsythe Gallery, Ann Arbor. Decades have past, and Carlos López, American artist par excellence, sadly remains a forgotten Michigan painter, largely ignored by the art establishment. Although his art is represented in a few museums and private collections, López had not been celebrated in any major exhibitions since his untimely death. Even his beloved University of Michigan, where he taught for years, failed to exhibit the outpouring from his creative wellspring. That is, until this author helped organize his solo exhibition at Valparaiso University in Indiana in 2016, where López finally attracted renewed interest in his artwork, and in his Hispanic heritage.

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