Muchnic is a former art critic for the Los Angeles Times. In 1986 she wrote, “If Carlos Almaraz ever moves away, we will have lost a Los Angeles treasure. I say that because he’s one of the few artists here who knows how to paint passion.”
I have many vivid memories of the man and his art. Carlos was a gifted painter who brought Los Angeles to life in sizzling landscapes, tense urban scenes, and fantastic images, but his real subject matter was his passion for visual expression. He struggled and thrived amid conflicting desires to be true to his aesthetic heritage and, at the same time, find his rightful place in the mainstream art world. Details of his life may fade, but he is not easily forgotten. Had I become involved in Southern California’s contemporary art scene a few years earlier, I probably would have met Carlos in 1974, when the Los Angeles County Museum of Art presented its first major exhibition of Chicano art. Los Four: Almaraz/De la Rocha/Luján/Romero was a breakthrough and I missed it, but the importance of the show was still in the air. Carlos’s work popped up in local galleries and other showcases in the mid-1970s, but I probably didn’t meet him until summer 1979, when Otis Art Institute of Parsons School of Design presented L.A. Parks and Wrecks: Carlos Almaraz, John Valadez, John Woods.
That’s certainly where I first encountered his paintings of flaming car crashes, and they made a lasting impression. Art history is full of beautiful horrors, but these were different, and exactly of their time and place. They were apocalyptic images for a car-culture town, romantically overheated but all too believable. Carlos envisioned freeway overpasses as launch pads for capsules of fiery death and turned fast cars into flying carcasses. He saw silent nights as stage sets for seething dramas with violent endings.
A strong personality who spoke up about social injustice and celebrated L.A.’s tropical glory, Carlos was on in those days and he was definitely on to something. At his best he struck an uneasy balance in his art, drawing from his education and skill as well as his personal experience and imagination. Proud as he was of his role in the Chicano community, he resented being pigeonholed as a hot-blooded Latino artist and accurately pointed out that Caucasians who used high-key colors were not similarly labeled. Although his art school training and sojourn in New York broadened his frame of reference, he maintained his identity.
For me, the Echo Park panorama lives in memory as the centerpiece of Urban Myths: Painting, a large exhibition of Carlos’ recent works at the ARCO Center for Visual Art in 1982. At the time, I was teaching a night class in modern and contemporary art at Los Angeles City College, so I grabbed the opportunity to take my students to the show. When we arrived at the prestigious downtown showcase, Carlos was ready. Unlike the artists who had come to my class for relatively casual conversations about their work, he wore a suit, adopted a professorial tone and took us on a spirited tour of the exhibition, challenging the students’ thoughts about what art could and should be, and asking as many questions as he answered.