When the artist Enrique Martínez Celaya was 9 and living with his family in a storage room in Madrid, a creditor came banging on the door. His father was away, his mother was crying.
“I puffed my chest out, opened the door to this guy and confronted him,” he recalls with a laugh. “Imagine what that man saw in front of him, just a little kid trying to be tough. When the guy went away, I felt like I’d shown him something.”
The family had moved to Spain from Cuba a few years before, in 1972, in the wake of the revolution. Exile from both his home country and formerly comfortable lifestyle registered in the young Martínez Celaya as a profound sense of difference, an estrangement that he masked with bravado. What worked that day with the bill collector landed him, he says, in frequent fights throughout his youth. “Walking around with a certain pride or bearing, a sense that nobody’s going to make me buckle, had to do with not showing the fragility and vulnerability and fear, and the chaotic quality of so many things in my life as an immigrant, living in these circumstances,” he says. “It was a shield.” Martínez Celaya spent his teenage years in Puerto Rico, reading German philosophers and cultivating an intellectual life that further served as a form of protection from letting his true internal turmoil show. He came to the U.S. to study science, and not until the late stages of his doctoral research in physics did he turn fully to art, which he had shown serious interest in since childhood.
Now 57, and long based in Los Angeles, Martínez Celaya works across media — painting, sculpture, photography, writing — driven by questions about his place in the world, memory’s role as the formative stuff of identity, the notion of home as an elusive sanctuary and more. Often he situates a single figure, usually a child, within a vast, frozen landscape or beside the turbulent sea. He stages scenes of emotional intimacy, resonant with loss and yearning, frequently on a scale so large that viewers are immersed, body first.
In addition to an impressive international exhibition record, Martínez Celaya has also amassed a wide-ranging slew of honors and projects that reflect the practical integration of all his fields of interest, the underlying truth that they are all one field. He has been a guest on “On Being,” the public radio show “about the big questions of meaning.” He has collaborated with the Berliner Philharmonie as well as the Cowboy Junkies. A provost professor of humanities and arts at USC (the first to hold that position), he teaches across the disciplines of art, philosophy and literature, this semester leading a seminar on the Western Sublime. The post is similar to one he held previously at Dartmouth, as a Roth Distinguished Visiting Scholar.
He is the first artist to be named a visual arts Fellow at the Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens. The shelf of books featuring his art and his writings holds more than two dozen titles and widens annually. In 1998, he launched his own imprint, Whale & Star, to publish books of poetry, critical theory and art, and to provide a vehicle for educational and outreach programs. Martínez Celaya is also completing the final edits on his first novel.
This season presents a rare opportunity for those in Southern California to steep themselves in the artist’s work and thought...