Rarely does an octogenarian take the art world by storm, but that’s exactly what happened when Galerie Lelong & Co. in New York mounted an exhibit of the works of Cuban-born artist Zilia Sanchez in 2014.
Sanchez, 87 at the time, had been quietly perfecting her signature sculpture-paintings for decades in her adopted hometown of San Juan, Puerto Rico, but it was at the Lelong show that Phillips Collection curator Vesela Sretenovic first encountered Sanchez’s work — and, like many curators and collectors, she was floored.
“The serenity, the colors, the scale — I hadn’t seen anything like it,” recalls Sretenovic, the Phillips’ senior curator of modern and contemporary art.
That experience convinced Sretenovic that a large-scale survey of the artist was long overdue, so she organized one. “Zilia Sanchez: Soy Isla (I Am an Island)” opened this past weekend at the Phillips.
The show, which includes about 65 works, follows Sanchez from her idyllic childhood in Cuba to a brief sojourn in New York, and, finally, her establishment as an influential artist in Puerto Rico. Sanchez, who was born in 1926, learned to paint beside her father, who painted as a hobby. She later attended Havana’s premier art school and got good marks, though she chafed under the rigid instruction typical of the time.
“If I go to class and see it’s about drawing an apple ... I go home and eat the apple and paint a picture of what I want,” she says in a short film that accompanies the exhibit.
Following her father’s death, in 1955, Sanchez had a career-defining insight.
“I remember I saw his bedsheet, the sheet that my mother washed because he was throwing up. The sheet was drying, and since it was windy, it was hitting against a wooden space divider, and this image of the blowing bedsheet against wood got stuck in my mind,” Sanchez says in an interview published in the show’s catalog.
As Fidel Castro came to power, Sanchez made the difficult decision to leave her homeland and her family in order to have more artistic freedom. In 1960, she moved to New York, where she developed her signature technique of warping canvases with wooden armatures and painting them to create works of art that straddle the line between sculpture and painting, pieces that use the regular geometry and muted palettes of minimalism to create surprisingly sensual landscapes.
Sanchez didn’t notice the feminine contours of her art until her friend, poet and fellow Cuban emigre Severo Sarduy, pointed them out to her, saying, “Those are tetas — you did breasts, Zilia!” “That’s why I started putting the word ‘Eros’ in my titles,” she says in the catalog.
Supporting herself with odd jobs, Sanchez found that she had little time for her art in New York — plus she hated the cold — so she moved to Puerto Rico in the early 1970s.
“Going to the blue sky and the ocean of Puerto Rico was almost like going home. Besides, the language is the same, and the people are similar. We’re built from the same mold,” Sanchez says in the catalog. “Cuba and Puerto Rico are two small islands that cannot fight big powers. I say this because I am not a rebel; I am a realist.”
Fiercely independent and equally private, Sanchez stayed away from politics as she blazed a path for herself that didn’t hew to anyone’s expectations — which is perhaps why most people have never heard of her, Sretenovic says.
“She wasn’t going to settle for anything. If you make that choice, then you may pay a price that you don’t show everywhere,” Sretenovic says.
Despite her recent recognition, the now 92-year-old artist remains intentionally isolated from larger political and artistic currents, Sretenovic says. That’s why the show is called “I Am an Island,” a title taken from a 2000 piece of the same name, a work of performance art in which Sanchez videotaped herself launching one of her shaped canvases into the ocean.
“I wanted her to swim and to leave. I wanted to see her agony as if it were a person, and see how far she could go,” Sanchez says during the film. “It’s in the ocean, a little child that went away.”