When the Cuba-born artist Zilia Sánchez mounted a solo show at the Artists Space in Soho in 2013, it was her first major exhibition in the city in decades. Though Sánchez lived in New York on and off throughout the 1960s, making art, studying at Pratt, and working in a brush factory, she settled in Puerto Rico in 1972, and most of her painting career unfolded there.
“I’m shocked that I didn’t know who she was, because the work is so extraordinary and I’m particularly interested in female artists and artists of Latin America,” Mary Sabbatino, the vice president of Chelsea’s Galerie Lelong, remembers. “But sometimes good things escape you.”
The gallerist first encountered Sánchez’s work around the time of the Artists Space show, when a friend involved with that organization showed her some drawings on his iPhone. Sabbatino quickly offered Sánchez a solo show at her gallery. That exhibition, “Heróicas Eróticas en Nueva York,” opened in early 2014.
A lot has happened in the two years since. In late 2014, the U.S. and Cuba made moves to restore diplomatic ties, frozen since 1961. The two countries have opened embassies and restored commercial flight routes. A couple of months ago, President Obama visited Cuba, attended a baseball game with President Raúl Castro, and, in a public address, called for the lifting of the U.S. embargo. And not long after, with almost as much fanfare, the Rolling Stones played a historic concert in Havana.
It’s clear that America and its allies are suddenly quite fascinated by all things Cuba. And nowhere is that more true than in the art world. Last spring, the Bronx Museum of the Arts presented “Cuba Libre!,” a selection of works from an array of contemporary Cuban artists. This winter, New York’s David Zwirner gallery showed “Concrete Cuba,” an exhibition of pre-revolutionary art. And this month, Sánchez, now three months shy of her 90th birthday, is back at Galerie Lelong.
This time, she’s in good company. Earlier this week, the gallery quietly opened “Constructivist Dialogues in the Cuban Vanguard,” a group show that exhibits Sánchez’s paintings alongside work by two of her countrywomen, the late Amelia Peláez and the late Loló Soldevilla. (I say “quietly” because the opening reception, which Sánchez is slated to attend, is this Thursday.) “The gallery was interested in contextualizing Sánchez’s work in the history of Cuban art,” the scholar and curator Ingrid W. Elliott, who helped organize the show, told me when I dropped by a few days ago. “If you ask Zilia about Cuban art, she talks about the admiration she has for Amalea Peláez and Loló Soldevilla. They were important female role models.”
The three artists all had solo exhibitions at the Lyceum and Lawn Tennis Club in Havana, a now-defunct but onetime-influential art and social venue, but they belong to three distinct movements in Cuban art. Elliott and Sabbatino designed their exhibition to highlight the points of connection: All three artists, Elliott explains, were interested in light and in architecture. And all three, though engaged at various levels in abstraction, “really insist on a connection between the art object and the world.”
All three were also captivated by lunar shapes, though the moon takes very different forms in each woman’s work. Peláez, born in 1896, was a member of the second generation of the Cuban avant-garde, a movement intent, Elliott explains, on marrying Parisian modernism with authentic national subjects. For Peláez, that meant architectural motifs, particularly the mediopunto, a half-moon, stained-glass window typical in Spanish colonial architecture. In the works on display, vibrantly colorful, Cubist-style domestic scenes bear the artist’s signature thick black arabesque. Mediopuntos abound. Case in point: “Naturaleza Muerta,” in which a large, carnival-color half of stained glass hovers ominously over a mess of dead foliage tumbling toward the painting’s foreground.
Soldevilla, born five years later but an artistic late-bloomer, served as cultural attaché to Cuba’s European delegation in Paris in the late 1940s and early ’50s. She helped bring geometric abstraction back to Cuba, and her own work is mostly monochromatic and minimalist: simple collages, freestanding sculptures, and thinly painted wooden reliefs, often incorporating circle motifs. One oil painting, Carta Celestial: Noches en el Cosmo, reveals a dark circle streaked with light, hovering, moonlike, against a white background. In the foreground, another circle floats by, like an errant planet on the move.
Across the room, Sánchez, born in 1926, offers a very different take on the theme. Aside from a few early pieces, Sánchez’s work consists of wonderfully three-dimensional paintings, which she creates by stretching canvases over wooden armatures. There’s something primordial and erotic about the shapes, an electric energy diffused by their cool color palettes. In Lunar con Tatuaje, a pair of large-scale, half-circle canvases are painted in concentric rings of white, blue, and pale peach, the matte, clean surface of the paint marred by an erratic tangle of marker lines, arrows, and circles. The two paintings meet in the middle to create a mound, protruding out into the room like a gigantic breast. There are many variations on that theme. In Lunar Negro con Tatuaje, three low-profile mounds poke out from the surface, connected with white markings like astrological diagrams. In Lunar V, the two sides of another massive peak don’t quite line up, the halves reaching for each other like a pair of white-gloved hands attempting to clasp.
Why moons? Elliott reminds me that the nexus of the show is Havana in the 1950s, a moment when the space race dominated the popular imagination. Any further interpretation is pure speculation, but it strikes me that it’s a wonderful symbol for an exhibition that brings together three artists who frequently found themselves working far from home. It’s the same moon, as they say, no matter where on earth you’re standing.
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