Art and artists in Zacatecas, Mexico
Rafael Coronel was Diego Rivera’s brother-in-law, but that wasn’t the most interesting thing about him in Zacatecas. When the city renovated a former monastery from the 1500’s, Rafael donated his mask collection as the basis of a museum in the half-crumbled barrel vaults. Is one man’s collection enough to make a decent museum? With roughly 1600 masks from various cultures, religions, and ceremonies, yes, yes it is. But Rafael is not the top Coronel art patron in the city.
His brother Pedro Coronel endowed a museum a short distance away, and I spent several stunned hours walking down its long hallways with Picasso, Degas, Miro, Dali, Chagall, and more. Pedro’s building is perhaps less impressive, being merely a former Jesuit school from the 1600’s that has since been used as a hospital, barracks, and prison. Ho hum?
The Coronel brothers’ contributions were great, but to be honest I preferred the abstract art museum of Manuel Felguerez, housed in another former prison, part of which has been retained so you see Felguerez’s canvases from the tiered catwalks once patrolled by guards and prisoners. Though to be fair, I didn’t even visit the Francisco Goitia Museum that claims to have the top collection of Mexican art and is housed in the former Governor’s mansion.
What was going on in this town?!? Zacatecas has a population of perhaps 150,000 but somehow had a bizarre number of excellent art museums. I was impressed (and envious). My first museum memories are of the Louvre when I was seven. My favorite art was whatever hung in rooms with couches where I could finally sit down, for crying out loud. God I was bored! Art? Who cares?
My career as a tour guide has changed all that. Spending time in the top European museums, with the best guides, and incredible art from geniuses throughout the eras, I have come to love those spaces, where art and human expression are given their time in the light. And I learned some of the language of it, not to mention the secret that while the artist probably had a particular message or goal, it’s fine to just experience art however it affects you. No right answers, no wrong answers. So I loved Zacatecas. But my favorite was yet to come.
From three blocks away I could tell nothing about the person, beyond knowing they’d seen me too. When I got closer, I saw it was a young woman aligning a sign on a new art gallery. I asked if I could take a look and she ushered me inside. Into paradise. A party of color and shape, symbolism and mystery, interpretation and emotion, enough beauty on a dozen canvases to keep me busy for hours, and best of all, the artist there to talk about it with.
Her name is Guadalpe Reyes, born in Oaxaca, school in New Jersey, exhibiting in Zacatecas, and my eyes and brain couldn’t get enough of her art. My Spanish had been a somewhat sluggish thing until that point, burdened by self-consciousness and dusty with disuse, but all of that was washed away by my desire to talk about the themes and ideas I saw on the walls around me. We talked about the use of color, the meaning of skeletons, the persistence of culture, and the role of art in a modern world afflicted with busyness, despair, and fatigue. And how the woman dying of cancer felt when she first saw her portrait. I felt her humanity, there in the pigments, a connection to someone I’ll never meet.
Pablo Picasso is a fine artist (though a complete jerk). Paris is a wonderful city (and a mecca of art). But I found a peak art experience with Guadalupe Reyes on a sidestreet in Zacatecas, Mexico. Keep on looking, keep on meeting, keep on traveling.