Luis Alfonso Jiménez, Jr., Tejano sculptor and artist, was born in El Paso, Texas, to Luis Alfonso Jiménez, Sr., and Alicia (Franco) Jiménez, on July 30, 1940. His father (at nine years of age) and paternal grandmother had entered the United States illegally in 1924 by wading across the Rio Grande. Jiménez’s ten-foot tall sculpture Border Crossing depicts a family crossing the Rio Grande, and he dedicated the piece to his grandmother and father, who later became a naturalized citizen. Luis had a younger brother and a sister.
Luis Jiménez, Sr., became an assistant to a man who hand lettered signs for movie theaters. He eventually became a sign designer for the business owned by Martin Bauman Sr. Luis, Sr., later purchased the business from Bauman and changed its name to Electric and Neon Incorporated. The enterprise became the biggest sign company between Dallas and Phoenix. Many banks and businesses’ signs in El Paso were made by Electric and Neon, including signs and sculptures for Bronco Drive-In, Crystal Cleaners, and the Sunbeam Bread Bakery.
Beginning at six years of age, Luis Jiménez, Jr., worked with his father and learned about the business of manufacturing commercial business signs. In an art contest in elementary school, entries by the boy won both the first and the third prizes. As a young child, he spent several summers in Mexico City, where he visited art museums and was exposed to the art and culture of Mexico. At the age of fourteen, Luis, Jr., was shot in his left eye with a BB gun, and later in life he lost all sight in that eye. At the age of sixteen, he helped construct two 10-foot-tall roosters for a chain of drive-in restaurants. As a teenager, he bought his first model-A car but later wrecked it. A couple of years later, he bought another model-A roadster car that had a smashed front end. He repaired it himself, using fiberglass, and that gave him some experience with the material that he would later use for many of his sculptures.
At the encouraging of his father, Jiménez studied architecture in college—something that the father considered to be much more practical than art. During his senior year at the University of Texas in Austin, when he met Vicky Cardwell (now Balcou), an art major, Jiménez changed his major to art, and his father subsequently stopped speaking to him for a period of time. Much later, Luis, Jr., said, “My dad was really a frustrated artist who became a sign painter.” Jiménez graduated from the University of Texas in 1964. A short time later, Jiménez married Vicky Cardwell (now Balcou). Shortly thereafter he went to Mexico City to do graduate study in art at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Mexico.
They moved to El Paso, where he taught art for the Ysleta ISD. Later in the year he accompanied a friend on a driving trip to Canada. In Idaho, the friend fell asleep at the wheel of the van, and the vehicle left the road and rolled several times. Jiménez was thrown through the windshield and suffered two crushed vertebrae. The doctors predicted that he would never walk again and that he would never be able to father a child. They were wrong on both counts. Luis and Vicky’s daughter, Elisa Victoria Jiménez, was born in 1965. The family moved back to Austin, where he found a job as a janitor. During his time living in Austin, he also painted murals at the University of Texas’s School of Engineering and one at a local Pizza Hut.
Jiménez moved to New York City in 1966 and planned for his wife and daughter to later join him, but the couple divorced instead. In New York, he went to the state employment office. Because he could speak Spanish, he was sent to the Lower East Side, where he was employed to recruit children for the Head Start program. He also became an apprentice to artist Seymour Lipton. Jiménez later said: “What I learned most from Seymour Lipton was how to be an artist, the way he functioned in society. I came out of a situation where I didn’t even know how to become an artist.”
Jiménez repeatedly showed slides of his artwork to New York gallery staff but without success. Finally he employed an unusual tactic which led directly to his first big break in New York. He visited the Castelli Gallery but found it empty. Then he took three of his sculptures and placed them in the gallery without permission. When the gallery director, Juan Karp, saw the sculptures, he was very impressed. Karp referred Jiménez to the John Graham Gallery, and in 1969 that gallery scheduled a one-man show of his work. His parents flew to New York to celebrate the opening of the show with him. The gallery also presented another one-man show of his work the following year. Jiménez was able to quit his job and devote his time to working on Progress, a series of fiberglass sculptures about the winning of the West, but with a twist that suggested that much of the conventional wisdom about how the West was won was simply mythical. His sculpture Vaquero pays homage to the fact that Mexican vaqueros were the forerunners of American cowboys.
Jiménez built his reputation as a sculptor in New York and on the East Coast, but before long he found New York and his spacious studio too small for the size of his sculptures. At one point, he bought a house in Maine.
He came to believe that museums and galleries were not the proper context for his massive sculptures and that the proper setting for them was outdoors in public display. He desired larger audiences for his work than just the people who visited museums and galleries. To make his works of art available to a vast audience, Jiménez made the sculptures much larger than life-size and arranged to have them exhibited in public places; he also used lithography to reproduce his drawings and paintings so that they would be accessible and available to a large number of people. El Paso gallery owner Adair Margo said of Jiménez, “He wanted his pieces to be where people enjoyed them and loved them.”
In New York, Jiménez met Mary Wynn and the couple were married for three years. He returned to El Paso in the early 1970s. In 1971 Jiménez visited one of the collectors of his art, Donald Anderson, an oilman in Roswell, New Mexico. Anderson persistently offered to underwrite Jiménez’s move, as part of the artist-in-residence program, to Roswell and his maintenance there, where he could make huge pieces of sculpture. Luis just wanted the chance to make the pieces, and he told Anderson that he (Anderson) could keep them. In El Paso he began a relationship with Cynthia Bender and the two married. In 1972 he loaded up his pick-up truck, and they moved to Roswell. He lived there for six years and produced his Progress series of sculptures.
In 1974 Jiménez had a one-man art exhibition at the Contemporary Arts Museum in Houston, a first for him in an art museum. Later, in Hondo, New Mexico, he found an old abandoned two-story adobe schoolhouse that had a stone foundation; it had been built by the Works Progress Administration (see WORK PROJECTS ADMINISTRATION) during the Great Depression. He soon bought it and made it his studio and home. He was not averse to controversy; in fact, he felt that controversy about art was a good and positive thing. “The purpose of public art is to create a dialogue,” he said. Some viewers of Jiménez’s artworks experienced epiphany, and others reacted with outrage; Luis considered both responses to be equally valid.
In 1984 Jiménez went to a New Jersey bronze foundry to have some castings made. There he met sculptor Susan Brockman, who was working at the foundry. Susan had been making plaster casts of friends to use in her sculptures, so eventually she asked Luis to let her make a plaster cast of him. She later recalled: “I ended up casting him in the bathtub, and he stuck to the bottom. We ended up sitting there for eight hours and kind of bonded.” They married on August 24, 1985, in Susan’s mother’s garden in Illinois. The couple moved to El Paso but made weekly trips to Jiménez’s studio in Hondo, New Mexico. They eventually moved into the old schoolhouse. They had three children: Luis Adan Jiménez, Juan Orion Jiménez, and Sarah Alicia Xochil Jiménez.
On June 13, 2006, Jiménez, his daughter Xochil, and an employee in his Hondo, New Mexico, studio were moving one of the three pieces of his thirty-two-foot tall sculpture Blue Mustang (which had been commissioned for the Denver International Airport) with a hoist when it slipped and fell, pinning Luis against a steel support. The large piece of the sculpture severed an artery in his leg, and he bled to death. He was transported to the Lincoln County Medical Center in Ruidoso, where he was pronounced dead. Tragically and ironically, Jiménez was killed by one of his own works of art. His widow said, “He was a man who couldn’t quit working and it was the work that eventually took his life.” New Mexico’s governor ordered that flags around the state be flown at half-mast on June 15 and June 16 in honor of Luis Jiménez.
Jiménez’s artwork has been described as violent, dominant, raw, and passionate. He often utilized high-gloss, urethane-coated fiberglass and airplane paint to produce his huge sculptures. His use of fiberglass as early as the 1960s helped to make that material an acceptable art medium.
An article in the April 1993 issue of Texas Monthly stated that Jiménez was “far and away the leading Hispanic sculptor in the country [the U. S.].” A later feature in the same magazine described him as “one of the busiest and most popular sculptors in America.” Stuart Ashman, the secretary of the New Mexico Department of Cultural Affairs, said that Jiménez was “the most important Chicano artist in the United States.”
Jiménez summarized his approach to his art for a biographical entry in Marquis Who Was Who in America: “I am a traditional artist in the sense that I give form to my culture’s icons. I work with folk sources; the popular culture and mythology, and a popular material; fiberglass, shiny finishes, metal flake, and at times with neon and illuminated. In the past the important icons were religious, now they are secular.”
Rudolfo Anaya, writer and professor emeritus of history at the University of New Mexico, said: “The kind of medium he [Jiménez] used shocked the art world at first. It was called outlandish and garish, but it spoke not only to Hispanics but to the world. In the coming years there will be a school of Luis Jimenez art.”
Jiménez was the recipient of the following awards: Steuben Glass Award (1972); Hassam Fund Award, American Academy of Arts and Letters (1977); American Academy in Rome Award (1979); Awards in Visual Arts (1985); Greenburger Foundation Award (1987); named a Fellow, National Endowment for the Arts (1987 and 1988); Showhegan Sculpture Award (1989); La Napoule Art Foundation Award (1990); National Endowment for the Arts residency fellow (1990); Governor’s Award, State of New Mexico (1993); named Goodwill Ambassador, City of Houston (1993 and 1998); Award of Distinction from the National Council of Art Administrators (1995); Texas Artist of the Year, Houston Art League (1998); Distinguished Alumnus, University of Texas; and grantee, Fund for American Culture (1991). His Southwest Pieta sculpture was designated a U. S. National Treasure in 1999.
Luis Jiménez’s sculpture Man on Fire became part of the collection of the Smithsonian Institution in 1979. Also, a casting of his sculpture Vaquero stands outside an entrance to the Smithsonian. His sculpture Sodbuster is located outdoors in Fargo, North Dakota. A large number of sculptures in various places around the nation bear witness to his talent. Jiménez’s hand-colored lithograph Self-Portrait # 6 is a work that testifies to Luis’s skill in art forms other than sculpture.
On the day that Jiménez died, El Paso art gallery owner Adair Margo said: “I think Luis shared this border region with the world. Those images will continue to live on. You look at the images he left us, you realize he was a voice that mattered, that gave form to this region and communicated it with people. He was a man of just incredible talent, but he also had great generosity of spirit.”