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DeGrazia: A Modernist Perspective

June 13 - October 25, 2009


Noted American artist Thomas Hart Benton once wrote that Ettore "Ted" DeGrazia was a "Master of Fantasy" whose artistic strength was grounded in an ability to tell a story. Eschewing pure abstraction, Benton applauded DeGrazia for his fantastical, abstractionist works because they were rooted in the reality of his beloved desert. DeGrazia is best known for his winsome images of Native American children and other indigenous subjects in pastels and brilliant colors bathed in white light. What is surprising to some is that he created many paintings and works on paper with a modernist perspective and a foundation based on academic principles. (right: Ted DeGrazia, Untitled (Coyote), 1964, oil on canvas)

The son of Italian immigrants, DeGrazia was born June 14, 1909, in the Morenci mining camp of Territorial Arizona. His early childhood experiences in the ethnically diverse community evolved into a lifelong respect of native cultures in the Sonoran Desert and a passion to create art depicting their lives and lore. In 1920, during a slowdown at the mines, DeGrazia moved to Italy for five years with his family. There, he became exposed to a rich tradition of theological art that later influenced his own work as an artist. Entering the University of Arizona in 1932, he obtained a Bachelor of Arts degree in art education from the University of Arizona in 1944, and Bachelor of Fine Arts and Master of Fine Arts degrees in 1945.

In 1941, Raymond Carlson, editor of Arizona Highways, published features about the artist who was painting at that time from a studio in Bisbee, Arizona. In 1942, DeGrazia traveled to Mexico City, intent upon meeting noted muralist Diego Rivera. Bribing a security guard to gain entrance to where Rivera was working on a mural, he met the famed artist. This encounter led to an internship with Rivera and José Clemente Orozco and a solo exhibition at the prestigious Palacio de Bellas Artes. In 1944, DeGrazia built his first adobe studio in Tucson on Prince Road and Campbell Avenue, and in the early 1950s, he moved to the 10-acre site in the foothills which became DeGrazia Gallery in the Sun.

DeGrazia's paintings, ceramics, and other artwork steadily attracted media attention including the NBC newsreel "Watch the World" and a profile in the 1953 National Geographic article "From Tucson to Tombstone." His fame flourished when UNICEF chose his 1957 oil painting, Los Niños, for a 1960 holiday card that sold millions worldwide. In 1976, in a highly publicized protest of inheritance taxes on works of art, DeGrazia hauled approximately 100 of his paintings on horseback into the Superstition Mountains near Phoenix and set them ablaze. This infamous event was reported in such publications as The Wall Street Journal and People magazine and became part of DeGrazia's legend before his death in 1982. By this time, the artist had established the DeGrazia Foundation to ensure the permanent preservation of his art and architecture for future generations.

As part of DeGrazia's centennial celebration, the Tucson Museum of Art presents examples of the artist's lesser-known works on paper, canvas, and ceramics that reveal a breadth of stylistic approaches quite apart from the quintessential images for which he is best known. Early in his artistic development, DeGrazia was exposed to classical art forms and educated in established modernist styles and techniques. These works confirm that he had a firm grounding in Impressionist, Fauvist, Surrealist, and Realist perspectives which not only informed his work, but served as a launching point for his own visionary style.

(above: Ted DeGrazia, Fiesta de San Xavier, 1960, oil on canvas)


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