Francis Alÿs
Francis Alÿs in collaboration with Juan García and Emilio Rivera, Cityscape, 1996-97. Oil on panel (4.5 x 6 inches) and enamel on galvanized steel (García, 36 x 51.5 inches; Rivera, 30 x 37.25 inches). Museum purchase with funds provided by Wellesley College Friends of Art, 2010.94.1-.3

Francis Alÿs’s Cityscape is a major example from the artist’s rotulista (sign painter) series, which he worked on between 1993 and 1997. The work consists of a small original oil on wood panel painted by Alÿs and copies — in enamel on sheet metal, nailed to a wooden stretcher — painted by two professional Mexico City sign painters, Juan García and Emilio Rivera. On a purely formal level the triptych is a compelling representation of the modern city, inviting viewers to explore the poetry of an architectural scene where concrete walls, billboards, steel frames, and utility poles are arranged as if part of a still-life. It demands slow and careful attention to the ways we look at and remember the landscape around us, as well as to the subtle and not-so-subtle visual distinctions among the three components.

Francis Alÿs, Cityscape (detail), 1996-97. Oil on panel, 4.5 x 6 in.
The triptych is an important example of conceptual art that draws attention to the processes and structures that lie beneath the pictorial surface. The work relates to Alÿs’s varied interventions in the modern city, especially Mexico City, where he has lived since the late 1980s. These performances and installations, often preserved in video works, are part of his ongoing investigation of themes related to urbanism and social networks in a megalopolis where the old and the new are in constant collision. The work is also the result of a complex collaborative process between Alÿs and the sign painters that triggers discussion of issues that connect the work to the study of art history in its broadest scope: from the dynamics of the artist’s studio and the art market to the collision between “high” and “low” artistic practice to the problems of originality and connoisseurship.
Sign painting by Juan García, 1996-97. Enamel on galvanized steel, 36 x 51.5 in.
Francis Alÿs’s sign-painting works are widely recognized as key examples of contemporary art practice; they are in the collections of MoMA, Tate Modern, LACMA, the National Gallery of Canada and other institutions. While most of these depict human figures, the Cityscapes are much more rare: only about twenty sets were created. This piece was until now retained by the artist as part of his personal archive.
(Detail),Sign painting by Emilio Rivera, 1996-97. Enamel on galvanized steel, 30 x 37.25 in.
The Artist

Francis Alÿs is one of the leading figures on the international contemporary art scene, with a roster of international exhibitions that includes almost every major biennial as well as an upcoming retrospective organized by the Tate Modern and traveling to MoMA. Alÿs studied architecture in Belgium, and urbanism in Venice, but shifted to a career as a visual artist after moving to Mexico City in the late 1980s. In the 1990s he emerged as a crucial figure in the revitalization of Mexico’s dynamic and emerging art world. Emblematic of our time, his work shifts across national borders and across media, from painting and installation to video and performance. Much of his work deals with the artist’s relationship to and understanding of the modern city, especially Mexico City, which has long remained his principal base. He has also done major site-specific works/performances, alone or in collaboration, from Copenhagen to the Peruvian desert outside Lima.

James Oles

Senior lecturer in the Art Department at Wellesley College and
adjunct curator of Latin American art at the Davis