We live in a frenzied time. Political turmoil, digital distraction, and each social or economic crisis after the next are constantly on the verge of overwhelming our minds and senses. In the midst of all this, art can be a form of refuge — a way to not exactly escape the world but to slow it down. And right now, I can think of no better creative haven than time spent with the biomorphic, beguiling, and unabashedly sensual work of Zilia Sánchez, whose first museum retrospective in New York is on view at El Museo del Barrio.
The Cuban-born Ms. Sánchez, who will turn 94 this summer, has spent some 50 years making abstract, shaped, sculptural paintings, and is still at work. While modern art has a firmly established tradition of objects that simultaneously hang on the wall and jut into space (think of Robert Rauschenberg’s collagelike “Combines”) and of monochrome, geometric canvases (see Carmen Herrera and Ellsworth Kelly) Ms. Sánchez does something different.
She isn’t self-conscious about operating between mediums, and her work doesn’t ask clever formal questions. Instead, its curves and mounds, swells and protrusions allude to recognizable sources, most notably the landscape, the moon, and the female body. Her painting constructions, many of which are called “topologías eróticas,” or erotic topologies, are non-narrative but filled with hidden meanings, expressing something deeply personal and fundamentally physical. They’re controlled, with a cool palette of mostly black, white and gray, yet so animated they often seem as if they’re trying to come alive — or, as the artist once put it, “paintings with air that breathe.”
The exhibition “Zilia Sánchez: Soy Isla (I Am an Island),” which was organized by Vesela Sretenović, a curator at the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., where it first appeared, gathers approximately 40 works to lead the viewer through her career. Ms. Sánchez’s mature style is instantly recognizable once you know it, but before she found it, she experimented with different aesthetics and mediums while traveling and living in different places. In the accompanying catalog, the writer Mercedes Cortázar links Ms. Sánchez’s permanent settling in Puerto Rico in 1971 with a “new, free trajectory” in her work.
Ms. Sánchez was born to a Spanish father and a Cuban mother in Havana in 1926. She was exposed to art at an early age: her father painted in his spare time, and her neighbor, Víctor Manuel, belonged to a rising generation of Cuban artists. Mr. Manuel, who was self-taught, mentored and inspired Ms. Sánchez, who says in an interview in the catalog, “Art can be expressed through a technique or a spirit. Technique can be taught, but an inner spirit cannot.”
Still, she did learn technique, enrolling in 1943 in the prestigious Escuela Nacional de Bellas Artes “San Alejandro.” After graduation she began exhibiting her work in group shows and then had her first solo exhibition in 1953. In 1959 one of her paintings was included in the internationally renowned São Paulo Biennial in Brazil.
Ms. Sánchez was making abstractions with blocky passages of color and interconnected geometric lines and shapes. An untitled work from 1958 looks like a rendering of a complex system floating in oceanic turquoise space. As in so many other places, this kind of gestural painting had become the new Cuban avant-garde; Los Once (The Eleven), the country’s first abstract artists’ group, debuted the same year as Ms. Sánchez’s inaugural solo show, and her work was often exhibited with theirs. The 1950s were also her most expressly political years, as she participated in protest exhibitions against the dictator Fulgencio Batista.
The situation changed when Fidel Castro seized power on New Year’s Day 1959. Ms. Sánchez hasn’t said that she left because of the revolution, but already by the end of that first year, Communist Party officials were expressing doubts about the expediency of abstract art to further their cause. The homophobia of the party, and of Cuban society in general, also made it difficult for her as a queer womanmaking work that would go on to address lesbian desire. Ms. Sánchez moved to New York City in 1960. She would remain a citizen of Cuba but never live there again.
New York in the ’60s was a modern art mecca, yet it was an unwelcoming place for Ms. Sánchez, who didn’t speak the language and didn’t identify with the cold, impersonal style of Minimalism, despite its visual connections to her work. She found an expatriate social circle and took printmaking classes, while also holding down a series of day jobs. Most important, though, she was developing her relief paintings, or “structures,” as she then called them, the idea for which came to her when her father died several years before. The sheet from his bed had been hung out to dry, and she had seen it flapping in the wind and hitting a pipe or tube, creating a haunting, indelible image.
Indeed, one of the earliest works in the retrospective, a small untitled piece whose dates stretch from 1956 to 1999, looks like fabric pulled taut over thin rods. On the white surface, Ms. Sánchez has drawn — or tattooed, as she calls these markings — black lines that seem to trace an unidentified journey.
Beginning in New York and especially since moving to Puerto Rico (with a stop in Madrid in between), Ms. Sánchez has constructed a universe of paintings whose forms echo a woman’s body, with attenuated, conical breasts, vulvar mounds and cylindrical lips seeming to emerge from the canvases; their visual associations are emphasized by zones of paint. Pairs appear frequently, conjoined to create a whole, as in a towering but elegant 1987 work, “Juana de Arco” (“Joan of Arc”). Units often repeat serially: in one of the most exhilarating pieces, “Troyanas” (“Trojan Women,”) from 1984, breasts line up like ready soldiers.
Ms. Sánchez names many of her works after historical and mythological women, and her use of the phrase “Topología Erótica” (coined by a friend, the Cuban poet Severo Sarduy) signals her approach to the female body. She isn’t depicting or abstracting it in order to objectify and dominate it, nor is she baring it as a form of feminist reclamation. The goal, rather, is to intimately study and map it.
This idea is reinforced by the ink drawings that sometimes cover her canvases — networks of lines and shapes that hark back to her early abstractions. Ms. Sánchez makes these tattoos intuitively, marking the skins of her artworks with maps to her subconscious. On her moon-shaped “Lunar” works, the drawings also recall constellations. “Lunar con Tatuaje” (“Moon With Tattoo, circa 1968/96), one of her most elaborate pieces, features two semicircular canvases with raised half-moons in the middle. Frenzied groups of lines arc between various points, accompanied by arrows and an occasional eye or hand. The picture isn’t legible, but it calls forth a kind of cosmic knowledge.
Such is the duality and lesson of Ms. Sánchez’s art: It’s grounded in the material world but points toward something metaphysical. I thought of this as I watched the video that plays near the entrance to the retrospective. In “Encuentrismo — Ofrenda o Retorno” (“The Encounter — Offering or Return”), from 2000, the artist stands on a beach and pushes one of her paintings into the ocean. For 20 mesmerizing minutes, waves crash over the canvas construction as it bobbles, floats and returns. In the gallery the piece that had been in the water sits on a low plinth before the screen. On the surface it looks like a sad, lopsided, water-logged painting, but Ms. Sánchez knows, and we do too, that it’s really so much more.
Zilia Sánchez: Soy Isla (I Am an Island)
Through March 22 at El Museo del Barrio, 1230 Fifth Avenue, Manhattan; 212-831-7272, elmuseo.org.