Before the Kitsch

A show of young Ted DeGrazia works at the Tucson Museum of Art suggests an artist searching for a style

The most interesting thing in the Ted DeGrazia "modernist" show at the Tucson Museum of Art is not anything the artist made himself.

It's a photograph by somebody else. The anonymous photographer captured a self-confident young DeGrazia in 1942, standing with Diego Rivera in Rivera's Mexico City studio.

The great Mexican muralist is his usual self—towering, rotund—a palette and brush in his hand. He looks at the camera indifferently. Behind him hangs a large painting in progress, of a couple of nudes cavorting through a field of sunflowers. A rustic wooden doorway to the right opens up to a sun-filled Mexican garden.

DeGrazia, then 33, is dressed in a jean jacket and jeans, a cigarette resting lightly between his fingers, every inch the bohemian artist. He's planted himself cockily beside the much larger man, his legs apart in an aggressive stance. He gazes coolly at the camera. He more than takes up the space.

The photograph strikes me as a first step in the construction of the DeGrazia persona. He's every bit the great man's equal, an artist ready to triumph. And a second photograph shows how the story turned out: Shot a dozen or so years later, it mimics the first. Now with grizzled hair and a beard, DeGrazia stands in an architectural space a lot like Rivera's, his Gallery in the Sun in Tucson. He has own murals on the walls, and his own sunny Mexican-style garden is seen through his rustic doorway. He's an artist who has arrived, a Rivera for Tucson.

Except that he wasn't. Where Rivera painted glorious paintings that melded Mexican motifs with modernist principles, DeGrazia became a king of kitsch. For years, he churned out cutesy Indians, icky angels and galloping horses with glittery manes. He hit the big time when UNICEF picked one of his paintings of kids for its Christmas card in 1960. Twenty-seven years after his death in 1982, his Gallery in the Sun remains a major tourist attraction. Visitors are invited to buy DeGrazia plates. ("Festival of Lights," picturing a big-eyed Indian girl holding a menorah, is $375 from a "limited edition" of 10,000.) Or they can pick up bells, magnets, notecards and other knickknacks. The "Merry Little Indian" coaster is a bargain at $6.

As a young man, though, DeGrazia had aspirations—apparently—to do serious art. DeGrazia cultivated the image of The Primitive, but he was a trained painter, with two degrees in art from the University of Arizona, a bachelor's and a master's, and a second master's in music. TMA chief curator Julie Sasse says the thesis for the second master's was a sophisticated look at visual responses to music.

His experiments with modernism won him a place in a memorable 1990s show on early Tucson modernists, put together at the University of Arizona Museum of Art by its late, lamented director Peter Bermingham.

Now at the TMA, Julie Sasse has put together a small show, DeGrazia: A Modernist Perspective. Drawing on the holdings of the Gallery in the Sun, she's gathered together 10 oil paintings and a sprinkling of tempera, ink, watercolor and gouache works, as well as a couple of ceramics and textile designs. In the works, she has divined influences from Van Gogh and Chagall to Kandinsky and O'Keeffe.

In "Fiesta at San Xavier" from 1960, an oil on canvas that pictures fireworks streaking into a midnight blue sky, she sees echoes of Van Gogh's "Starry Night." The pallid towers of DeGrazia's "San Francisco," 1950, another oil on canvas, are descended from O'Keeffe's New York City skyscrapers of the 1920s. Even his Virgin of Guadalupe, the faceless "Our Lady" from 1955, has a modernist side: The spiraling flowers on her pink gown are inspired by Matisse at his most decorative.

One early work, from 1947, an abstracted vision of a Mexican jungle, all jutting vines and palm trees in purple and teal, even appropriates the title of a work by the European painter Franz Marc, an artist known for "exuberant color and the expression of emotional and spiritual states," Sasse writes.

So what happened? It's hard to separate truth from legend at this point. He was born Ettore DeGrazia in Morenci 100 years ago this week, on June 14, 1909, hence the anniversary show at TMA and the hoopla this weekend at the Gallery in the Sun. His parents were Italian immigrants, part of a large Italian community lured by work in the copper mines. DeGrazia's father was a miner like the rest, but when copper went bust for a time after World War I, the family returned to Italy, in 1920.

Sasse surmises that young Ted immersed himself in intense religious art during his five years in his parents' homeland. The earliest work on display, "Three Sad Women," painted when DeGrazia was in his early 20s, is an austere, and promising, rendering of three heads shrouded in black.

DeGrazia was in and out of Tucson by the '30s. After he married for the first time, he lived with his family in Bisbee during the late '30s and early '40s, running a theater and painting. "Bisbee Bus Depot," 1942, is a fine oil of the hill town Bisbee by night. Painted in a regionalist style reminiscent of Thomas Hart Benton, it readily conjures up the town's eccentric architecture and narrow streets. The depot's red-orange roofs glow against the teal-gray sky.

His work hit the pages of Arizona Highways in 1941. Maybe it was this local success that buoyed him with the idea of going to Mexico to meet Rivera. As Sasse delicately puts it, he always had self-confidence. He was once quoted as saying, "If an artist doesn't believe in himself, who will?"

According to one story, DeGrazia bribed a security guard to let him into Rivera's studio. Once inside, he apparently captivated the Mexican painter, and ended up doing what's described as an internship with Rivera and the other great Mexican muralist of the day, José Clemente Orozco.

Mexico City had been an epicenter for artistic innovation and political rebellion at least since the 1930s. Frida Kahlo, Rivera and others were championing a new Mexican art that drew on local traditions and celebrated workers and farmers. Artists from the Europe and United States, including Tina Modotti and Edward Weston, rushed down to imbibe the atmosphere and the inspiration.

In this heady climate, DeGrazia scored a solo show at the Palacio de Bellas Artes. Orozco is quoted in a popular biography as praising DeGrazia, saying, "He will be one of the best American painters someday."

But back in the United States, DeGrazia seems to have foundered. The UA wasn't interested in re-staging his Bellas Artes show.

DeGrazia knew his modernists, to be sure, but the TMA works suggest an artist in search of a style. And somewhere along the line, for some reason, he hit upon Southwest kitsch. The heroic indígenas of Rivera's best paintings evolved into the faceless Indians-lite of DeGrazia's.

DeGrazia was a great Tucson character, a tough, desert-fried macho man and, mysteriously, the town's most famous artist. Rivera had said that the young man's paintings interested him, but a prediction he made was prescient. Ted, he declared, "will become a prominent personality."

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