By J.P. Faber // Photography by Jon Braeley
Tony Argiz’s Coral Gables home feels like an art museum, with tall ceilings and massive wall spaces to hang large works of art. His collection includes some four dozen works by Cuban masters of the 20th century and several by contemporary Cuban artists; the only exception to the Cuban lineup being one piece by Argentine artist Antonio Segui.
Having left Cuba at the age of eight, Argiz says that his collection of Cuban art makes him feel closer to the island where he was born. As an exile, Argiz has had an extremely successful career in the accounting industry. He is currently chairman and CEO of Morrison, Brown, Argiz & Farra, one of the top 40 accounting firms in the nation.
Upon entering the towering vestibule of the Argiz household, one is met by an immense canvas by Carlos Alfonzo, a modern Cuban artist who died at age 40 from AIDS. The 1987 work, an angry, dark swirl of knives, spikes and arrows entitled The Spiral, was painted after Alfonzo learned of his illness.
Nearby is a considerably brighter piece by Carlos Enríquez (1900-1957) entitled “Bembe en El Solar,” a vibrant painting that combines elements of Afro-Cuban religions (Yoruba, Santeria) while honoring La Virgin, the first symbolized by a rooster and the second by a female dancer in yellow.
“The Solars were the old Cuban mansions in neighborhoods that became undesirable to the wealthy. They were rented out room by room to poor families that shared the house and the kitchen. It’s a beautiful work,” says Ramón Cernuda, whose Gables gallery has specialized in Cuba art since it opened two decades ago.
The vestibule of the Argiz home leads immediately into a large living room with 24-foot ceilings and plenty of space to hang works of art. On one of them is a Wifredo Lam entitled “Si possible, la ofrenda” – “If possible, an offering” – a painting which Argiz recently acquired but which has become his favorite. Lam is easily the most famous (and most valuable) Cuban artist, a contemporary and colleague of Picasso in Paris and a master of the first wave of modern Cuban art.
Another of this first or “Vanguardia” movement of Cuban artists was Víctor Manuel (1897-1969), sometimes referred to as the Gaugin of Cuba. “Victor Manuel is recognized at the initiator of the modern art movement in Cuba, having gone to Paris first in 1925,” says Cernuda. “His work was about finding beauty in simple people and poor people, a very revolutionary concept in the 20s and 30s art scene in Havana.” One of the Bermuda works owned by Argiz is just that, a portrait entitled “Gypsy with Fruit.”
Another famed member of this second wave of modern Cuban artists is Cundo Bermúdez (1914-2008), whose painting “The Musicians” hangs on the great wall of the Argiz living room. It is a tableau of four musicians at a table, reminiscent of Matisse. “It’s a very important painting,” says Cernudo. “It’s a masterpiece.”
Among the other 20th century Cuban masters in the Argiz collection are works by Mariano Rodriguez (1912-1990), Amelia Peláez (1896-1968), Felipe Orlando (1911-2001) and René Portocarrero (1912-1985), as well as more contemporary (still living!) artists. Of these are works by Tomás Sánchez, Flora Fong and Roberto Fabelo, all highly collectable.
“I got into it [collecting art] in ‘78 and started to realize that a big part of it was learning,” says Argiz. “I follow artists and then I acquire them… I could tell you that my favorite is Lam or Tomás Sánchez or Amelia Peláez (1896-1968) but the truth is I really enjoy them all. As a Cuban, I love these paintings.”