Dallas Museum of Art presents first museum retrospective for Octavio Medellín

The Dallas Museum of Art presents the first-ever museum retrospective for Octavio Medellín (1907-1999), an influential Mexican American artist and teacher whose work helped shape the Texas art scene for six decades. In celebration of this landmark exhibition for the artist, the Office of the Mayor proclaimed January 26, 2022, Octavio Medellín Day in the City of Dallas.

Octavio Medellín was a noted sculptor who mastered a wide range of media, engaging with modernist trends in both his native Mexico and the United States. “Octavio Medellín: Spirit and Form” features approximately 80 works, exploring the evolution of Medellín’s sculptural practice, his public art commissions, and his legacy as a beloved and respected teacher. During the more than 40 years he lived and worked in the Dallas area, Medellín influenced generations of students as an instructor at the school of the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts (DMFA, today the DMA) and as founder of the Creative Arts Center.

“Octavio Medellín: Spirit and Form” opened February 6, 2022, and is curated by Dr. Mark A. Castro, The Jorge Baldor Curator of Latin American Art. The exhibition is included in free general admission and will be on view through January 15, 2023.

“This recognition for Octavio Medellín, an important artist in the history of our city and Museum, is long overdue. We are elated to honor his career and contribute new scholarship on his significant and diverse bodies of work,” Dr. Agustín Arteaga, the DMA’s Eugene McDermott Director, said. “Medellín’s grand legacy can be attributed to both his incredible talent and his enormous influence in our community as a mentor to so many. We hope this exhibition cements his place among the most important artists working in Texas in the 20th century.”

About the Artist

Octavio Medellín. Courtesy of Bywaters Special Collections, Hamon Arts Library, Southern Methodist University. Photographer: Jay Simmons
Octavio Medellín. Courtesy of Bywaters Special Collections, Hamon Arts Library, Southern Methodist University. Photographer: Jay Simmons

Of Otomí ancestry, Octavio Medellín was born in the city of Matehuala, San Luis Potosí, Mexico. In the wake of the violence of the Mexican Civil War, he immigrated with his family to San Antonio, Texas, in 1920. Working a variety of jobs to support himself, he began studying art in his spare time, eventually leaving San Antonio in 1928 to study briefly at the Art Institute of Chicago. The following year, he journeyed to Mexico City, where he explored Mexican Modernism, encountering important artists such as José Clemente Orozco and Carlos Mérida, but also traveled on foot through the rural countryside of the Gulf Coast.

Returning to San Antonio, he became a rising star in that city’s art scene, producing sculptures in wood, clay, and stone. In 1938, with the support of art patron Lucy Maverick, he traveled to Yucatán to study the Maya ruins at Chichén Itzá, inspiring an important group of drawings, prints, and decorative objects featured in the exhibition.

Following his return to the United States, Medellín became a prominent figure in the Texas art scene, first in San Antonio and then in Dallas, where he lived until he retired to Bandera, Texas, in 1980.

“Spirit and Form”

The exhibition includes some 30 sculptures, dating from 1926 to 1995 and tracing Medellín’s evolving interests in material and form. His sculptures of wood, stone, and clay explore notions of tension in both the political and the personal. The monumental Spirit of the Revolution, made in Texas limestone, responds directly to his experiences of post-revolutionary Mexico. The Hanged, perhaps his most iconic work, alludes to the violence he witnessed as a young boy during the Mexican Civil War, but also has undeniable resonance with scenes of the lynching of Black and Brown men in the United States.

Over the course of his career, as his work became increasingly abstract, Medellín experimented with metal and glass, and expanded his artistic practice into other mediums, such as printmaking, pottery, mosaic, and stained glass.

Beginning in the late 1940s, Medellín was commissioned to create large-scale works for public buildings and religious institutions across Texas. The exhibition includes preparatory drawings and photographs from Medellín’s personal archives, donated by the artist to the Bywaters Special Collections at Southern Methodist University (SMU).

Notable projects represented in the exhibition through color drawings include mosaic murals depicting the stations of the cross at St. Bernard of Clairvaux Church near White Rock Lake; a series of stained-glass windows for now-demolished Trinity Lutheran Church of Dallas that were preserved and are now installed at the Moody Performance Hall and Love Field Airport; and a stained-glass window at the University of Texas at Austin. The public will be able to explore Medellín’s commissioned works in North Texas in a forthcoming interactive map and resource created by the Dallas Museum of Art and Fiasco Design.

Instructor

In addition to his artistic practice, Octavio Medellín worked as an art instructor for over four decades and developed a devoted following of students. He taught at various institutions, including North Texas State Teacher’s College (today the University of North Texas) and SMU.

Beginning in 1945, Medellín was an instructor and central figure at the DMFA’s school for 21 years, often participating in the Art in Action series, in which the Dallas public was invited to watch him work on sculptures, some of which will be featured in the exhibition.

In 1966 he opened the Octavio Medellín School of Sculpture in Oak Cliff, providing art classes to students of all skill levels. Today called the Creative Arts Center and located in East Dallas, the school has served thousands of students.

At all of these institutions, Medellín acted as guide and mentor to generations of aspiring artists, working with well-known figures such as Marty Ray, Tomas Bustos, and David Hickman.

The exhibition is accompanied by a publication, the first monograph dedicated to Medellín. The 104-page catalog includes a lengthy essay by curator Dr. Mark A. Castro examining the artist’s life, as well as grouped object entries featuring the works in the exhibition and others from throughout the artist’s career. The catalogue is published by the Dallas Museum of Art and distributed by Yale University Press.

“Medellín’s career was characterized by an intense drive to expand his knowledge of materials and techniques, to share that knowledge freely with his students, and, above all, to create compelling works of art,” Dr. Castro said. “I remain in awe of his personal tenacity and the dynamism of his sculptures. We are thrilled to present the first museum retrospective of this important artist in the city that he called home.”

The Museum continues to conduct research on Octavio Medellín and welcomes any information regarding additional, unknown works by him, as well as supporting materials (e.g., correspondence, photographs, and ephemera) related to the artist.

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