- The Washington Times - Friday, June 16, 2006

The familiar cowboy astride the blue bucking bronco has returned to the G Street entrance of the old U.S.Patent Office Building. “Vaquero” was hoisted back into place on Thursday in anticipation of the July 1 reopening of the Smithsonian’s American Art Museum and National Portrait Gallery within the neoclassical structure, which has been under renovation since January 2000.

The public sculpture is one of a dozen works in the museum’s collection by artist Luis Jimenez, who died on Tuesday as the result of injuries suffered during an accident in his Hondo, N.M., studio. Mr. Jimenez, 65, was working on a huge sculpture of a mustang for the Denver International Airport when the suspended piece came loose and fell on him.

“How tragic that our ‘Vaquero’ was installed right after his death,” says Elizabeth Broun, director of the American Art Museum, by phone. “The legacy of Luis Jimenez is powerful. He was too often relegated to the role of Latino and regionalist artist when he is a great American sculptor.”

As an artist, Mr. Jimenez came to be identified with celebrating his Mexican heritage and Hispanic immigrant culture. His massive cast-fiberglass sculptures portray migrant farmers, toiling laborers, fiesta dancers, rodeo queens and scenes of working-class life. Though vibrant and emotionally resonant, his representations of Chicanos can seem stereotypical and as preachy about the common man as a WPA mural.

In “Vaquero,” Mr. Jimenez portrays the rider as a Mexican, reminding the viewer of the first cowboys to roam the West. When a version of the cowboy on horseback was installed in Houston’s Moody Park, some residents complained that the gun-waving rider presented a negative image of Hispanics as violent.

“His work is sometimes controversial,” Ms. Broun says. “When I asked him about showing a cowboy brandishing a pistol, he told me, ‘All the equestrian figures in Washington have a weapon.’ He was aware he was making a sculpture within a long tradition of heroes on horseback.”

In contrast to his brilliantly colored, glossy sculptures, which can border on kitsch, the artist’s drawings and prints are more subdued and introspective. Evident in his sketches of people and animals, as in his three-dimensional work, is a knack for conveying human expression and feeling through skillful realism.

Mr. Jimenez’s sinuously twisting figures recall both the expressiveness of European baroque art and the writhing farmers painted by Midwestern artist Thomas Hart Benton. “He was extremely smart about art history even though he didn’t wear it on his sleeve,” Ms. Broun says.

Among the admirers of Mr. Jimenez’s work are President Bush and first lady Laura Bush, who bought one of his pieces for the Texas governor’s mansion.

In 2001, the Bushes invited the artist to attend their first White House state dinner. (Mr. Jimenez showed up wearing a string tie and bright red cowboy boots.)

Though closely identified with the immigrant experience, Mr. Jimenez was born in 1940 in El Paso, Texas. His grandmother and father, a neon sign maker, had illegally entered the country from Mexico in 1924. One of the artist’s most famous sculptures, “Border Crossing,” showing a man carrying a woman and an infant on his shoulders, is dedicated to his father’s journey.

Mr. Jimenez studied architecture and art at the University of Texas at Austin, receiving a fine arts degree in 1964. Following studies in Mexico City and a stint working in New York, he returned to El Paso in the early 1970s. The artist soon began working in fiberglass, drawing inspiration from the bright colors of his father’s neon signs and Southwestern street life.

“I decided that if my images were going to be taken from popular culture, I wanted a material that didn’t carry the cultural baggage of marble or bronze,” Mr. Jimenez told Texas Monthly magazine in 1998.

The Smithsonian American Art Museum purchased its first piece by Mr. Jimenez in 1978. Called “Howl,” the colored lithograph portrays a wolf baying at the moon, a symbol of anti-Vietnam War protest, according to Ms. Broun.

In addition to the reinstalled “Vaquero,” acquired in 1990, the museum owns the Jimenez sculpture “Man on Fire.” When the building reopens July 1, the warriorlike totem will be displayed in the gallery where Abraham Lincoln held his 1865 inaugural ball.

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