Focus On: Zilia Sánchez
Miami— March 4, 2021— During Women’s History Month, we celebrate women artists and the contributions and achievements they have made throughout history, culture, and society. From Lavinia Fontana (1552–1614), one of the first women in history to execute large, publicly commissioned figure paintings to Elisabetta Sirani (1638–1665), an Italian Baroque artist who started the first school of painting for women, women have been carving their own niche in the art world for centuries. Such is the case of Zilia Sánchez, a trailblazer artist whose work’s core message is the perseverance and inner strength of a woman.
Born in Cuba in 1926, Ms. Sánchez began her career as an abstract painter and set designer working within politically radical circles in the years before the revolution. Later, she lived in Madrid, where she studied painting conservation at the Prado Museum, and, for a decade, in New York City where she studied printmaking at Pratt Institute. She then moved to Puerto Rico, where she still lives, and there, in the early 1970s, designed the avant-garde literary journal Zona de Carga y Descarga (Zone of Charging and Discharging).
A look at Sánchez’s oeuvre reveals her immersion in Cuban modernist circles of the 1940s and 1950s. She experimented with the rough textures of the Art Informel before arriving, around 1960, at her signature method–geometric color fields as canvas ‘skins’, overlaid on wooden endoskeletons. The poet Severo Sarduy dubbed these ‘erotic topologies,’ an apt name for armatures at once taut and serene. These ‘topologies’, many made during the 1960s in New York, are large suspended reliefs that use her signature palette of muted peach, periwinkle, gray, and lavender. While their subject matter may appear light at first, the canvases’ three-dimensionality evoke beautiful feminine forms and are flooded with metaphors about female empowerment and eroticism.
Since 1991, she has taught at Escuela de Artes Plásticas y Diseño de Puerto Rico. Notwithstanding her being an influence among a generation of Puerto Rican artists who revere her greatly, Sánchez’s work was for decades in obscurity. The first survey of her work took place in New York at the acclaimed Artist Space in 2013. Ms. Sánchez was 87 years old. Since then, her work has been included in major exhibitions, like the Venice Biennial (2017) and “Radical Women: Latin American Art, 1960–1985” at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles (2017) and Brooklyn Museum in New York (2018). In 2019, the Phillips Collection in Washington DC organized the first museum retrospective of Sánchez’s work, “Soy Isla (I Am an Island),” a long-overdue exhibition that examined the artist’s prolific, yet largely unknown career. The show then traveled to the Museo de Arte de Ponce in Puerto Rico and the Museo del Barrio in New York (2020).
Sánchez’s work is featured in public collections including the Walker Art Center, Minnesota; Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.; Museo de Arte Latinoamericano de Buenos Aires, Argentina; Colby College Museum of Art, Maine; Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Puerto Rico; and Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico.
Some say that the best strategy for career success for women artists appears to be to live long enough to see it. Though waiting — and waiting, and waiting — has never been much of a guarantee, the politics of inclusiveness and diversifying is stronger today than it ever was. Over the past few years, museums in the US have mounted major retrospectives of Latin American women, including Lygia Pape, Lygia Clark, Tarsila do Amaral, Doris Salcedo, Carmen Herrera, and, more recently, Gego and Zilia Sánchez. This tide of institutional recognition marks an important step in acknowledging these artists’ legacy and opens the doors for others to be recognized, not as isolated islands in the history of art, but as noteworthy members of a burgeoning canon.
For inquiries about Zilia Sánchez’ and other modern and established contemporary women artists’ work click here.
Photo: A detail of Zilia Sánchez’s “Troyanas” (Trojan Women), 1984. Photo by Ike Edeani courtesy of The New York Times.