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Francisco Toledo in 2006.

Francisco Toledo (1940–2019)

Francisco Toledo, the eminent Mexican artist whose protean, richly mythological work plumbed both the Mesoamerican indigenous imagination and the legacy of art brut, died yesterday at the age of seventy-nine. Toledo first emerged in the international art world in the 1960s, but his celebrity flourished especially in Oaxaca, where he was “El Maestro,” considered a legend for his robust cultural patronage, his prolific output, and an aversion to fame that only increased it. His vibrant and often playful paintings, prints, drawings, sculptures, tapestries, pottery, and photographs drew on his indigenous Zapotec heritage as well as American Expressionism. Reviewing his watercolors in Artforum’s March 1987 issue, Ronny Cohen wrote: “Only a sensibility attuned to the magical aspects of art . . . can produce fantasy of such unforced and irrepressible character.”

Born in 1940 in a village outside Juchitán, Toledo took an early interest in the turtles, grasshoppers, bats, crocodiles, and scorpions he saw while roving rivers and mountains throughout his childhood. Animals and insects would become staples of his practice, which mixed abstraction and representation in its exploration of the nagual, a Mesoamerican shamanic belief premised on spiritual synergies between animals and humans. Encouraged by his father, Toledo also took an early interest in art, and he was sent to study in in Oaxaca at the age of twelve before moving to the capital at seventeen to study printmaking at the Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes.

In 1960, using money from his first two exhibitions—in Mexico City and Fort Worth, Texas—Toledo moved to Paris, where he formed mentorships with two titans: the painter Rufino Tamayo and the poet Octavio Paz. “It was wonderful,” Toledo once told The Guardian. “Tamayo invited me to his house and he started to sell my paintings. When the collectors would come to visit him, he’d say, ‘Here is a young painter whose paintings are much cheaper than you can buy mine for.’” After traveling throughout Europe, he returned to Juchitán and started a family; his third wife was the Danish weaver Trine Ellitsgaard. During his three marriages, he fathered five children. But Toledo soon embarked on an itinerant life split between Europe and Mexico, a dualism that energized his art, which belongs to what critic Teresa del Conde dubbed the Generación de la Ruptura, or Breakaway Generation—a school of postwar artists who offered an alternative to the nationalistic Mexican muralism begun in the 1920s.

Revered in Oaxaca for his art philanthropy, Toledo founded the Instituto de Artes Gráficas de Oaxaca (Institute for Graphic Arts) in 1988 and the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Oaxaca (MACO) in 1992, as well as several libraries. He was also celebrated for his community activism, which ranged from protecting green spaces to fending off the presence of McDonald’s in the Oaxaca Zócalo. Following the mass 2014 disappearance of forty-three students in Iguala, Toledo staged a traditionally inspired exhibition of memorial kites. His many exhibitions include retrospectives at the National Museum of Mexican Art in 1988 and at Whitechapel Gallery in 2000, and his work was included in the Forty-Seventh Venice Biennale in 1997.

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