Arts + Culture

Retrospective of works by Chicano artist and activist José Montoya coming to the Fowler

This is the largest exhibition of the artist’s drawings to date

José Montoya car and house
Courtesy of the Montoya Family Trust

Jose Montoya, Untitled, date unknown. Ink on paper, 13.5 x 13 cm.

Highly regarded for his contributions as an artist, educator and activist, José Montoya (1932–2013) was a pivotal figure in the Chicano movement who captured its struggles and victories in his singular drawings, paintings and poems. The Fowler Museum will present “José Montoya’s Abundant Harvest: Works on Paper/Works on Life,” the largest retrospective of Montoya’s drawings to date.

The exhibition — on display from Feb. 21 through July 17, 2016 — honors the life and work of the prolific artist in a comprehensive survey that includes nearly 2,000 works, the inspiration for which Montoya drew from the verdant fields and their workers, farm towns, and port cities of post-war California. Through Montoya’s oeuvre, this exhibition also examines the central role that artists and poets played in the Chicano movement, and its impact on immigrant rights, as well as the other social and political issues during that time.

Montoya’s experience in the fields and his understanding of the harsh living conditions faced by migrant workers informed both his activism and his art. Born in New Mexico, he moved with his family in the 1940s to California’s San Joaquin Valley. There, at the age of 9, he joined his father in the fields to perform backbreaking labor. During his youth and throughout his life, Montoya wrote about these experiences in essays and poems that are at once personal and universal in their messages and their empathy.

The artist also drew constantly, in sketchbooks, on napkins or scraps of paper, using whatever was available to him. Despite the sometimes humble origins of the paper and the economy of his line, Montoya produced complete and complex scenes and portraits, suggesting the potential of his subjects to perform acts of resistance; the artist referred to the pachucos and pachucas he drew as the first “freedom-fighters” of the Chicano Movement. Alive and pulsating with the rhythms of Beatnik-era California, Montoya’s drawings also depicted zoot suiters, cholas and abuelitas, soldiers and sailors, campesinos in the fields, revolutionaries, and los de abajo — subjects that defined the artist’s world and a shared Chicano history.

In addition to his myriad contributions as an artist, Montoya was a lifelong educator. After high school he took advantage of the G.I. Bill to study fine arts at the College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland. Later, he received his master’s degree from CSU Sacramento, where he would eventually serve for more than 25 years as a professor of art, photography and education. In 2002, he was named poet laureate of Sacramento. He also co-founded the artists’ collective playfully dubbed the Royal Chicano Air Force (RCAF). The group worked tirelessly in support of the United Farm Workers movement and with César Chávez to ensure fair labor standards. 

The works on paper will be shown in nearly 100 individually curated boxes that evoke the grape trays used to hold the Central Valley’s harvest, and they will stand in long rows like grapes planted in a vineyard, allowing visitors to walk freely among them and view their contents. The center, or “altar,” row consists of actual grape trays filled with drawings of pachucos and pachucas, two of Montoya’s favorite subjects.

At ease in cantinas, labor camps, fields, churches, union halls, barrio streets, corridors of power, and academia, Montoya helped create and advance the Chicano movement through his practice as an artist and activist. The messages and impact of his work during his lifetime as a champion for the Chicano people and their social and political rights are still resonant and relevant today.

“José Montoya’s Abundant Harvest: Works on Paper/Works on Life” is organized by the Fowler Museum at UCLA and co-curated by playwright and filmmaker Richard Montoya and indepen­dent curator Selene Preciado. Major funding is provided by the Donald B. Cordry Memorial Fund. Additional support is provided by the National Compadres Network, John and Rosa Martinez, Art Nunez, Michelle Shocked, and the many other donors who made gifts to the Fowler Museum’s 2015 UCLA Spark crowdfunding campaign. The accompanying publication has been generously funded by the Ahmanson Foundation, at the recommendation of trustee emeritus Lloyd E. Cotsen. Educational outreach activities are made possible in part by the Nicholas Endowment.

The Fowler Museum at UCLA is one of the country’s most respected institutions devoted to exploring the arts and cultures of Africa, Asia and the Pacific, and the Americas. The Fowler is open Wednesdays through Sundays, from noon to 5 p.m.; and on Thursdays, from noon until 8 p.m. The museum is closed Mondays and Tuesdays. The Fowler Museum, part of UCLA Arts, is located in the north part of the UCLA campus. Admission is free. Parking is available for a maximum of $12 in Lot 4. For more information, the public may call 310 825-4361 or visit


José Montoya’s Abundant Harvest: Opening Celebration
6–9 p.m.
Saturday, Feb. 20, 2016

Join us for an exhibition preview, music by the popular trio La Victoria, tortilla art by the Great Tortilla Conspiracy, snacks by Gasolina Cafe, and specialty cocktails courtesy of Tito’s Handmade Vodka.  The evening will also feature in-gallery readings of José Montoya’s poem The Resonant Valley by surprise special guests. RSVP by Feb. 12 at or 310-206-7001.

Family Program: Feast your Eyes
1–4 p.m.
Sunday, Feb. 21

Watch as artists in the Great Tortilla Conspiracy silkscreen images on tortillas with chocolate, make edible art with corn (maize), cheese, and chocolate; and learn all about the social history of maize and the many ways this delicious food can be prepared.

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