Before dying of AIDS-related complications eight years ago at the age of 40, Cuban-born artist Carlos Alfonzo poured his mythic-size suffering onto dozens of canvases including painter's dropcloths, sailcloth and vinyl. The suffering took visual shape as a passionate, personal statement he made with a sea of eyes, nail-pierced tongues, spirals, daggers, infinity signs, coffee cups, teardrops and toothy grins.
These images here in 50 paintings on display at the Hirshhorn Museum were an emotional shorthand and a violent inner monologue for Alfonzo, who fled Cuba on the Mariel boatlift in 1980 and lived in Miami as a social and political outcast.
Although he hid his homosexuality in Cuba, where he worked as a state-sanctioned artist, he became openly gay once he settled in this country and used art to exorcise his sense of isolation, alienation and despair.
The beauty of the Hirshhorn's "Triumph of the Spirit: Carlos Alfonzo, A Survey, 1975-1991," lies in how it examines Alfonzo's public and private personas, his biographical and universal visions, his sexual energy and self-destructive forces.
Alfonzo grew up in a beachside suburb of Havana, and went on to study and teach at the city's prestigious San Alejandro School of Fine Arts.
After joining 10,000 Cubans who crashed into the grounds of the Peruvian Embassy in Havana to seek political asylum in 1980, he was sent to a psychiatric hospital, held under house arrest and taunted by neighbors before being allowed to leave the island on the massive boatlift of thousands of refugees (called "escoria," or scum, by the Cuban government) from the port of Mariel.
In 1982, after working a series of odd jobs in Miami, he devoted himself to serious painting (a South Beach real estate developer and other benefactors helped out financially). He caught the eye of major museum curators and art critics and was touted by Artnews magazine as one of "ten artists to watch in the 1990's" before succumbing to the AIDS virus in 1991.
Many of his paintings relate to specific life events. "Still Life With AIDS Victim" (1990) is about a visit to a dying friend at the hospital. "Told" (1990) deals with his horror at finding out he had AIDS, and his last series of paintings, which deals with blood, represents a coming to terms with his illness and imminent death.
Alfonzo is a master at universalizing the particular, especially through his clever use of symbols and icons from Afro-Cuban folklore (pierced tongues and masklike eyes), the Catholic religion (crucifixes, chalices, tears and martyred saints), Tarot cards and the occult practice of Rosicrucianism. For Alfonzo, culture-specific images such as a dagger-pierced tongue from the Cuban Santeria tradition come to stand for themes of violence, martyrdom and human suffering.
Olga Viso, a curator at the Hirshhorn who was born in Florida of Cuban parents, was asked by the Miami Art Museum to organize the show. The result is an exhibition of wall-size canvases in the context of Jackson Pollock, Joan Miro and Willem de Kooning, as well as the Cuban modernists Wilfredo Lam and Antonia Eiriz. Contemporary painters whose neoexpressionist vision he shares: Italy's Francesco Clemente and Enzo Cucchi, the German Georg Baselitz and the American Julian Schnabel. Alfonzo was exposed to their work during trips to New York and Europe.
The Alfonzo exhibit is structured more or less chronologically. The smallish first room includes a few early, post-Mariel pieces, including a self-portrait that is a head covered by masklike eyes. Two breathtaking pieces -- "On Hold on the Blue Line" and "Feast of Wrath," from 1984 when he was living in Los Angeles -- mark a complete departure from his previous work because of their large size, whirling, flying shapes and vivid colors. ("When I finished that work . . . I realized I could paint," Alfonzo once said in an interview.)
The more mature "Sea Bitch Born Deep," "Paradiso," "Without Principles," "Three Drops" and "In Peace," all but the first from 1988, are symphonies of color and form and are among the strongest pieces in the show.
The ink on paper "South Miami Hospital Series" (1990), finished during his first hospitalization, is a sequence of fetuslike figures in various poses.
His final paintings of 1990-91 are dark and brooding, mystical and childlike. New symbols appear -- the supplicant, a witness and disembodied, floating figures. The show concludes with his final "black paintings," which were exhibited at the Whitney Museum in New York two months after he died.
Among this group, "Blood," possibly completed a month before he died in January 1991, gives the impression of a body in the process of disintegration and escaping through a mysterious shaft of light that punctures the upper left side of the canvas.
"I try through my visual language to suggest the presence of mystical forces that surround us and are part of us," Alfonzo said in an interview with the art historian Judith P. Herzberg in 1988. "And my own personal feelings . . . guide me as an artist." CAPTION: Carlos Alfonzo's "Blood," painted shortly before his death, gives the impression of a body in the process of disintegration.