HIGHLIGHTING THE CITY'S COLLECTION: VAQUERO
Alex Irrera, Civic Art + Design Collection Coordinator
In December of 1985, renowned Mexican-American sculptor Luis Jiménez sat down with the University of Arizona Art Museum director Peter Bermingham for an in-depth interview exploring Jiménez’s life and career. Over the course of two days, the pair discussed Jiménez’s upbringing in El Paso, Texas; working in his father’s neon sign shop as a youth; his study of architecture and art at University of Texas Austin; the development of his career in New York City in the 1960s and 70s; and the eventual launch of his abilities as a public artist. Toward the end of the interview, Jiménez touched upon Vaquero, a major artwork commissioned by the City of Houston in the late 1970s and dedicated in 1982. Jiménez brought new life to classic equestrian sculpture with Vaquero by incorporating unique positioning of the male figure and horse in the sculpture and through the use of intense, saturated color. To commemorate this remarkable interview (conducted 31 years ago this month), Houston Arts Alliance takes a look back at the sculpture that remains a staple of the City of Houston Art Collection—Vaquero.
A landmark of Houston’s Northside Houston’s Moody Park, the sculpture Vaquero was Jiménez’s first public work and reflects the artist’s stylized hand, as well as his interest in portraying Latino and Native American characters. At 16 ½ feet tall, this sculpture depicts a sombreroed Latino cowboy on a bucking steed. Muscular and blue, the horse is inverted onto its front legs with its head between these front limbs. Its hind quarters are pulled in to its body (charged and ready to kick with magnificent force). The cowboy has his own legs wrapped tightly around the horse’s saddle. The man’s torso is vertical, his chin tucked forward to counteract the equine movement. In an expression of amazement, delight, or shock, the vaquero’s jaw hangs open—as if taking in invigorating breath of air for steading strength. The powerful momentum and thrust of the sculpture is magnificently paired with the delicate balance and positioning of the cowboy’s body—particularly his arms.
The vaquero’s right arm is bent and clutching the saddle beneath him, while his left arm is up by his ear—his pistoled hand waving high above his head. The cowboy’s posture has the grace of a dancer, but is also charged to react. The precise realism of the pose reveals Jiménez as a remarkable observer of physics and kinesiology. Although it has been met with controversy in the past, work also portrays Jiménez’s take on Latino masculinity—or his interpretation of society’s often stylized perception of this persona.
After being exposed to the intense Texas sun for over twenty years, Houston’s Vaquero was cleaned and repainted in 2009. That time the sculpture’s paint was experiencing some peeling and fading, the latter of which occurs when sunlight disrupts the chemical bonds in part of the paint molecules called the chromophore. Conservators traveled to Hondo, New Mexico to speak with the artist’s widow, Susan Jiménez to gain a better understanding of the work’s fabrication. Information gathered about the casting and painting process used on the fiberglass sculpture, assisted conservation professionals in restoring the work to match the original color palette.
Jiménez passed away in 2006 when a piece of Blue Mustang, a 32-foot sculpture commissioned by the Denver International Airport, fell on him in his New Mexico studio. At the time of his death, Jiménez was an internationally recognized artist, making his passing an untimely loss for southwestern culture and the greater art world. Tended to with appropriate care while on public view, works like Houston’s Vaquero can preserve the legacy of Jiménez’s unique, vivacious, stylized vision of Latino and American identities for generations.
The interview referenced in this blog post’s introduction was conducted for the Smithsonian Archives of American Art; a transcribed copy of the conversation can be found on the Archive’s website.