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José Luis Cuevas: farewell to an era

I met José Luis Cuevas in May or June of 1981 at the house of poet Jorge Ruiz Dueñas. Jorge, who was a very good friend of Cuevas from the 60s, invited us to a contemporary writers group, as Cuevas wanted to get to know new writers.


Jose luis cuevas Commons Wikimedia f

Marco Antonio Campos


For Mariana, Ximena and Maria José.


We were accompanying José Luis, his wife and his daughter Mariana, who seemed as beautiful as if straight off the canvas of Vermeer’s ‘Girl with a Pearl Earring’.

I wrote a note in July of 1981 in Process, about a book of letters from Cuevas to José María Tasende and poems written about his drawings and paintings from poets of diverse nationalities: from Ocatvio Paz, Eduardo Lizalde and Jose Carlos Becerra to Claude Esteban and Fernando Ferreira de Loanda.

To the poems they added paintings of his: like in all his work, Cuevas deconstructed geometry to create a new one. One thing to note: José Luis’s friends were mostly writers and poets and not painters.

In February of 1984, Armando Ponce and I conducted an interview for the Culture section of Proceso, which aimed to be a verbal self-portrait of his 50 years. He told us himself that his two obsessions in his artwork were self-portraits and women. To each of us he gave and dedicated a melancholy self-portrait on which point out the date and time he started it.

jose luis cuevas
José Luis Cuevas. Photo from Acueduto online

He was one of my best friends, an exceptionally generous person who, in jest, used to call us the Pisces brothers (both our birthdays were the end of February: mine the 23rd, his the 26th). The Main theme in conversations with José Luis was women and I have never met anyone as skilled at seducing women as him.

It was a pleasure to go to his house for feasts, dinners, parties and reunions for the biggest artists and the most beautiful women he would invite.

Bertha, his magnificent first wife, was an incomparable host for those he invited. Cuevas knew thousands of people, but his friends, as it often is in these cases, were few. He always had the doors to his home open to encourage and support young artists.

From a young age Cuevas had prepared himself for fame and knew how to deal with it better than anyone. The public and private man lived and co-existed within him quite naturally. However some of the smaller aspects of fame would occupy and worry him. Once around Christmas of 1984, we friends found him distressed in the garden. We asked him what was wrong. “It’s been two weeks since you last interviewed me”.

Jose luis cuevas Commons Wikimedia 3Another time, we were in Tlaquepaque, Jalisco, in April 1985 (there is a photo it circulating on the internet) with Bonifaz Nuño, Cuevas, Juan Bañuelos, René Avilés Fabila, Carlos Montemayor and me.

We were going to a tribute for Bonifaz and a presentation of a poetry book of mine (Monólogos) alongside his drawings. Cuevas rose from the table and went for a walk. On returning he said with satisfaction: “Three people said hello to me. I was anxious because for the whole morning no one had recognised me”.

If in public José Luis’ ego grows (the public didn’t realise that this was somewhat or mostly theatrics), petit comité was a very well respected speaker, as well as having the capacity, somewhat unbelievably, to appear reserved or shy. However, if a journalist or photographer arrived, or if he gave a conference, took part in a round table talk or was interviewed on television, he immediately transformed as if he had the world at his feet. He was a person who prodigiously reinvented himself through many personas.

He was soothing in conversation and had an exceptional sense of humour. He could destroy his enemies with a word. He told the funniest stories, including the most fabulous details and did extraordinary impressions, including those of his well-known friends, for instance Fernando Benítez and Carlos Fuentes.

Jose luis cuevas Commons Wikimedia 5During the second half of the eighties when he started to write his Cuevarios in the supplement Búho, managed by René Avilés Fabila, the articles surrounded questions related to museums and art.

They were poorly developed and dull. With the trust we had as friends, I asked why he hadn’t written the lively stories that he told on a daily basis. He began to do so and his circle of friends plus numerous readers were stunned by his talent. In the beginning he allowed me to make some observations on the faults in his articles: errors in syntax, internal rhyme, repeated words, things not explained properly…he learned very quickly.

Every Sunday his story or article was better. Of course the central theme was that of erotic stories.

On one occasion Raquel Tibol called me and said: “Tell your friend Cuevas that I don’t believe a word he says”. I replied: “Look, Raquel, there are no lies, only transpositions. The anecdotes and situations are real, but it deals with women José Luis alters and locates, case by case, in El Salvador, Argentina or Mexico”. The peaks and troughs were very amusing, as were Cuevas’ break-ups and reconciliations, all of which Raquel Tibol remembered. It was a love-hate relationship in which the love was a struggle.

Jose luis cuevas Commons Wikimedia 2The first two books of the stories from those years, were selected and published with the permission of José Luis by Fernando Tola in the editorial Premià: Historias del viajero (1987), who also wrote the prologue, and also Historias para una exposición (1988). When he published the renowned Gato Macho in 1994 in the FCE, he dedicated it to Edmundo Valadés and me.

To Edmundo because of his enthusiasm for the erotic tales, which he also stated admiringly to Jose Luis; to me perhaps for having given him some literary motivation in the beginning.

At that time Edmundo, Monterroso and I commented that Jose Luis was writing better or even much better than a good number of our well-known writers. I do not stop smiling when I hear the legend that Cuevas’s stories were written for him. False. He had a natural talent for the spoken and written word. It is a shame that in the final years, in the pages of El Universal, when he was working non-stop, he wrote the unforgivable words: “Better see you next time”.

Jose luis cuevas Commons Wikimedia 4An heir of Posada y José Clemente Orozco, his talent as an artist was God-given.

One time in 1991 in Vienna, describing him like a soul mate, the Austrian painter Egon Schiele wrote: “There are surprising similarities between us both: eroticism and death unite us at the cutting edge, our egocentric nature that manifests in the numerous masks and faces of the artists, The slow dipping of toes into the sea of madness, all in contrast to our childlike state that gives a tender touch to the work and a world that reveals the image and its likeness. The lines of his drawings and paintings, lets the spectator see, or even better, glimpse the pain in his soul and the cracks in his mind”.

My good friend has now gone. I would like, as the many of those who loved and admired him, that his extraordinary work, in the future, near or far, will be handled competently, in a way that is fitting of the great artist that he was. It is not much to ask. With the death of Cuevas comes the end of an era for Mexican art. An inimitable artist and public figure.  Article provided and published by Confabulación No. 461

 (Photos: Commons Wikimedia) – (Translated by Francine Morgan – Email:


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