Artist Enrique Martínez Celaya Comes Out of Hiding

After a self-imposed exile in Florida, the painter and sculptor returns to L.A., where his meteoric rise began

The paintings and sculptures of Enrique Martínez Celaya have a brooding, wintry quality, as if the artist had toiled in Bavaria and not the temperate climes of Los Angeles. Solitary figures cry, leafless birch branches bristle, a canary sings from atop a pair of human lungs. These pieces speak to Martínez Celaya’s sense of loss—his family left Cuba soon after the revolution—and his loneliness as a poor immigrant in Spain during the 1970s.

His work resonates with possibility as well, “those states of life when there’s equal sadness and hope,” he says.

2009’s The Early Hunger
2009’s The Early Hunger

Photograph courtesy Moderna Museet

A Cornell-educated physicist, Martínez Celaya was pursuing a doctorate at UC Berkeley in the ’90s when he made his own quantum leap, shifting his studies to art and settling in L.A. He quickly became the city’s preeminent new artist, the works from his Venice studio collected by such heavyweights as L.A.’s Larry and Susan Marx and Germany’s Dieter Rosenkrantz. He worried, however, about what he saw as a city focused on cultivating celebrity. He also chafed at perceptions that his work, which is informed by Northern European poets and philosophers like Paul Celan and Søren Kierkegaard, didn’t look like that of a Latino artist. In 2004, he moved to Florida, where he admittedly missed L.A. daily. Late last year he returned, buying an airy, two-story workspace in Culver City and a home in Brentwood. “There’s an incredible quality of light here, and I would see it in the movies and long for it,” Martínez Celaya, 51, says. “Today L.A. is a city that’s defined by creative people. You can have conversations with them that you can’t have anywhere else.” (This summer he continues the creative discussion with a new book, On Art and Mindfulness, based on workshops he gave at Colorado’s Anderson Ranch Arts Center.)

Martínez Celaya’s most ambitious piece, the 2004 Schneebett (Snow Bed), is a multiroom installation in which a frost-covered bed rests near a woodscape sculpted from feathers and tar. It’s a musing on the last days of Beethoven. Viewers hear the clanking of the cooling system along with the composer’s final concertos (Beethoven, though deaf, experienced a profound ringing in his ears). Nowadays mortality is again on the artist’s mind. His studio backs onto a Catholic cemetery. With each burial—more than a few are for slain gang members—he orders that all work come to a halt. “It’s a reminder of the importance of life,” he says.