The fall-winter season saw exhibitions of Cuban abstract art in three Miami galleries—including one on view right now. The coincidence of these three shows points to a new phenomenon: abstraction, which had been a tangential topic in the in-depth studies of other Cuban art movements, is now at the center of new critiques and revised histories. This development has been encouraged, in part, by major exhibitions on the development of abstraction in Latin America. Two notable shows were presented in the United States and Spain: The Sites of Latin American Abstraction and Cold America: Geometric Abstraction in Latin America (1934-1973).
Curated by Juan Ledezma and presented at CIFO (the Cisneros Fontanals Art Foundation, Miami) in 2006-2007, The Sites of Latin American Abstraction rescued the work of Cuban artist Carmen Herrera by placing it in a broader context and setting it in dialogue with work by artists from Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, Uruguay, and Venezuela. In Cold America, curated by Osbell Suarez and presented in Madrid at the Juan March Foundation (February-May 2011), the study of abstract processes in Latin American art was extended to incorporate Cuban artists such as Mario Carreño, Salvador Corratgé, Sandú Darié, Carmen Herrera, Luis Martínez Pedro, José Mijares, Loló Soldevilla, and Rafael Soriano.
The impact of such exhibitions led to a growing art-world interest in abstract art on the island in the 1950s and 1960s. Last year, for example, Pan American Art Projects in Miami presented Abstraction in Cuba, curated by Irina Leyva, which brought together works by Guido Llinás, Raúl Martínez, Loló Soldevilla, and Raúl Milian. And since its opening in 2001, the new Cuban Art Museum of the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes has dedicated a gallery to abstract art—gathering, for the first time, works by artists who remained on the island as well as those who migrated elsewhere.
Tresart Gallery: Concrete Rhythms: Luis Martínez Pedro and Sandú Darié (November 1-29)
Tresart invited curator Abigail McEwen, professor of Latin American art at the University of Maryland, to conduct a thorough review of the work of Luis Martínez Pedro (1910-1989) and Sandú Darié (1908-1991). This was the starting point for Concrete Rhythms.
With extensive knowledge of abstract art in Latin America, and particularly of Cuba in the 1950s and 1960s, McEwen focused on the historical, cultural, and formal relationships between these artists´ oeuvres. From the two-man show that first brought them together at the University of Havana in 1955 to the collapse of the “Ten Concrete Painters” group in 1961, Martínez Pedro and Darié collaborated on a number of projects that transcended their individual interests and turned them into pioneers of international abstract trends in Cuba. Their talks and lectures spread the impact of the movement in the country, and during intense years of exhibitions, conferences, publications, and close contact with the international art scene, they spearheaded the growth of a movement that was, from its beginnings, at the center of debate.
Supported by historical documents and an insightful acuity, McEwen explores the commonalities, differences, and points of contact in the work of these two artists, from their early production of the 1950s to the maturity of their individual styles and approaches. Faced with the challenge of a small space in which to display a substantial amount of work, Tresart opted to focus on the show’s curatorial thesis, with pieces that supported the dialogue between the two bodies of works—such as the use of color as a metaphor (Martínez Pedro) and optical experiments (Darié). Both artists combine a distinctive Cuban perspective with a broad universal vision.
The exhibition is complemented by a catalogue that includes several pieces not in the show, which augment the art-historical basis of the show. [A digital adaptation of the catalogue, divided into two documents—one for each artist—is available for browsing at the Tresart website.] McEwen’s text is the core of the publication, providing an excellent analysis of the work of these two artists, their connections and differences. A concise and thorough study of the contributions that Martínez and Darié made to abstraction in the island, this project also links the two artists with their international counterparts.
Ideobox Artspace: Waldo Balart (October 9-November 22 )
This exhibition reviews areas of the artist's production from the 1970s to the present. Influenced by such artists as Mondrian and Malevich, Balart’s work explores the complexities of the world that surrounds him through the use of basic formal elements such as line and color.
Balart (b. 1931) emigrated from Cuba in 1959 and settled in New York, where he studied at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) until 1962. Balart was immersed in the creative environment of New York at that time, including artists of the emerging Pop Art movement. Balart was among the artists included in Magnet, the 1964 exhibition at the Bonino Gallery that is considered essential for understanding the scope and impact of Latin American art and artists in New York during those years. In the early 1970s, Balart moved to Madrid, where he continued making art and began writing about the development of abstraction in Europe.
Leaving Cuba without having been part of the local art scene, the silence that was imposed for many years on artists who did not live on the island, and the lack of interest in investigating abstraction in 20th-century Cuban art, all contributed to Balart’s work being relatively unknown in the history of art on the island. His work must be understood within the diversity of abstract art in Latin America and Europe, and is notable for Balart’s attempt to create a language constructed from color codes that are permanently repeated and that, when combined, generate visual systems.
ArtSpace/Virginia Miller Galleries: The Silent Shout: Voices in Cuban Abstraction, 1950-2013 (November 1-March)
Finally, ArtSpace/Virginia Miller Galleries offers a much more comprehensive exhibition, which lends continuity to previous research projects on Cuban abstract art from the second half of the 20th century to the present—in particular, Pintura del silencio, an exhibition presented at Havana’s La Acacia Gallery in 1997, which was organized by the artists Ramón Serrano and José Ángel Vincench in collaboration with curator and critic Janet Batet.
Co-curated by Batet, Vincench, and Rafael DiazCasas, The Silent Shout is a historical reflection on the different trends of abstraction in Cuba, and the strength of the abstract tradition among current generations of artists. The exhibition focuses on abstraction from different points of view: as part of a debate on national identity in the late 1950s and 1960s, in which it was not considered a valid expression of cubanidad; as a movement silenced by cultural and hegemonic policies, following the triumph of the Revolution in 1959; and as a trend embraced, virtually in solitude, by a group of artists who would not abandon the abstract tradition in Cuban art. Among exhibitions presented outside Cuba, The Silent Shout offers a more comprehensive review of the Cuban abstract tradition.
Given the complexity of its themes, the exhibition faces several challenges in the definition of its conceptual parameters, selection of artists and works, definition of museum spaces, and publications. To be translated in visual terms, the painstaking historical research reflected in the catalogue essay (with a forthcoming publication) needed a much larger exhibition space. As a result, the show’s curators had to bring their acuity and capacity for synthesis to bear in the selection of the works.
The Silent Shout offers a unique opportunity to view pieces from private collections, including several works produced between the late 1950s and early 1960s by Hugo Consuegra, Raúl Martínez, Sandú Darié, and Guido Llinás. Given the curators’ interest in continuing their exploration of Cuban abstraction, one can understand the show’s inclusion of two groups of artists. In the first group are artists who began working in the 1950s, such as José Rosabal and Pedro de Oraá, who have continued to work with the language of abstraction into the present day. In the second group are artists such as José Ángel Vincench and Carlos García, who adapt the abstract tradition to their own styles, often using the absence of figuration as a discursive strategy.
The Silent Shout leaves the viewer wanting to know more. The commitment to inquiry, to structuring, balance, systemization, and continuity that intrinsically elevates this exhibition also suggests other avenues for further studies—studies that will take, as their point of departure, the doorway that this project leaves provocatively half-open.
After the silence that has surrounded Cuban abstraction, the call to attention by critics, researchers, and artists, and before its vindication in the art market, there is nothing to do but continue exploring. It is the only way to understand and evaluate, in its proper perspective, a language used to represent ourselves as a nation, with all the burden of poetic subtleties that it suggests.