Art of the Artist

Two exhibits at the Gallery of the Sun show not-oft-depicted sides of Ted DeGrazia

When Louise Serpa was just coming into her own as a rodeo photographer, she called on Ted DeGrazia.

The year was 1966. Serpa was 41. DeGrazia was 57, and far more famous. He had been profiled in National Geographic and other national media, and when UNICEF picked one of his designs for a Christmas card, his work made its way into millions of homes.

Serpa was still new at art. She'd been in Tucson just a half-dozen years, but in that time, she had taught herself black-and-white photography. Her work was already so good—and she was so persuasive—that she had earned herself the right to shoot inside the ring at big-time rodeos. She was the first woman ever to do so.

Serpa, who died in January at the age of 86, had a gift for capturing the exact right moment on film—that instant when horse and cowboy reached highest to the sky, or crashed the hardest to the ground. But no cowboy or cowgirl that Serpa shot could have been as stylized as DeGrazia—or as prone to mythmaking.

As the Portraits of DeGrazia show at the DeGrazia Gallery in the Sun demonstrates, the many artists who attempted to paint or sculpt him too often got bogged down in clichés. In the dozens of works here by as many artists, DeGrazia appears over and over as the archetypal rugged individual, a classic Western icon, all squinty eyes and manly beard, posed against big skies and tall mountains.

Serpa took a different approach: She brought the great man down to size and made him human, even humble. She posed him, beautifully, in the sun against the plain adobe bricks of his studio. And she put him to work inside, molding a small clay sculpture in his hands.

Sure, he's still got the macho 10-gallon hat, the cigarette, the dusty cowboy clothes. But Serpa's gelatin silver pictures get past all that. In one, he even has his hat in his hands. A smile plays around his lips. He seems to recognize that in Serpa, he's up against a force at least equal to himself.

DeGrazia later made her a card from one of her best prints—a lovely close-up of his hands at work—and wrote: "To Louise! Let's Do a Book. Love, Ted."

It's too bad they didn't. Serpa's searching camera might have taught us more about DeGrazia than we can learn either from the adoring portraits made by his friends, or from the work that made him famous—sentimental paintings of childlike Indians and Mexicans fluttering around the Southwest, some of them on angel wings.

Thomas Hart Benton, the crusty American regionalist, saw in these paintings a return to emotion and much-needed realism. In a written screed displayed next to his small 1962 oil on canvas, "Study for Desert Artist," Benton denounces the experimentation of the postwar years. DeGrazia, he says, "has shown up at the right time." At a time when artists like Jasper Johns were splashing paint on canvases in wild paintings of flags and maps, DeGrazia's homespun paintings were "full of a delicate and very human poetry which everybody feels and everybody can understand."

In his own painting, Benton pictures DeGrazia in his beloved Tucson landscape. Remarkably, he manages to make the craggy Catalinas into Benton-esque rolling hills. And he dressed the artist, paintbrush in hand and palette nearby, in full cowboy regalia.

The other guest artists also routinely portray DeGrazia as a cowboy-artist, and they use a cavalcade of Western art styles. In a typical example, an undated, untitled oil by Richard D. Thomas portrays him with a soft-edged realism. Lit by the sun, Thomas' heroic DeGrazia leans against a corral post, decked out in a 10-gallon hat and silver belt buckle.

An Italian friend pushed the hagiography even harder. In the white plaster bust "Per Mio Umilde Amico E Paisano Ted DeGrazia" (For My Humble Friend and Compatriot Ted DeGrazia), sculptor A. Chersin transforms DeGrazia into a hero of classical antiquity. He wears a toga, and an olive wreath encircles his head.

This over-the-top work at least hints at the complicated life story obscured by the myth. Ettore DeGrazia was the child of poor Italian immigrants. He was born in 1909 in Morenci, where his father worked in the mines; when Phelps Dodge shut the operation down in 1920, the whole clan moved back to the Calabria region of Italy. When they returned to Arizona five years later, Ted, now about 16, had to relearn English.

As a young artist, DeGrazia drew on this painful history in unabashedly modernist paintings. A companion show, The Bisbee Years, rounds up work he made when he lived in the Mile-High City, from 1936 to 1942. Drawing on his father's years in the mines, he made several serious expressionist paintings about labor and working conditions.

In 1941's "Untitled-Miners," a trio of men descends down the shaft in the cage; 50 shades of gray conjure up the darkness way down in the mine. "Mining," a triptych from 1936, is a montage of smokestacks spewing poison into the blue Arizona sky, a tangle of pipes and machinery, and a horde of hard-hatted men marching lockstep into the Earth.

No wonder DeGrazia was thrilled to meet Diego Rivera, the great Mexican painter who used contemporary techniques to paint the labor and culture of his own country's oppressed. Their 1942 meeting is memorialized in a photo here. DeGrazia—dressed like a bohemian instead of the cowboy of later years—stands with the massive Rivera in front of one of his murals. DeGrazia went on to intern with Rivera and another great muralist, José Clemente Orozco, and he even exhibited at Palacio de Bellas Artes.

DeGrazia's later switch to more-commercial, cutesy art may well have had its psychic costs. A collection of his self-portraits, also on view, makes a 180-degree turn away from the picturesque portraits made by his friends. DeGrazia paints himself as a tortured soul. And he turns away from the styles Benton approved of, and runs instead through a catalog of modernist experiments.

In 1950, he made a near-Rouault, a small oil strafed with thick bands of black paint. Surrounded by his now-familiar painting subjects—a mother and her children, a child holding a sombrero—his face is despondent, and painted in a shocking fauvist brew of pink, lime and blue.

A 1956 oil has another tragic face, and a background shattered into cubist shards. In 1965, just a few years after Benton painted him so benignly, DeGrazia turned himself into a despairing Van Gogh. A flaming orange background appears ready to consume his gaunt, gray face.

By 1970, 12 years before his death, DeGrazia paid homage to the subjects that made him famous. In the drawing "Turnabout Is Fair Play," one of his angels—stick hair, round black eyes, no mouth—is painting a portrait of her creator. DeGrazia acknowledges the debt: He's dependent on her to give him life, or at least a living.

One artist friend, W.T. Zevik, was brave enough to razz him. He drew a cartoon of DeGrazia working on an angel painting—and sitting on a huge bag of money. Zevik called it, ironically, "Starving Artist."

But if some artists considered him a sellout, DeGrazia was largely adored. In 1966—the same year when Louise Serpa looked at him with her clear-eyed gaze—Richard France painted him as a kind of patron saint of Tucson. In France's untitled acrylic, DeGrazia's cowboy-hatted head floats in the clouds, sailing well above his Gallery of the Sun, and up and beyond the golden Catalinas.

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