Critics’ Picks

View of “Resurgent Light: Juana Francés & Maria Helena Vieira da Silva,” 2022.

View of “Resurgent Light: Juana Francés & Maria Helena Vieira da Silva,” 2022.


Maria Helena Vieira da Silva and Juana Francés

36 Avenue Matignon
January 20–April 2, 2022

The two painters in “Resurgent Light” may have never met, but they were both living in Paris in the early 1950s. Maria Helena Vieira da Silva (1908-1992) had arrived there from Lisbon in 1928 to study at the Académie de la Grande Chaumiere, ultimately making her home in the French capital as a political exile. In 1951, Juana Francés (1924-1990), who would later become the only female founding member of the Spanish avant-garde group El Paso, traveled to Paris for one year on scholarship from the French government. For both artists, Paris was a place of refuge from the dictatorships that ruled the Iberian Peninsula for much of the twentieth century. Here, curator Elena Sorokina formally introduces them to one another.

Though the work of both painters is often categorized as Art Informel, the selection of paintings on view reveals their distinctive styles. Vieira da Silva’s architectural compositions on canvas, such as an untitled oil from 1955, luminously displayed here, features fine sharp lines and a colorful, pulsing energy instantly evocative of the modern infrastructure of a bustling city. Francés’s abstract earthen canvases, meanwhile, suggest older, perhaps geologic timescales. In Untitled, 1958, layered with explosive passages of sand and encaustic paint, Francès foregrounds a free and intuitive mode of mark-marking. 

When looking at the two artists’ works on paper, however, points of convergence begin to appear. In Vieira da Silva’s A la limite (“At the limit”), 1972, a watercolor on paper later laid on canvas, the artist’s urban grids begin to decompose. Curves vie with right angles for prominence, as she pictures what might be imagined as a road through a forest. On Francés’s part, a more rigorous structure emerges in her untitled sketches on cardboard (1957 and 1958-59): small-scale renditions of vividly traced, block-like forms. Drawing on Donna Harraway’s concept of “situated knowledges,” Sorokina suggests that the formal differences between these two painters— which seem to cluster around thematic binaries like geometric/organic, abstract/concrete, luminosity/density, nature/culture —are less significant than their shared rejection of eternal or monumental forms and embrace of corporeality, tactility, and embodiment. Energetic, contingent, and ever-changing, their work is miles away, geographically and philosophically, from the authoritarian hierarchies they escaped in Paris.