On ViewEl Museo Del Barrio
November 20 – March 22, 2020
On ViewGalerie Lelong & Co.
November 21 – January 17, 2020
For the past 70 years, Zilia Sánchez (born in Havana, Cuba, 1926), has developed a singular practice of formal abstraction that has spanned painting, architecture, theater design, graphic illustration, and in recent years, sculpture. Since she first began showing her work in the 1950s, Sánchez has been prolific in output, participating in group exhibitions and biennales across the United States and Latin America. It is only in the past decade that Sánchez has gained much of a following in the United States, when a career survey debuted at Artists Space in 2013. This was followed by a solo exhibition at Galerie Lelong in 2014, and subsequent group exhibitions at the Hammer Museum and the Pérez Art Museum in Miami in 2016 and 2017. In New York, a pair of concurrent solo exhibitions, her first major retrospective in the United States at El Museo del Barrio, Soy Isla (I am an Island), curated by Dr. Vesela Sretenovic and Eros, at Galerie Lelong, stand to garner Sánchez a wider audience who will undoubtedly be captivated by the eroticism of her oeuvre and her fluid approach to combining surface, form, and shadow to sublime effect.
In 1960, the year after Fidel Castro came to power in Cuba, Sánchez moved to New York, where she was exposed to the Minimalist aesthetics of Donald Judd, Ellsworth Kelly, Agnes Martin, and Carmen Herrera. Though reluctant to denote her art as politically inflected, Sánchez was ensconced in a milieu of leftist artists, writers, and critics, and contributed graphic design and drawings to leftist publications and small magazines throughout the 1960s. She continued to travel to Europe through grants and scholarships, studying conservation and design, and contributed to La nueva sangre, a New York-based literary publication founded by fellow Cuban emigres. Through her collaboration with the poet and writer Severo Sarduy, Sánchez adapted theories of French structuralism and semiotics into her abstractions of line and form, as seen in her 1968 series of ink drawings, “El significado del significante” (The Signified of the Signifier). Redolent of scientific drawings in their precision and detail, the series is characteristic of Sánchez’s preoccupation with organic processes of creation and depictions of rounded forms. “This is an egg, it’s the world, and it’s a breast. Three things,” notes Sánchez in a 2013 interview.1
It was during this time in the 1960s that Sánchez’s interests in mythology and the female body coalesced in distinctively shaped canvases, which she called constructions and would be later termed “erotic topologies” by Sarduy, in reference to their undulating forms—abstractions of the female figure buoyed by Sánchez’s commitment to aesthetic balance. To make these works, Sánchez built custom wooden armatures onto which she stretched canvas and layered acrylic paint in cool blues, pale pinks, and light tans abutted by stark white plains. Their gentle protrusions, suggestive of breasts and buttocks, are enhanced by repetition and compositional harmony, whether in near-symmetrical pairs in Amazonas (1978) or Construcción: Topología erotica (1973), or in serial format, as in Troyanas (1967) (from the series “Infinite Modules”) canvases that were repeated and could be arranged in various configurations. In her evocation of female mythological figures, Sánchez imbues her work with historical significance, connecting a modernist visual vocabulary with classical subject matter.
Sánchez’s instinctive understanding of the possibilities afforded by seriality and modularity pertains obliquely to difficulties she faced in gaining recognition in New York and in 1971, she moved to Puerto Rico, where she continues to live and work. Because many of her works remained in her studio rather than circulating in the market, Sánchez often returned to them, modifying their arrangements and orientation (as noted on the verso of Soy Isla: Compréndelo y retírate (1969-96)) or by adding graphic inscriptions on their surfaces, as in the tondo Lunar con tatuaje (Moon with Tattoo) (1968/1996). The two complementary halves of the piece are stamped with cryptic allusions to personal memories and locations, and its title alludes both to Sánchez’s treatment of her canvases as skin and the double meaning of lunar as both moon and beauty mark.
At Galerie Lelong, Sánchez’s cosmological bent is further evidenced by two large, free-standing sculptures, Lunar blanco (2000/2019) and Luna Lunar (2000/2019), initially conceived as maquettes and rendered for the first time in marble. The exhibition’s centerpiece, Eros (1976/1998) is monumental in scale, spare in color, and elegant in form. Comprising two freestanding curved canvases mounted on cylindrical wooden supports that face another and seem to fit together and separated by a small gulf, the sculpture juxtaposes smooth, curved surfaces against the sharp linearity of its undergirding armature—recalling the sliced canvases of Lucio Fontana. The diagonal cut of these underlying axes is mirrored in the composition of surrounding wall-bound pieces such as El silencio de la brisa (Silence of the breeze) (2018), where the aesthetic doubling found in so much of the artist’s oeuvre reinforces Sánchez’s use of the almost-symmetrical.
Sánchez deploys this mode of inexact mirroring within her compositions as a means to deflect the viewer’s desire for a complete whole, while achieving aesthetic balance and harmony in her shaped canvases. Eros, as Anne Carson notes in her essay “Eros the Bittersweet,” is driven by absence, or lack, and can be thought of as a triangular relation between the lover, beloved, and the difference between them.2 In reconsidering the graphic slash that separates the dates of Sánchez’s individual works—which denote either execution and later intervention, or initial conception and final execution—within the context of her expansive career, it is also possible to reevaluate notions of artistic legacy and the terms used to delineate them: mid-career, late-career, etc. The works on display in Eros and Soy Isla are grounded in Sánchez’s experiences of exile, histories—personal or collective. They are always fragmented, malleable and contingent, formed by individual psyches and their attendant erotics. Zilia Sánchez’s fluency in the erotic, buoyed by her insistence on continually re-defining and clarifying her artistic vision, provides a welcome shift to the ever-forming modernist canon.3
- Zilia Sánchez, Interview with Stefan Kalmár and Richard Birkett, March 2013. YouTube, posted November 7, 2013.
- Anne Carson, “Logic at the Edge,” from Eros the Bittersweet (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986), Page 135 in E-Book.