Paco Sanchez opened his first studio on SW 17th Avenue in southwest Miami nearly forty-five years ago. SW 17th was a grimy tattered neighborhood then just like it is now. Paco was twenty-five at the time, still sleeping in his parents living room in their tiny apartment in Little Havana. He was starting to create a new style of art no one seemed to care about. Paco called it Arte Libre. It was big. Really big. The first time I visited his studio, he had a half dozen pieces propped up against the wall. The smallest was 10′ long and 12′ high. The scene was Jesus praying in the Mount of Olives after the Last Supper – in dazzlingly, almost day glow colors. Titled ‘Noche Oracion’ it was a Jesus drawn in broad jagged brush strokes using amazing blue and red acrylics. His glittering star shaped eyes gazed up into a fumous fiery heaven. It was an arresting, wonderful painting. I was looking for some pieces to put in my gallery. What could I do with this? With any of them? I’d have to rent a moving van.
So Noche Oracion stayed on SW 17th street for nearly eight years. In 1982, the Dade Art Museum in Vizcaya bought it for $15,000, a pretty nice sum in those days. You can see it on the third floor of the Perez today. I think it’s valued at around a million. If you can find a big enough wall.
By the late 1980s, Paco’s Arte Libre was hot. He had moved his studio to West Avenue in Miami Beach. There was a warren of about 20 studios there; Miami’s art scene was shifting to the Beach just as the Beach was about to wake up and rebuild itself. Lincoln Mall was built five years after Paco moved into West Avenue. The South Beach Commerce Chamber commissioned a mural on the corner of Lincoln and Jefferson. The result was Bounty – it was building size – three stories tall and a half a block long. It was pop stylize Arte Libre of a woman holding a conch shell of overflowing flowers.
South Beach hit the big time by 1995. Lincoln Mall had the hippest boutiques, tiny, enormously expensive restaurants and Michael Tilson Thomas’s New World Symphony. West Avenue was Miami’s art center. Paco kept his ‘studio’ there but it became basically a sales shop. He moved himself and all his stuff into a warehouse up in North Miami four blocks from my gallery. That was when we renewed our friendship.
Paco was one of those fortunate artists who studied with John Baldessari at Caltech in the early 70s. Davide Salle was a classmate and remains a lifelong friend. Arte Libre has its expressionistic roots in Baldessari’s mature paintings and early experiments combining pattern highlights with photographs. Early Arte Libre works such as Noche Oracion use flurries of brush strokes that juxtapose loud grainy colors against each other. As he matured his style, the brush strokes became shorter, sometimes micro flecks of the brush that allowed him to achieve remarkable realist effects. He used this technic to emphasize the eyes of Jesus in Noche Oracion and the beautifully sculptured finger tips of Mary in Bounty.
Not everything was Jesus and Mary but Paco was deeply religious. He is also a radical socialist. Diego Riviera was a hero. So were Salvador Allende and Cesar Chavez. Paco did his share paintings inspired from some biblical theme or other. I used to dog him about amount of Jesus crap he had stacked in the back of the warehouse – there are only so many churches around that handle a 30′ x 40′ Jesus picture. You tap out that market, I told him. Go for smaller. Or maybe some nice landscapes.
Paco’s secular works were typically simple studies of men and women working in a factory, embracing on the beach, playing with children at a barbeque. Everyday people (always of color) doing every day thing. Again, in a big way.
In rare instances, Paco would turn to political themes when something got up his craw long enough. He had a triptych of LBJ, Nixon and a blood covered Vietnamese kid in his studio when I first met him. Paco hated Nixon. Long after the trickster left this planet, his sagging jowls and devil’s eyes turned up in silhouettes in dozens of works. Bill Clinton invited him to the White House in 1999. Paco politely declined. He had nothing good or bad to say about Clinton or Bush or even Obama.
Paco never had a problem selling a painting after 1985. His problem was letting them go. Paco Sanchez painted for Paco Sanchez. His works were his children and you don’t sell your children. But still, you don’t stack your children up in a warehouse either.
Starting in the 80s, I always had two or three of Paco’s work in my gallery. They took up enormous amounts of space and always had a NFS tag on them. They were fabulous paintings. Though I never sold any, they increased the foot traffic they brought into the gallery was huge. I promised to give Paco a slice of our profits someday. It was a joke of course, the gallery barely earned (even now) the overhead to keep it open.
One morning last April, Paco and I were eating eggs and frijoles at La Bandera on NE 125th street a few blocks from his warehouse. Paco had turned 70 the week before. He told me the time had come for him to close the place. He had some projects he’d been putting off for years and years and he wanted to get to them while he had time. Baldessari asked him to team up to do a masters class in the fall at UCLA. He was going to put together a show for Le Salon Criquet in New York in spring of 2018. He planned to accompany it when it moved to London at the end of year and on to Berlin in 2019. He had a grandson in Brazil he wanted to spend time with and portrait on. Busy man.
Next week, he and a couple of helpers are coming over to the New Hudson Exit to pack up the three paintings he has here and take them down the street to his warehouse. I am going to have a ton of new space to fill up in the next few mounts.
After he finishes selecting whatever is going to go on tour next year, the rest are moving to a climate controlled storage facility somewhere in southern California. And there they will sit in dark humidity controlled lockers; some are the rarest works of genius. But sit they will, unseen and all NFS.