PRINT February 1984


The heart is the toughest part of the body.
Tenderness is in the hands.

—Carolyn Forché1

WITH THE FIRST WORLD CAME matter, then light, then limits. Human enlightenment could be described as the evolving ability to understand the nature and intricacies of limits.

The population of San Ygnacio, Texas, thirty miles south of Laredo, on the north bank of the Rio Grande, is small, less than a thousand, and at any rate small enough that its numbers have not been registered separately in the Chamber of Commerce files at Laredo, a city of 100,000, but are lumped together with those of Zapata, Texas, a town with a municipality fifteen miles farther south along the river. The population of the general environs of Zapata is listed as 9,600. About twenty-five miles further south is the small Texas town of Roma. Along the southern bank of this roughly seventy-five-mile flow is Mexico, more specifically Nuevo Laredo, a soukhlike city with a population of over 225,000, and across the bridge from Roma, Ciudad Miguel Aleman, a fairly prosperous-looking town of about 11,000, with a jaunty, slightly gangsterish air about it. Compared to many other Mexican cities and towns neither of these can be considered all that big, but as the demographics might suggest there is a steady, nearly palpable pressure northward in this area, and along the entire Tex-Mex border formed by most of the 1,800 miles of the Rio Grande.

Unlike its neighbors across the río, San Ygnacio is quiet and neat, with low-key, mostly white stucco houses occupying the ten or twelve blocks that form its core. There are no shops, no restaurants, no food stands. For groceries and supplies one must leave the village proper through its sparser outskirts, up the road a mile or so. Like that of its neighbors, San Ygnacio’s climate is semiarid, which means that the sun is very strong virtually all year, that it gets very hot—the temperature often creeps into the hundreds as early as April—but that it is fertile, with enough sporadic rain to permit the growth of a variety of edible produce, and of flowers, lemon trees, and jacaranda. The river at this juncture is furthermore good and sludgy. Also like its neighbors San Ygnacio is almost entirely latino; Michael Tracy is one of three anglos in town. In Tracy’s six years there no one has expressed interest in his work nor, since early on, has he made any direct attempt to explain, show, or offer it. The esthetic in San Ygnacio separates need from desire; objects that are used there are often handmade, objects of desire are not.

Tracy’s work is a confrontation of desires, willed borders between that which travels and remains in place, between the personal and general, aphasia and record, chaos and ideal. Boundaries are the organizing principle of the rationalized cosmos, of perceivable reality. They are the architecture of myth, myth is itself the inner ring of history, and history is visualized as a map with shifting boundaries. Tracy’s border fever is as basic, and more complex, than the river he traffics. Contrasting the flintiness of a latino Texas border town against the pandemonium of a Mexican one clarifies the border but confounds choice: to consciously elect what is nominally one’s own even if one is estranged from it, or to elect the other even if that means losing oneself completely. Not choosing feeds the fever.

It is foolish, if not irresponsible, to romanticize Mexico, and quite impossible not to. Mexico is congestion. When Tracy talks about Mexico, he often talks about its effects on his retina pressure banks. For Tracy, Mexico is not just the country on the other side of the border. Mexico is Bruges, Flanders, when Hugo van der Goes lived in it. It is Hugo van der Goes’ relic in the old monastery at Brabant, Flanders, where he died; it is his Portinari altarpiece in Florence. Mexico is Caravaggio’s later paintings and his last, desultory voyage from Malta, via Naples, to Porto Ercole. (North-to-south travel is psychological and empirical; the south-to-north surge, intuitive and idealized.) Mexico is Artaud, with particular reference to Mayan blood sacrifices and their current adulteration. These are Tracy’s Guadalupes. Texas is decongestion, an extravagance of function.

The presiding family of San Ygnacio is named Martinez, the first Martinezes settled there in the mid 19th century. It is fair to assume that the entire village is in some way involved with the family. Tracy’s landlord is a Martinez. The houses the Martinezes themselves live in are the biggest in town, but not especially elaborate from the outside. No trees, flower pots, fountains, or pools can be seen from the road. There is, in fact, very little street life or porch life in all of San Ygnacio—even less, it seemed, than in wealthy Northern suburbs. It is not just a matter of the sun—it is more than that, as though the pressure of the border had turned the houses, however modest, inward. The only dwellings with yards or insides visible from the street are Tracy’s and a small house occupied by Eric Avery, one of San Ygnacio’s other anglos, who is a doctor and printmaker.

The Martinez family recently commissioned a local artist to create a dynastic mural for the patio of their original residence, now virtually a museum whose contents include the beds, labeled, of the two founding grandparents, in either of which all the living adult descendants were born. Most remarkable about the mural, which winds around four high walls, is the photographic tale told by the way in which each consecutive generation is painted: strict sepia tones for the founders, then the murky reds of an aging Brownie shot, concluding with the unmistakable brassy blues of Instamatics.

The Martinezes are the principal benefactors of San Ygnacio’s church, a blunt, almost antiseptic space. There are built-in cases for its shrines, a small one high up near the entrance, and a larger one at eye-level in an alcove for La Virgen de San Juan de los Lagos. Inside the cases and pinned around them are many milagros, usually small metal charms, or images offered as part of highly specific medical or romantic requests—an arm for an arm, a heart for a heart. On a bulletin board alongside the shrine to the virgen were anatomically-shaped charms of tin, strands of hair Scotch-taped to safety pins or loose in Baggies, and many Polaroids of colicky babies, the elderly, people in neck braces. The virgen is represented by a thin, long-haired doll which looks like a doll fabricated by Mattel. She is swathed in blue silk and can be taken out of her case for holiday processionals. There is no commissioned art in the church, only a store-bought set of the Stations of the Cross ringing the room, just beneath the ceiling and difficult to see.

Tracy makes icons and iconitos all the time. Some are gilded or otherwise elaborated, some are fed into larger pieces, some are practically throwaways. His yard is his working studio, and last April it was crammed with pieces in varied stages of completion. There were five or six large, dense paintings lying face-up on the ground or leaning against the main house, most of them gouged or pierced with spikes. At the far end of the yard were the beginnings of a baldaquino (the canopy for an altar), whose wood was still raw and which had been carved by artisans in Mexico into asymmetrical, Mayan-influenced decorative motifs. Positioned in a kind of bleacher formation were maybe twenty, maybe thirty portable icons, including several diptychs and triptychs, carpentered in wood and then modeled—painted and sculpted—with a mixture of paint, pigment, acrylic gel, and Liquitex. These icons and iconitos have the basic architectural shape of early Siennese devotional paintings. Tracy reworks his pieces continually. The gel he uses quickly forms a thin skin but otherwise remains malleable for long periods, and his bouts with commercial reluctance can partly be attributed to his unwillingness to allow that any given piece might be finished. The unfinished pieces stay outdoors; it is important to Tracy that the weather work on them directly even when he is not. The temporary arrangement of icons in the yard formed a diorama of earthly time, with the older pieces brown, crusted, biomorphic, and newer ones freshly gilded, roseate, ecstatic figural paraphrases out of Tiepolo. “Frankly these smaller pieces are habits—or maybe hopes—of things I would like to have done. But probably have failed at. I am not sure. . . . I cannot solve certain things—like figures—in my work . . . I must conclude this work and yet I feel perhaps I have concluded the figure in it . . . but by some other intention; that makes me feel somewhat irresponsible, not as though it is by my hand, but by drying, shrinking, and the sun . . . The weather does my figures.”2 On the ground the abstracted perspective of these paintings is a middle-ground horizon; like a reversal of Newman’s vertical zip, a horizon that is a figure—a body prone, lying in a field.

Tracy calls the verticals in his pieces their spines, and the figure in his work is always, actively or not, a performing body. Many of Tracy’s pieces of the last few years are conceived as processional objects—extensions of a performing body. Before, for instance in several series of giant gold paintings from the late ’60s and ’70s, they were conceived as catalysts and conduits of that body’s energy. His most recent “Stations of the Cross,” still in progress and about half-completed, are 14-foot-tall architecturally shaped canvases encrusted with earth-black paint. They were in part an homage to the 14 canvases of Houston’s Rothko Chapel, but they suggest a theater of physical drama, not contemplation. Whether cross or canvas, there exists in Tracy’s work a ringing-in-the-air quality. The living of an alternate reality within daily reality means transference, bifurcation, otherness, doubleness, or a larger ecumenical oneness. These are of course the metaphors, perhaps the possibilities of sexuality. The work, the whole of it, is a cicatrix—a topology of points, lines, stations, violences, summations. He removes the figure to establish the absence of a body, and he makes every form a figure, in its structure, by extension or through metonymy. For lost heads there are halos, for the fragments of Osiris the gables of myth. All of his objects have been or are part of a performance, be it just the ritual of a meal or the ritual under the sun. When one is sold, its performance risks ending.

The clearest, most literal of Tracy’s offerings was a year-long cycle of work realized during 1974 and 1975 in Galveston, an old port city on the Texas Gulf Coast. It began with the Sacrifice I, 9.13.74 (The Sugar), which took place in an enormous warehouse on the docks belonging to the Imperial Sugar Company. A cavern like a gallows, a pyramid of sugar, “Egypt, ships, the whole architectonics of it as a place worked better than most systems I saw and knew of. . . . [What] I did [was] . . . [t]ake art, or at least my favorite painting, and sacrifice it to the general idea of the sugar. Food being more important than art (it could have been rice or wheat). It was a biblical storehouse in scope. . . . ” Tracy’s idea of “systems” is essentially circular—circulatory—a channel of accumulation and purification in which nothing is ever lost. “Do not save anything including your life, it is constantly redeemable. . . . Give everything away. Great love even if it included or has betrayal in it is rewarded by greater love, even if you don’t receive it. . . . [Yukio] Mishima, the Orient, east, wabi . . . concept of luxury through poverty. . . . A great sacrifice is only as great as the thing sacrificed. In Mishima’s case a 90-lbs weakling built into perfect shape and then destroyed. [Mishima’s] The Sea of Fertility is laser-beam fiction to [Lawrence] Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet being cubist. . . . [The ‘Sugar Sacrifice’] was eliminating a whole rack of my history for the purpose of setting it back in order.”

Among those involved in the “Sugar Sacrifice” were the owners of the Imperial Sugar Company; their employees (the “keepers of the sugar”); a doctor who sealed Tracy into a full body cast (insisting on a chest flap because of the intense heat——“ . . . a flap seems to be all through my work. A cut out part of the center”), and then cut him out of it; a filmmaker and photographers to document. “It was a collaboration. Everyone there really helped. I was never more terrified. It took hours. There was sound, music, and a meal afterwards, in place. . . . [It was] perhaps a way of reminding myself of the purpose to which art, if it was art, could be used—other than the ways in which I saw it used and abused. It was a dynamic and dramatic personal watershed experience for me, and I am willing to let it rest as such.” Cast-bronze spikes pierced the painting, part of a setting that included an altar and a sanctuary rug which was actually a second, 40-foot-long painting. Some of the spikes carried autobiographical references, others favorite names—Caravaggio, Pollock, Rothko. The first to be leveled bore the name of Rudolf Schwarzkogler, the Viennese “blood group” artist.

Because there could not really be fire in the warehouse the conclusive phase took place a year later when the altar and the paintings were burned. Tracy still has the ashes, as well as the cast he was cut out of. William Glad, who recorded these segments in a film called Michael X, 1974–75, cut the immolation sequence out of the final print because, according to Tracy, “as a filmmaker he would put an end to painters who put ends to their work, and so he stabbed me to death over and over at the end of the picture.” The photographic documentation “which I had to make personal in some way, and chose to cover . . . in blood, pins, needles,” is a separate coda to the sacrifice. Titled Caravaggio Notations, 1975, it is a portfolio of photographs (by Ben Mason) glued with acrylic to recycled, pungent Mexican paper on which Tracy performs a pornography of confrontation, transforming the photographs with sumi ink and blood. Tracy’s use of blood, however, is not a pornography of violence but of purification. Like the sacrifice itself, it is a piacular ritual, a celebration of loss and insurance of renewal, just as male menstruation is in myth.

A version of things has it that the underclasses, throughout the Christian era, have resisted the concept of purgatory because they did not themselves have antechambers. (The other version being that the oppressed are always waiting “outside,” in living purgatory.) Latin America, since the Mayan blood sacrifices, since Cortez, since Zapata, since Somoza, is a history without mediation. If some sort of mega-phrenology were to be applied to the face of the earth, the actual topography of Latin America would register as a spine attached to genitalia—a body severed from its head. The new “Theology of Liberation”3 that has galvanized the clergy of Latin America, wedging a border between cross and sword, does not dwell on antechambers, but emphasizes the original rhythmic myth and its potentially renewed performance, beginning with the “descent” (from the cross) of the campesino who proclaims that God and the man whose land he worked on are not the same.

Art is not rhythm unleashed but rhythm recorded. The quality of deep time that Tracy wants his work to hold is not a rustication or a patina of suffering, but the reflection of a record that he wants, at all times, to remember. The political situation of Latin America and its theological potential is part of that record, part of Tracy’s frame. As Carolyn Forché has remarked, “To locate a poem in an area associated with political trouble automatically renders it political.”4 Tracy is a Northerner at the border south, an empiricist—neither a mystic nor an idealist—like Hugo van der Goes, in whose name he once wrote a poem. The work’s distortions, the beauty of its insufficiency, its poetics, are a mirror of self-doubt—a confession.

For 1985 Tracy is planning an outdoor performance to be called “The River Pierce,” for which he has already recruited actors from the vicinity of San Ygnacio. The performance, which will be filmed, will be an aquatic processional, either fifty miles down the Rio Grande to Guerrero Viejo, Mexico, or twelve miles upriver to Mission Dolores a Vista, Texas. One plan is to have a raft with an altar, costumes, music, drink, andfood. Whatever its realized form this performance will be an affirmation and a defiance of borders. In his main house last spring was Cruz de la Paz Sagrada, 1980, a big, bracketed cross effulgent with tin and bronze heart-shaped milagros, hair, and swords, on a pyramidal base. There was a smaller icon with similar milagros, built onto carrying arms. There was also Cruz: To Bishop Oscar Romero, Martyr of El Salvador, 1981, a bull-like cross with spikes and horns, and something like forty iconitos strung from its transoms, bulging like hoopskirts. These artworks and others were arranged in the house with various objects placed around them to form tableaux of association—dried flowers, personal artifacts, and, at the base of the cross to Romero, photographs of Bishop Romero and Alexander Haig. What Tracy did late this summer when a friend with a pickup truck came to visit was load a few of these pieces, including Cruz de la Paz Sagrada Número 7, 1981–83, drive them out of San Ygnacio across the border to an abandoned church in Guerrero Viejo, Mexico, and there celebrate with a meal.

Lisa Liebmann writes regularly for Artforum.

In the mass graves, a woman’s hand
caged in the ribs of her child,
a single stone in Spain beneath olives,
in Germany the silent windy fields,
in the Soviet Union where the snow
is scarred with wine, in Salvador
where the blood will never soak
into the ground, everywhere and always
go after that which is lost.
There is a cyclone fence between
ourselves and the slaughter and behind it
we hover in a calm protected world like
netted fish, exactly like netted fish.
It is either the beginning or the end
of the world, and the choice is ourselves
or nothing.5



1. Carolyn Forché, from “Because One is Always Forgotten,” in The Country Between Us, New York: Harper & Row. 1981. p 23.

2. All unattributed quotes in the text are from Michael Tracy, and are excerpted from conversations and correspondence with the author.

3. See, for example, Gustavo Gutiérrez, A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics, and Salvation, trans. and ed. by Sister Caridad Inda and John Eagleson, Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1973.

4. Carolyn Forché “El Salvador An Aide-Memoire,” American Poetry Review, July/August 1981, p. 6.

5. Carolyn Forché, from “Ourselves or Nothing,” in The Country Between Us, p. 59.