What motivates a person to pick up a pencil or a paintbrush and become an artist? The answers vary widely, but for the late Carlos Almaraz, it was a desire to represent what it meant to live in Los Angeles as a Chicano. Admirably, he did so with the hope of reaching a wide array of people, in particular those who might not otherwise come to art.
All that—and much more—is the subject of a new documentary, titled Carlos Almaraz: Playing with Fire, about the artist’s life and work. The film, directed by his widow artist Elsa Flores Almaraz and actor Richard J. Montoya, is an eye-opening look at the artist, whose art were filled with energy and thickly applied paint and pastels that were complex representations of his life grounded by numerous recurring motifs like car crashes, masked people, theater spaces, and more. It’s a rare example of an artist documentary done right, one that is both a great primer about Almaraz for those unfamiliar with his work and one that is insightful for those who know his oeuvre well.
In the film, Almaraz’s richly hued works are brought to life by narration from artist Edward James Olmos and by entries from the artist’s diaries read aloud by Rage Against the Machine singer Zack de la Rocha (and son of Los Four artist Beto de la Rocha). The directors have also assembled a long list of artists, curators, and more that offer wide-ranging perspectives on Almaraz as both artist and person. Even if the filmmakers rely at times on overly saccharine animations based on Almaraz’s work and reenactments of his life, the film offers a perceptive view of a body of work that has gone largely unseen outside California since his death in 1989.
Playing with Fire, which takes its name from the artist’s 2017 survey at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, begins with a beautifully poignant archival interview with Almaraz in which he talks about a mural of his. “The question that I’ve been asked about this is, why should anyone paint a 12-foot-long burrito stand?” Almaraz says. “One hundred years from now there may not be anything like this around. … And maybe they won’t believe it existed. Maybe the only evidence that it did exist and it was reality will be this 12-foot-long painting of a burrito stand.”
That statement speaks to the artist’s motivations. He was born in Mexico City and his family moved to the United States, first to Chicago and then to Los Angeles by age 9. He was fascinated by Walt Disney as a child, and spent five years in New York in the 1960s at the height of Pop art and Minimalism, took classes at the Art Students League, and rented studio space from artists Richard Serra and Nancy Graves, who were then a couple. (The film also includes some zesty art-world gossip. Artist Frank Romero hints that Almaraz may have had a two-day affair with Robert Rauschenberg.)
Almaraz found Minimalism to be an unsatisfying mode, however, and the sensibility eventually led him to drink heavily. He wound up having two mental breakdowns and was checked into a hospital for 42 days. Ultimately, because of the turmoil, he returned to Los Angeles, where he became involved with the Chicano Movement, collaborating with César Chavez and Dolores Huerta to help create iconography for the United Farm Workers labor union.
“If painting cannot bring about social change, then I will change from a painter to something else,” Almaraz says in one archival recording. It’s words such as these that help us understand the connection between Almaraz’s politics and his painting practice. He was at various points a Maoist, a Marxist, and a Trotskyite, and in 1974, he penned a manifesto called An Aesthetic Alternative in which he denounced notions of quality in art, saying that they only benefit collectors and museums, not artists. He calls on artists to replace quality with quantity as a way to devalue the art object and “make masterpieces obsolete.”
Almaraz was on a trajectory bound for success during the mid-1970s. In 1973, he cofounded Los Four, the influential muralist collective whose members became the first Chicano artists to show at a major institution, LACMA, one year later. (Technically, the collective ASCO preceded Los Four with the 1972 performance work Spray Paint LACMA, but the museum didn’t invite them to stage the work. Their protest ultimately led to the museum mounting the Los Four show in 1974.) Los Four became a group for Almaraz to “experiment with collectivism,” but tensions began to run high—Romero and Almaraz got into a fistfight amid all the strain. Eventually, the group disbanded after its members began pursuing their individual practices.
When Almaraz returned to the studio, he began creating his iconic scenes of car crashes and his studies of Echo Park. The car crashes, in particular, drew mass attention. “You can’t drive by it without looking. I guess that’s something everybody could understand,” collector Cheech Marin says in the documentary. For Almaraz, to paint the car crashes was an “artistic statement” that was as much about the painterly as about the ways in which “technology can get out of control and maybe even destroy us.”
With these works, Almaraz nailed the romantic and grotesque atmosphere of Los Angeles, and he rose to fame, with a sold-out show in 1982. David Hockney and Richard Diebenkorn, and even Jack Nicholson, were all fans. He and Elsa soon started a family and everything seemed as it was going nowhere but up. And then came his HIV-positive diagnosis.
The documentary thankfully also does not shy away from Almaraz’s struggles with his identity, both as a Chicano and as a bisexual man—the latter being a fact of his biography that was not openly discussed until more recently. His childhood friend, the TV producer and director Dan Guerrero, says, “Carlos had his demons when it came to his sexuality.” Later in the film, Elsa says that Carlos attributed his diagnosis of AIDS as being retribution for being a sinner. Of course, as she assures us, he was anything but that.
Almaraz’s passing of AIDS-related complications in 1989 is still painful to talk about, for many of those who knew him. That was partly because he kept the diagnosis private, to protect his young daughter, Maya, from being ostracized in school when there was still significant stigma around HIV/AIDS in the 1980s and ’90s.
His art lives on and transcends time, as this documentary proves. The movie ends with Olmos reading a quote from Almaraz: “I paint with a new abandonment, almost trying to deny the fact that I too will pass on, and the only thing remaining will be the images I leave behind.”
Carlos Almaraz: Playing with Fire is available for streaming in the U.S. on Netflix.