Sánchez’s work is relatively little known in the United States, so it’s impressive that the Phillips has not only dedicated a major show to her, but has also allowed it to spill out into adjacent galleries and a stairwell. Curator Vesela Sretenovic has built an exhibition that is apparently comprehensive, from the 92-year-old artist’s early work (including a 1954 pen-and-ink self-portrait) to the shaped-canvas works that were essential to her output in and after the 1970s to her most recent pieces, which somehow manage to condense and intensify the dominant characteristic of her vision: a playful sense of repose found in the landscape of the human body.
Insularity implies isolation and detachment (Donne’s poem is a heartfelt paean to spiritual connectedness), but few minds are as keenly alert to the wider world as those that find themselves apart from it. The continental world may ignore islands (Sánchez’s San Juan studio was flooded and severely damaged in 2017 during Hurricane Maria, a touchstone for America’s malign neglect of its insular constituents), but people who live on islands can’t afford to ignore the world.
One feels Sánchez’s insularity throughout the exhibition, as the artist explores and leaves behind colorful abstractions with tropical palettes and earth-toned forays into Art Informel (a European abstract idiom that Sánchez encountered during travels to Europe in the mid- to late 1950s). Other images seem to channel the year she spent studying architecture in Havana, linear designs that look like blueprints for imaginary machines or whimsical flowcharts. Her progress as an artist involves a lot of casting off and refining away, a process of retirement into a space that is nurturing and meaningful to her, no matter what the world thinks. And when Sánchez finally finds the idiom that will be her most engaging and sustained vision — thin canvas stretched taut over biomorphic forms, then painted or “tattooed” with lines and figures — one senses a contented seclusion, a perfect insularity apart from the mainstream, no longer “a part of the main,” as Donne would say.
Sánchez didn’t invent shaped-canvas paintings, a hybrid sculpture-painting form that projects from the wall and often annihilates the old-fashioned frame. They were popular in the 1960s, when Sánchez started experimenting with them. But she brought to the form a unique and distinctive sensibility, creating erotic maps and topographies of the body, especially the female body. The artist, whose sexuality is best defined as fluid or queer, shapes her canvas works to resemble pointed breasts, folding lips, or rounded torsos and bellies.
When she started making these pieces, she saw them as landscapes, as mountains, until a friend (a gay man) said, “You did breasts, Zilia.” As she pursued the idea, her work took on hybrid meanings, full of erotic suggestion, with references to female warriors and the moon (a quintessentially feminine symbol). Their colors are cool, and muted, and sometimes the paintings are covered in thin ink drawings, lines, squiggles, arrows, dotted lines and references to sign language and men holding semaphore flags. Some are large and fill the wall with a paradoxical sense of both grandeur and intimacy, heroic visions of vulnerability, commanding sculptures that depict the minimal but electric space between intertwined bodies.
The Phillips exhibition, and the essays in the catalogue that accompany it, focus on feminine iconography, on Sánchez’s elaboration of visual language steeped in the forms of the female body. Her isolation is posited as a function of her sexuality and her femininity, her independence of vision in a male-dominated, New York-centric art world. All true.
But Sánchez is even more insular than that, which makes her work all the more exciting. She deeply admires Picasso (“Picasso is by my side,” she says in a short film accompanying the show), which is more than apparent in her work, but also counter to the prevailing views of Picasso as a misogynist and emerging persona non grata in accounts of 20th-century art. Sánchez’s feminine forms also are more complicated than landscapes that resemble breasts. Her “breasts” often rise to sharp, mechanical points, and her stretched canvas suggests a severity and tension that belies the idea of skin. Her independence is radical, making it difficult to recast her as a feminist or LGBT artist, or as a standard-bearer of any sort.
A generation from now, if there is some kind of parity in the art world between men and women, straight and queer, mainstream and insular, Sánchez’s work may not be read as particularly feminine at all, and there may be more attention to the architectural support beneath the skin of her paintings than there is to their surface drama of curves, hillocks and downy paddocks. Even the tattooing of lines on her shaped canvasses may be read as an aggressive imprint rather than a whimsical overlay. Who knows? Interpretation is in constant evolution, and Sánchez’s work is fully multidimensional.
So is “Soy Isla” a response to a white male poet who wrote his greatest poems when his country, England, was emerging on the world stage as a nascent but indomitable colonial power? If it is, it is a trenchant statement of independence, and not just from the art world or contemporary geopolitical forces or the dominant patriarchy of conventional sexuality. It is a statement of independence from connectedness itself, an assertion of radical allegiance to a group of one. The art world, like the world at large, loves the idea of independence and individual vision. But in practice, it doesn’t know what to do with truly isolated figures who work outside of structures of influence, reference and critical response.
Will Sánchez be a clod “washed away by the sea,” to borrow from Donne? Or does “Soy Isla” have nothing to do with him, the reference merely an accident, which would be an even more profound indication of her insularity? Both seem equally possible.
Zilia Sánchez: I Am an Island Through May 19 at the Phillips Collection. phillipscollection.org.