As told to Nick Beason
I was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, where I studied art at high school and also spent a semester at the National Academy of Fine Arts.
At the age of fifteen I emigrated with my parents to New York City.
After graduating from high school there, I chose to devote my time and energy to art, and I went on to study at the Arts Students League. The teacher who played a prominent role for me at the League was Stephen Greene.
A very important part of the curriculum there was drawing. I continue to think that it is important for any artist, not just painters and sculptors, to be able to express ideas by drawing. My first lessons came about when I was 13, by virtue of the drawing class program that Peron set up in Argentina. I remember drawing studies of the death mask of Beethoven under varying arrangements of lighting.
In fact, after I had moved to northern New Mexico and turned from abstraction to realism, I was told that I drew like a sculptor – drawing being so important for developing an understanding of space, and hence three dimensional work. An interesting thing to do when drawing is to define the negative space first. Sculptors need to be aware of negative space all the time, painters too. The discipline of drawing is one key way of deriving such awareness.
I also spent a semester at the Paier Institute of Art, but their style didn’t sit well with me.
My experience at the Arts Students League and visits to the Museum of Modern Art engendered an enthusiasm for surrealism and abstraction which clearly defined the focus of my painting in New York.
My paintings were abstractions, initially akin to Kandinsky’s work when he first moved from realism to abstraction, and then became more hard edged
I also experimented with assemblage, photography, papier-mâché sculpture and large cement constructions.
My paintings, shown in various galleries in New York including Stryke Gallery and Galeria Bonino, were favorably reviewed in Art News Magazine and Village Voice.
While living and working in New York I had the good fortune to meet several of the more influential artists of that period, whose work had bearings upon my own development.
I attended the Woodstock Festival in 1969, and afterwards joined over 100 other people and flew from New York to Albuquerque in northern New Mexico. Shortly thereafter I arrived in the small Hispanic community of Llano (near Peñasco), and lived at the Hog Farm commune.
Initially, after arriving in northern New Mexico, I resumed painting abstracts as I had done in New York, but it just did not feel right. I began a slow, painful return to realism, and observed my work moving from hard edged abstraction to hard edged realism.
I became immersed in the norteño life. The Spanish heritage here gave (and continues to give) me a common bond and base for my subject matter. In those days life here was very different, very hard. It was life out of time – outhouses, no electricity, horses and carts, water drawn from wells (for those that could afford to drill them, or else it was water from the ditches).
Things started to change when the veterans came home from Korea, and again (more so) when they came home from Vietnam. President, Lyndon B. Johnson, championed education, civil rights, and social programs. As part of his Great Society Program, he signed the 1968 Consolidated Farmers Home Administration Act Amendments which provided long term, low interest loans to the rural communities such as Peñasco and Llano.
I was immersed in the life here and wanted to paint that, and the changes that came over time. It was a genre of painting that I found very hard. I’d had no training for it, but I did have a very strong set of drawing skills. I just had to work long and hard at it.
I never let go of abstraction though. For me it remains the highest form of expression (like my other passion – music). I’d deliberately place elements of abstraction in the backgrounds of my realist paintings.
I met Ted Egri (a Taos based artist) and together with his wife we worked very hard and started an annual arts & craft fair in Peñasco and Llano that continued for several years.
I began sculpting in stone in the late 80’s and continue to this day.
My art has been shown in a variety of solo and juried group exhibitions:
- ‘Magnet: New York’ shown at Galleria Bonino and the Museo de Bellas Artes in Mexico City
- ‘The Canadian Club Hispanic Art Tour’ which showed in New York’s Museo del Barrio, San Antonio’s Museum of Art, and Los Angeles’ Plaza de la Raza.
- Several Taos and Santa Fe galleries
In addition to being represented in the permanent Collection of Fine Arts in Santa Fe and various private collections, I continue to show in Taos, and I’m a participant in the annual High Road to Taos Art Tour that is held every September.
Inevitably and happily my style evolved over the years to form what I consider to be an eclectic body of work that mirrors a restless and focused search for self expression, as I try to reflect and paint life around me as I see it. I cling tenaciously to my very personal individualistic streak.
As a “throwback classicist” my color palette uses only six or seven oils.
You can say that the Taos art colony had no influence on my move to the Taos area.
I still live and work in Llano, and still possess a passion for ‘mixing it up’ in both life and art. I find it easy to experiment and my work continues to exhibit a freewheeling, yet painstaking approach to painting, sculpture, and assemblage.
With regard to art for art’s sake, yes, I still assert that art is a higher calling and I still believe that art is to be used to achieve social change. Art is far from being just decoration. To me, pursuit of commercial returns is a slippery slope descending to mere repetition of form and style.
- High School
- Academy of Fine Arts (semester)
- High School (where I won a gold medal for art, and also a scholarship to the Long Island Institute of Design).
- Arts Students League
New York City:
While pursuing my studies and work in New York, I was influenced (to varying degrees) by a variety of artists and teachers;
Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944)
A ground breaking, influential Russian painter and art theorist, credited with painting the first purely abstract work.
Hieronymous Bosch (~1450-1516)
A Dutch painter who used fantastic images to illustrate religious narratives,
Joseph Cornell (1903-1972)
An American artist influenced by the Surrealists and went on to become a unique and widely recognised exponent of assemblage – bringing together a set of “found” objects so as to create 3-dimensional piece (analogous to the act of collage that produces 2-dimensional work).
Salvador Dali (1904-1989)
A Spanish artist and sublime draughtsman, whose painting skills are felt to have been heavily influenced by master works of the Renaissance.
Max Ernst (1891-1976)
A prolific German painter, sculptor and graphic artist; a pioneer of the Dada and Surrealist movements
Marsden Hartley (1877-1943)
An American Modernist
Stephen Greene (1917-1999)
An American artist, teacher, & mentor with a love of Renaissance art. In the late ‘50s his work began to change from figurative to abstract after hearing a lecture on abstract painting given by Clement Greenberg.
Stuart Davis (1892-1964)
An early American modernist. In 1913, he was invited to participate in and attend the International Exhibition of Modern Art (aka the Armory Show), and was keenly influenced by the European Modernist works he saw there. His work has been regarded as a precursor to the Pop Art movement.
ALBERTO JOSE CASTAGNA
PO BOX 13, LLANO DE SAN JUAN, NM 87543