It was the fall of 1972 and the two-year-old Galería de la Raza on 24th Street had booked an impressive show for such a small gallery. Original drawings by Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros hung on its walls, on loan from New York’s Museum of Modern Art.
No one came — at least, not the working-class Mission residents the young directors René Yañez and Ralph Maradiaga wanted inside. The gallery space, a fellow artist said, intimidated residents.
So in a move that still makes that artist laugh nervously, the gallery moved the show — for one day — to Balmy Alley, which was then a passageway they had just started to clean up.
“Sometimes art takes such bold and controversial steps that are jarring,” said the artist, remembering that day. “The neighborhood came and that, in and of itself, was pretty phenomenal.”
Boldness would mark much of Yañez’s life — especially when it meant getting art to Latin American immigrants or exposing white residents to the dynamic art he and his fellow Latino artists were producing.
“Making art accessible was part of René’s everyday life,” said Cary Cordova, the author of The Heart of the Mission, which details the Mission’s art scene that began to explode in the 1970s.
Yañez died on May 29, 2018, at the age of 75 after a long bout of bone and prostate cancer. On Sunday, July 8, from 1 to 4 p.m., the SOMArts Cultural Center, an institution Yañez worked at for nearly two decades, will celebrate that life — one that spanned one of the most important eras in the Mission’s cultural history, a time when the Mission was “the artistic center of the universe,” wrote former San Francisco Poet Laureate Alejandro Murgia.
Yañez was at the epicenter of that cosmos.
Art was in his DNA
René Yañez-Cirlos was born September 19, 1942, in Tijuana, Mexico, and raised in the lap of an artistic family, some of whom paid their bills through their art at a time when many could not. His grandfather, Mauricio, was a successful photographer whose shots of Mexico were turned into popular postcards. Family lore has it that he fell off a cliff and died as he backed up to take a photograph.
Yañez’s brother was a successful commercial artist and designer, and his father was a merchant who did woodworking in his spare time.
As a child, Yañez crossed the border daily to attend school in San Diego and, in 1954, when he was a teenager, his family moved there. He became a U.S. citizen in 1961 and, years later during the Vietnam War, served at Fort Bragg in North Carolina in the medical unit. There he taught art to shell-shocked soldiers who had come back from overseas.
Yañez said in a 1982 interview that he began doodling early on, but became more serious about his art later at Merritt College and the College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland. There, on Manila Avenue, he and others formed the Mexican American Liberation Art Front, one of the first Chicano arts collectives.
Yañez moved to San Francisco in 1970 to attend the San Francisco Art Institute — but others have said it was actually a beautiful young woman who inspired that move. Regardless, that year the Galería, founded by nearly a dozen artists, opened on 14th Street, and Maradiaga and Yañez became co-directors. They “had a yin-and-yang ability” that kept the gallery exciting, said Cordova.
In the midst of producing art, he married fellow artist Yolanda Lopez and had a son, Rio, who would later become an important collaborator. Even after Yañez and Lopez divorced, they lived in separate apartments in the same duplex and continued to collaborate on occasion.
As an artist, Yañez explored everything from the possibilities of Polaroids to mail art, postcards and calendars, disseminating art to the masses with prints in much the same way that the Albrecht Dürer used printmaking in the early 16th Century to reach a wider audience.
In the same 1982 interview, Yañez talked about the Xerox machine and its influence. “I tried to manipulate the machine up to the point that I couldn’t do anything more, and moved onto other things.”
The latter would include Polaroids, calendars, 3D art and printing on tortillas. He also relished organizing large- and small-scale performance pieces.
The sense of experimenting and collaborating, said his son Rio, was central to his father’s identity. “He just never wanted to be an artist in the past tense,” Rio said.
To that end, he spent a lot of time helping young artists, said the photographer and collaborator Lou Demattais. “He’s known for showing work that nobody else would show.”
That included performers, too. Yañez was a founder of the Chicano comedy group Culture Clash. “We joke he was our Frankenstein and we were monsters,” said Ric Salinas, one of three members in the group.
“He discovered me,” Salinas said of a 1984 phone call from Yañez telling him he would be perfect for a new group. “He gave me a 360-degree turn in my life. I literally ran away and joined the circus, and he was the ringmaster.”
More recently, Yañez was helping to revamp the gallery space at the African American Art and Culture Complex — work he was never able to finish, said Melorra Green who, with her sister Melonie, co-directs the arts complex. Green said Yañez was helping to give the gallery a better street presence, more foot traffic, and a better way to present artwork there.
“He would come by and visit with me and give his knowledge and wisdom,” Green said. “He was my friend.”
That friendship began in 2014 as Green and Yañez worked together on the DeYoung Museum’s Keith Haring exhibit. “We were so intimidated by him because he had such revolutionary ideas,” Green recalled of the time they met.
Soon after, Green said, she got to know Yañez better when they began working together at SOMArts in September, 2014. There, she was told she could not use sage and incense to help guide her hanging of art — a crucial part of her process, she said. “There was pushback, and he could see my anger and frustration,” she said, as Yañez too was prohibited from doing some of his own rituals for the Day of the Dead.
He consoled her in the garden, she said. And every afternoon after that, she said, “We would have our own ceremony in the garden.”
“We would literally sit for hours and sketch, and you wouldn’t hear anything except for music — Donna Summer and Lila Downs,” she said. “He loved music, he loved to dance, and he could make the best nosh plate out of nothing.”
They would also talk – about life and their artistic process, and he would go on about his wife Cynthia “Kiki” Wallace, who died in 2016. “He loved (her),” Green said. “He thought she was the most beautiful woman.”
“I’m queer, so we had our own conversations about women, and how people see queerness,” Green said. “For me, he was this macho man who had this affinity for creation, on a level that he was curious like a boy — he was curious like a child about creativity.”
Yañez is best known as one of a small group of artists who started the first Dia De Los Muertos/Day of the Dead art shows, and later a procession through the Mission. The tradition was considered the West Coast’s — if not the entire the United States’ — first formal embrace of the tradition.
Cordova wrote that Yañez wanted to do the procession years earlier, but the Mission police captain believed Yañez to be in a cult. “Day of the what?” the captain said. “No way, man.”
The exhibit and procession developed into a cultural force that continued to grow and evolve. The Galería first hosted the exhibit of altars, which later moved to the Mission Cultural Center, where it became even larger. Fellow artist Mia Gonzalez said it was important to remember that even Mission artists were unfamiliar with the Mexican tradition of building altars, and that it was Yolanda Garfias Woo, a fellow artist, teacher and ethnographer, who first taught them.
Garfias Woo learned the altar tradition through her father, and she began celebrating it after his death in the late 1950s. Yañez, Gonalez said, made them dig deep into their own memories to create altars. “He made us believe we could do it,” she said.
“For one year, it was at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts — that was the big break that never went anywhere for him,” said his son, Rio, of the 1998 show there. While the center wanted it to return, they could never agree on terms, Rio said.
In the end, Jack Davis, then the executive director of SOMArts, who died in a car accident in 2007, invited Yañez to house the show there, where it has remained since then — curated for many years by Yañez and his son, Rio.
After showing the three greats at the Galería, Yañez maintained an interest in Mexican artists, and when the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art sponsored Frida Kahlo’s first U.S. exhibition in 1978, Yañez tried to convince the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art to bring the show to San Francisco.
The museum refused — who had heard of Kahlo? — and the show ended up at U.C. San Diego’s Mandeville Gallery. The Galería engaged in the cultural conversation about Kahlo by hosting the 1978 Homenaje a Frida Kahlo: El Día de los Muertos, which included letters, photographs and art in which artists such as Rupert García created some seminal work in response to Frida.
Ani Rivera, the director of the Galería, told the San Francisco Chronicle in 2014 that the exhibit was essential “in building and shaping the voice of Latino art and aesthetics. ”
“Up until that point, the larger fine arts organizations didn’t include a contemporary Latino artist’s perspective,” she said.
Yañez’s fascination with Kahlo never abated, and she often proved a muse, inspiring his 1992 Pasion por Frida at the Mexican Museum, a 2008 reprise of creating live tableaus of Fridas at SF MOMA and the 2012, Viva Frida: From the Blue House to the Catwalk at the de Young Museum.
His son, Rio, said that his father’s interest in Kahlo came from “A certain hunger to latch on to an artist that was Mexican, who he could point to being a genius and a master.” It helped that Yañez and Kahlo shared an interest in surrealism and fashion.
In much the same way that Yañez wanted Mexican immigrants here to appreciate the mastery of Latin America artists like Kahlo, he also wanted a wider U.S. community to understand the richness of Chicano art. In part, his willingness to make Dia De Los Muertos/Day of the Dead a citywide celebration underscored that openness.
So, too, was his curation of Chicano Visions: American Painters on the Verge, a show of 26 artists and 82 pieces, most from the collection of Cheech Marin.
One of the first major exhibits of Chicano art to hang in established museum spaces, the exhibit toured 15 U.S. cities over five years. Critics responded enthusiastically. “Wowing ‘Em at the Smithsonian,” wrote the L.A. Times, and a critic for the St. Louis Post Dispatch reacted to one of the paintings, The Arrest of the Paleteros, by Frank Romero, as “a modern history painting … a celebration of painting as well as a political statement.”
“Getting it out into these major institutions and having so many eyes on it was an important part of his legacy,” his son said. “Having people engage with Chicago art who had not seen it was powerful.”
The show finished its cross-country tour at the de Young Museum, and the response was a scene that Yañez must have taken great pride in: the galleries were often as packed with Latino families as they were with white viewers.
His final years
Like many others in the Mission, Yañez was not immune to the changes in his own neighborhood. In 2013, Yañez and his former wife, Lopez, were nearly evicted from their building on San Jose Avenue, where they had lived for some 35 years. Several years later, however, the Mission Economic Development Agency bought the building, and spared Yañez and Lopez from displacement.
In spite of the small victory, Yañez’s health worsened. “He had his trials through that. He never took it out on anyone else, but it could make him very down, very depressed,” Demattais said.
His long-time partner, the photographer and director Cynthia Wallis, died in 2016. And, increasingly he became ill from his own cancer treatments. In the final year, however, Yañez moved from fear to embracing the hallucinations — and making art for a new show.
He had planned to have the exhibit in the fall, but as he told Mission Local in March, “the doctor told me, ‘You’d better do it sooner.’ So I’m doing it sooner.”
His final show, Into the Fade, at the Luggage Store, included documented interactions with street art, levitating altars and mixed-media collages that demonstrated a lively and ongoing engagement with art and its possibilities. And, yes, Kahlo was there too – in collages and images.
Yañez, his son said, wanted “to be contemporary and to not just be an older man. He really wanted to be engaged with everything that is going on.”
That he was.