Art historian Shifra Goldman, who fought for acceptance of Latin American, Mexican and Chicano art when it was not taken seriously by the academic or art worlds, died Sept. 11 at home in Los Angeles. She was 85.
Goldman’s academic writing, political activism, and personal mentoring of young Latin artists over four decades made her one of the most important figures in that world. Artists and others lauded her as a “visionary,” “pioneer,” and “outspoken advocate.”
She had a “towering intellect and profound enthusiasm for the arts” with “encyclopedic” knowledge in her field and was also “a passionate advocate for the art she was so well versed in,” wrote artist and critic Mark Vallen.
Carol Wells, founder and executive director of the Center for the Study of Political Graphics, wrote that Goldman “was unable to find a chair for her doctoral committee because her topic of choice was modern Mexican art,” and then waited several years until a new faculty member finally agreed to work with her. Her dissertation, later published as “Contemporary Mexican Painting in a Time of Change,” presented her goal to “deflect and correct the stereotypes, distortions, and Eurocentric misunderstandings that have plagued all serious approaches to Latino Art history since the ’50s.”
Wells quoted Goldman as saying in a 1992 interview that “I was never in the mainstream, never in all my life. I was born on the margins, lived on the margins, and have always sympathized with the margins. They make a lot more sense to me than the mainstream.”
Goldman’s biography presents clear evidence of being on the margins. She was born and raised in New York by immigrant parents and grew up speaking Yiddish and English. Her mother was a political activist and her father was a trade unionist. After New York’s High School of Music and Art, she entered UCLA when her family moved to Los Angeles. She became active in a student boycott against barbers who refused to cut the hair of black World War II veterans, then worked for numerous black and Latin civil rights organizations in the 1950s and 1960s.
She learned Spanish from living in East Los Angeles and was subpoenaed before the House Un-American Activities Committee. She returned to university in the 1960s and received a master’s degree in art history from California State University, Los Angeles, before getting her doctorate from UCLA. She taught Mexican pre-Colombian, modern and Chicano Art at Santa Ana College and continued her political activism by opposing the Vietnam War and U.S. intervention in Central America.
In 1968, Goldman began a campaign that led to preservation of a landmark 1932 mural by noted artist David Alfaro Siqueiros that he painted while he was a political refugee from Mexico.
Many Latin and Chicano artists in Southern California counted her as a mentor. She was lauded in 2010 at a celebration of her accomplishments by numerous artists, poets, filmmakers and others, including director Jesus Trevino. She did not attend the event, as she was already suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.
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