New York

Film strip from Raphael Montañez Ortiz’s Cowboy and Indian, 1958, 16 mm transferred to digital video, black-and-white, sound, 2 minutes 19 seconds.

Film strip from Raphael Montañez Ortiz’s Cowboy and Indian, 1958, 16 mm transferred to digital video, black-and-white, sound, 2 minutes 19 seconds.

Raphael Montañez Ortiz

Raphael Montañez Ortiz was a key member of the Art Workers’ Coalition who, along with artists Faith Ringgold and Tom Lloyd, pushed the collective to make museums accountable for their racism, classism, and elitism. In 1969, the same year the AWC was established, Ortiz became the founding director of New York’s El Museo del Barrio. At the time, the artist was known for his Fluxus-inspired piano-destruction concerts. A consummate New Yorker, the Brooklyn-born Ortiz studied at the borough’s Pratt Institute, taught at the High School of Music and Art on Manhattan’s West Side, and received a doctorate in education at Columbia University. El Museo grew out of demands by Puerto Rican parents and activists in Central and East Harlem that there be a place for the community to be educated about their ancestral cultures. Indeed, heritage has always been top of mind for the artist, as his stunning retrospective, which also functioned as an homage to the institution’s roots, made clear. Created over the course of sixty-five years, Ortiz’s paintings, sculptures, drawings, photographs, videos, prints, performance props, assorted ephemera, and more were on glorious display.

To depart from Eurocentric aesthetic concepts, Ortiz turned to mysticism (weirdly, a taboo subject in art, even today)—namely, ancient ideas of sacrifice, which he examined in his dissertation by looking at several Indigenous cultures. He was raised in a household that made him curious about art and spirituality, and by the time he attended Pratt in the early 1960s, he was experimenting with the ritualistic burning of found objects. Ortiz would pick up pieces of discarded furniture, wrap them in chicken wire, and set them on fire. This led him to create the profoundly inelegant “Archeological Finds” series, 1961–65, which occupied an entire gallery in this show. Ortiz did not turn to these ceremonial acts in order to romanticize the “native.” Instead, he wanted to think about modernism’s origins and its cultural sources. He also explored these ideas in his experimental films, such as 1958’s Cowboy and Indian, which he made by hacking some footage into pieces while chanting, placing the fragments into a medicine bag, and then arbitrarily removing the scraps and splicing them in a completely random fashion.

His resistance to institutional modernism via postcolonialism continued in a section devoted to “ethnoaesthetics,” a concept created by the artist to “[deal] with forms of resistance to cultural ethnocentrism,” according to the museum’s press materials. This part of the exhibition brilliantly compared the feathered pyramids of Ortiz’s “Maya Zemi” series, 1975, to stone ceremonial objects carved by the Taíno people between 1200 and 1500 CE, and to documentation of Ana Mendieta’s 1972 performance Bird Transformation. A highlight of his “contextual” retrospective was the many works by other artists—such as Belkis Ayón, Marta Minujín, Jesús “Bubu” Negrón, and Yoyo Rodríguez—as well as political posters by Ringgold and the Chicago-based activist group the Young Lords. The curators’ comparative approach aptly emphasized how Ortiz’s art has long been in dialogue with past and fellow practitioners who embraced spirituality, social justice, identity, and an interdisciplinary mode of artmaking.

Ortiz also crafted a body of participatory works—made via meditation, shamanic rituals, and breathing practices—under the rubric of “physio-psycho-alchemy.” In this part of the show, photographs and documents from various performances made an argument for the ways in which all his art ultimately produces a sacrificial releasing of “spirit back into its ephemeral state,” as he said in a 2022 video that was playing at the end of the exhibition. From splicing films, furniture, and pianos to creating paintings and videos (the latter of which were intended to induce a trancelike state in the viewer), Ortiz has persistently operated in a contextual and contingent key—as a healer, educator, and activist—typically within a communal setting. The appearance of his art at the museum in which he was instrumental in founding only underscored his generous, numinous vision.