- Michael Barnes American-Statesman Staff
Even after several viewings, the monumental scale of a new mural inside the University of Texas’ all-but-completed Rowling Hall is tough to comprehend. José Parlá’s “Amistad América” stretches across the entire upper wall of the huge underground lobby of the new McCombs School of Business building located at Guadalupe Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.
Five years in the making, the plastered, abstract piece that combines elements of calligraphy, graffiti and cave painting was viewed by hundreds of guests Friday night. Thickly textured and layered with diplomatic metaphors from the Brooklyn-based, Cuban-American artist, the deceptively large piece nevertheless tricks the eye with its sheer size at 25 feet high — starting above the door line — and 160 feet long. At 4,000 total square feet, it is more than twice the size of Parlá’s immense mural at the World Trade Center in New York.
“It’s spectacular,” Austin art collector Michael Klein said Friday. “I’ve never seen anything like it. José is one the most creative and articulate artists I’ve ever met.”
“It has turned out better than I expected,” Parlá said before the official unveiling. “And now with the scaffolding gone, it is cleaned and dressed and ready to go.”
Parlá was first contacted by Andrée Bober, head of UT’s 10-year-old Landmarks public art program, five years ago. At that time, neither knew in what part of the planned building Parlá would imprint his gestural style, based on his movements and derived in part from Parlá’s youth as a street artist. They agreed on using the lobby, which is reached now through the lowest floor of the AT&T Executive Education and Conference Center. It initially presented a problem, as it is intersected on the north end by a set of escalators, but Parlá simply painted around them.
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A video at UT’s Landmarks website explains the mural’s title, which relates the word “Amistad” to the Caddoan term for “friendship,” which evolved into the name “Texas.” He also was inspired by the famous slave ship Amistad that stopped in his ancestral Cuba before arriving in the United States.
“I wanted to be all-inclusive,” he said during a question-and-answer session Friday. “I’m talking about how much more we needed to come together.”
Parlá, born in 1973, is the youngest of the Landmark program’s commissioned artists. He built a large model — it measured 5 feet by 28 feet — in his Brooklyn studio, then spent the past few weeks dangling on a movable lift in Austin, sometimes using the motion of the lift to help shape his abstractions.
“Because it is below ground, I thought of cave paintings like the ones at Altamira” in Spain, Parlá said. “So we were exploring this underground space and decided to go edge to edge. We all thought it was a crazy idea.”
The mural rises opposite a light-streamed limestone wall as part of an overall vision from lead designer Todd Schliemann of New York-based Ennead Architects, which includes an eye-opening plaza on the campus side of the building, while finishing off the prominent street corner with two bold facades traced with geometric shades.
Located outside a large reception hall that can double as a teaching theater, the mural is expected to be viewed by crowds of students and visitors over the years.
“Great art should be free,” Bober said. “Day by day, this will inspire us, while rewarding the imagination.”
“It is a work that will outlive me,” Parlá said. “Thousands of people will see it and each will see it differently. This is a good place to have a conversation and the rest will be up to the many, many people who will be coming through here for generations.”