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Emeritus professor, renowned scholar brought Cuban art to the forefront of scholarship

Emeritus professor, renowned scholar brought Cuban art to the forefront of scholarship

Juan Martínez’s trailblazing journey researching Cuban art history and his dedication to education transformed a generation of artists and scholars

October 1, 2020 at 2:54pm

Juan Martínez was born in Jaruco, a rural town east of Havana. A country-side speckled with palm trees, mountain peaks and a coastal fishing town created a landscape that planted itself in Martínez’s heart and would surface years later through his passion for art.

Martínez arrived in Miami in 1966 when he was 15 years old. As a student at Miami Dade College, Martínez took an art history course with a professor that changed his life.

“I was fascinated by these pictures and the story behind them,” recalls Martínez, now an FIU emeritus professor of art history. “I learned that you can actually have a career in this. I started from there.”

He went on to earn multiple graduate degrees in art history at Florida State University. But it wasn’t until a friend asked him if he wanted to check out an exhibit featuring Cuban art that Martínez discovered an area that spoke to his past. He was hooked.

“It’s pretty obvious now, I realized that studying Cuban art was a way to put me in contact with my culture and my identity,” says Martínez, citing one of his favorite Cuban artists, Carlos Enríquez, whose works often explore themes related to Cuba’s countryside.

“When people are immigrants, they yearn for their original culture,” Martínez explains. “In many cases, they like to have their material culture. Part of that material culture is art, so they want to collect it, share it and want to add to the knowledge of it.”

Martínez would eventually become one of the leading scholars on Cuban art and one of the main voices in Miami keeping Cuban art and its history alive.

Writing the textbook

Martínez came to FIU in 1990. For more than two decades, he helped carve out a future for the department of Art + Art History and eventually served as its chair. In addition to teaching a variety of courses, he and several colleagues created the foundation for scholarly work about Cuban art at FIU.

"Juan was one of the leaders of the Art + Art History Department, and a pillar for Cuban art studies,” says Brian Schriner, dean of the College of Communication, Architecture + the Arts. “Two words that come to mind when I think about Juan are compassion and dedication. He is a down-to-earth professor, a very accomplished scholar and a tireless advocate for students and faculty."

A prolific writer and scholar, Martínez most notably wrote the first book to examine the art of the Vanguardia painters of 1927-1950. These artists, many of whom had lived in Paris, rejected the conventions of Cuba’s national art academy and led an avant-garde artistic movement on the island to capture Cuban heritage and national identity, primarily by depicting rural life and embracing tenets of surrealism and cubism.

“He became the expert on Cuban art of the Vanguardia period,” says Carol Damian, a retired professor and former director of the Frost Museum FIU. “He represents FIU in a level of scholarship that is respected throughout the academic community. That’s a very lasting legacy.”

Among his publications is a monograph about Cuban-American artist Maria Brito, which he was selected to write by a national panel of experts and for which he won an award.

Although an accomplished scholar, Martínez’s first love remained working with students.  

Educating a generation of artists

“When the students talked to me during and after class and when they were excited about the subject matter, it’s wonderful,” he says. “One of the things that makes me happy is that I had a number of students that told me ‘You were the one who got me into art.’”

George Sánchez-Calderón ’92 is one of those students. The Miami-based artist has had his work displayed at Art Basel and the Franklin Furnace Archive in New York, among other venues.

“I still remember the first day I walked into Juan’s class,” he says. “Juan is the most passionate person I’ve ever met in my life.”

The son of a Cuban baker, Sánchez-Calderón had his doubts about pursuing a degree in a field that didn’t seem pragmatic. When he took Martínez’s course, though, everything fell into place. “[Juan] made being an artist accessible to me,” recalls Sánchez-Calderón, adding that others were likewise inspired by Martínez. “He’s had a huge impact on this community. A lot of [his students] are the people that in the past 20 years helped create the art scene. He’s the person that put all these people out into the world.”

Legacy in Cuban Studies

Martínez also became involved in a number of conferences and programming through FIU’s Cuban Research Institute (CRI). By the time Jorge Duany, the institute’s current director, arrived at the university in 2012, he had already heard about Martínez and was familiar with his work.

“He published a number of very insightful essays, exhibit catalogs and book chapters that have helped to put art history on the map of Cuban studies,” Duany explains. “His 1994 book [on the Vanguardia painters] had become a classic in the interdisciplinary study of Cuban culture, encompassing art, history, literature and other related disciplines."

After his retirement in 2013, Martínez continued to impact the field. He led presentations, collaborated with local museums and published articles. Through his work, Martínez also claimed a place as one of the frontrunners who set the stage for further scholarship and education about Cuban art at FIU, something Duany and FIU recognized by dedicating a 2017 Cuban art conference to him.

As Martínez reflects on his legacy – and that of others like him – who have worked to bring Cuban art into the limelight, he says the future is bright.

“Latin American and Caribbean art are beginning to bask in the recognition they’ve always deserved in the art world,” Martínez says. The proof? Collectors are increasingly buying and selling these works, and scholars continue conversations about the regions’ art and the cultural richness these works share with all of humanity. 

Addition to the original story: Martinez passed away on Oct. 11, 2020 at the age of 69.