Sculptor Enrique Alférez's life spanned almost the entire twentieth century, with much of it spent creating art works in Louisiana.
Sculptor Enrique Alférez’s life spanned almost the entire twentieth century, much of it spent creating art works in Louisiana. He was born on May 4, 1901, in San Miguel de Mezquital, Zacatecas, Mexico, and died in New Orleans on September 13, 1999. Alférez was a prolific sculptor who spent almost his entire adult life creating art that can now be found displayed in the parks and gardens, airports, and corporate and government buildings of his adopted city of New Orleans. His superb and graceful art deco sculpture, influenced by the earthy realism of his native Mexico, brought an elegance to public art in New Orleans much like that found in the great cities of the world.
“Looking at his public and studio work, several influences are at once apparent,” wrote David Houston in the catalogue accompanying a 2002 exhibition of Alférez’s art at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art in New Orleans. “Like most Mexican artists of his generation he could not escape the powerful ancestral legacy of the art of pre-Columbian Mexico. Also, his use of clear elemental forms is dramatized by the open dynamic energies prevalent in the art of the Colonial Baroque, the European influenced art of the Catholic Church in Mexico.”
Alférez’s early life was as remarkable as his later work. He spent his childhood in St. Miguel with his mother, father, and six siblings. His father, Longinos Alférez, was a European-trained artist who sculpted religious icons for churches and private chapels. By the time he was eight years old, Enrique assisted in his father’s workshop. The family later moved to the larger town of Durango, Mexico, where Enrique attempted to run away from home. When caught, at age twelve he was forced to serve in Pancho Villa’s army as a mapmaker during the Mexican Revolution. After ten years in the revolutionary forces, he escaped and worked his way to El Paso, Texas. With his background of apprenticing in his father’s workshop, Enrique decided to pursue a career in art. He worked his way north and in 1924 enrolled at the Art Institute of Chicago, where he studied under Lorado Taft, the famed sculptor, writer, and teacher. Alférez said he “began to hit my stride during the art deco period.” In 1928, while still in Chicago, he created twenty-four wood reliefs at the city’s Palmolive Building skyscraper.
In 1929 he arrived in New Orleans while on his way to the Yucatan region of Mexico. He was so taken by the French Quarter and its art community that he stayed. He received a few commissions, including one to carve statues for the façade and interior of the Church of the Holy Name of Mary in New Orleans’s Algiers neighborhood. He also met Franz Blom, director of Tulane University’s Middle American Research Institute, who invited Alférez to join him on an expedition to Mexico to make a plaster cast of the façade of the nunnery buildings in the Mayan ruins at Uxmal in the Yucatan. Alférez remained in New Orleans, where he became a leading figure in the local art community. He received a number of commissions, taught at the Arts and Crafts Club in the French Quarter, and directed the sculpture program for artists employed by Works Progress Administration (WPA) during the 1930s.
Alférez played a major role in the WPA’s public art initiatives. He worked with the architectural firm of Weiss, Dreyfous and Seiferth, which designed the new Louisiana capitol in Baton Rouge, completed in March 1932. He worked with the firm on several WPA projects including Charity Hospital in New Orleans, and two large fountains, Pop Fountain in New Orleans’ City Park, and another at the entrance to New Orleans Lakefront Airport titled “Fountain of the Four Winds.” The latter caused quite a stir at the time. WPA and New Orleans city officials objected to the well-endowed male figure in the sculpture and ordered Alférez to chisel off the male genitalia. He refused and threatened to shoot anyone who tried to do it. Fortunately, the statue, in all its glory, was saved by the intercession of Lyle Saxon, head of the WPA writers project, and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. Alférez also created a number of sculptures for City Park, primarily for the park’s botanical gardens, along with benches, bas-relief work on bridges, and figures for the gate at Tad Gormley Stadium. He also created works for Audubon Park, the Louisiana State University Medical School, and Touro Infirmary, both in New Orleans. During World War II, he served for a brief time with the Mexican Army and later joined the U.S. Army Transport Service. After the war, he divided his time between New York and Mexico, designing furniture and women’s fashion accessories. He also spent several years touring Europe, especially Paris and Italy, studying Italian Renaissance art. He returned to New Orleans in the early1950s. In 1951, he caused another controversy for a commissioned sculpture, “The Family,” that was to stand in front of the new New Orleans Municipal Court building on the corner of North Rampart and St. Louis streets. It stood only three days, but was quickly removed when a priest from a nearby church complained of the statues’ nudity. The city sold the work to a private collector.
The art world underwent major changes in taste in the years following the war. Art deco was no longer popular, and commissions for public works were drastically reduced for artists such as Alférez. As John Bullard, former executive director of the New Orleans Museum of Art, noted in his brief biography of Alférez, a half-century passed before he received another public commission, though private commissions continued. In the late 1980s, New Orleans developer Joseph Canizaro commissioned Alférez to create the heroic-sized bronze castings “The Lute Player” and “David” that now stand at the entrance of a commercial building at 909 Poydras Street in New Orleans’s Central Business District.
Reflecting upon those postwar transitions in the 2002 exhibition at the Ogden, Houston wrote: “Enrique Alférez lived two years short of a century in a time marked by radical historic and aesthetic change. The Mexican Renaissance, the Great Depression, World War II and the accelerated change of the post-war world ushered in an era of cultural, political and social transformation. His work remained constant in a time of change, anchored by the idealism of the 1930s. When comparing him to other artists of his generation, it is important to remember that Alferez was Mexican in his formation and international in his outlook; he worked outside the formalistic confines of post-war American art.”
In another tribute to Alférez, Bullard stated, “During Enrique Alférez’s career, he followed the historical development of sculpture in America from the Breaux-Arts ideal to the Art Deco successes and through the personal development of the post-war period. He has left his mark on the city of New Orleans by creating a unique treasury of public sculpture that will be enjoyed by many for years to come.”
Alférez’s art can be found in numerous private collections and in metro New Orleans at the New Orleans Museum of Art, the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, City Park Charity (closed), New Orleans Lakefront Airport, the Church of the Holy Name of Mary in Algiers, the Times-Picayune building, Touro Infirmary, Christ Cathedral chapel on St. Charles Avenue, and St. Martin’s Episcopal church in Metairie. A considerable amount of Alférez’s art is still in his family’s possession. Private tours of his New Orleans studio can be arranged by calling (504) 897-2646.