Sacal's bust of Louis Armstrong (Eve M. Ferguson/The Washington Informer)
Sacal's bust of Louis Armstrong (Eve M. Ferguson/The Washington Informer)

Mexican sculptor José Sacal died in October after a tragic illness, leaving behind an enormous body of work consisting of small exhibition sculptures and monumental public art displays.

Those who have traveled to Mexico City likely encountered his works numerous times throughout the urban landscape, but the artist’s work is less known in the Northeast. Now art aficionados in Washington can take in the exhibition “Sacal: Un Mexicano Universal,” on display at the Mexican Cultural Institute from June 19 through July 27.

More than 20 of his sculptures have been installed in public spaces in Mexico, Israel, and the U.S. He became the first Mexican artist to have his sculptures permanently displayed in China in 2006. In Los Angeles, he has public sculptures in the Children’s Hospital and the Museum of Tolerance.

Lovingly curated by Gregorio Luke, former director of the Mexican Cultural Institute, the works on display in the exhibit demonstrate why the artist was in such high demand for his thoughtful and thought-provoking sculptures.

Luke, who has gone on to become a renowned international lecturer on Mexican art and material culture, was a good friend of Sacal and used this short yet important span of time to introduce the uninformed to this great Mexican icon’s incredible pieces, some which seem to defy gravity and time.

“The sculptures of this exhibit include two groups of his works: sculptures inspired by other works of art and portraits of historical figures,” Luke said.

Sacal once described his creative process for developing sculptures: “First I try to understand its dimension in space, I record it in the unconscious, sometimes I even dream about it, but when I do sculpture, I let feelings flow freely. During the creative process, I never see photos or drawings, because I would end up copying.”

When the artist revisited some iconic works, such as Grant Wood’s “American Gothic,” he deconstructed the elements of the artwork to create an entirely different manifestation using common components. The pitchfork, face of the male and barn slats all combine to make a less confined image.

His interpretation of Spanish author Miguel de Cervantes, whose image has been captured by many artists, breathes new life into the usual staid portrait of the man wearing a high, stiff collar. Sacal’s Cervantes’ collar is actually mobile and can rotate.

“I found myself in the presence of a true artist,” Luke said in his lecture at the opening of the exhibition. “In doing the main challenge of artists today, it speaks of a moral caliber, and a morality that is not defined by a code of behavior. The artist has to be indifferent to the market, to the opinion of the critics, to the caprice of collectors and has to be true to him or herself. And to do things he truly believes in. José was constantly changing.”

Sacal’s output covered series of bodies, hearts, animals and even feet. He also combined the unconventional. For instance, his portrait of Mahatma Gandhi has the figure gracefully twisted with his signature glasses, but grounded by elephant feet, representing strength and acknowledging the importance of elephants in his native India, but also in South Africa where Gandhi spent considerable time. Sacal’s travels also took him to Africa, where he observed animals in the wild.

A portrait of jazz legend Louis Armstrong removes the trumpet from the bust’s hands, leaving them and the mouthpiece in position. The trumpet has migrated to the top of his head instead.

Luke said the works capture “the sadness of seeing artists that, once they are successful, become imitators of themselves.”

“Once they find a type of work, if it works commercially, they repeat it and do variations of themselves,” Luke said. “Not José Sacal, an artist that continually innovated and continually transformed.”

Sacal often found the essence of each character or work, Luke wrote. It could be a detail or an object, such as Armstrong’s trumpet or Marcel Marceau’s mask, but the rest was something deeper, like the impenetrable inexpressiveness of Grant Wood, the seriousness of David or the anguish of Edvard Munch’s “The Scream.”

“By recreating them, Sacal gave them a new meaning and established an artistic dialogue at a higher level” Luke said. “In his intelligent observation of art and history, Sacal revealed himself as a universal Mexican.”

“Sacal: Un Mexicano Universal” opened on June 19 and is on view until July 27 at the Mexican Cultural Institute of Washington, located at 2829 16th St. NW. For more information, go to, call 202-728-1628, or follow the Mexican Cultural Institute on Twitter @MexCultureDC, on Instagram @MexCultureDC, and Facebook at

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