Cuban-born Zilia Sánchez, 93, has always been ahead of the curve, even if she has remained for the most part unknown outside her adopted country, Puerto Rico. Her elegant, shaped canvases, many of them takeoffs on the female form, hold their own with the best of Minimalism, as does the work of that other long-forgotten and now much-acclaimed Cuban-born artist, Carmen Herrera. But unlike Herrera’s hard-edged geometric Minimalism, Sánchez creates overtly sensual sculptural paintings, with undulating curves and rounded protuberances that resemble breasts and genitalia, while simultaneously evoking spare, pneumatic topographies.
Sánchez’s sinuous use of curvilinear forms derives from an epiphany she had as a young woman, when she saw a sheet from her father’s deathbed, washed and hung out to dry, billowing in the wind. She also strongly identifies herself as a queer artist, and the suggestive hollows, mounds and slits in her work are undeniably intimate.
Not surprisingly, her second solo show at Galerie Lelong & Co., which ran from November 21, 2019 through January 17, 2020, concurrently with a traveling retrospective now at El Museo Del Barrio that opened on November 20 and runs through March 22, was entitled simply Eros. It includes a dozen or so pieces, including her first-ever marble sculpture.
Zilia Sanchez, Eros (1976/1998): views 1 & 2
all images © Zilia Sánchez, Courtesy Galerie Lelong & Co., New York
The eponymous earliest work in the show, Eros (1976-1998), is also the one of the largest. It consists of two tall, free-standing wood posts, painted black, with white stretched-canvas interior surfaces, each endowed with a single opposing breast-like mound, one upper and one lower, creating a slender, wavy space between the posts just large enough to stand in. The feeling of that space, palpably feminine, is in stark contrast to, say, the overwhelming, massive gravity experienced when standing within a curved steel Richard Serra piece. While Serra has said that, “I simply know more about weight than about lightness,” a central component of Sánchez’s work is its lightness. Her airy canvases, tautly stretched over hand-molded wooden armatures, float rather than flatten, and her palette is subtle, white or a delicate slate blue.
Even her massive marble sculptures, weighing in at almost a ton, seem less gravity-bound than as if they occupy their a own cosmic space—like small ufos that have made a temporary landing, or totems of some previously unknown, exotic faith. Previously executed only as scale maquettes, these monumental pieces are Sánchez’s most recent work since her studio was devastated by Hurricane Maria in 2017. Luna lunar (2000/2019), consists of a large white disk, split horizontally, with a heart-like relief connecting it to a modest marble pedestal. It looks like something from an alien–as in interplanetary — culture.
Many of the pieces in the show feature ovoid motifs in a diptych format, such as Lunar Blanco (2000/2019), the second marble sculpture. Ovoids appear repeatedly in such shaped-canvas pieces as Conjuncion I (1998/2019), or split down the middle, as in Sin titulo (2000), both of which are white shapes sailing on a slate-blue background. Several pieces also sprout nipple-like tips, including the Conjuncion II (which also has slits) and Sin titulo (de la serie Azul Azul) (2019); two azure blue, stretched-canvas eye-shaped forms floating on white.
Conjuncion II, all-white, features two panels, the top half with four vertical rectangular sections that could be interpreted as women’s torsos, or halves of them, with slits between them and the bottom using similar topology horizontally. Slits also appear, somewhat more subtly, in the two marble works, and in a stunningly simple shaped-canvas piece, Conexion (1999/2018), which looks like a giant white capsule split into two panels against a slate-blue background.
While the show at Galerie Lelong focused on recent work, “Zilia Sanchez: Soy Isla (I am An Island)” a retrospective curated by Vesela Sretenović currently at the El Museo Del Barrio, which originated at the Phillips Collection in Washington, spans 70 years of the artist’s career. Chronologically arranged, the show traces a trajectory from Sánchez’s somewhat surrealist early drawings and paintings of the 1950s; the illustrations she did for pamphlets, radical journals and poetry magazines (at one point she did stage sets for guerrilla theater groups); and the evolution–from the 1960s when Sánchez lived in New York, right up through 2016 — of her many spins on topologia erotica, her trademark shaped-canvases.
Standouts include the imposing, mystical blue-on-white Antigone, (1970); the poignant, crucifix-like Juana de Arco, 1987; Amazonas; a diptych of double-nippled blue and pink-rimmed breasts; and Troyanos, (Trojan Women), a striking series of seven slender columns, embellished with pointed white breasts to represent the right breasts Amazon women famously sacrificed in order to bear their mighty bows and arrows. All of these powerful works pay homage to warrior women. Zilia Sánchez can count herself among them.
Phoebe Hoban is New York City Art Critic at Riot Material Magazine. Ms. Hoban has written about culture and the arts for a variety of publications, including The New York Times, New York Magazine, The Wall Street Journal, Vogue, Vanity Fair, GQ, Harper’s Bazaar, ARTnews, and The New York Observer, among others. She is the author of three artist biographies: Basquiat: A Quick Killing in Art (1998), Alice Neel: The Art of Not Sitting Pretty (2010) and Lucian Freud: Eyes Wide Open (2014).