Both were abstract painters of an earlier generation, committed object-makers concerned with texture, color, form, and expression. Art was a commitment, a passionate compulsion that directed their lives and relationships with the world. Luck of the cosmic draw placed them at a point in time and gave them the longevity to experience the broad social, political, and technological shift from early 20th to 21st centuries. That in itself speaks volumes, especially if you compare their experiences: Reggie as an East Coast, Princeton-educated rebel against a Wall Street career, who eventually made his way to Cuba and Mexico; Alberto a middle-class Mexican who ironically found himself swimming the Rio Grande and having the immigrant/deportee experience on the Texas border on a roundabout trek to art school, and later (unwarranted) run-ins with both the FBI and Mexican officials, with diplomatic status in between.
Each had stories and adventures worthy of a novel, with plenty of character to spare. But more important is the work they left behind, their unfailing commitment to being in the studio, and what they passed on to students and friends. They were flawed, like the rest of us. Their works are not beyond reproach. But for many, they epitomized what it means to be an artist, and it’s hard not to see their passing as an era coming to a close.
What follows is not a chronology, nor a list of accomplishments; those can be found elsewhere. Nor is it an analysis of their artwork. It is instead a humble attempt to convey some of the character and relevance of two friends and mentors who will be dearly missed on the art scene.
Reggie Rowe was possibly the most disciplined studio artist in town. He worked religiously, every day. He loved the intensity of being in the studio and confronting, both intellectually and physically, the creative act. A master colorist, he created intensely saturated, highly textured, and deeply resonant color relationships. He was a formalist par excellence, a painter’s painter (with sculptural tendencies) who saw the mythic, archetypal struggles of mankind in the texture, shape, and compositional qualities of a canvas. He tended to work in series, working through one set of issues until he had internalized them, resolved them at some core level of consciousness, then moving on to the next.
He loved jazz and classical music, and devoted a little time most days to writing — unpublished novels, journals, and an ongoing autobiography, about which he’d usually say, “None of it’s very good, but I enjoy it.” He was an avid reader, steeped in the classics of ancient and modern literature. He befriended Ernest Hemingway in Cuba, where they spent hours discussing literature and art. Of the young painter Hemingway wrote in 1952 for an exhibition brochure: “I like to watch the puzzled expression he has when he paints because as long as an artist is puzzled he has a chance.”
Reggie didn’t pull any punches. He had an incisive intellect and he was, above all, informed, discriminate, and critical of the world around him. Never a follower of art-world fashion, he still felt it was important to know what was happening on the national scene. He was friendly but didn’t suffer fools gladly. It had to do with that puzzled quality Hemingway mentioned. He really just didn’t understand why anyone would engage in art if they weren’t deadly serious about it.
Whether aspiring artists or Sunday painters, he expected hard work of his students. He was encouraging but brutally honest. Even after a compliment, one student asked, “Do you really mean what you said?”
“Listen,” he replied, “I care too much about art to bullshit you.”
Younger generations may think him a stalwart of the old guard, but Rowe was among a handful of artists that brought a modernizing influence to the San Antonio art scene in the ’60s and ’70s. Born in Brooklyn and raised on Long Island, Rowe was of the New York school in the ’40s and ’50s that pioneered pure abstraction. Living between Cuba, Mexico, and New York, Rowe followed the development of artists like de Kooning, Marca-Relli, and Guston firsthand.
In a 1999 exhibition catalogue at the Evanston Art Center, former director of the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago and the San Antonio Museum of Art Kevin Consey writes:
Despite his many years in the U.S., Mijangos retained a heavy Mexican accent, both grammatically and poetically. He spoke with a disarming blend of humble, playful naiveté and spiritual, artistic authority — the quintessential perpetual child and old soul. He was equal parts sensualist — fully engaged in the physical world — and spiritual entity, always searching for the “soul” or “energy” of the people and objects around him. This is, perhaps, the central theme of his work and creative drive. Layers of texture, color, light, and images emerge slowly in subtle relationships. Painting was the manifestation and the method of his quest, his means of examining and internalizing the beauty and tragedy of living in the world.
“Alberto had these sayings around the studio,” says Missi Smith, an artist, former student, and teacher at Salon Mijangos. “He always said that you have to embrace the ugly, show the ugly part of yourself. When someone had a problem with a painting, he’d say to find the ugliest color you can think of, put a little of it on the canvas and see what happens. It almost always lead to something beautiful.”
Photographer Bob Maxham, a close friend and collaborator, says that this dualism piqued Alberto’s interest in Eastern philosophy, inspiring a series of works on the Tao Te Ching exhibited at the Southwest School of Art and Craft in 2005. Although he thrived on joy and beauty, says Maxham, “Alberto saw a lot of drudgery and unpleasantness in being human, and I think he wanted to transcend that as much as possible.”
Hospital stays and cancer treatments punctuated Mijangos’s last year. Several friends noted his faith in the transcendent power of art. He filled sketchbook after sketchbook with drawings, and upon finding himself in an emaciated state called Maxham to take a series of photographs of him in the hospital. “He struck these amazing poses. I was able to show him some of the images and have a couple of discussions about how to present them,” a project Maxham plans to complete. “Here’s this man in a state of extreme physical weakness, using art to maintain his power as a human being.”