Excerpted from the Nasher’s Instagram series ‘Artists on Art,’ in which artists offer reflections on a work from the Nasher collection.
When I was invited to the Nasher to look around and choose a work to speak about, I was immediately drawn to this amazing sculpture by Alberto Giacometti called Head-Skull from 1934. I had this immediate reaction to the work. I began to think back to when I was 7 years old in Mexico at my uncle’s wedding, where there were these Mexican sugar skulls on the table as decoration, and I was so blown away by these things. Skulls and skeletons are the main symbol of Mexico’s Day of the Dead, a multiday holiday that involves family and friends gathering to pray and to remember their friends and family members who have died. Now, these objects—sugar skulls—are so beautiful. They’re made of sugar, chocolate. They’re sculptural; they’re decorated by hand; they’re edible, which, as a 7-year-old, is super enticing. They’re representative of death, yet colorful and vibrant. So, at 7 years old, my first sculptural encounter is this sugar skull at my uncle’s wedding.
Fast forward 11 years. I am in America now studying painting in college, and at this point I’d become an American citizen and I was mining Mexican symbols to better understand my personal background. My dad introduced me to the etchings of José Guadalupe Posada. This print by Posada is called La Calavera Catrina, and I was fascinated by this image because the skeleton of the Catrina is personified. She almost seems welcoming, funny, like she would tell you this really interesting joke or story—like, you almost want to get to know this Catrina, right? The hat is over the top. It’s almost three times bigger than the skull.
What I find fascinating about the sugar skull and the Catrina is that artists or craftsmen were using the sugar skull as a starting point and then altering it in some way, whether by decorating it or dressing it up.
This interest in skulls in art led me to learn more about how the skull is implemented in Mexican history, and it taught me that the motif has been used for thousands of years, usually symbolizing death, mortality, and the vanity of earthly life. A beautiful example that I saw was in an exhibition of artifacts from the ancient city of Teotihuacan at the de Young Museum in San Francisco in 2018—the Aztec ‘circular relief’ from the Sun Pyramid, made around 300 to 458 AD. It’s probably not as it was presented in the past, but it’s still incredibly beautiful, and what I want you to remember from this piece is that the stone is supposed to represent folded paper around the skull. It’s very simplified. It’s not representative of an actual skull. It’s not anatomically correct, and then you have this folded paper around the edge, so it’s definitely stylized, but still speaks to the motif of the skull.
Now we fast forward to 1997 with Mexican sculptor Gabriel Orozco’s Black Kites. This is one of my favorite contemporary sculptures. Orozco covered an actual human skull with drawn graphite. So, if you look at the top of the skull, you see this checkered pattern, and it doesn’t wrap around this skull but is more projected, and it begins to warp as it goes around. So you are, in a sense, aware of the dimensionality of this skull. It’s also interesting because it had to be carefully drawn, so even though this is the skull of someone [dead], Gabriel Orozco, in a way, brings [them] back to life. This skull can be readily understood as a memento mori, or a reminder of death, a common symbol in the European still life tradition. I know it seems dark, but I really see this with optimism. It is for me a reminder to be present today because in the end, we only have a certain amount of time here on this earth.
Now, with that said, I’d like to invite you to look at Giacometti’s Head-Skull. Before we talk about Giacometti, I want to just look at the sculpture from a formal perspective. It is kind of like the Aztec relief, right? It’s very simplified, very geometric, very polygonal. It is composed of different planes. This line cutting through the center of the piece continues to the top. Now, if you come to the right side, you can see that it is very simple. It’s almost like an egg that’s become a polygonal egg, but you still see the slit of the mouth, so he’s still giving you just the right amount of information to invite you to the other side. As you come to the other side, you begin to see characteristic qualities of the skull. I love the eye socket here. You know it’s a very, very simplified eye socket. He just drew a perfect circle and just carved just the right amount. You see this bottom line that comes across? That is representative of the jawbone. The square where the eye socket is, is representative of the cheek. And then if you come farther back, the left side is a little bit within the right side to say like, oh maybe this is something that exists within, right?
LEFT: Alberto Giacometti (b. 1901). Venice Woman III (Femme de Venise III), 1956. Bronze, 47 1/2 x 13 1/2 x 6 7/8 in. (120.7 x 34.3 x 17.5 cm). Succession Alberto Giacometti / Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY 2022. Raymond and Patsy Nasher Collection, Nasher Sculpture Center, Dallas, Texas. RIGHT: Alberto Giacometti (b. 1901). Head-Skull (Tête-crâne), 1934. Marble, 7 3/8 x 7 3/4 x 8 1/8 in. (18.7 x 19.7 x 20.6 cm). Succession Alberto Giacometti / Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY 2022. Raymond and Patsy Nasher Collection, Nasher Sculpture Center, Dallas, Texas.
Alberto Giacometti sculpted this in 1934. He sculpted this toward the end of his involvement with the Surrealist movement and, I quote, “Giacometti explored themes like introspection, dreams, and madness, incorporating the imaginary universe of everyday objects into his works.” The idea of a skull—that’s the ultimate everyday object that all of us always carry around within our bodies, right?
Something that I think is very important about this piece is that Giacometti was part of the Surrealist group in Paris, and he decided to transition to leave it. And here you see this very polished sculpture, but around 1935 he gave up on his surrealistic influences to pursue a deeper analysis of figurative composition. And this is important because I think we as artists change and evolve. What I knew of Giacometti before I learned about this work were these very visceral figurative sculptures of skinny humans, skinny figures that were also the subject of his paintings, these somewhat monochromatic portraits of sitters, stylized. And you could see every brushstroke as you can see his fingerprints in the sculptures.
It’s fascinating that he went from making something like Head-Skull to then making very visceral figurative sculptures. I think that’s a testament to how artists need to evolve. They need to change, especially today with all this pressure to have a “brand.” I'm kind of jealous of older artists that didn’t have to worry about that, right? They could just make their work and talk to their friends.
Francisco Moreno (b. 1986). The Allegory of Weed Gummy and Alcohol Induced Anxiety, 2021. Acrylic on canvas, 51.2 x 76.8 in. (130 x 195 cm). Photo: courtesy of the artist.
And with that said, I’m going to talk a little bit about how I use this skull in my painting. Here you see The Allegory of Weed Gummy and Alcohol Induced Anxiety. This figure is confronting these substances that have created this experience of anxiety. You see a lot of demons taunting him and torturing him and making him feel very uncomfortable. Toward the right, you see this skeleton that has a cowboy hat and this AR-15. I mean, he could be representative of toxic masculinity. Thinking back to how Posada personified his Catrina, this skull I painted is a character that has existed in the past, exists today, and will exist in the future. And he’s interesting because he came from an etching that Hans Holbein did from a series of works called The Dance of Death. So again, I’m pulling from art history and using it to inspire my works today.
Francisco Moreno is an artist that lives and works in Mexico City and Dallas. He received a BFA in painting from the University of Texas at Arlington and an MFA in painting from the Rhode Island School of Design. In 2016, he received an Artist Microgrant from the Nasher to start the production of his Chapel, which was acquired by the Dallas Museum of Art. Moreno has had solo exhibitions at OFG.XXX, Erin Cluely Gallery, the Latino Cultural Center, and COAM in Madrid, Spain.
 “Suspended Ball (Boule Suspendue), 1930-31," Guggenheim Bilbao, 2018, https://www.guggenheim-bilbao.eus/en/learn/schools/teachers-guides/suspended-ball-boule-suspendue-1930-1931.
TOP, LEFT: Gabriel Orozco (b. 1962). Black Kites Print, 1997. Digital print on paper. Image: courtesy of the artist and kurimanzutto, Mexico City. / TOP, MIDDLE: Jose Guadalupe Posada (b. 1852), La Calavera Catrina (Skull of the Female Dandy), c. 1910. Zinc etching, 13.58 x 9.05 in. (34.5 x 23 cm). / TOP, RIGHT: Circular relief, 300–458 AD. Stone, 49 1/4 x 40 1/2 x 9 7/8 in. (125 x 103 x 25 cm). Museo Nacional de Antropología / INAH, 10-81807. Archivo Digital de las Colecciones del Museo Nacional de Antropología / INAH-CANON. Image courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.