The de Menil Gallery Archive

A Primer of Empire

January 12, 2010 - March 2, 2010
On display from January 12 through March 2, 2010, the de Menil winter show, “A Primer of Empire,” features work by New York artist Esteban Chavez. Large-scale prints and artist books explore ideas of living in a global empire in a dark and decadent age, where the underlying hope is that young people can change the world. Below is a brief autobiography of the artist:
I have always been interested in books and libraries and civilization and human history. The
contradiction of being a light-skinned Mexican, part European and part indigenous, shapes my
worldview. Most of humanity is mixed race. I am from pre-America and post-America. I do not
really want to fit in.
I grew up in the suburbs of North Denver. The Anglos said we didn’t belong in Colorado, but we
were there 400 years before them. We were descendants of the first Spanish conquistadors, dirt poor
but smart enough to know that the land we stole from the first people was now taken from us.
There was a contradiction in my life; I hated Gringos, and I did not speak Spanish. Growing up
we were referred to as “dirty Mexican.” My father was a construction worker. He hated it. Worse
he hated supporting eight children. He was passionate about great art. He drew a lot of animals in
the style of the French Romantics. My mother said if I liked to read, I should do that. So she bought
me a set of encyclopedias, and I read them at the age of six.
I went to a Catholic boarding school in Southern Colorado on scholarship. Prep school really set
up my worldview. It was 1969-72. America was in turmoil. I had the run of the art building, and
I ended up at Stanford as a Chicano artist-in-residence at the ripe age of 21.
I spend a lot of time making artist books, convinced that there is a cultural resistance to all
the superficial nonsense that is considered culture and civilization. That is why I spend my time
in a creative space. Great art changes the quality of human existence, and it is always open for
discussion. I would say I am an intellectual who makes art. I share the view that a better world is
possible (if we just can get through today).
Esteban Chavez has lived in New York City since graduating from the Yale University School of Art in 1985. He is deeply affected by injustices, corruption and greed. For more than thirty years, he has poured his life energy into art making. He is a master printmaker, artist bookbinder, bronze and wood sculptor, and realist oil painter. He believes in the transformative power of art. In 1993, Mr. Chavez won the grand prize at the International Printmaking Biennale in Wakayama, Japan. He also has works in the Smithsonian Collection, the Library of Congress, El Museo del Barrio in New York City, and the Schomburg Center in the New York Public Library.