In many ways, art historian, scholar and political activist Shifra Goldman was the madrina — the godmother — of Chicano art. A memorial service in her honor held October 15 at the Professional Musicians Local 47 was marked by an outpouring of love and sympathetic eulogies from artists and intellectuals, many with origins in L.A.'s East Side. More than a handful were artists she had championed from the earliest days of the Chicano Civil Rights movement when her strident political views dovetailed with her emergence as a leading Latino art scholar.
Hours before the public inauguration of two major Pacific Standard Time linked exhibitions of Chicano art at UCLA's Fowler Museum, friends and long-time collaborators of the self-professed “activist art historian” gathered in the Hollywood union hall to celebrate the life of a pioneer in the field of contemporary Latin American art history and a tireless warrior who often stood on the front lines of peace and justice protests even as she help birth a field of academic study that had gone largely ignored by art institutions until she came along. Her death on September 11 at 85 from Alzheimers concluded an important chapter in the cultural life of Los Angeles, a period when art and artists on the margins began taking center stage.
Raised in New York with the left-leaning sentiments of her parents, Jewish immigrants from Russia and Poland, Shifra Meyerowitz, came to L.A. to study at UCLA. She left the university and immersed herself in the political currents roiling amidst Eastside youth who fought to improve the quality of their education, a movement that led to the historic walk-outs and boycotts at high schools populated by Mexican American kids who saw inequality in the caliber of teaching materials, programs and resources they were allocated as well as the lack of college preparatory courses available to them.
Returning to academia herself in the '60s, Goldman consolidated her regard for both the emerging Chicano art movement that paralleled a political awakening and the Mexican masters that had inspired so many of the young artists involved into a groundbreaking dissertation on modern Mexican art. As a professor of art history, she would later go on to co-author the definitive Chicano art bibliography, Arte Chicano, with Tomás Ybarra-Frausto.
Carol Wells, founder and director of the Center for the Study of Political Graphics, joined filmmaker Jesús Treviño — the director who collaborated with Goldman to produce América Tropical, the 1971 documentary about the Siqueiros mural that was whitewashed in downtown L.A. — at the touching memorial, where friends and family spoke glowingly about Goldman's impact upon their lives and careers. Artist Barbara Carrasco remembered being referred to as “scrappy” by Goldman in an article for the L.A. Times about censorship.
Punctuated by video clips in which Goldman herself discussed her life as well as her ideas with respect to Chicano art and political activism, the afternoon took on a slightly mournful tone when her son, guitarist Eric Garcia, and her grandson Ian, shared poignant recollections. The two performed on guitar and violin respectively as part of a final musical homage featuring Shifra's favorite songs.
ASCO founding member Harry Gamboa, Jr., playwright Richard Montoya, Ave 50 Studio Director Kathy Gallegos and printmaker Poli Marichal, the original Dos Streetscapers David Botello and Wayne Healy, among scores of others, bade farewell to a women who, in a span of over four decades, became a powerful advocate on their behalf. It is ironic, that now, shortly after her passing, many of them are finally receiving the attention and recognition they have long deserved, a spotlight she focused in their direction long before it had become fashionable.
Yreina D. Cervantez, an art professor at Cal State University Northridge, grew teary as she remembered how Goldman asked her to take over her own teaching duties one semester at Santa Ana College, where Goldman taught Pre-Colombian, Modern Mexican and Chicano art history.
“I told her I was only an artist, that I knew nothing about teaching, and she told me not to worry about it because she was going to over each lesson plan with me before each class,” Cervantez recalled.
Overall, the sentiments conveyed how much Goldman had imparted during the course of her life and her incessant scholarship. Her copious publication of critical books, articles and essays helped shape and define what is now understood as Chicano art. At the small reception held afterward, guests were treated to bagels with cream cheese and tamales, the perfect marriage of the two cultures Goldman fought so hard to bridge with her love of beauty and art forged in struggle. Fittingly, a quote featured in one of the video clips indicated clearly why she chose the path she did. “I was born on the margins, lived on the margins, and have always sympathized with the margins. They make a lot more sense to me than the mainstream.”
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