Habits of Mind

  • Synthesize
  • Communicate

Painting the Past

Discussion through works of art encourage how to approach ambiguous and complex ideas, thoughts, and feelings. The MFAH offers a democratic space where students and teachers can develop, practice and articulate these habits of mind. Remember that the quality of the conversation is what is important, not finding the artist’s “answer.” Slow down and take the time to make careful observations. Talk about what you notice, and try to avoid jumping to conclusions and interpretations. Be sure to give enough time for silent looking and thinking.

Curriculum Objectives

•  Explain realism and abstraction.

•  Explore ways in which art can communicate personal feelings and ideas. 

•  Research their own heritage and create a painting expressive of that heritage.




•  Have students research their own culture and heritage.  Develop a list of questions to guide the research, including country or countries of origin, language, food, clothes, art, religion/beliefs, folktales, etc.  Conduct research in a library and by interviewing family members or others from a similar background.

•  Based on their research, students can create sketches and a painting that express their heritage.

(see Art Lesson: Painting the Past, pg. 4)

•  Display the sketches and paintings.

One of the major reasons artists create art is to communicate an idea. Understanding how to break apart a work of art to see what is being communicated is a vital part of learning about art and how to be an artist. Students who learn how to truly communicate thoughts and concepts create meaningful works of art that have an impact on society.

  • Describe the artist’s use of color in the work.

  • Is this an abstract or a figurative work? Or does it have elements of both?

  • What is the use of the fence-like pattern in the center of the painting on the tone of this work? Look at symmetry and line.

  • How is the relationship between hard and soft elements in the work? Look at lines and color.

  • What reference is there to a human presence in this work?

  • This painting measures 120 x 144 inches. Explain what effect the large scale has on how we view this work of art.

  • The work is titled A Question of Color. What surprising effect does this title have, given that the painting is predominantly black and white?

  • What are the effects of the symmetrical composition and stark lines in this painting?

  • The work can be viewed formally, as an abstract painting, but also has some representational references. Discuss what references you can find. Could this be a landscape? How is the work different from a traditional landscape? Are there human references?

  • Discuss the fence-like structure in terms of a formal element in the painting and as a conceptual element. What associations do you have with fences?

  • The artist wrote that he wanted to depict ideas with “an economy of means”. Discuss this phrase as it relates to the painting A Question of Color.

  • Azaceta came to the US as an immigrant from Cuba. Do you think this painting refers to a particular skin color, or to racism as a general theme? Why?

This painting presents an area of white and an area of black.  A fence-like band of crossed lines divides the composition into two distinct areas and suggests the theme of the work.  The artist has written:


At the time I painted A Question of Color I was exploring the idea of fences as boundaries, symbols of power, human confinements, territorial spaces, and psychological limitations. . . .the painting deals with racism and I’m certain a lot of racial turmoil and incidents in N.Y.C. were in the back of my mind during this time.¹


Luis Cruz Azaceta strips his composition down to three simple elements – the two areas of color and the crossed lines dividing them.  He has stated:


In my new work I’ve been involved in condensing ideas to [their] essence[s], depicting them with an economy of means with the hope that the results will be powerful and straightforward.


The artist has subtly modulated the white area through changes in tone and thick strokes of paint.  Using layers of acrylic paint, the arrangement relies on contrasts of color, shape, and line to deliver its message.  A Question of Color demonstrates Azaceta’s ability to combine abstract principles with social issues such as racism.


Luis Cruz Azaceta was born in Cuba in 1942.  He graduated from high school during the Cuban revolution, had difficulty finding a job, and ended up as a clerk in a drug store.  Although initially sympathetic to the new government, he eventually became disillusioned and, in 1960, at the age of eighteen, received a visa to settle in the United States.  His parents and sisters followed several years later.


Azaceta settled with relatives in New Jersey.  He worked in a factory, but was fired for unionizing factory employees.  One day in late 1963, he wandered into an art-supply store.  “I became an artist out of boredom,” he later said.  Azaceta worked in a factory for three years while taking life-drawing classes at night.  In 1966 he enrolled in art school full time, working as a library clerk at night.  By the mid-1970s, Azaceta felt he had developed his own style, based on cartoon-like images.  He has painted work with tormented figures to show brutality and call for compassion, saying, “I want to present the victim – that is always my theme.”²


1.  All quotations, unless otherwise noted, are from a letter from Luis Cruz Azaceta to Alison de Lima Greene, curator of twentieth-century art, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, November 9, 1990.


2.  John Beardsley and Jane Livingston, Hispanic Art in the United States:  Thirty Contemporary Painters      and Sculptors (Houston, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 1987), pp. 146-48.

The Learning Through Art program is endowed by Melvyn and Cyvia Wolff.

The Learning Through Art curriculum website is made possible in part by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

All Learning and Interpretation programs at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, receive endowment income from funds provided by the Louise Jarrett Moran Bequest; Caroline Wiess Law; the William Randolph Hearst Foundation; The National Endowment for the Humanities; the Fondren Foundation; BMC Software, Inc.; the Wallace Foundation; the Neal Myers and Ken Black Children’s Art Fund; the Favrot Fund; and Gifts in honor of Beth Schneider