ONE OF THE advantages of being a woman artist, as the Guerrilla Girls famously observed in a 1988 lithograph, is “knowing your career might pick up after you’re eighty.” Such is the case for the Cuban artist Zilia Sánchez, who has garnered her first major retrospective at the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., this spring—at the age of ninety-three.
“Zilia Sánchez: Soy Isla” is a long-overdue survey of Sánchez’s career, from the early abstract paintings she made in Cuba to the sensual shaped canvases she refined in New York during the 1960s and continued to create after moving to San Juan, Puerto Rico, in 1971. Despite her long stint in New York and the similarities of her work to that of successful artists such as Louise Bourgeois and Eva Hesse, Sánchez was “discovered” by American audiences only in 2013, when her work was shown at Artists Space in New York. At the Phillips, Sánchez’s erotic abstractions emerge as fresh meditations on exile, the body, and female sexuality—their cultural import undiminished by the passage of time.
Within the quiet galleries of the Phillips, the formal elements of Sánchez’s paintings take precedence over the overtly political. In the central room two round forms punctuate the raised, tentlike surfaces of each canvas in an elegant black-and-white diptych. The two panels of Soy Isla: Compréndelo y retírate (I Am an Island: Understand and Retreat), 1969–96, fit together almost exactly. “I am after a harmony between two forces,” Sánchez said in a 2017 interview. “I compose the balance of the body.”1 Harmony, doubling, and balance are central to Sánchez’s abstract forms; in Soy Isla, she offsets the airy spiral on the top of the left-hand panel with a series of heavier lines, while on the right canvas, the opposite is true: the darker black circle serves as a counterweight to thin, ghostly echoes of drawn lines. Sánchez’s shaped paintings are often understood as abstractions of the female body—an interpretation she endorses—but it is through her deft manipulation of color, space, and line that she achieves the compositional balance that makes the work so successful.
Given this carefully calibrated sense of balance, it’s surprising to discover that Soy Isla can be hung in multiple orientations. Curator Vesela Sretenović reproduces the versos of the two canvases in the exhibition’s wall text panel and catalogue, revealing the cacophony of Sánchez’s notations. On these versos, she identifies the work as a maqueta and gives both 1991 and 1996 as the date for the left panel. The other panel is dated 1969 and 1990, though in 1990, Sánchez appears to have flipped the orientation of the painting 180 degrees. Sretenović asserts that Sánchez’s ambiguity about dates is intentional, but it also signals the structural difficulties of Sánchez’s career. The lack of significant institutional or gallery support for her art meant that many of her paintings remained with her and could be reworked at will.
In addition to altering the orientation of her works and refashioning them over a period of decades, Sánchez has mixed and matched panels of a single work, like the boxes of certain Louise Nevelson works, and sometimes she does not include all the units in a single installation.2 Soy Isla is modular and serial, and its reductive formal elegance is reminiscent of an early black-and-white Ellsworth Kelly. Which is to say it’s hard-edged, even Minimalist. But, as the raised surface of the canvas and the tattoo-like inscriptions remind us, the work is also something else entirely.
MUTABILITY IS a defining condition for Sánchez, an artist who has spent the majority of her life in exile. She was born on July 12, 1926, in Havana, to a Cuban mother and a Spanish father who painted on the weekends. Fortuitously, the family lived above the famous Cuban painter Víctor Manuel García Valdés (known as Victor Manuel), and Sánchez sat on her balcony watching Manuel paint below.3 She studied art at the Escuela Elemental de Artes Plásticas Aplicadas for two years before enrolling at the prestigious Escuela National de Bellas Artes “San Alejandro” from 1943 to ’48. She found the teachers at San Alejandro too strict and looked for mentors who would encourage her to be undisciplined.4
Sánchez originally wanted to be an architect, but she abandoned the practice (whether because she “never liked exact numbers or precise things” or because the Cuban Revolution halted her career plans depends on the version of the story she tells).5 “The affinity for architecture is something that has always been inside of me,” she recalled in a 2016 interview. “It is something instinctive.”6 In nearly every interview she’s given, Sánchez mentions the moment when she first thought of her signature shaped canvases: on the rooftop of her parents’ apartment building in Havana in 1955, she saw the sheet from her father’s deathbed drying on a line. She watched as it flapped in the wind against the raised, round form of a tube or a pipe.7 It’s an origin story that lends Sánchez’s work an underlying sense of trauma, but it also demonstrates the visual sense of an artist who was attuned to physical spaces: “I saw the form that came about because of that, and suddenly I saw the sheet like a painting.”8
While Sánchez’s vision was instantaneous, it would be another five years before she began making full-scale paintings that incorporated raised sections of canvas. Her attempts to exhibit early works utilizing raised canvas in Cuba were unsuccessful, and she felt Cuba was not ready for her abstractions.9 She changed course, working through lyrical expressionism, hard-edged abstraction, and Art Informel before returning to her shaped canvases.
Sánchez’s mature paintings depend on sophisticated armatures of reclaimed wood or plastic built on top of wooden frameworks, over which Sánchez stretches, for a period of several days, linen or muslin fabric that has been dipped in a glue-like sizing.10 Sánchez then applies acrylic paint while the stretched fabric lies flat, and often tattoos the surface with ink.11 It’s a complex, labor-intensive process that takes time and is prone to failure—wrinkles, creases, rips—especially given the humid conditions of Havana and, later, San Juan. (Sánchez remembers one painting spontaneously splitting in the middle of the night, “like [a] Fontana,” a work by the Argentine-Italian artist known for slashing his canvases with a knife.12) Sánchez worked, as she tells it, for a decade to “lift [her paintings] up high,” actively looking for resources to help her do so.13 By the early 1960s, her technical knowledge was enhanced by her work as a conservator, a job she took to support herself while living in New York. (She had studied conservation at the Instituto Central de Conservación y Restauración in Madrid in 1966.) “I . . . learned about porcelain,” she told Sretenović in a recent interview, “because it is a material for curved forms, and a painting is flat. I never liked porcelain itself, but learning a technique gave me the needed skills to make molds and then to make up things in my own way.”14 Sánchez alternately calls her shaped canvases “constructions” or “structures”—the terms of a thwarted architect who uses the rarefied knowledge of a conservator to produce paintings of uncommon form.15
IT CAN BE ARGUED, of course, that many artists use the obstacles of their artistic careers as fodder for their art. But Sánchez’s status as a consummate outsider—an exile, a female artist, and a lesbian—has codified her work within particular narratives of loss, displacement, and transition. The retrospective opens with Encuentrismo—ofrenda o retorno (The Encounter—Offering or Return), 2000, a video of Sánchez repeatedly launching her painting Soy Isla (I Am an Island), 2000 into the Atlantic Ocean, the taut forms of the painting’s raised surface deflating with each pass through the waves. At the Phillips, the damaged painting rests on a plinth in front of the video, its surface listing to the left, the black paint abraded. Encuentrismo—ofrenda o retorno is at once melancholy and ambivalent, documenting a work of art caught in the transformative and unceasing pull of the tides. In the exhibition catalogue, art historian Carla Acevedo-Yates characterizes the project—the performance, video, and painting—as a metaphor for Sánchez’s body of work, “which refuses to be one thing or another . . . resistant and independent of art historical categorizations, fluid and performative, and defiant to a heteronormative gaze.”16 Sánchez’s work is tied to the sense of dislocation inherent in her status as a queer exile, as Acevedo-Yates argues, and this sense of flux (and the attendant difficulty in categorizing her work) has contributed to her lack of recognition in the United States. Her plight was akin to that of other senior female artists such as Carmen Herrera or Howardena Pindell, who worked for decades in obscurity. Now all three are suddenly art-world darlings.
In Cuba, however, Sánchez was not an obscure artist. When Sánchez left Havana in 1960, she was well-known, having exhibited regularly at home and abroad. She had her first solo show at the prestigious Lyceum Lawn and Tennis Club in Havana in 1953, and exhibited frequently with Los Once, a group of young artists who practiced geometric abstraction. She also designed sets for Las Máscaras, an experimental theater company. Perhaps because her father was Spanish, Sánchez’s artistic reference points in the 1950s were not west in Latin America or north in the United States, but rather east—in Europe.17 She saw examples of European abstraction in “Pintura de hoy: Vanguardia de la escuela de París,” an exhibition that Cuban artist Loló Soldevilla mounted in Havana in 1956, and Sánchez traveled to France, Italy, and Spain during the mid- and late 1950s. Her paintings from 1956–58 show her grasp of geometric abstraction filtered through a lyrical expressionist sensibility, as in Azul azul (1956) and an untitled work from 1958. Although Sánchez set her preference for acrylic and ink early, her use of watercolor or gouache in drawings from this period underscores the looser, more poetic feeling of this early work.
The mid- and late 1950s marked a period of stylistic exploration for Sánchez. Lo que es de isla y piel (Belonging to Island and Skin), 1958, from her “Afrocubans” series, features a spare palette, hard-edged forms, and dark lines, thus serving as a prototype for Sánchez’s later shaped canvases. The entire series is ripe for further research. An untitled canvas from 1960 echoes the formal properties Sánchez explored in the “Afrocuban” series while inaugurating the darker, more heavily worked mixed-medium paintings that she created in the early 1960s, inspired by Art Informel and the work of Rafael Canogar, Manolo Millares, and Antoni Tàpies. These paintings largely coincide with her move to New York, and her dramatic shift in palette, materials, and technique could be read as Sánchez’s response to the adverse conditions of exile in Manhattan. The paintings, however, suggest that Sánchez was still looking at European models of abstraction as she defined her own means of artistic expression.
As with so much of Sánchez’s history, the exact date when she fled Havana and became a Cuban exile remains disputed. Current research suggests that Sánchez left in December 1960, the year after Castro came to power, and that she chose New York because the Cuban writer Severo Sarduy, a close friend, extended an invitation.18 By all accounts, Sánchez’s departure from Cuba after Castro’s rise to power was a painful moment of self-determination. She left her family in Cuba to pursue her art, choosing a city that, while not open by any means, was more tolerant of homosexual relationships. The Cuban poet Mercedes Cortázar, who went into exile in New York in 1961, recalled that while Cuba “had always been hell for anyone who was queer,” and more so during Castro’s regime, people in New York could be “somewhat open” about their sexuality if they were “more or less discreet.”19 With the advent of Abstract Expressionism, Pop, and Minimalism and the rise of many successful galleries, New York had become the center of the art world—a location seemingly full of possibility for a young artist.
The New York that Sánchez discovered was profoundly insular, and anything but welcoming. Cortázar recalled that Sánchez “showed photos of her work and catalogues from her previous exhibitions in Havana, Paris, Madrid, São Paulo, and Caracas to smug art gatekeepers, only to receive condescending critiques.”20 Thus marginalized, Sánchez continued to make paintings during the early and mid-1960s, but she also turned to scenography and graphic design, collaborative processes that gave her entrée to the world of Cuban exiles in New York. Sánchez provided illustrations for a volume of Cortázar’s poetry, for example, and created art for the magazine La nueva sangre. In her catalogue essay, art historian Abigail McEwen argues that Sánchez’s graphic design influenced her paintings, and charts the shifts in Sánchez’s oeuvre, from the “existential agita” of the first half of the 1960s to the “cool, minimalist erotics” of the second half, through her illustrations for La nueva sangre.21 Portable, inexpensive to produce, and communal, magazines like La nueva sangre became an efficient mechanism for uniting Cuban exiles in New York, worlds away from Warhol’s Factory or Donald Judd’s Spring Street studio.
THE INEVITABLE comparisons of Sánchez’s work to Minimalism in the US seem, within this context, to be more a product of dominant art historical narratives than a reflection of the artist’s lived experience. While Sánchez attended the openings of Minimalist artists and knew their work—as the modular, serial aspects of pieces like Troyanas (Trojan Women), 1967, a polyptych from the series “Módulos infinitos,” demonstrates—she did not feel part of their world.22 Indeed, the first thing viewers notice when they look at Troyanas is not the modularity of the work, the crisp edges of the simplified forms, or the black-and-white palette, but the elevated, nipple-like areas of raised canvas. While Sánchez grounds her paintings in the tenets of Minimalism, giving the work formal coherence, she does so in the service of her own idiosyncratic vision. In a filmed interview from 2013, she slips from her native Spanish into English to speak about Minimalism—a rare shift that encapsulates the distance she felt (and continues to feel) from the movement. Sarduy registered this in 1970, when he wrote “Sánchez’s topologies barely participate in this [minimalist] code.”23 He argues that Sánchez’s art is instead predicated on the body and tactility, and his term “erotic topologies” encapsulates the sensual reliefs of Sánchez’s shaped canvases, which often appear as transcriptions of the female body. In Maqueta Soy Isla, 1972/1992, for example, two pink, areola-like ovals with raised circular forms are set within a pair of white canvases. Both panels list ever so slightly to the left, causing the painting to be distinctly out of square. A sly rebuke to the sharp right angles of Judd or Tony Smith, Maqueta Soy Isla represents the intentionally off-kilter geometry of a hands-on artist who has no need for the strictures of minimalism.
The terms that coalesce around Sánchez’s work of this period—bodily, erotic, sensuous, and tactile—situate her work squarely within the realm of Lucy Lippard’s landmark exhibition “Eccentric Abstraction,” held at the Fischbach Gallery in New York in October 1966. Lippard displayed the work of artists like Louise Bourgeois, Eva Hesse, and Bruce Nauman, identifying a trend counter to Minimalism, whereby artists blurred the line between abstract painting and sculpture by using materials, shapes, and colors to evoke a sensuous response in viewers. The hybrid, erotic nature of Sánchez’s shaped canvases would have made them an ideal fit for the exhibition, but her work was not included. (She spent the year on a fellowship to Madrid, and it is unlikely that she saw the show.) It’s tempting to imagine how inclusion in “Eccentric Abstraction” might have given Sánchez’s work critical context and market traction at a crucial juncture.
By 1971, when Sánchez, disenchanted with New York, moved to San Juan, she had settled on the distinctive shaped canvases that would become the hallmark of her practice for the next half-century. Drawing on her interest in architecture, her knowledge of restoration, and her highly personal mode of abstraction, the paintings are a testament to a career marked by displacement and marginalization. But they also emerge as a remarkably cohesive and coherent body of work, in contradistinction to the rapid exploration of styles that characterized her early output. Sánchez’s shaped canvases are premised on the female body, while at the same time remaining open-ended, often not adhering to fixed chronologies, methods of display, or narratives. And why should they? Art historical narratives—to say nothing of major museums—have been painfully slow to embrace the work of Latin American women, and Sánchez’s belated recognition, while laudatory, is decades late. But Sánchez always knew that she had talent. She recalls being upset when four reliefs were rejected in New York in 1967 “because I was convinced that they were good.”24 This determined self-confidence permeates Sánchez’s efforts of the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s, yielding a body of work as forceful as it is beautiful. If her retrospective at the Phillips feels timely, it’s because American audiences are just catching up. “When I made my Amazons and Trojans,’” Sánchez recalled, “I sensed them standing shoulder-to-shoulder, like an army of strengthened beauty, and it was a different vision of women. You didn’t find that representation either in art or in real life; I felt it was important.”25