John Pitman Weber, Jose Guerrero, Printmaker, Muralist, Worker.

John Pitman Weber Publicado 2015-10-09 07:54:14

Without struggle there is no progress at UE by John Pitman Weber and José Guerrero.


Jose Guerrero died 10/7/15, after a long battle with cancer. Jose was born in 1938 in San Antonio and came to Chicago in 1964. He worked in a small appliance factory and later for the Park District, but he was always an artist. He was a self-taught cartoonist and always retained his cartoonist’s quick to-the-point visualization. He joined the mural movement in the early 1970’s. Later he became a printmaker, eventually with his own press, workshop and classes. He led tours that introduced thousands to the Mexican-American murals of Pilsen. He is survived by his wife of 52 years, Margaret. In May, Prospectus Gallery presented a retrospective of his print work. A commemoration is planned for later in the year.

I first met Jose Guerrero in late summer 1973. We were introduced by friends who knew him as a talented self-taught cartoonist for a leftwing rank-and-file factory newspaper. He was then working at the old Sunbeam plant in “the island,” an industrial strip on the far west side. When I met Jose he was painting a small mural at 18th St. and Racine, kitty-corner from the already locally famous murals on Casa Aztlan. “Sí se puede,” as Jose titled the mural, inscribing the Farm Workers’ slogan in red letters, was rough but dynamic.

Through the rest of 1973 and the first half of 1974 we worked together on the murals inside the United Electrical Workers union hall at 37 S. Ashland. Known as one of the few independent progressive and democratic unions, the “UE” is a survivor of numerous battles. Our murals reflected the UE’s world-view. For title we used a quote from Frederick Douglass: “Without struggle there is no progress.” Douglass’ words fit our intentions, to use art as a tool to help shape a better world. They apply well to the whole of Jose’s art. At the top of the stairs Jose designed a group that echoed the UE’s own cartoons: A greedy and buffoonish boss, sitting on (profits from) working men and women. To our group of villains, Jose added a Texas Ranger. Jose had done little painting, but had a quick pencil. He could visualize and rapidly sketch out a scene. With his wry sense of humor and a deep supply of corny jokes and sayings, he was an excellent partner and companion. Of course, Jose had to work around his shift at the plant and I was teaching at Elmhurst College. At lot of our work was done on weekends, or evenings. The UE paid for our materials only. We were both happy to have the opportunity to learn mural composition on the aging plaster walls of a late 19th century building. We studied and borrowed the compositional “tricks” of the great Mexican masters, Rivera, Siqueiros and Orozco, to make interior corners, hand rails, stairs and columns fit “naturally” into the flow of the mural. UE senior organizers spent a good deal of time with us, filling us in on history, sharing their photo archives — even arranging for us to visit one of their plants: Amforge, an axel maker. Yes, Chicago still had metallurgy then.

Over January 1974, I led an intensive mural class out at the college. Jose joined the class. I’m not sure how he made the time. Over the summer we redesigned and repainted a mural at Division and Hoyne that had been defaced. “Unidos Para Triunfar, Together We Overcome” is still extant. That project rounded out a full year of close collaboration.

After doing a few indoor murals on his own (Association House, then still in ungentrified east Humboldt Park,) he partnered with Cynthia Weiss and Celia Radek on “Fruits of Our Labor” a large celebratory mural on North Ave. The design featured a giant tree as metaphor. We stayed in touch, and again worked together in 1980, with Lynn Takata and a youth team, on the first monumental cement relief mural. “For the People of the Future/ Para La Gente del Futuro,” is still extant, at North and Springfield Ave. Subsequently Jose collaborated with Oscar Martinez (“Smash Plan 21”) again on North Ave. against the now largely realized “plan” to gentrify large sections north, west and south of the Loop. He later worked with Hector Duarte on a mural in La Villita (Little Village).

Guerrero started leading tours of Pilsen murals in 1980, introducing the murals of Pilsen to students from around the Midwest. He continued leading tours weekly until his last illness. In the 90’s, Jose started working with linocut, at the Mexican Print Workshop (Taller Gráfico Mexicano). The workshop, first on Halsted, moved to 18thSt., Pilsen’s main street, was renamed the Taller Mestizarte, later renamed again in honor of Carlos Cortez, the great mentor and exemplar for Chicago woodcut and linocut printmakers. Jose’s attention and energies focused on printmaking, the other art form that historically allowed ordinary people access to images. He participated in a portfolio already in 1995, organized by Hector Duarte, in honor of the centenary of Siqueiros, for the occasion of a visit by the great Siqueiros scholar Alberto Hijar. Starting in the early 2000’s, Jose himself undertook to organize portfolios. The first of these was on the theme of “Cantinas and Honky-Tonks.”


Without struggle there is no progress at UE by John Pitman Weber and José Guerrero.


Along the way, Jose left Sunbeam, before the factory closed. He got a job with the Park District by the end of the 80’s. I’m sure he enjoyed the Park District job. I can’t remember hearing any complaints. It gave him security and eventually a pension. Once he retired from the Parks, (having put in 20 years?), Jose established his own “taller” (workshop), in the same APO building as the Taller Carlos Cortez. Other artists with studios in the APO building helped buy the press. Jose named his workshop Obrero (Worker) Press, — and gathered his own circle of students and disciples. His wife Margaret was increasingly involved, often making her own prints and helping to manage and coordinate.

Jose was a prolific printmaker. He became especially interested in two-color block printing. He occasionally added a third or fourth color by hand inking separate areas. Last year he organized what proved to be his last portfolio, around the theme of borders and immigration. Titled: “From Where We Stand, We See No Borders,” the portfolio included twenty prints, by as many artists, in a variety of media. It was shown twice in Chicago during 2014.

Jose’s style favored a kind of chiaroscuro with many fragments of black, rather than large solid areas. His blocks have an overall angular spikiness. He filled up whole compositions with insistently swirling textures. Among the Mexican masters his affinity is to the twisting energy storms of Jose Clemente Orozco rather than the calmer, plumper structures of Diego Rivera.

This May, Israel Hernández organized a retrospective of Guerrero’s print work at Prospectus Gallery. Kari Lydersen, writing for In These Times, commented on the crowd of people attending the opening who had all been touched by Jose’s prints or tours. She highlighted how his prints place the local struggles of regular people in a larger global context, and how they convey a confidence in human dignity, strength and ebullience. That last word, ebullience, points toward one of the unusual aspects and touchstones of Guerrero’s character: I again quote Lydersen: “While Guerrero’s politics are bold and radical, his demeanor is soft-spoken & full of mischievous, sometimes endearing corny humor.” As Lyderson said, he was “brave, funny, humble, generous, brilliantly talented.” Jose was a fully political artist. None of his work could be said to be only “personal.” He presented ordinary people in their quotidian comedy and heroism. His work commented on both Chicago and world events, but always with the human presence. The prints were not as humorous as his conversation, but they often had a sly hint of a smile. He was unique and he is already missed.


Unidos Para Triunfar / Together We Overcome in Humboldt Park by John Pitman Weber and José Guerrero.


John Pitman Weber, a founder of the Chicago Public Art Group, is also a printmaker who has participated in several portfolios.